These are not the “Desis of the Year.” Yes, they’re all desis by our rather expansive definition—Indian-Americans, children of one or two Indian parents, immigrants from India to the United States, Indians who have established their personal or professional lives in the U.S.—and they have all made headlines this calendar year. But that’s where the similarities end.
In the following pages, you’ll meet original thinkers, policy makers, trendsetters, record-breakers, and media sensations. And this is still far from an exhaustive list.
A number of notable businessmen (and women) were in the news this year, including Subrah Iyer of WebEx, which was acquired by Cisco Systems, and Sanjay Khosla, who was named President of Kraft International Commercial. 2007 also saw Rajendra Roy’s appointment to the position of Chief Curator of the Department of Film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. There are at least four South Asians in diaspora we’d love to claim but can’t: Canadian director Deepa Mehta, whose Water made waves at the Oscars this year; British hip-hop artist M.I.A., who came out with her second album, Kala, in August; and British authors Mohsin Hamid and Indra Sinha, whose novels were shortlisted for the 2007 Man Booker Prize. We even thought of giving honorary desi status to Stephen Colbert, for having featured the Shah Rukh Khan-Amitabh Bachchan feud not once, but twice, on The Colbert Report.
We’re waiting to see how Adhir Kalyan from Aliens in America continues to perform, and only time will tell how Sanjay Gupta’s ratings fare after his widely publicized clash with Michael Moore. As for Sir Salman Rushdie, we figured knighthood was a decent consolation prize for the split from Padma Lakshmi ofTop Chef fame.
We just couldn’t include them all. So here they are, in no particular order, from celebrity to wannabe, from a governor’s mansion in La. to the L.A. County courthouse: select stories that turned our heads in 2007.
Toby Chaudhuri, Parag Mehta, and Gautam Raghavan have helped kick off work on the first-ever Smithsonian Museum exhibit dedicated to chronicling the history and achievements of Indian Americans. Home Spun: Made in the U.S.A. will establish a permanent presence at the Smithsonian, chronicling immigration patterns and contributions made by Indian Americans to the nation’s society and culture. There will be a national traveling exhibition, public programming, as well as a curricular guide for middle school students. The three men are currently leading efforts to generate financial support for this project among Indian Americans.
Toby Chaudhuri directs communications at the Campaign for America’s Future’s Washington headquarters. Chaudhuri studied math and economics in college and completed research that was used by U.S. Senators to protect children from right wing budget cuts. Chaudhuri then became involved in local and statewide political campaigns. In the 2002 midterm elections, Chaudhuri helped ensure high turnout among Massachusetts’ Asian voters. He developed a program later used to engage over 1.5 million Asian voters in the 2004 elections. Chaudhuri and his wife, Ruby Roy, live in Arlington, Virginia.
Gautam Raghavan is the Midwest Finance Director and Director of the Indo-American Leadership Council for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. He coordinates the DNC’s donor fundraising across the Midwest. Bangalore-born Gautam is a Stanford graduate and is currently finishing an M.A. in Political Management from George Washington University. His grandfather retired from public service as Chief Secretary of Andhra Pradesh, and he hopes to live up to that precedent in American politics.
Parag Mehta is the Director of Training for the Democratic National Committee in Washington, D.C. In 2003, he was a Deputy Political Director of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign. Parag holds a B.A. from The University of Texas at Austin and a Master’s in Public Administration from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School.
When Piyush “Bobby” Jindal became the Republican Governor-elect of Louisiana this year, he graduated from being only the second South Asian in Congress to being the first desi to move into a governor’s mansion anywhere in the United States. At 24, Jindal was appointed Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. Today, he is being lauded as the bright young hope of the Republican party: a brown face with some cross-party appeal and a reputation as an efficient technocrat. His rise to power as the first non-white governor of Louisiana is impressive by any standards.
Many Indian-Americans helped raised money for the Jindal campaign and enthusiastically welcomed his victory as a sign of the community’s political maturation. Others have pointed out that many of Jindal’s positions are far to the right of most Indians and South Asians in the U.S. He’s pro-life with no exceptions for rape or incest, an enthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war, against embryonic stem cell research, and a supporter of a constitutional amendment supporting flag burning. Whichever camp you fall into, it’s clear that Jindal, 36, is a man to watch for in the future.
