This article was first published in April 2011.
Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani followed the traditional migration patterns of thousands of other Indian immigrants in the 1980s. They studied engineering at IIT in India and then came to the Unitd States, finally ending up in Silicon Valley. The next step should have been marriage, a Toyota, the house in the suburbs.
But as a gay man, Kumar was anxious to find other people like him. At that time there was no Internet, no gay groups in India, no easy way for gay and lesbian South Asians to find each other. Kumar decided to set up a support group. It was called Trikone, the Sanskrit word for triangle, commemorating the pink triangle the Nazis used to mark homosexuals. Kumar was working at Hewlett Packard. He photocopied the first issue ofTrikone magazine, a handful of pages stapled together, on HP’s copiers after work. He jokes HP has no idea about its pivotal role in the growth of the South Asian lesbian and gay movement.
Kumar met Jethanandani through Trikone. “When I met Ashok in late 1985 I knew nothing about Indian fine arts—dance, music etc,” says Kumar. Jethanandani was very interested in the arts. He was studying bharatanatyam at a time when few Indian men, especially engineers, studied dance. Jethanandani took Kumar to many programs at the 18-month-long Festival of India going on at that time. As the festival ended, Kumar remembers feeling a sense of loss and emptiness. “We talked now and then about how nice it would be if there was a local publication that highlighted the many Indian events that were taking place in the Bay Area,” says Kumar. “It would be as if the festival never ended.”
Kumar was already cutting his teeth on publishing, editing and designing with the Trikone newsletter. When he decided to take the summer off to get ready for grad school, he realized he was not going to be able to run India Currentson his own. He asked Vandana Kumar, his cousin’s wife, to help. “I was not really very involved in the first 3-4 years,” says Jethanandani. “Vandana worked with Arvind right from the beginning, and has played the most constant role in publishing India Currents.”
“I was a new mother of twins,” recalls Vandana, “and I didn’t have a clue if this idea had legs or if it would peter out in a few months.” She adds,“I was still finding my feet in this new country, and beginning to feel confident about my abilities.” Her first role in the magazine was the dreaded cold-calling, making regular phone calls to establish India Currents’ presence in the South Asian community in the Bay Area. “Building that initial buzz about our presence was crucial to the magazine,” she emphasizes.
The first issue of India Currents came out in April 1987.
They had made a business plan before they launched. “It did not look promising,” admits Jethanandani. “The costs were high and certain, while the ad revenues were uncertain.” Support came from Rajiv Kumar, Kumar’s cousin and Vandana’s husband, who became the magazine’s financial advisor and mentor. He counselled prudence and financial responsibility to the team.
The print run of that first issue was 5,000. Jethanandani and Kumar piled stacks of the magazine in the back of their Toyota (yes, there was a Toyota by then) and hand-delivered them to about 100 locations all over the Bay Area. Jethanandani remembers the last stop was a restaurant on University Avenue in Berkeley. “We kept a stack of the 8-page black and white issue near the entrance and stopped for a bite,” says Jethanandani. “Before long there was a copy at almost every table and people were scanning the calendar of events that Arvind had complied. We could tell from their faces that it was a hit.”
Jethanandani says he didn’t know about focus groups at that time. They just relied on their gut feeling from that restaurant experience and doubled the print run and the page count from 8 to 16.
That was April. “By September I didn’t want to stop,” recalls Kumar. Says Vandana, “For six months I’d been making phone calls to a growing list without much success. But, by this time, people began to recognize our name. They were eager to feature their event with us. That’s when I knew the magazine had a future.”
At that time there were other Indian American publications around but they were news-oriented subscription-based weeklies. India Currents went for a different model. “We wanted to do a free publication like the Metro in San Jose with a focus on local arts, entertainment, dining, along with serious editorial content about life in the United States,” says Kumar.
But a free publication lives and dies by advertising. The team had no experience with that end of things. “It was difficult at first,” admits Kumar. “I had to learn on the job. But we got through to enough business owners to keep going.”
As a free publication available at desi grocery stories, India Currents became a handy guide for the new immigrants flooding into the valley. That was where you found the Indian travel agent who could get good air fares to India. Or the dentist who already knew that the turmeric in Indian food stained your teeth. You could find out about a bharatanatyam school for your children, or the upcoming festival of Satyajit Ray movies.
Along the way the team hoped the readers would get something more than the usual mishmash of news about New Delhi politics and Bollywood buzz. “(Our writers) were writing from the Indian American point of view for a general audience,” says Kumar. He says he likes to think that India Currents set a new tone in Indian American media of the day. Kumar wrote a 450-word editorial for every issue, a very personal viewpoint that often provoked letters for and against his opinions. He says proudly “dissenting opinions always found space” in the letters page.
From the summer of 1987 to 1995, Kumar worked on India Currents full-time as the editor. Jethanandani became the publisher. Vandana’s role kept evolving as she worked her way around the different responsibilities involved in bringing out a monthly magazine—calendar, circulation, ad sales. The San Jose home became the home office, the doorway piled high with stacks of magazines bound together with string. “We did the mailing in-house in our early years,” says Vandana. “On mailing days, stacks of magazines would be delivered to my house. Anyone who could be recruited to volunteer would attach labels, make bundles according to postal regulations, sack, and deliver them to the post office..”
Their families were bewildered. “I come from a middle class Kayastha family,” says Kumar. “For us the greatest virtue is to be educated, get a job and keep it.” For an IIT-trained engineer to leave a paying job for the uncertainty of a publishing career was baffling for both their families. They were living together as partners, very out about their sexuality in the media.
“It was not something anyone in my family understood,” says Kumar. “But they all supported me because they figured out it was important to me.”
In 1995 Kumar decided to go back to the hi-tech world. Jethanandani stayed on along with Vandana, who took over as publisher in 2003. Jethanandani had been developing an interest in Ayurveda for a couple of years and in 2007, he decided to pursue it full time. He left India Currents and moved to Jamnagar in Gujarat to study Ayurveda, leaving Vandana with full responsibility for the magazine. “It was a scary time for me,” admits Vandana. “The management ofIndia Currents had always been a team effort.” However, her training in the various roles within India Currents held her in good stead. She felt confident she could manage with the support of the community and a dedicated team. The magazine has adjusted to the changes in the management team seamlessly, not missing a beat in the last 25 years.
Kumar now works in Silicon Valley and, when he is not traveling back and forth to India, lugging suitcases full of books for Jethanandani, his great passion these days is California native plants. Vandana continues to be the constant presence at India Currents as publisher.
But every month, without fail, Kumar picks up his copy of India Currents. And the first thing he reads?
“The editorial, of course!” he says.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury started out writing for India Currents in the early 90s. He quit his hi-tech career to join New America Media as an editor and radio host.