A mid-decade report from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that the Indian-American population grew another 41 percent between 2000 and 2005 to 2.32 million. Indian Americans now slightly outnumber Filipinos, and form the fastest growing Asian population segment in the United States.
Although South Asian Americans still comprise only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, they continue to excel professionally, and make a mark far beyond their numbers. Here’s the India Currents shortlist of this year’s 10 notable desis.

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-1WOMAN BOOKER

When the idea of an old Empire, the British one (where marmalade is labeled “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen”), collides against the nouveaux riche American one (Smuckers!) the result is a book that’s both darkly comic and heartrendingly tragic. Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss has been a much heftier follow-up to her rollicking Hullabaloo in a Guava Orchard. While that book had come with high praise from the likes of Salman Rushdie, Anita Desai’s daughter has suddenly entered the literary pantheon this year by becoming the youngest woman, at 35, to pick up the Man Booker Prize. The elder Desai has been a finalist three times. In her Booker acceptance speech, the younger Desai paid tribute to her mother. “I owe her such an enormous debt that I can’t express it in any ordinary way.”

This book, set in the hill station of Kalimpong against the backdrop of the Gorkhaland struggle, took a long time to write, coming eight years after the first one. As the years dragged out, Kiran Desai moved to cheaper digs, even moving to Mexico for a while to stretch out her money.

Even the fact that it was up for a Booker was lucky. Desai had put off becoming an American citizen because she was so opposed to the Bush presidency’s foreign policy. (The Booker is only open to British and Commonwealth citizens.)

Desai has quipped, in fact, that in a way she owes the Booker to George W. Bush.

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-3AT THE HELM

How does an immigrant woman of color climb to the top rung of the corporate ladder? By working twice as hard as her counterparts, says Indra Nooyi, 50, who was appointed CEO of PepsiCo last October. With that, she became the highest-ranking Indian American in corporate America.

Speaking of her successes, Nooyi gives credit to her Indian upbringing. “Being a woman, being foreign-born, you’ve got to be smarter than anyone else,” she said in an interview on Forbes.com as one of “100 Most Powerful Women.”

Nooyi hails from Chennai. She studied at Madras Christian College, and went on to earn a business degree from Yale School of Management. Before PepsiCo she worked at leading corporations like Motorola and the Boston Consulting Group. As CFO of the food-and-beverage giant Nooyi played a vital role in Pepsico’s acquisition of Tropicana and led negotiations for the purchase of Quaker Oats.

Hers is a journey of hard work, long hours, sacrifices, and trade-offs, Nooyi remarked at a recent CEO Speaker Series at Dartmouth. “This is the only journey I know,” she said, “So I don’t know what it is to have the cushy life and go home to watch the 6 o’clock news.”

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-5WHO YOU CALLING MACACA?

Last summer, when S.R. Sidarth went to volunteer for the campaign of Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb, he could scarcely have guessed that he might play a pivotal role in defeating the incumbent Sen. George Allen, and tipping the U.S. Senate to the Democrats.
Webb’s campaign assigned to Sidarth the task of tracking the opponent. Equipped with a camcorder, the 20-year-old University of Virginia student followed Allen on his campaign trail across Virginia, videotaping his public appearances.

On Aug. 11, while he was addressing a GOP picnic at Breaks Interstate Park in southwest Virginia, Allen turned to Sidarth, and repeatedly called him “Macaca,” and went on to say, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia,” while the crowd laughed.
Stung by this public ridicule, Sidharth, who is a native Virginian, nevertheless continued doing his job—videotaping the senator’s remarks.

With that video circulating via YouTube, outrage in internet blogs and criticism in the media poured out. An Indian website is selling T-shirts that say, “Who You Calling Macaca?” Allen’s double-digit lead in the polls evaporated and in a pre-election survey 33 percent of likely voters in Virginia said they thought he was insensitive to minorities.
Allen narrowly lost the election by about 9,000 votes.

“Nothing made me happier on election night than finding out the results from Dickenson County, where Allen and I had our encounter,” wrote Sidarth in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “Webb won there, in what I can only hope was a vote to deal the race card out of American politics once and for all.”

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-4INDIA’S MAN IN THE U.N.