Sunita Williams made headlines this year as only the second woman of Indian heritage to have been selected by NASA for a space mission. A crewmember on Space Shuttle Discover (launched in December 2006), Williams was able to set the record for longest single spaceflight, greatest number of space walks, and total time spent on spacewalks for a female astronaut. In April, she ran the equivalent of the Boston Marathon while in space, prompting The New Yorker to run a humor column about Williams’ other potential “firsts,” like using a StairMaster in the space shuttle to climb Mt. Everest. Williams delighted Indians worldwide by announcing that she’d taken a packet of samosas into space along with halwa and saag paneer.
Williams is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. Before leaving on her mission, she told Voice of America, “People for centuries have risked their [lives] to try to give us one step forward. I am just honored that I am in a position that I can do that too.” Today, she serves as inspiration for the children of immigrants in the United States as well as would-be astronauts all over the world. She is only one of six women NASA has put in space since 1965.
On July 12, Rajan Zed read the first Hindu prayer in the United States Senate. “It was a huge historical responsibility,” he says, “to represent Hinduism, the oldest existing religion of the world … [in] the most powerful body of the world for the first time since its formation in 1789.” Despite the fact that the event was protested from the visitor’s gallery, many celebrated the gesture as one of progressive inclusion, and Zed himself described the Senate atmosphere as “majestic.” Presidential candidate Senator Christopher Dodd (Conn.), Senator Frank Lautenberg (N.J.), and a number of other political leaders declared that they were “honored” to celebrate the Hindu faith with Zed.
Zed was instructed by the Office of the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate to read the prayer in entirely in English, limited to one and half minutes. Nevertheless, Zed was able to include portions of the Rig Veda, Brahadaranyakopanisad, Taittiriya Upanisad, and the Bhagavad-Gita. “My faith has been further strengthened,” Zed says, “and I have become more forgiving. I think that all of us are looking for the truth. Dialogue brings us mutual enrichment … We should cooperate in the common causes of peace, human development, love, and respect for others.”
Geeta Anand of the Wall Street Journal has been awarded the 2007 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The award recognizes her body of work, and the judges noted her “admirable display of narrative power” and ability to “[combine] the perspective of a business journalist with the heart of a sensitive and empathetic reporter.”
Geeta Anand’s record of excellence started early. She was India’s national swim record holder in 1982 in women’s 100 m and 200 m breaststroke. She represented India in the Asian Games and at the Commonwealth Games. At Dartmouth College, she received an undergraduate degree in history with a women’s studies certificate. After stints at the Boston Globe, the Rutland Herald and the Cape Cod News, she moved to the Wall Street Journal in 1998 and shared a staff Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for explanatory journalism for a series of stories about scandals in corporate America. In 2006, she published a book, The Cure, about the remarkable story of John Crowley’s quest to find a cure for Pompe’s disease, a rare disorder that affected two of his children. Through her painstaking research, Geeta Anand highlighted Crowley’s determination to find a cure for his children by starting a biotechnology company dedicated to the cause.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has been a major figure in literary and cultural theory since the early 1970s. The author of numerous critical interventions—including In Other Worlds (1987), A Critique of Postcolonial Reason (1999), and Death of a Discipline (2003)—Spivak has impacted the fields of comparative literature, post-colonial studies, feminism, marxism, and globalization. Today, essays like “Can the Subaltern Speak?” (1988) are part of an established canon in literary criticism, despite the work that Spivak has done to deconstruct “the canon” itself. In 1976, Spivak’s translation of Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology introduced English readers to the great deconstructionist. Spivak has also translated the work of Bengali writer-activist Mahasweta Devi.
Spivak has taught at Columbia University since 1991. This March, Columbia President Lee Bollinger named Spivak a University Professor, the institution’s highest faculty rank. Spivak is the first woman of color to be named a University Professor and only the third woman. She joins 11 others who hold the faculty designation, including five Nobel laureates. In the appointment, Bollinger cited Spivak’s “commitment to interdisciplinary scholarship, at the most creative levels, and a life of civic engagement—including in her native India.” As University Professor, Spivak is no longer limited to teaching in her own department of English and Comparative Literature.
