In the run up to the 2016 presidential election, a tweet featuring popular Indian American actor Aziz Ansari urged voters to cast their vote from home. The photoshopped image showed Ansari, star of Master of None and Parks & Recreation, holding a sign that said “Save Time. Avoid the Line. Vote from Home.”
It’s illegal to vote from home or online in an US election, but that of course, did not deter Russian hackers behind the ad who used Twitter and Facebook to spread misinformation about the 2016 election.
Did some people tweet in their vote? Twitter did not say. Not even when a Congressional committee eventually began an investigation into foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election, as fake news surged unchecked on social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook included.
Four years later we are in another contentious election cycle. And the fake news machinery rolls on, brazenly manipulating a divided electorate with tales that range from the silly to more serious.
In a story that went viral, President Trump recently retweeted a link entitled “Twitter Shuts Down Entire Network To Slow Spread Of Negative Biden News”, from the news site Babylon Bee, that openly admits to running “Fake News you can trust” – the tagline on its Twitter page. Sometime the truth isn’t obvious even when it stares you in the face!
Absurd news stories from the conservative Babylon Bee and its left-leaning counterpart The Onion, often get significant clicks and shares with their satirical takes on current events. But they sit outside the fringes of ‘countermedia’ outlets which produce stories that are much more insidious and dangerous to democracy.
What’s different with the current crop of fake news protagonists, is they’re not just distant, foreign ‘troll factories’ igniting discontent among voters in the US. A University of Colorado study of Facebook and Twitter users in America reports that people at ideological extremes in this country are likely to make misleading stories go mainstream via social media.
Fake news instigators are unleashing a wave of misleading ads and false news to sow unrest among voters. But’s what’s more concerning is that bad actors are weaponizing social media, with much more dangerous consequences.
Axios reported that at least 11 Congressional nominees have expressed support for QAnon, a conspiracy theory cult which has propagated bizarre stories through its Redditt and other social media accounts, like the one about the coronavirus being created by the ‘deep state’, and the notorious ‘Pizzagate,’ which ended with an armed vigilante storming a neighborhood pizzeria.
This election season, purveyors of fake news are adopting devious tactics to spread misinformation and disinformation to interfere with the election and suppress the vote.
Speakers at an October 16 Ethnic Media Services briefing shared their perspectives on the intent behind messaging that’s being fabricated to confuse and disenfranchise voters.
“It doesn’t have to be false to be a problem,’ said Cameron Hickey, Program Director of Algorithmic Transparency at the National Conference on Citizenship (NCOC). In fact, fear mongering in conspiracy theories is designed to make recipients scared, angry or self-righteous and provoke changes in behavior, like the aforementioned gunman in the ‘Pizzagate’ incident.
With regard to the upcoming election, said Hickey, the most ‘concerning’ thing is talk of an impending ‘civil war’ that is appearing in messaging from both sides of the political spectrum. Warnings to voters about being prepared for armed conflict in the event of election results that don’t result in their favor, are “seeding the ground for potential violence,” warned Hickey.
Information about mail-in and absentee ballots, or when and where and how people can vote are embedded in messaging that may be (intentionally or unintentionally) misleading. A classic example of this said Hickey, is the one which says, “Republicans can vote on Tuesdays and Democrats vote on Wednesdays.”
Jacqueline Mason, senior investigative researcher at First Draft, shared a picture of Kamala Harris, the Democratic VP nominee, that went viral on social media. The photoshopped image showed Harris against images of black men she had allegedly imprisoned beyond their release dates, though upon closer inspection, the background appears to be composed of repeated images of the same six men.
What does this discordance say about our culture with its reliance on digital echo chambers and crumbling trust in mainstream media and government?
“We are no longer having conversations about the issues or the identities of the politicians running for office but exaggerating narrow bands of their perspective and amplifying them in ways that distort reality,” said Hickey.
Not only is it becoming harder to distinguish between what’s true and what isn’t, in the false narratives being pedaled on social media, but it appears that civil discourse, along with a responsibility to the truth, is also slipping away from our collective grasp.
