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Publisher proud of the history and future of West Coast’s oldest Indian-American magazine

By Lisa Fernandez * lfernandez@mercurynews.com

Vandana Kumar was an arranged-marriage bride, lost her husband to cancer, has a gay cousin, knows techies who came to Silicon Valley on H-1B visas, is friends with Chinese “tiger moms,” and struggles through the college application process for her twin sons.

Vandana Kumar started India Currents magazine in 1987. The first issue was only 8 pages and included one of her mother-in-law’s recipes’

Since 1987, she and a team of writers have delved into all of those stories — and more — in the pages of India Currents, the oldest and largest Indian-American on the West Coast, which is celebrating its 25th year of publication this month.

“The things that touched my life found a home in India Currents,” said Kumar, the 48-year-old publisher.

And her own story — emigrated from the eastern Indian city of Jamshedpur — largely reflects the changing story of the Indian-American community throughout the Bay Area, now numbering about 215,000.

The magazine produced from an office park on Lundy Avenue in San Jose, employs six full-time employees and distributes 32,000 free copies, with readers all over the country.

India Currents

When it opened its doors in April 1987, the “magazine” was only eight pages and included a recipe for bhindi, or okra, by Kumar’s mother-in-law.

India Currents stays away from the internal political in-fighting in the South Asian community, and won’t touch geopolitical strife. Instead, the magazine’s first aim is to present information about mostly local cultural events. It’s a mission that was inspired by Kumar’s brother-in-law, Arvind Kumar, who attended an Indian festival in San Fransisco more than two decades ago and wanted to make it easier for others to know about events like it.

“This is the bible for Indian news,” said Mary Khan, director of Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, one of the magazine’s longtime advertisers. “The Indian weeklies are great for current news, but this, you have the whole month in your hand. The calender of events is extensive. Everyone goes to it to see what concerts are happening. All the teachers use it to advertise. And the articles are great, too.”

Vandana Kumar does enjoy a good debate, but keeps them mostly to a societal issues, and ones that have touched her life or the lives of her friends and family.

In the 19990s, the magazine wrote about the influx of professionals coming to the Silicon Valley to help fix the Y2K problem, and the educated Indian and Pakistani wives who struggled as they created new lives as stay-at-home mothers because they didn’t have the proper work visas.

“That was my sister, my brother, they came on those visas,” Kumar said.

In the 1980s, she published stories about homosexuality in the South Asian community — her cousin is gay. The magazine also wrote about domestic violence. Kumar received loads of hate mail and two death threats.

“People didn’t want to acknowledge that this happened in the Indian community,” Kumar said. “They wanted to know, ‘Don’t we have enough good things to share?'”

But to Kumar, sharing both the good and the bad is important. And there were some bad times. Kumar started the venture with financial support from her cousin and her late husband Rajiv Kumar, a computer engineer. For four years she operated without a profit. “Not a cent,” she said. Then, in 2008, times were tough for the magazine, as they were for most everyone during the global recession. Her staff took about a 10 percent pay cut. The magazine shrank. She put in some of her own money to keep India Currents afloat.

Today, though, Kumar said the magazine has resumed turning a profit.

Sonia Sweet Kumar, who is no relation, doesn’t really mind. A longtime reader who lives outside Chicago, Sweet Kumar said she was thrilled to be published for the first time in the magazine earlier this year. She wrote about being a strict “Chinese mother,” essentially a mother who believed that learning doesn’t have to be fun, the fun comes from mastering a skill.

“All the writing is relevant to anyone in the Indian community,” Sweet Kumar said. “Even though I’m not there, it has the finger on the pulse of what people are talking about.”

Vandana Kumar said she is blessed to have been able to spark those conversations and to immerse herself so deeply in her own community.

And her plans for the next 25 years?

Building connections with other ethnic communities, and passing the baton to the American-born generation of South Asian immigrants who she hopes will both read the magazine and become its next writers, tackling issues that are important to them.

“We have such a vibrant second generation,” Kumar said. “I know. I’m documenting their stories every day. Our children are becoming sports writers, theater activists and editors. I’m confident India Currents will have a home going forward.”

This article was written by Lisa Fernandez and originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury News on April 7, 2011.

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