Anand Jon Alexander was living the dream. The 33-year-old graduate of Parsons School of Design in New York City had established himself as a celebrity fashion designer. His clothes were worn by the likes of Paris Hilton; he counted the late Gianni Versace as a close friend. As early as 1997, he’d been hailed alongside designers Sandy Dalal, Bina Modi, and Alpana Bawa as having brought Indian influence to contemporary western fashion design. In 2003,Newsweek featured Jon as an up-and-coming face of the industry, and Tyra Banks profiled him onAmerica’s Next Top Model.
Now it appears that the glamorous facade of this immigrant success story belies a pattern of sexual depravity, criminality, and abuse of power. In March, Jon was charged with 32 counts of rape, sexual battery, lewd acts on a child, and other crimes against 12 models, aged 14 to 27. The numbers have since increased to over 50 felony charges and 20 victims. In November, a $2.1 million bail was set along with the condition that Jon doesn’t leave Los Angeles County. Jon and his family have repeatedly asserted his innocence, claiming that jealousy and racism are at the root of the false allegations. Innocent until proven guilty? In December, the courts decide.
THE MOVIE STAR
When Kalpen Suresh Modi changed the name on his resume to “Kal Penn,” his audition callbacks rose by 50 percent. But this 30-year-old Indian-American is no American-Born-Confused-Desi. He’s not trying to sever ties with the diaspora or dissolve into any specious melting pot. Rather, Penn’s fully aware of how he is perceived and typecast, as well as what responsibilities accompany being one of the only recognizable South Asians in American pop culture. He guest-lectures at colleges about issues of race and representation in the media and has been invited to teach two classes at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2008.
In January, Penn guest starred as a terrorist in four episodes of 24. Playing that part earned the actor some flack, as Penn himself admitted to New York Magazine: “It was essentially accepting a form of racial profiling … But it was the first time I had a chance to blow stuff up and take a family hostage. As an actor, why shouldn’t I have that opportunity?” Penn followed 24 with appearances on Law & Order. In March, he starred as Gogol in Mira Nair’s film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. Stephen Holden of The New York Times called Penn’s Gogol a “crackling star performance.” Penn has now joined the regular cast of House.
Rajnesh Domalpalli’s Master of Fine Arts thesis film,Vanaja, would have been one of innumerable MFA theses around the country except it went on to win a Best Debut 2007 award at the Berlin Film Festival. Since then, the Telegu film has been released all across the country on the arthouse circuit and the first-time filmmaker has picked up glowing reviews everywhere from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle.
Domalpalli, who spent years as a computer engineer in Silicon Valley, wanted to make a film about his native Andhra Pradesh but not a garish star-studded Tollywood melodrama. “My India is harsh but beautiful,” he says. The cast ofVanaja includes a school girl, a bottle sealer with a 6th grade education who had been married off at the age of nine, a municipal sweeper, an agricultural laborer, and a bicycle mechanic (and also Mr. India 2003). The story of a young low caste girl who defies all odds to study kuchipudi dance has a fairy tale quality. Vanaja has put Domalpalli on the international map as a filmmaker to watch out for. Still, he knows the film is a tough sell in India—it’s about village life, has no stars, and is in Telegu. “It’s a ‘foreign’ film in India,” smiles the director.
Poor Sanjaya. In a matter of months, the 17 (now 18)-year-old aspiring singer went from being the pride of the diaspora to the laughingstock of the nation. A finalist on the sixth season ofAmerican Idol, Sanjaya wowed, then dismayed, audiences with his renditions of songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and No Doubt’s “Bathwater.” Sanjaya’s singing on Idol was gradually overshadowed by his creative hairstyles, including a particularly memorable fauxhawk.
Nothing seemed to deter Sanjaya, compelling one irate Idol watcher to go on a hunger strike until he was voted off the show. A website called “Vote for the Worst” exhorted fans to vote for the young Indian-Italian, while genuine “Fanjayas” also kept the teen’s candidacy alive. After reaching 7th place, Sanjaya was eliminated.
Since American Idol, however, Sanjaya’s star is shining brighter than ever. He’s been featured in magazines like People, signed an autograph for New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, and won the 2007 Teen Choice Award for Best TV Reality Star. Time magazine’s online voters dubbed Sanjaya the third most influential person of 2007. He’s been on The Tonight Show, The Late Show,Larry King Live … Oh, and he’s got an album out as well! Perhaps “Poor Sanjaya” isn’t doing too badly after all.