Lawyer, activist, linguaphile, policymaker, student, producer, journalist, author, director, … our notable 10 South Asian Americans for 2005 come from an array of professions and backgrounds. They have earned laurels for a variety of reasons, be it a Pulitzer nomination, an award for community leadership, activism for larger change, or excellence in their respective fields. As we approach the year’s end, we hope their stories will inspire, charge, and motivate you, the reader, to put in that extra push to make it successful and memorable for years to come.
An All-American Brown Boy
When Burt Reynolds, who is part Cherokee Indian gets exasperated with himself, he tends to mutter “Dumb Indian.” But on the sets of The Dukes of Hazzard, Reynolds had to apologize every time he said that. There was a real Indian on the set—Indian-American director Jay Chandrasekhar. “He said he’d never worked with a real Indian before,” chuckles Chandrasekhar. Born in 1968 in Chicago to doctor parents, Chandrasekhar says he grew up in many ways an all-American kid watching movies like Smokey and the Bandit. He wanted to create something like an American Monty Python but never wanted to be Indian for the laughs. “Except that we once had a show called Hindu PI about a cop who doesn’t eat meat or carry a gun,” he recalls. But despite that all-American upbringing he knows it’s remarkable that a “guy this brown” has directed an American classic that gave us something as landmark as Daisy Dukes. While Dukes might not have set the critics swooning it certainly put Chandrasekhar on the mainstream map when it opened at the top of the box office with $30.7 million. His comedy sketch troupe Broken Lizards had already gotten some attention, especially in the college circuit with comedies like Super Troopers and Puddle Cruiser but Dukes is big time. Coming up—Beerfest being described as Fight Club with beer games. Hic. The director whom Variety once called one of “10 Directors to Watch” has arrived. “I have to say this is a great example of the American dream,” he says.
A Woman’s Voice in Islam
Asra Nomani, author of Standing Alone in Mecca: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam, stands alone in her hometown of Morgantown, W. Va. The Indian-born Nomani was refused entry through the front door of her local mosque and directed to the customary rear entrance for women attending prayers. She refused to comply, inviting the displeasure and anger of many in the local Muslim community, and embarking on a long, arduous path of activism for women’s rights in Islam.
“My local Muslim community in Morgantown, W. Va., largely shuns and rejects me,” says Nomani. For standing with her, her parents, too, are no longer welcome at many homes where they have been friends for 30 years.
“There has been intimidation and harassment, but the mosque reversed its rules banning women from the front door and main hall. A woman has been elected to office for the first time. More women are attending the mosque than ever before,” writes Nomani, who has since received several death threats for her activism.
On March 18, 2005, as part of a Muslim Women’s Freedom Tour launched by Nomani, a woman imam led about 125 women and men in a Friday congregational prayer in New York City. The following summer, leading American Muslim organizations throughout North America issued a 28-page report in the summer of 2005 with guidelines on making mosques “women-friendly.”
Yet the war is far from won, says Nomani. “It will take us the next two decades to universally redefine what women’s rights mean in our Muslim world, going back to the progressive values Islam brought to the Arabian peninsula in the 7th century, in order to bring the Muslim world into the 21st century.” The task is hefty but the voice of the women is clear: “Enough is enough.”
From Tennis to Hollywood
This year, Ashok Amritraj served an ace. His Hyde Park Entertainment has just inked a five-year first-look financing, production and distribution deal with Twentieth Century Fox. Two of his films, Shopgirl and Dreamers premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival before opening nationally on the same weekend. And he is celebrating 25 years in Hollywood. All this from the man who once found his tennis connections opened plenty of doors in Hollywood but few business deals. “People would call me back, talk for 15 minutes about their backhand and then say they’d passed on my script,” laughs Amritraj. In 1991, Jean Claude van Damme starrer Double Impact changed all that by grossing $100 million worldwide. “I became an overnight success in 10 years,” quips Amritraj. Other hits have followed—Bringing Down the House, Raising Helen, Moonlight Mile. Now almost a 100 films old in Hollywood, Amritraj can rest a little bit on his laurels. What’s remarkable about the tennis star-turned-producer is that unlike the M. Night Shyamalans and Jay Chandrasekhars, he is an immigrant, not a second-generation Indian American. And despite that, he has doggedly made a name for himself in mainstream Hollywood even though he says he would only get offered scripts that were about India or sports. Now that he doesn’t need to prove himself he feels he can make a movie set in India about call centers without worrying about being pigeonholed. These days Amritraj says, “Now I do the tennis games in my house and everybody comes here.”