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents
Poetry as Sanctuary – A column where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora.
A lizard in a blizzard
Got a snowflake in his gizzard
And nothing else much happened, I’m afraid.
But lizard rhymed with blizzard
And blizzard rhymed with gizzard
And that, my dear, is why most poems are made.
When I was young, I used to get a kick out of seeing words rhyme. Reading Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein, I would enunciate the rhyming bits out loud for fun. Later in high school, I marveled at Shakespeare and his dexterous lines which stoked the imagination and inspired lofty notions.
Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme
Poetry, in contrast to everyday speech, has an eye for beauty. She has a penchant for the pretty phrase, a fancy for things well said. With her, language is revered and words are caressed and carefully ensconced in a metrical mold which lends rhythm and musicality.
While I was in college, I listened to a recitation of a narrative poem my grandfather had written in Kannada (my mother tongue). The tune was captivating, the story was beautiful, and it made an unforgettable impression. Never before had I experienced (or given much heed to) sound and sense so intimately connected in my mother tongue. As Alexander Pope describes poetry:
‘Tis not enough no harshness gives offense,
The sound must seem an echo to the sense
Thereafter I began to realize – like the proverbial frog in the well – that other languages contained profound treasures of literature and poetry that my anglophone worldview wasn’t privy to. Unable to resist the siren call, I set out to learn my mother tongue.
A few years down the rabbit hole, I acquired Kannada and Sanskrit and delved into the literature with zest. When I moved to the bay area, I was fortunate to come across a poetry meetup group where I met some birds of the same feather. We started meeting weekly to partake in virtual poetry gatherings using the Facebook group Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley, where I found encouragement and an outlet to share the poems and translations that follow.
The best romance poems employ a subtle art of suggestion; without being coarse, they indicate rather than explicate. In this Sanskrit verse from the 7th century, we see a poet’s tasteful portrayal of conjugal matters:
(The sweet-talk of newlyweds)
दम्पत्योर्निशि जल्पतोर्गृहशुकेनाकर्णितं यद्वचः तत्प्रातर्गुरुसंनिधौ निगदतस्तस्यातिमात्रं वधूः ।
कर्णालम्बितपद्मरागशकलं विन्यस्य चञ्चूपुटे व्रीडार्ता प्रकरोति दाडिमफलव्याजेन वाग्बन्धनम् ||
As the newlywed couple whispered through the night, their pet parrot overheard the words exchanged. The following morning, in the presence of elders, it began repeating what it had learned. Hearing this, the wife was mortified and she grabbed her ruby earring (which resembled a pomegranate seed) and thrust it into the parrot’s beak to silence it.
Here’s another verse in Sanskrit which makes a delightfully wry observation:
(A courtesan and her lipstick)
पितरि मृतेऽपि हि वेश्या रोदिति हा तात तातेति॥
A red color is left lingering on her lips from chewing betel leaves. When her father dies, that courtesan, not wanting to smear the red from her lips, cries “Taata, taata!” instead of “Pita, pita!” (both words mean father). i.e., Even while mourning the death of her father, she is mindful of her lipstick.
“Brevity is the soul of wit” runs the common adage. Taking it to heart, this nifty triplet in Kannada claims to encapsulate all love stories:
(A summary of all love stories)
ನಾನು ಅವಳನ್ನು ನೋಡಿದೆ
ಅವಳು ನೋಡಿ ನಕ್ಕಳು
ನಮಗೀಗ ಎರಡು ಮಕ್ಕಳು
I looked at her,
She smiled at me.
Now we have two kids.
Poetry – and by extension, Art – seeks to elevate the connoisseur from the clutches of the mundane. In the process, ordinary emotions are rarefied and become things of beauty. Love, compassion, anger, sorrow, or any of the palate of emotions when expressed through the medium of art achieve a sublime dimension and unequivocally yield aesthetic joy. The joy of course, is an end in itself and needs no further recourse.
