Tag Archives: #desivoice

Letters to India Currents: 9/15/20

Dear Vandana Kumar,

I have been an avid reader of IC for several years. I have enjoyed your magazine and website until recently. Lately, your content has been disappointing, leaving me with a bitter taste. Every week I let it pass but felt like now I had to write to you.

I find your recent content very biased, leaning towards subjects of identity, race politics, and pushing only liberal agendas. you represent the Indian American community as if we all live in California and are trendy hipsters in a protest.

I was a teacher for many years and see the enthusiasm and future of young people, but I also see a lack of experience and understanding of life’s complexities. Even though your new writers like Srishti Prabha and Kanchan Naik are good writers, their understanding is very young. And you definitely do not feature different sides of issues.

I was very disappointed when in the first week of BLM protests IC came out with a solidarity message. You pushed and keep pushing similarities between the Black and Indian communities. Please get your facts rights!!

I believe in racial equality but I also believe in the success of the American dream. While the intentions were correct, this mass movement also has an extremist, communist bent that you have not reported, instead of glorifying them. Please read Khabar Magazine’s editorial by Parthir Parekh. In spite of a very democratic outlook, he addresses extremism in this movement and presents its perils like looting, threatening, violence, lack of tolerance, communism, and lack of diverse opinions.

As an Indian American who has worked hard had been rewarded with a good life in America, I do not want to side with your views! If this country was so bad, we would not have survived here and IC would not be in business.

As media, you should be a neutral place to exchange views, especially as a community online magazine. You or your staff can have personal views on this matter but should not promote them under the name of IC.

I understand with the election year things are hot but you are not a corporation unless you are funded by agencies asking you to present only leftist and racist points of view, in that case, you might be another sell-out.

I hope you can provide more balanced content. If not, I will sadly not be logging on anymore.

Sincerely,

Neelima Sheth

Atlanta, Ga

P.S. Being an immigrant has more complexities than just race. It is not so one dimensional.


If you would like your opinion or perspective expressed at India Currents, do not hesitate to contact [email protected] with a submission or note. We are open to all voices, only barring hate speech and misinformation. 

Emerging From My Corona Cocoon

Just like everyone else, I remember where I was when the COVID-19  lockdown was announced. It struck as the school year was growing to a close in India. Thanks to it, the school where I worked closed down prematurely, and boy, was I happy about it. Fate laughed in my face just a few days later when just about everything locked down, and I understood a weird thing about myself.

I had been wanting some days to myself, where I could stay home, and forget about work. It happened. I wanted to stay in and not go out, vegetate at home completely. That happened. I wanted to concentrate on my home and my family. That happened too.

An ideal situation, yes, but just one caveat – it was not on my terms. Fate was forcing me to have a holiday. Every person I talked to said the same thing. Most of us being average salaried employees with a little money in the bank to fall back upon, we finally had some time to rest up and have family time. But to a man and woman, we resented it. To us, ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.

By the end of Lockdown 3, I’d truly had it. I got exactly what I asked for, but because it was imposed on me, I was PO-ed. As a family, we had maintained a kind of guarded peace at home, but we all knew that we were nearing the end of our tethers.

I had wild dreams about what I’d do the instant lockdown lifted. Not exactly floating on pastel-colored clouds, laughing for no reason and blowing bubbles, but something of the kind that was more suited to an obese 50-year-old. Visiting the library, going out with like-minded friends to chat over coffee and pakodas, catching a movie with family, going clothes shopping, that kind of thing. You know, all the normal things people like to do that won’t break the bank.

Fate gave me the break I wanted. But the tab, when it came, was huge. Coming out of lockdown, nothing was normal, and I just didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go out, but go out where and do what? 

Meeting friends was out – nobody wanted to come to my house and nobody wanted me at theirs. I could shop for essentials, but where was the fun in buying atta and chili powder? Therapeutic shopping, where you buy what you don’t need with money you don’t have and suffer guilt pangs for days, was out because the malls weren’t open yet. Eating out was out … unless you wanted to picnic on the sidewalk – restaurants were only doing takeout. You couldn’t travel … heck, you couldn’t leave town because the city limits were closed.

I could go for a walk, but that would be just lame – like chewing on a carrot stick when you’ve got major cheesecake cravings. 