Hailed by Cabbies
From a soft-spoken daughter of immigrant parents from Gujarat, Bhairavi Desai has become the strength and voice of taxi workers in New York. Desai, a union activist, co-founded the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance (NYTWA). She sees taxi workers as one of the most exploited groups in the workforce, and through NYTWA, helps them fight for fair wages, better working conditions including health check-ups, and against unfair regulations. Her unusual activism got the attention of the Ford Foundation: Desai received the foundation’s 2005 Leadership for Change award. The award includes a $100,000 grant and is given to outstanding leaders and leadership teams not broadly known beyond their immediate community or field.
Desai’s current activism continues from a successful strike she organized in 1998 in protest of the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s increased fines for minor infractions by taxi drivers. Forty thousand taxi workers went off duty for 24 hours, in turn, negotiating for a moratorium on the new rules and an in-depth study of the taxi industry. NYTWA membership doubled to 1,400 during the strike, and Desai has been able to demonstrate to taxi workers the benefit of organizing themselves to ensure better working conditions. Today she works long hours at the NYTWA office, attending to telephone calls and matters of concern to a largely underappreciated and overworked multiracial workforce, mostly consisting of marginalized members of society.
Desai comes from a long line of union members and union supporters. Her mother was a union member who worked in a factory. Her socially conscious parents raised her to hate poverty and love the poor, she says in an interview. She was previously involved with Manavi, an organization that encourages South Asian women to become aware of their rights and end all violence against them.
After two days of intense competition and 19 rounds of spelling, Anurag Kashyap of Poway, Calif., beat 272 contestants to walk away winner of the 78th Annual National Scripps Spelling Bee. Kashyap is a 13-year-old eighth-grader who attends Meadowbrook Middle School in Poway. As family and friends watched with bated breath, Kashyap spelled his way through the winning round with “appoggiatura,” a word that means melodic note or tone. Sweet music to Kashyap’s ears, who took home $28,000 in cash, scholarships and bonds, plus books from Encyclopedia Britannica. Kashyap had placed 47th in the previous year’s competition.
“He is an incredible young man with many talents,” says Meadowbrook Middle School Principal Cathy Brose adding that Kashyap’s persistence is what eventually paid off. “He actually gave up his tennis for a year (he’s very good at that too) to practice daily,” she says. Not satisfied with giving his dictionary dog-ears, Kashyap went online with former winners and current champions from other states to practice and quiz one another.
Words are not Kashyap’s all-consuming passion, but science is what grabs top spot in his favorite subjects. He has participated in Mathcounts, Science Olympiad competitions, and the California Geographic Bee. Eventually all he wants are a few simple things—a good college education and a career in computer science.
The Words Flow Easily
Some 600,000 people in 200 countries get their daily dose of English vocabulary from an unpretentious setup in the Pacific Northwest. Anu Garg’s wordserver churns out A Word A Day (AWAD), an electronic publication, that includes a vocabulary word, its definition, etymology, and usage example, along with an audio clip for pronunciation, quotation, and other interesting tidbits about words. When asked what a software engineer was doing emailing words and their meanings across the globe, Garg, founder of Wordsmith.org says, “I figured it would be a good way to share my love of words with others.”
That was 11 years ago when Garg was a student. Today the erstwhile grad-school experiment has earned great acclaim and a growing list of subscribers. In the process, Garg also coined the word “linguaphile” which was accepted into the English language and now has a place in the in the American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.
If you like toying with words, Wordsmith.org’s other services include the Internet Anagram Server and Listat (an Internet mailing list statistics package). Garg has also published two books, A Word A Day: A Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English and Another Word A Day.
Won over by words, Garg now works full time at Wordsmith.org. “But I enjoy it so much that it doesn’t feel like work,” he says. With over half a million words in the English language, and only 3,000 featured in AWAD so far, Garg is going to be one happy worker for a long time to come.
Living by the Constitution
In the tug-of-war between national security and civil liberties since 9-11, a key player is Neal Katyal, the lead attorney in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld. On Nov. 7 the Supreme Court agreed to review the case, which is a challenge to the military tribunals set up by President Bush at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Katyal, the 2004 John Carroll Research Professor of Law at Georgetown University, is an expert in national security law, the American constitution, and the Geneva Conventions.