Navaneet Galagali is a software engineer in the California bay area who slyly siphons away time for his excursions with literature and music. His present obsessions include Sanskrit and Kannada literature. He is also learning Hindustani classical vocal music and Tabla.
On October 13, the US Supreme Court granted an appeal from the Trump administration to halt Census2020 on Oct 31, in a shocking reversal that will end the count sooner than expected. An earlier injunction by a California District court had allowed an extension because of disruptions caused by the pandemic.
The decision left states and census advocates scrambling to meet an impossible December 31 deadline to review, process, tabulate and report census reapportionment and redistricting data.
This means that the Census Bureau has just six weeks – not six months – before delivering apportionment counts to the President.
What Will Happen
What’s likely to happen is that the final enumeration will be inaccurate. Historically hard to count populations -minorities, people of color, and marginalized communities – will be undercounted in the final tabulation.
That, in turn, will impact the distribution of resources – funding for roads, schools, hospitals, food assistance and health services – that vulnerable communities rely on. The consequences for marginalized communities are dire. The pandemic has already restricted their use of safety net resources, but an undercount will threaten their access to those resources for the next decade.
Pushback against the new ruling has been swift.
Justice Sotomayor, dissenting from the grant of stay, wrote that “The harms caused by rushing this year’s census count are irreparable. And respondents will suffer their lasting impact for at least the next 10 years.”
Civil rights advocates say it blatantly disrupts a census count that has been ten years in the making. They denounced the Trump Administration’s countless efforts to sabotage the census for political gain, calling the ruling a dismaying decision that “undermines American livelihoods as well as our democratic system.”
“Everyone in America regardless of political affiliation or ethnicity, should be deeply troubled by the President’s attempt to undermine and misrepresent data from the 2020 Census,” said John Yang, President & Executive Director, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC).
Marc Morial, President and CEO of the National Urban League which spearheaded litigation against the Trump directives, called the Supreme Court a ‘willing co-conspirator’ that has “aided, abetted, facilitated” the administration’s effort to politically interfere with the census….and to cheat the American people of their constitutional right to representation.”
The Constitution is clear. It mandates that ‘all persons’ – not all citizens – must be included in the decennial census and in the apportionment count. Advocates at the briefing called Trump’s executive order an attempt to amend the US Constitution.
Impact of the Ruling
The ruling underscores historic attempts to erase undercounted communities from the census and ongoing efforts by the Administration to keep non-citizens off the decennial.
Up next is a Supreme Court hearing of a Trump directive that seeks to exclude non-citizens from the congressional apportionment. Earlier, a ruling by federal judges in New York found the executive order unlawful.
These legal challenges undermine the democratic process on which our country was founded, said panelists. A flawed count will affect apportionment – redistricting legislative districts based on newest population counts and redistributing seats to represent those districts in the House of Representatives. In undercounted areas, marginalized communities risk losing fair representation in government.
What’s at stake is the constitutional intent of the count.
How Census2020 played out
Census officials have planned Census2020 for ten years. When COVID19 hit, they outlined a timeline to ensure they would reach an accurate count during the pandemic.
The Bureau spent over $6.3 billion on a campaign to get the count out. It bolstered partnerships with community organizations and civil rights groups at national and local levels to encourage participation in the census.
“The Administration’s refusal to let Census Bureau experts determine the best schedule for completing the count and reporting results really created enormous chaos and confusion in the field,” said Vanita Gupta, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference.
Census2020 is one of the largest decennials, but the run up to its final count has been buffeted by natural disasters and an unrelenting pandemic, making it the most difficult of enumerations.
“We have worked so hard to push our communities to participate in the census and tell them how it will benefit their lives,” said Yang, so rushing to transmit apportionment data to the President by December 31, completely undermines those efforts.
Minority communities will take the fall
Experts agreed that rushing the census will shortchange minority communities.
Historically, self-response rates from communities of color nationwide tend to be lower than non-Hispanic white and US self-response rates. Latinos, tribal areas, Blacks and swathes of Asian residents need more targeted outreach – “more door knocking enumeration” – which requires extra time.