Shashi Tharoor has been the man for all seasons at the United Nations and came tantalizingly close to its top job this year. India’s candidate for the U.N. secretary-general withdrew as a candidate after a straw poll showed he had one no-vote from a permanent member.

The fast-talking urbane U.N. undersecretary-general in charge of publicity and outreach started his career at the U.N.H.C.R dealing with boatloads of refugees after the Vietnam War. That led him to realize “the U.N. wasn’t just a means of bureaucratizing our consciences. It really is an extraordinarily effective instrument, a tool for delivering real results in a real world.”

Ever since then he has had many different high-profile positions in the United Nations, some of them thankless. For example, he was the face of the United Nations on televisions around the world during the massacres of the Balkan war. “I discovered that unlike the refugee problems I had dealt with here you could work 18-hour days and seven-day weeks but the blood would still flow,” says Tharoor.

Amidst much pressure for reform in the United Nations, he won praise for re-orienting his department, actually closing offices, and giving his department a new mission. Along the way he has found time to write acclaimed books like The Great Indian Novel and Riot.

Now he says he will continue at his current job, though he has made it clear he serves at the pleasure of the secretary-general. After that, for this inveterate cricket champion, it might just be a new innings.

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-6SOUTH ASIAN FELLOWS

Ever heard stories of surgeons accidentally leaving a scissor or scalpel inside a patient? Not surprisingly, surgeon, author, and innovator Atul Gawande calls medical surgery an imperfect science.

“When you are a medical student in the operating room for the first time,” Gawande wrote in his 2002 book Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science, “and you see the surgeon press the scalpel to someone’s body and open it like fruit, you either shudder in horror or gape in awe. I gaped.” His candid real-life accounts of surgical procedures are not for the squeamish. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award.

The assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School/Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Mass., has applied his energy towards recognizing and finding imaginative and practical solutions to challenges faced by surgeons in modern-day practice. To that effect, he introduced bar codes to prevent surgeons from inadvertently leaving sponges and instruments in patients and a simple score of one to 10 indicating the likelihood of complications.

Gawande was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for his innovative approach and research converging on medicine and public health. His research at the Harvard School of Public Health focuses on improving health systems, particularly in reducing medical errors, and he has studied data on how often and what kind of instruments sometimes are left inside patients after surgery.

The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year grant that recognizes individuals displaying exceptional creativity in their work. The $500,000 award is designed to provide recipients with the flexibility to pursue their creative activities.

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-7Another recipient of the 2006 MacArthur Fellowship is internationally acclaimed artist Shahzia Sikander. As a young child, Sikander confesses in an interview with Red Studio, MoMA, that she was a shy loner and often used art to express herself and connect with people. Sikander’s early interest in art was furthered when she attended the National College of Lahore, Pakistan, where she studied and trained in the miniature style of painting patronized by the Mughal dynasty.

“I specialized in miniature painting before it became so popular in Lahore and even in the contemporary art market,” said Sikander. “I was at the forefront of making a case for it as a valid contemporary idiom in Pakistan, and then internationally in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

Her art today includes work in a variety of mediums like painting, installations, murals, photography and digital animation. The MacArthur award recognizes her for “merging the traditional South Asian art of miniature painting with contemporary forms and styles to create visually compelling, resonant works on multiple scales and in a dazzling array of media.”

“The award money will go towards taking risks, pushing boundaries, working on new directions within the art making, and towards projects that are collaborative and outside of the the arts,” she said.

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-8CIVIL LIBERTIES IN HER GENES

The largest ACLU affiliate in the country, with a membership of nearly 55,000, has a new face at the helm. As Maya Harris takes over the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union, she scores a string of firsts. She is the first South Asian to head an ACLU affiliate anywhere. She is also the first African American to be the executive director of the Northern California affiliate. Harris, whose mother is Indian, says, her mother always told her and her sister that what was important was not that you were “the first” but to make sure “you are not the last.”

Public interest runs in her genes, she says. Sister Kamala is San Francisco’s district attorney.

Maya Harris remembers that her parents were active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the Bay Area. “Civil rights activism was the subject of our dinner conversation,” says Harris. She says that in the post-9/11 era the ACLU is critical “to bringing the government back in line with the constitution.”