And then there was the psychological component. Fear was an overwhelming factor. I’d heard stories from my father about how, during the plague, they would vacate their house if they saw a dead rat. In the case of Corona, there wasn’t any overt sign at all. Any desire to meet anyone was overridden by the trepidation – were they symptomless carriers? Even if they were clean, who had they met?

Those were the insidious things about COVID – suspicion and misgiving. What if the person I’m talking to was carrying the virus? S/he just sniffed – was s/he sick? Was that a Corona sniff or generic? Why? You might give people heart attacks by just sneezing. 

 Ever since my childhood, I’ve always loved to ride in auto rickshaws. When we moved back to India, I had got back in my auto habit without missing a beat. Since I was too chicken to drive, I took autos everywhere to the extent that I became the patron saint of the ‘auto men’ at our street corner. But now with Corona dominating the landscape inside and out, it became an effort to commit to an auto ride. Yes, things that I’d taken for granted became painful decisions. 

When it came to food, it got weirder. The cooks, the deliverymen … and even the food – all were suspect. And, why was I paying the big bucks when I had all the ingredients at home and all the time in the world to cook it? It just felt wrong. Dang, I was becoming my mother!

So, where I had thought I couldn’t wait to get out, I was now afraid to leave the house. I wasn’t winning this game, I wasn’t even breaking even. Aargh, what was I to do?

That was when I got an invite … for a puja at a friend’s place! It was just perfect! I had a legitimate excuse to get out. I could actually meet people other than family. Also, though I’m not very religious, I believe in hedging my bets. It might not be a bad idea to work myself into His good books. Or Hers. And finally, I’d be eating someone else’s cooking – you just can’t refuse prasad, don’t you know?

Now came the preparations to step out. In India, by some association, silk and gold are related to prayer and religious observances in India and it is practically law that you must wear a silk sari to a religious ceremony. Who was I to question this hoary tradition … especially since I had a new silk sari with a newly stitched matching blouse that actually fit me? 

Dressing to go out took forever. I had always been quite at home in saris as I’d worn them since I was 18, but the two months of dressing down in pajama bottoms and tank tops had taken its toll. Draping the sari took 10 minutes longer than normal and it felt horribly uncomfortable. Wearing bangles or bracelets had been a pre-COVID habit too. I snapped on my watch and put on a bunch of gaily-colored bangles – and instantly felt like I was manacled. I put on a gold chain (remember the unwritten law?) and felt like a middle-aged street dog forced into a collar for the first time. As for when I put on some lipstick, I felt like a painted woman. It felt all wrong.

However, being made out of strong stuff, I sailed across the threshold all manacled and chained … only to have my husband call me back.

“Haven’t you forgotten something?” he asked. I had my purse, I had my handkerchief, I had some Tupperware in case of leftover prasad … what else did I need?

He held out a black cotton mask. I stared at it, full realization hitting me. Putting it on, I realized bitterly that I might as well have been wearing an old nightie. At least, I’d have been more comfortable.

A drive in an auto restored some of my mood. When I got there, however, I was greeted not by the usual tray with haldi, kumkum, and flowers, but by the lady of the house holding out hand sanitizer. The penetrating smell of the chemical didn’t vibe with the look and feel of puja. The place looked like a masquerade ball or a massive hold-up with everyone wearing masks. I couldn’t recognize most faces and blundered around until the puja began.

To me, pujas have always been a time for my mind to wander. After the first suklam baradaram vishnum, my mind took off as usual. It is hard to focus during a puja when there isn’t anything specific to focus on. Priests can say just about any shloka they want and get away with it as long as they are careful to insert some well-known ones in between. It may be pouring for hours, leaving everyone blaming global warming, while it is only the priest next door reciting the Varuna Japa shlokas for a Ganapathi puja. 

Then it was time for the unmasking … the eating, that is. The fare was simple, but delicious. As I tucked into the uppittu with coconut chutney and kesari baath, I finally felt at home. That was when I realized that it is the smallest things that make up normality – things like family and friends gathering for a meal, trading little jokes, laughing together. Meeting, catching up with each other. Taking selfies and pictures of unsuspecting people tucking into food. Laughing at silly things and sharing sad news. 

I came away, reassured. No matter what, Corona can never take that away from us.


Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana, USA, to Mysore, India, and inhabits a strange land somewhere in between the two. Having discovered sixteen years ago that writing was a good excuse to get out of doing chores, she still uses it.