Panelists called a Census Bureau statement that it had topped 99% completion rates ‘a myth’. That rate only refers to households on the address list, but do not indicate if all householders were included or completed the census forms. “Do not be fooled,” warned Morial, “if there was fake news, this is it!”
The perils of an undercount include overcrowding in schools and hospitals, and congestion on roads. It will put communities in a tough spot that will be hard to recover from. Hastily tabulated data will harm the nation, but that risk falls disproportionately on communities of color.
“Make no mistake about it. There has never been an accurate count of Latinos in a decennial,” said Arturo Vargas, CEO of NALEO, referring to historical interference that has denied Latino participation in the census, whether it was asking Latino immigrants to boycott the census, or barring their inclusion in it. “The odds are consistently against a census that fully includes all (almost 60 million) Latinos.”
Morial pointed out that “The Black population count was already in jeopardy from the start,” because African American communities have not even reached the national self-response rate of 68%.
In Indian country, that rate is 25% below the national average, said Kevin Allis, Leader of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), arguing that his community is invisible to the rest of the country. In 2010, Indian country suffered an undercount twice the national average.
Allis also pointed out that the federal government has a treaty and trust responsibility owed to tribal nations (covering infrastructure, health and education and economic development), in exchange for millions of acres that tribal nations ceded to the US for settlement. Chronic underfunding has created disparities in Indian country. A census that falls short, will further decimate the funding and representation promised in those treaties, warned Allis.
It’s not over yet
“It would be a mistake for anyone in the public or the media to think that the Census is over,” said Gupta. What is over is the data collection process from a 150 million housing units. In the next phase, the Bureau will process raw data to produce a count that accurately reflects every US community. Data will determine the distribution of real resources in neighborhoods.
It’s a massive and complex undertaking that needs time, says Census Bureau experts (the Gov. Accountability Office and the Commerce Department’s Inspector General).
Rushing the census will force the Bureau to cut corners and compress vital quality checks that could skew data and create errors, advised Gupta. “The ramifications will last decades.”
The data processing phase is crucial to ‘fill in the blanks’ added Vargas. Checks and remediation are needed to ensure that forms are complete, all household members included, and to fix erroneous and duplicate responses. It requires meaningful consultation with stakeholders to deal with disclosure avoidance systems and make sure nobody is left behind.
Flawed data will lead to flawed decisions that harm everyone, warned Allis.
It takes time to integrate quality indicators that measure and translate census data into accurate apportionment counts. If you erase people from the census, the domino effect at play will see federal programs and fair elections start to fall.
Political interference has reduced a six month process to two, and that will undermine the integrity of the count, so we need to “excise politics from the process,” urged Morial.
The Bottom Line
Without an extension, millions of people will be left out of the count. That includes people in rural and tribal lands, people of color, people with low incomes and people experiencing homelessness.
“In a lot of ways this has always been the Trump administration’s goal, from the failed citizenship question, to Trump’s unconstitutional memo to erase undocumented immigrants from the count. The administration has been trying over and over again to dictate who counts in this country,” stated Gupta.
Congress Must Act to Salvage the Census
There isn’t a clear roadmap ahead if the Census Bureau is forced to produce an inaccurate count.
Advocates at the briefing urged Congress to take immediate steps to reset the course of the census and stave off damage that could last the next ten years. They suggested the public put pressure on congressional delegations to free the census of political and partisan interference going forward.
The Leadership Conference has endorsed a bipartisan bill to save the census, and asked Congress to push back the reporting deadlines by 120 days each – extending the reapportionment deadline from December 31 to April 1, 2021, and the redistricting deadline from April 1 to July 1, 2021.
“Congress has to set a clear path forward” Gupta added, because it is their constitutional responsibility to protect the integrity and accuracy of census data.
“Look. The decennial census sets a standard for data quality that must be preserved,” said Yang. “It should be something the US Census Bureau achieves without interference.”
Meera Kymal is a contributing editor at India Currents
“We have seen difficult times before,” starts Chadha.
During the interview, I wanted to tell Gurinder Chadha that she is to me what Springsteen is to Javed in her film Blinded by the Light (2019). Larger than life. Awe-inspiring. Authentic. Raw. That her 1993 film Bhaji on the Beach was seared in my memory!
But when my icon spoke, I merely managed to squeak out a “such an honor, Gurinder.” No need to gush like a star-struck fan, I thought. And when I asked Gurinder Chadha questions, her replies were honest and amazing, just like her.
Gurinder Chadha’s film Blinded by the Light is a message of hope and the power of music to uplift and inspire. It simultaneously tackles neo-Nazi white supremacy.
“We struggle, but we also celebrate.”
GPJ: Your film comes at a particularly difficult and divisive time in the USA. The image of the Pakistani family scrubbing “Go Back” graffiti from their walls (and worse) in your film comes to mind. Recently, Donald Trump, the President of the United States, started a “go back to your country’ and ‘send her back’ chant for duly elected US Senator Omar Ilhan. Comments?
GC: Yes, it’s a difficult time and we’ve been through it before. The film is set in 1987 in England when we were really struggling with Margaret Thatcher and the rise of the National Front. In that time, people were quite intimidated by the rise of racism. I made the film to show how dark those times were and that we don’t want to go back there.
GPJ: A scene from the film about a National Front rally seems hauntingly like Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis and white supremacists were emboldened to march. The protagonist, Javed, has white allies — his friend, the teacher, or the principal, or the newspaper colleague at The Herald… and the white adversaries — the National Front, the skinheads, Margaret Thatcher… How can we strengthen our allies for multiculturalism and simultaneously resist nationalistic and white supremacist adversaries?
GC: Well, you’ll have to talk to a politician about that, but I’m pleased that my film has been warmly received so far. It’s good that people are interested in Bruce’s America represented on the screen — the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen are what Javed listens to.
GPJ: Agreed — he’s given hope through his brilliant lyrics to many listeners. I understand you’ve been a Springsteen fan for a long time?
GC: Yes, I certainly value and appreciate his words and his music.
GPJ: You have been unafraid to discuss issues within the South Asian community — in Bhaji on the Beach, for instance, you dealt with domestic violence and our own racism towards blacks. When Javed writes about the mosque in The Herald, his father criticizes his actions and tells him to keep his head down. Any comments on the pressure for ethnic artists and writers to show our community in a positive light?
GC: Well, I think all writers should write what they like. What I like to do is to show that we struggle, but we also celebrate. We’re not defined by struggle or racism — we have three-dimensional lives which have a lot of love and happiness in them, and people often forget that. When I make a movie, it’s important for me to have a different social perspective that reflects that and celebrates us.
GPJ: I appreciate that your voice is heard in the world film scene. Your films are so unique. I recently saw Yesterday by Danny Boyle, for example, and the treatment felt so one-dimensional. Whereas there is a wholeness of the story in “Blinded… “ — you don’t shy away from depicting prejudice and racism against people with skin color that clearly identifies them as the Other. I’m grateful for your voice, and confident that you will speak for a diasporic Indian in a way that is real and authentic.
GC: Thank you! It’s really important that you get the word out. Unless people support it, it’s going to be harder and harder to make films like that.
Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D. is working on a book called “50 Voices From South Asia.”
Photo credits for film stills: Nick Wall
This article was originally published in August 2019.
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The coronavirus pandemic is a story shared among so many different generations, nationalities, and ethnicities. Although this moment of crisis has physically separated us from our friends and family, it has also bound us all within a joint reality. And what better way to spend the extra time at home than by returning to an endearing glimpse into South Asian literature? To encourage solidarity despite self-isolation regulations, digital publishing house Juggernaut Books and the celebrated Hindustan Times have created the video project, One Story, One Nation.
India Currents’ very own writer, Raji Pillai, is featured in Part 10 of the readings, alongside South-Asian celebrities. Each has volunteered their time to read a section from Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, The Kabulliwallah.