She comes with quite a pedigree to the job. She joined the ACLU in 2003 as director of the affiliate’s Racial Justice Project, working to defeat Proposition 54, which would have barred the collection of race-related data. She is regarded as an expert on community policing issues and was named one of California’s Top 20 under-40 lawyers by California’s leading legal newspaper, the Daily Journal. In law school she had helped design a curriculum called “Lawyering for Social Change.” Now, in a sense, she gets to implement it.

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-10BAGHDAD CALLING

At a time when it seems almost every reporter who went to Baghdad is coming out with a book, Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s National Book Award-nominated Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone stands out from the crowd. The Washington Post’s assistant managing editor gets inside the stage-managed manufactured reality of the bubble from which the American occupiers ruled Iraq. Chandrasekaran calls it “a fantasyland. It was like popping a Prozac.”

Inside the “safe” Green Zone there was 24/7 electricity, buffet tables laden with grits and bacon, no hummus in sight. Not even an Iraqi tomato crossed in from outside in case it was poisoned. The kitchen staff, writes Chandrasekaran, himself the son of Indian immigrants who grew up in Moraga, Calif., all came from India, Nepal, and Philippines and knew the lingo. An Indian food server reprimanded him when he asked for French fries. “We only serve Freedom fries,” he said.

It would be surreal and funny, says Chandrasekaran, if it wasn’t so deadly serious. He says there was a bias against veteran diplomats in favor of party loyalists “who had no baggage.” So instead of dealing with 40 percent unemployment the Americans were too busy implementing no-smoking campaigns and a neo-conservative dream of a 15 percent flat tax. In the end, he says, many of the neo-cons who went to Iraq for their great Arabian adventure ended up being “mugged by reality.” The problem, he quips, is “some of them still think they have all their money in their wallets.”

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-11SPOKESMAN FOR GREEN FUELS

What’s the energy balance of ethanol relative to gasoline? What are the greenhouse gas emissions per mile driven on ethanol vs. gasoline? Is there enough land for energy crops to meet our energy needs? These are some of the questions Silicon Valley venture capitalist Vinod Khosla raises and addresses in his detailed white paper on biofuels. He makes policy recommendations to jump-start large-scale use of ethanol for fuel in automobiles.

A co-founder of Sun Microsystems, and former partner of Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers, Khosla has increasingly invested in projects that have positive social impact. In 2004 he founded Khosla Ventures, which has funded microcredit, solar, and biofuels ventures.

Khosla was a major donor for this year’s Proposition 87 in California (Clean Alternative Energy Act), an initiative that would have levied a tax on state oil to build a $4-billion fund for research into alternative fuel and energy sources. Not surprisingly, Big Oil unleashed an onslaught of ads opposing the initiative.

Proposition 87 was voted down by Californians on Nov. 7. However, the initiative prompted considerable debate about energy security, biomass crops, energy balance, greenhouse gases, ethanol yields, and flex-fuel vehicles. The issue of biofuels suffered a setback, but isn’t dead. It may take just one more spike in the price of imported oil before it’s back on the table.

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80f0cbf53105fce910b510cb731ca711-12PUTTING THE SPOTLIGHT ON AIDS

The Beverly Wilshire Hotel was abuzz on Nov. 5 with 620 guests and an array of celebrities including Deepak Chopra, Sabeer Bhatia, Shashi Tharoor, Robert Loggia, Connie Stevens, Steven Seagal, Howard and Karen Baldwin, Ben Kingsley, Ashok Amritraj, and Anand Amritraj. It was a black-tie banquet that, along with a golf event the previous day, raised $580,000 for the Vijay Amritraj Foundation. The former tennis star launched the foundation earlier this year to address HIV/AIDS in India, noting that “India is the no. 1 country hit by this terrible virus.”

Two of the foundation’s beneficiaries—the Care Home of the Naz Foundation in Delhi looking after pediatric AIDS patients, and ATMG, a doctors’ group involved with AIDS awareness and treatment projects in Tamil Nadu—were on hand at the dinner event. “We decided to focus on pediatric AIDS care in Delhi and AIDS projects in Tamil Nadu,” said Vijay Amritraj.

“We want to bring more attention to kids born with AIDS to help give them as decent a life as possible,” he said. There are many who share Amritraj’s sentiments, and lent their support by organizing, volunteering, and donating. As a result, the foundation is off to a dashing start in its inaugural year.

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