What prompted the son of a doctor mother and an engineer father to pursue law as a career? Katyal recounts an episode when he was 15 and his father faced serious job discrimination. “He had a tremendously difficult time finding a lawyer,” recalls Katyal. “Finally, a federal judge, seeing the merit in his case, appointed one, and it reached a very positive result. I learned at that moment the power of the law to do good.”
This is not the first time Katyal finds himself in the national spotlight. In 2000, he served as co-counsel for Vice President Al Gore in the U.S. Supreme Court election case Bush v. Palm Beach Canvassing Board, which challenged the Florida voting system. This year the National Law Journal named Katyal, 34, one of the leading “40 lawyers under 40.” The journal noted that the young professor is “involved in a few of the significant cases of the decade.”
Why is Hamdan v. Rumsfeld so significant? “At stake is the simple principle that it is a Constitution and rule of law under which we live,” says Katyal. “That no one man can create an entire apparatus of justice—acting as the prosecutor, judge, jury, and perhaps even executioner—without the approval of Congress.”
Suketu Mehta has just one book under his belt but Maximum City is pretty much maximum return on investment, winning the Kiriyama Prize and being a Pulitzer finalist. What he imagined would be a quick-and-dirty book on Mumbai ended up 500-plus pages whittled down from 1,667. Pico Iyer calls it “stunning.” Vogue described him as “the best kind of investigative reporter.” After all, these are the kinds of questions Mehta asks instead of giving us a picture postcard of Ganesha Visarjana processions: “What does a man look like when he’s on fire?” “Do the men realize you’re not a woman when they get close to you?” “What’s the lowest price for a life you’ve seen in Bombay?”
What makes it especially significant is that while desis like Jhumpa Lahiri have been making a name in Indian-American fiction, few Indian Americans have scaled similar heights in non-fiction. Maximum City, as sprawling a book as Mumbai itself takes on everything from eye-popping encounters with rioters to Bollywood sex kittens to Bal Thackeray himself. Born in Calcutta, raised in Bombay and New York, Mehta is an alumnus of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Since Maximum City he has been everywhere, writing a commentary on the tsunami in the Wall Street Journal to an essay on Bollywood in National Geographic. Nowadays, he is apparently busy at work writing an original screenplay for The Goddess, starring Tina Turner. It’s not his first cinematic foray. He also co-wrote Mission Kashmir.
What’s fueling the fires in France? Is Saudi Arabia a key U.S. ally or a hotbed of jihad? How high will the price of oil go? Fareed Zakaria, host of Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria, and his guests have been all over the globe, discussing political issues and trends since the show’s debut last April on over 100 PBS stations.
The articulate Zakaria is a seasoned international analyst. As editor of Newsweek International since 2001, award-winning columnist, and a regular member of the roundtable on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he has examined multiple perspectives of the world’s most vexing global conundrums. About his international bestseller, The Future of Freedom, a global analysis of how democracy has changed every aspect of our lives, The Washington Post wrote, “… [It] makes you see the world differently.”
You are likely to see the world differently in Foreign Exchange, too. Zakaria’s guests are an eclectic mix of regional experts, journalists, and leaders from around the world—Egypt’s leading dissident Saad Eddin Ibrahim, German ambassador to the U.S. Wolfgang Ischinger, Indian business leader Vivek Paul. “I’d like to have a discussion about the future of democracy in the Arab world with an Arab,” says Zakaria. Indeed, this is not a show where foreign voices are faded out while American experts wax eloquently about their affairs.
Free Trade Envoy
In the U.S. trade delegation that toured India and other Asian countries recently, a key member was an Indian American—Karan Bhatia. Last September President Bush nominated Bhatia to be a deputy U.S. trade representative. “The U.S. Senate confirmed the appointment of Bhatia just in time for him to join me on this visit,” said U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Rob Portman.
At his confirmation hearings, underscoring his commitment to free trade, Bhatia said that if his appointment was confirmed, one of his most pressing challenges would be “to help reestablish a consensus … that international trade is in the best interests of the American people, now more than ever before.”
Prior to this appointment, Bhatia served in the Bush administration as assistant secretary of transportation for aviation and international affairs.
His appointment as a deputy USTR comes at a time of warmer relations and increasing trade between India and the United States. In his remarks at the India-U.S. Trade Policy Forum in New Delhi on Nov. 12, Portman said, “… total bilateral trade in services and goods will reach about $30 billion this year … over the next three years, we should undertake to double our trade between India and the United States.”
Ambitious target, and who will help implement it? Portman introduced Bhatia as his deputy and added, “He will have day-to-day responsibility for our relationship with India, among other things …”