One of Tagore’s most acclaimed literary works, the short story focuses on a young daughter’s love for an Afghan Kabulliwallah, a merchant who often made trips to Calcutta. Tagore’s heartwarming narrative, which demonstrates how love crosses all borders and circumstances, is fitting during these dividing times. Although I read Kabulliwallah amid a flight home from India a few years ago, I found that revisiting this short story made me appreciate the simplicities of self-isolation.
A screen separates me from my friends and teachers, but I still have my parents beside me — just how protagonist Mini has the love of her father and the Kabulliwallah despite everything. And it certainly did not hurt to hear this tale narrated by the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Aditi Mittal, Chetan Bhagat, and Barkha Dutt. Each and every one of these narrators have poured their heart into bringing Tagore’s characters to life, from the charming naiveté of a young Mini to the devoted affection of the merchant.
“Read more books during this lockdown. Read more books on humanity, because they will inspire you to become a better version of yourself,” said Sabyasachi Mukherjee, as he opened up his own reading of the short story. Hopefully, we can all learn to celebrate a sense of belonging and unanimity by listening to Kabulliwallah.
To find the entire series click here.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
Dear PostModern Gandhiji:
A decade ago, when I was a first-year medical student, I worried that modern medicine and pharmacology were based on animal products. I had been raised in a strictly vegetarian Jain household and had been taught to respect all living things. Thus seeing monkeys and dogs in cages used for experiments and dissections disturbed my belief system.
Fast forward to 2020. First the good news: physician training in American medical schools no longer requires animal dissection. But with the tragic coronavirus pandemic, my old concern about animals seems quite trivial. It seems that we should do anything and everything to save humans from suffering.
Because I practice sports medicine, I’m not with the frontline of clinicians tending to those with COVID-19. As such, I’ve been struggling to understand what Gandhiji would be doing if he were alive today. What should I be doing?
Here are a couple of quotes from Gandhiji that you might find of value. My own sense-making of Gandhian principles follow the quotes.
“There is a divine purpose behind every physical calamity.”
“I do not want my house to be walled in all sides, and my windows to be closed. Instead, I want cultures of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet.” (M. K. Gandhi)
Thank you for this opportunity to consider Gandhiji’s response to the coronavirus. I imagine that he would have taken a multi-disciplinary approach.
Young Mohandas Gandhi had been both a trained and untrained nurse. As a child, he had tended to his ill father by sitting at his bedside and perhaps massaging his father’s head and legs. As a young man returning to India at the end of the 19th century, he confronted the Bubonic Plague and served his brother-in-law; while the ayurvedic treatments could not save his sister’s husband, he learned something about himself: “my aptitude for nursing gradually developed into a passion.” He famously used this aptitude for the healing profession during the Boer War in South Africa as the founder of the Indian Ambulance Corps. And through the rest of his life, he nursed himself through many fasts and served those with serious illnesses. His patients ranged from his wife and other immediate family to members of his ashrams and lepers whose stigmatized condition he championed. I recall this medical biography to suggest that, as a man of science, Gandhiji would have surely been at the frontline today serving COVID-19 patients in the ER or the ICU.
But Gandhiji understood that science has its limits. He wrote, “To state the limitation of science is not to belittle it.” I imagine that he would have recognized this crisis as an opportunity to head off larger crises. To be sure, he would have used his political talent to support organizations like W.H.O. to mitigate the socio-economic risks of future pandemics. But I believe that Gandhiji’s greatness lies in his multi-generational vision for humanity. The earth – all of it, and all of its creatures – was a Gandhian home. Not only would Gandhiji have directly faced the respiratory challenges of the coronavirus, but he, also, would have used the present danger to open windows and minds to confront even greater ecological, social, and spiritual catastrophes like climate change, enduring inequality, and cruelty to animals.
Using his tools of satyagraha, swaraj, sarvodaya, and ahimsa, Gandhiji would have encouraged us to be in satyalogue with each other, in truthtalk, about what we’ve learned about ourselves and each other during this pandemic.
