He grew up near a cornfield in Illinois, one of the handful of brown or black kids in the neighborhood, took off to New York City at seventeen and never looked back. At the age of twenty-five, Ashok suffered a catastrophic, near-fatal brain hemorrhage which left him with epilepsy, distorted hearing, lifelong bisected blindness and many other complications.
His strong survival instincts and indomitable will have enabled him to face the challenges of relearning just about everything after his brain injury: from eating, to thinking, to speaking, to walking to even just seeing.
Ashok’s stroke and his miraculous recovery are recorded in his critically-acclaimed memoir, which has received praise from Pulitzer Prize luminary Jane Smiley, as well as global raves from Publisher’s Weekly, Harper’s Magazine and The Washington Post among others.
As a survivor, Ashok has become a proud brain injury rights advocate, serving on the board of the International Brain Injury Survivors Network and is a Subject Matter Expert (SME) for the Brain Injury Association of America. He is also a renowned public speaker, poet, and visual artist, and has had his work exhibited in galleries like Greenpoint Gallery and Exit Art New York.
Ashok sat down with Tom Dobbins Jr , the Justice and Peace Program Director at Catholic Charities, Archdiocese New York, to talk about his unique journey:
TD: Ashok – over your lifetime you have done many things besides surviving the explosion of your brain: you’ve written and published a memoir, you are an artist, a poet, an author, and an activist for inclusion across the board; of all of these identities, which of these resonates the most with you, and why?
AR: They are all equally important to me. I love the idea of creating my thoughts into existence.
TD: Your works often dive into two elements of your identity: race and disability, both of which are explored in your memoir. Why do you think this is?
AR: I suppose it is because these are two facets of my identity which are most visible to the world: my skin color and the permanent scar engraved on my skull. As a little brown boy raised in the Heartland – a Hindu Hick I like to say — I understood that my skin color was a conspicuous visibility, but it was more than just something to be seen – it was a crime. I would be at these all-white functions like county fairs and tractor-pulls, and it just seemed at the time that by going into their spaces, I was always invading ‘white’ territory, so as an invader, I was automatically committing a crime. And now, suffering the bisected blindness, brain injury, and other handicaps in a world of abled folks, I fit in even less, so the crime continues.
TD: How do these parts of your identity affect your life these days?
AR: Both stigmas – racism and disability discrimination – obviously still exist in society. Out of the two – my race is obviously the most discernible. On the other hand, my disabilities — fortunately or unfortunately – have the option of being invisible. After all, let’s face it – I can grow my hair to cover my scar. The only way I can cover the color of my skin is to put on a lot of clothing – and I have yet to don a Burqa.
TD: As a white male living in the United States, I know that my situation is quite different than a person of color. But as an Indian American, does your experience differ from that of other people of color?
AR: As many comments I received after the publication of my memoir point out, the story of the racism that is encountered in this country by Indian Americans is not one told as often as the racism encountered by other minorities like African Americans and those of the Latinx communities. Like my fellow men of color though, I too have had the experience of being stopped in high-end stores, accused of being a shoplifter, and living in New York City it hasn’t escaped my notice that it is still far more difficult for me to hail a cab than my white friends. And let’s be honest – when I grow a beard I’m not considered a hipster or lumberjack – I’m considered the guy who will bomb the airplane!
TD: Considering these obstacles – can you share with us some of the things you’ve done in your life to challenge these stereotypes?
AR: The best answer would be quite simply that I wrote my memoir, which tells the story of a young Hindu guy growing up in the Heartland only to have to face disability from a massive, life-changing brain bleed just in his twenties. I think discussing how the color of one’s skin crashes into the destruction of one’s brain is a story which has rarely been out there, and challenges what we know about the Indian American experience.
TD: By the way, it is so exciting to hear that your book is being made into a movie! How do you feel about all of this?
AR: It’s every author’s dream! Since it is the filmic Hollywood version of my memoir, it really is a unique story, except now instead of just being in print, it will be on the silver screen. Can’t stop wondering about which actor will play me though!
TD: So, the memoir has been published and a movie coming up – what other immediate projects does Ashok have up his sleeve?
AR: Proud to say I’ve been invited to appear at the renowned Curtea De Arges Poetry Festival in Romania, and I am so excited to be representing the communities both of Indian Americans and handicapped brain-injury survivors.
TD: As someone who is so active in the literary arts, how would you describe the difference in writing poetry and prose?
AR: If we are talking about poetry, we are talking about something that involves the interplay of rhythm with balance of sounds – whereas there in no rhythm required in prose. It is in the writing of poetry where I can best see my “Indianness” come into play. Poetry is musical – just like language from the subcontinent, where everything is set to melody – be it the sound of anklets, songs of Bollywood, or even the way our necks dance when we talk.
TD: On a final note: I just read a commentary about you from one of your fans in a Reddit forum on South Asian Writers. He said, “Ashok’s a fave of mine since he’s a writer from NYC who won’t stop effing with culture, race, and brain injury.” Thoughts?
AR: Love it!
Tom Dobbins Jr. is the Justice and Peace Program Director and an occasional blogger at Catholic Charities, Archdiocese New York, and the Producer of the weekly national social justice current events ‘JustLove’ on Sirius-XM’s Catholic Channel. He works in the field of International Justice and Peace Education, Interreligious Dialogue and Advocacy and “meets many amazing individuals who are working – in various ways – to bring an appreciation of cultural diversity and enlightenment to a world that desperately needs it.”
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents