2008 is at a close, and once again we have an opportunity to reflect on the desis who made headlines and those who we expect will continue to make the news. As our content has always demonstrated, India Currents has an expansive definition of “desi”: Indian-Americans, children of one or two Indian parents, immigrants from India to the United States, and Indians who have established their personal or professional lives in the U.S.

This year, we want to highlight a group of men and women with different relationships to the proverbial radar, but all of whom you’ll want to know.

Shout-outs to all those we weren’t able to feature, but who we’ll keep an eye on in the years to come, especially …

The child stars: Sameer Mishra, winner of the 2008 Scripps National Spelling Bee; Akshay Rajagopal, winner of the 2008 National Geographic Bee; Shivani Sud, winner of the 2008 Intel Science Talent Search

The businesspeople: Vikram Pandit, tested this year as CEO of Citigroup; Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo and the third most powerful woman in the world according to Forbes’ 2008 list

The flops: M. Night Shyamalan for The Happening; Manu Narayan for The Love Guru

The political junkies: Kal Penn, campaigner for Barack Obama; Aasif Mandvi, regular correspondent for The Daily Show

The bloggers: Om Malik, founder of the influential technology blog, GigaOm.com; SAJAforum, for continuing to make relevant all things “desi in the news”

The Guggenheimers: (2008 Guggenheim fellows) Meena Alexander, professor of English at Hunter College; Tony D’Souza, author of The Konkans; Sumit Guha, professor of history at Rutgers University; Chandrashekhar B. Khare, professor of mathematics at UCLA; Ashutosh Varshney, professor of political science at the University of Michigan


Now that we have our President-elect, it’s open season for speculation as to who will make Obama’s inner circle of advisors in the White House. Two Indian-American’s names keep popping up—Preeta Bansal and Sonal Shah, both highly accomplished professionals. If you weren’t familiar with their work before, be prepared to hear much more about them in the future.


Bansal, a 43-year-old partner at a leading Wall Street law firm and former Solicitor General of New York State, was a senior policy advisor to Obama during his campaign and is working on the Obama transition to power. She is a veteran of both the Clinton White House and the Justice Department, and she has served on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as a Commissioner and former Chair. In February 2008, Bansal wrote a moving op-ed, urging South Asians to rally behind Obama: “I can think of no better leader than Senator Obama … He truly believes in Gandhi’s approach that we must lead by the example of our ideals and our actions—including by fostering economic opportunity for each individual, and by respecting pluralism and restoring the rule of law at home and abroad.”
Shah, a 40-year-old economist, co-founder of the non-profit Indicorps, and head of Global Development Initiatives at Google, has been appointed to the advisory board of Obama’s transition team. She is also a former Treasury Department and National Security Council official, as well as a former Vice President at Goldman, Sachs and Co.  Shah’s appointment to Obama’s team sparked minor controversy, including what many have called attacks-by-association regarding her supposed “communalist” leanings. Shah’s condemnation of the rumors has been unequivocal, as is the support of her colleagues. “As an Indian-American who has lived in this country since the age of four, serving on the Obama-Biden transition team is a unique privilege …” Shah wrote in an official statement. “I am delighted with what the victory on November 4 says about my country, and about our place in the world.”



You would have to have been in hiding to have missed Fareed Zakaria in the news this year. The 44-year-old international relations expert and popular pundit is the author of 2008’s bestselling treatise The Post-American World (fun fact: President-elect Barack Obama was spotted reading The Post-American World in late May). Zakaria is also the host of a new foreign affairs show on CNN—Fareed Zakaria GPS (Global Public Square)—for which he has interviewed luminaries including Henry Kissinger, Bill Gates, Condoleezza Rice, and Obama himself.

The editor of Newsweek International has long been touted, by fans and experts, as a possible Secretary of State. Soon after Obama’s election, an unofficial website, DraftFareed.org, was set up to petition the President-elect to do just that. We now know that Hillary Clinton has nabbed the post, but perhaps there are other possibilities for Zakaria. Kishore Mahbubani, former president of the United Nations Security Council, has recommended Zakaria as a possible National Security Advisor to the next U.S. President, arguing, “[Zakaria] is a great communicator, in public and in private, and he can persuade the Washington establishment to change its outdated worldview.” Zakaria is the former editor of Foreign Affairs; he is also the author of From Wealth to Power: The Unusual Origin’s of America’s World Role and The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.



In October 2008, amidst the greatest financial catastrophe of our time, a young Indian man with a striking resemblance to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson (it’s the bald head) was named interim head of the new Office of Financial Stability and chosen to administer the U.S. government’s Troubled Asset Relief Program. The South Asian Journalists Association dubbed Neel Kashkari—a 35-year-old Wharton graduate from Akron, Ohio, and self-described “free-market Republican”—the “$700-billion man.”

The mainstream media was all over the story as well: Who was this guy, with only six years of experience in finance and government, who would be overseeing the notorious and ambitious bailout? Time magazine called him “relatively green”; the New York Post described Kashkari as a “financial whiz kid.” Since July 2006, Kashkari had been a special Assistant to Paulson, providing analysis of the mortgage crisis and foundering economy. Since his position is an interim one, he is not likely to hold a similar post under President-elect Barack Obama’s administration. But no matter his next move, Kashkari, a virtual unknown until just a few months ago, will be a man to watch on Wall Street and in Washington.


Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved
Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved

Raj Patel is best known as author of the polemicStuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System. But he also has a formidable academic background (a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from Oxford University, an M.A. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from Cornell), matched only by his formidable professional experience at the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations (to use his phrase, work experience “in the belly of the beast”). Patel is currently a visiting scholar in the Center for African Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, a Fellow at the Institute of Food and Development Policy, a Research Associate at the School of Development Studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and a board member of the Ota Benga Alliance, a group that promotes social change and healing in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

So what does a man with such an impressive background do with his knowledge and experience? Why, try to change the world, of course. In 2008, Patel testified on the global food crisis before Barney Frank and the House Financial Services Committee. He has also written regularly about the world food system in leading papers—including the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and The Guardian—and appeared this year as a talking head on NPR, BBC, NBC, and Al Jazeera. If you care about how we eat, what we eat, and the way we eat it, Raj Patel is the activist, thinker, and public intellectual to know.


6/21/08 - Photo by John Cheng for USA Gymnastics.  Olympic Trials Day 2 Men Competition take place at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.
6/21/08 – Photo by John Cheng for USA Gymnastics. Olympic Trials Day 2 Men Competition take place at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.

Given all the hype, politics, and drama surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it’s hard to believe that they are over and done with. For more Olympic madness, we’ll have to wait for the 2010 winter games in Vancouver and the 2012 summer games in London. In the meantime, however, we have a star to watch. Raj Bhavsar, an artistic gymnast described by the New York Times as “fiery,” won a bronze medal with the U.S. team in Beijing, becoming only the third Indian-American in history to medal at the Olympics. The previous two medalists were Mohini Bhardwaj (2004, silver medal, gymnastics) and Alexi Singh Grewal (1984, gold medal, cycling).

Bhavsar is just 28 years old. He was raised in Houston, Texas, and graduated in 2004 from Ohio State University. After being named an alternate for the U.S. team in 2004 and then again this year in 2008, he earned a place on the team when gymnast Paul Hamm was injured. His best events are considered to be rings, vault, parallel bars, and the pommel horse.



Anjula Acharia-Bath is the co-founder and chief executive officer of DesiHits.com, a multimedia website and cultural hub which caters to South Asians, “urban desis,” and fans of desi music. The site’s content includes music videos, podcasts, editorials, user generated shows, artist profiles, and celebrity interviews. DesiHits!, in partnership with Apple’s iTunes, is also an online hub for purchasing Bollywood and fusion music. In addition to being a music lover, Acharia-Bath is a shrewd entrepreneur who has aligned DesiHits! with numerous Silicon Valley venture capitalists. “Never has there been a more economically viable time to enter India,” she says, “with its burgeoning middle class and an affinity to western culture and trends. Fusion Bollywood is becoming an international phenomenon and Desi Hits! is defining the future of Desi pop culture by fusing the sounds from Hollywood to Bollywood.”

In 2008, Acharia-Bath partnered with Warner Music Group’s Atlantic Records to provide artists like Sean Paul, Estelle, T.I., Musiq Soulchild, and others a “desi experience” through webisode interviews. The platform has proved a huge success, with rapper and reggae singer Sean Kingston recording a special Bollywood version of his hit song, “Beautiful Girls.” “Bollywood Girls” was then remixed five times in a competition between DJ Suketu, The Bilz and Kashif, Nikhil Chanapa & DJ Nawed, and Tigerstyle. Now that’s bridging east and west.


Bobby Jindal is not the only Indian-American elected official to know. Far from it. In fact, in 2008, more Indian-American candidates than ever before ran for state and local offices across the United States, both for reelection and as first-time candidates. Special recognition goes to Ash Kalra, Swati Dandekar, Raj Goyle, Jay Goyal, and Nikki Randhawa Haley who won with over 50 percent of the vote in their respective cities or districts. We are also excited about the election of Kesha Ram to one of two State Representative seats in her district; Ram, just 22 years old, graduated this year from the University of Vermont.

• Amarpreet Dhaliwal (Calif.), elected Council Member, City of San Joaquin

• Ash Kalra (Calif.), elected Council Member, City of San Jose

• Susie V. Nagpal (Calif.), elected Council Member, City of Saratoga

• Kish Rajan (Calif.), elected Council Member, City of Walnut Creek

• Harpreet S. Sandhu (Calif.), elected Council Member, City of Richmond

• Jack Sidhu (Calif.). elected Council Member, City of Kerman

• Swati Dandekar (Iowa), elected State Senator, District 18

• Raj Goyle (Kansas), elected State Representative, District 87

• Jay Goyal (Ohio), elected State Representative, District 73

• Nikki Randhawa Haley (South Carolina), elected State Representative, District 87

• R.K. Ravi Sandill (Texas), elected Judge, 127th District Court

• Kesha Ram (Vermont), elected State Representative, District Chittendon 3-4

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009. 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.