Regarding your question about what you should be doing, I suggest using all of the gifts bestowed upon you from your religious upbringing and your medical studies; kindly consider how you can use that knowledge for your private spiritual growth and our public universal uplift.
Dr. Rajesh C. Oza has published a compilation of similar Q&A pieces addressing dilemmas that we face in the 21st century. His book Satyalogue // Truthtalk is available on Amazon.
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Imagine going to your favorite smoothie bar and lchecking the menu, looking for something new and interesting to try. You spot a flavor labeled ‘Pumpkin Spice Papaya Turmeric‘ and think – how could that possibly taste good? But you give it a shot since you’re a foodie who loves exotic sounding names, and lo and behold, it actually tastes pretty fine. Makes you wonder, how in the world did they come up with this combination?
If you thought a brilliant chef concocted this in a restaurant kitchen, you’d be wrong.
This hit flavor was created by a ‘food innovation intelligence platform’, which basically uses Artificial Intelligence to build a virtual ‘food brain.’
“It’s like combining the experience of the greatest chefs and food critics around the globe with food scientists, food ethnographers, (folks who plot how food interacts with culture and behavior) specialty and niche food communities and online chat groups which may have as few as a thousand members, food commerce platforms, etc. A billion disparate points of data are extracted from this wealth of foodie information and connections are made which actually predict future trends at the embryonic stage, almost before they happen. With Spoonshot’s input, food industry clients can have a head start on the food trends bandwagon. All that data is also used to innovate new food and flavors which have the greatest chance of succeeding in the marketplace, like our pumpkin spice papaya turmeric smoothie.”
“We are in the business of trying to predict future trends before they go mainstream,” Vasani tells me. “Companies spend enormous amounts on research before launching a new food, but their methodology hasn’t changed over the past several decades. The success rate for new food launched in the marketplace is often between 10 and 30%. Our technology, which requires much less investment, is poised to increase that rate significantly.”
Food trends often originate from a particular chef or restaurant in a certain town or country: how it becomes a global trend is what Spoonshot’s technology tracks.
Quinoa was an Andean staple that grew popular at the same time as gluten-free, high protein food became attractive. It’s the perfect alternative to rice or bread for a population rife with gluten allergies and obesity. Today, there is a shift towards veganism and food which is ethically produced, climate friendly and good for the environment.
For example, Spoonshot, (in collaboration with International Food Trendologist Liz Moskow), has come up with a future food trends list which includes Silverfin fishcakes made from wild caught US Asian carp. Asian carp is an invasive species of fish that is threatening the Mississippi river, and for environmentally conscious consumers, the environmental impact of eating this carp is just as important as the taste. Food with a low carbon footprint like legumes, pulses, grains seaweed and algae are going to appear more often on restaurant menus and in everyday cooking.
“Interest in environmentally conscious food has grown 55% in the last year alone,” Vasani says.
A good example of an environmentally friendly vegan alternative to dairy, is ice-cream made from Aquafaba, the water chickpeas are soaked in. It may not sound scrumptious but it’s actually quite delicious, and is predicted to trend in the future. Since meat alternatives are increasingly popular, vegetarians are going to see more of Carob-based products – Carob helps provide much needed collagen for muscle health to those who don’t eat any animal products.
The Covid19 pandemic has also produced an almost seismic shift towards comfort foods. Anxiety is at an all-time high and foods containing the essential oil Copaiba, from the Copaifera tree, which produces relaxation are likely to be popular.
The most engaging part of Vasani’s story is his entrepreneurial journey, and his resilience, especially with facing the latest Covid fiasco. He grew up in England where his father ran a grocery store. There was a subconscious emphasis on food which he says comes from his Gujarati roots: dinner time was always the central hub of the family.
He joined a retail bank after a degree in business from Aston University (UK), but found the pace too slow for his entrepreneurial itch. This was the early 2000’s, the era of rising digital media platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon. Against his parents’ advice he launched his own digital marketing agency in 2006.
“My parents gave me a year,” he says. “I was 22 years old and felt I had these ideas about personalizing a service product the way Facebook and Amazon were personalizing consumer experiences.
It was a rollercoaster ride. He eventually wound up his business and joined Just Eat, the European food ordering platform that acquired Grubhub in June, 2020.
However, the drive to be a self-made entrepreneur proved overwhelming. After a couple of years he left and, along with his friend Sai Sreenivas, created a business model that eventually led to the concept of Spoonshot. Initial investors were friends and relatives, before outside financing began to roll in.
“Twice in the last five years we’ve been left with a week’s worth of money in the bank. The last time it was around Covid. We were about to close a round of funding and then Covid blew up around the country and our investor pulled out at the last minute,” Vasani recalls.
“This happened on a Saturday” he says. “We were so demoralized that we decided to shut everything down. Five years of grueling work and innovation would go down the drain, quite apart from the 20 full time employees we had in Bangalore. That was one of our worst days.”
“On Sunday, both of us woke up and seemed to be hit by the same motivation at the same time – we were not going to let a tiny virus beat us and negate all our hard work over the past five years. We decided we were not going to fire anyone; our company model believes in complete transparency with our employees, so we told them our dire financial situation. Some decided to leave, and some stayed. But no employees left because of Covid or our financial situation. One left to start their own business, and one left to pursue a PhD. We spent the next few days going to our network to secure emergency funding. We took 50% pay cuts but we steadied the ship.”
The sucker punch of Covid19 has not dimmed his enthusiasm or his spirit of entrepreneurship.
“We’ve put everything on the line, cashed out all our savings and made enormous sacrifices,” he says. “The economy will recover, and we’ll be ready.”
In August Spoonshot overcame Covid19 by securing $1M in seed funding.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents
As we enter the season of “Devi Paksha”, the spirit of Feminine Divine in the Fall, regaling at the cotton ball clouds in the clear blue sky, gentle morning breeze smelling of fresh dew, rustic reconnaissance in our agile senses, the vision of a city emerges very vividly in many minds connected to India: Calcutta (now called Kolkata), the city that took exquisiteness of the decadent to a whole different level! Everything is about the bygone out there.
Perhaps, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, Calcutta is a mix of many things, all at once. While the mangrove forests been submerging in the Bay, the foothills of the Himalayas merging with the rising mists for thousands of years, footprints of many people, their ethnicities, spirituality, aspirations, and accolades adorned the soil of the land. One such seeker was Job Charnock who settled the harness of British East India Company in the city some 365 years back. The community found a home away from home, absorbing it foot by foot, building the city brick by brick. In the words of contemporary historians, Calcutta was inspirational to London, ushering a century of opulence, immersion, and multiplexity in the United Kingdom. Needless to say, people from Calcutta always relish Europe in their ethos.
It was the most coveted gift of the season when the publisher of India Currents, Vandana, handed me this rustic book to review: Old Picture Postcards from the British Raj. Chronicle of real postcards collected and curated by Madan Gopal Mukhopadhyay, compiled over generations, capturing people and places from Calcutta and the rest of India during the Colonial era. My heart danced to the tune of sepia-tinted images from the city of my birth. The book depicts nooks and alleys of the city in photographic representation, documenting urban and rural edifices and lifestyles seamlessly. There’s a surprise element in the end.
“At the end is a special set of postcards, more than a century old, featuring photographs of Indian royalty by the renowned photographer, Carl Vandyke.”
The author was born in Calcutta before the Partition, graduated from the prestigious Calcutta Medical College after which he came to the US to study and pursue his career as a physician. An alumnus of Howard University and Yale University, Madan Gopal has had many distinguished achievements as a doctor, author, social luminary, and patron of arts and culture. This book is dedicated to his progenies, “Perhaps the images of this book will remind them of their roots in the future”.
NYC, New York - I saw how devastating COVID-19 was for so many people in NYC, particularly teenagers who had to adapt their lifestyles. From switching to remote learning to finding ways to stay active and engaged, there have been a lot of changes. The one thing in...