Embracing the Abnormal

Embracing the Abnormal

A rather unusual situation 

culprits with no prior records

leaving only a trail of devastation! 

New victims captured each day,

punished differently than the other.

 

Anger, dismay, denial about the situation.

Authorities trying their best to handle.

 

Not knowing how to cope with the new adversity

but gradually accepting it, trying to make sense

of the world and lives falling apart.

Grappling to hang on to any support

pretending to have found an anchor but 

knowing it was just a precarious hold.

 

Lives altered forever, scars and wounds 

too deep, fractures probably never healing!

Those lucky to escape the captors’ cruel grips

knew freedom would never feel the same. 

Those who hadn’t been captured lived 

in perpetual fear of the captors! 

 

Life had come to a long pause

with no reset button, no answers, no comfort! 

The only way out was to Accept and 

Embrace the New Abnormal!!!


Anita R Mohan is a poet and freelance contributor from Fairfax, Virginia.

Finding Poetry as Sanctuary

Poetry/Song-writing came to me when I was around 16 years old. Until then, I had no taste or interest in the poems that I had to mandatorily read and memorize as a part of my school curriculum. At that time, the school was the only place where I got any exposure to poetry or writing. I was not the kind of boy who would bother to go out of his way to buy a novel or a book of poems.

However, when I did read poems in my school textbooks, I enjoyed reading the works of William Blake, George Cooper, and numerous poems which now float around in my mind only as faint images of reverberating words superimposed on top of the faces of my friends, teachers, and the places where I spent most of my childhood and teenage years.

Fast forward to 2019, and I found out that I had been writing for nine years now. I came to the conclusion one introspective evening after a recent move to San Francisco from Los Angeles, that a disparate amount of poems I had written all revolved around the broad themes of unrequited love, admiration of the lover, and just silly love songs. Sure, there was nothing wrong about having a consistent theme across your work. But I did feel that I was quite limited in the way I was repeating my experiences over and over again. It is strange that we choose to feel what we already know.

Until that point, I had thought that new life experiences were capable of enabling new channels of creative outlets. On the contrary, it was the opposite. It was, in fact, the conglomeration of beliefs, attitudes, personality, biases, and a myriad of factors that decided what one was actually capable of experiencing.


How many times does one need to fall in love before he can write about love with the utmost veracity? In clinical psychology, it is said that people high on Agreeableness tend to divide their lives into epochs dictated by the romantic relationships they have had at the time. Boy, was I agreeable! That was all that I was writing about. A psychologist may have recommended an assertiveness training for me, but instead, I just chose to diversify my writing style a bit.

I was lucky to have found a poetry group in the city through the Meetup app that year. I was blown away by the sheer magnitude of talent that was concentrated in a radius of 15 feet around me. These were people that I couldn’t have met anywhere else in the whole world. Hanging out with them had opened up new doors of perception and possibilities for me. Of course, it wasn’t apparent that I would associate with them in the very first meeting. Still, I gradually started to open up to this group of oddly passionate people who appreciated some of my eeriest poetries that would otherwise bring two likes for a friend list of 1500 people on my Facebook.

Now it is 2020 and right before the COVID lockdown, I was fortunate enough to become a rather regular member of this group called Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley which, hosts a poetry circle through video conferencing apps each Saturday.

Writing and reciting poetry has ever-changing meanings for each individual.

At times, poetry is a psychological toolkit that enables me to express my feelings in a way that others perceive as novel and a work of art. On some occasions, poetry becomes the irrefutable divine law of nature that each man inherits but of which loses the appreciation as his life progresses into taking upon an increasing amount of responsibilities.

At other times, poetry is how one could showcase their intellectual fitness and creativity to a member of the opposite gender that they’d like to woo. Poetry is also that friend who comes to sit down with you in solidarity when the world seems too chaotic or too orderly (in a dystopian way) as you look outside your apartment window and say, “Man! None of this makes sense!”

Poetry can be your very own self when you have successfully identified your being as an entity compartmentalized into several flavors manifested out of a hitchhiker’s diary describing his journey across the country.

Poetry can also be this:

The Paranoid

 

In a world with so many places to see,

I’ve never seen a tree that touches the sky.

Tangerines so high, invite me for a tea,

In a treehouse with nobody else but you and I.

 

And in a treehouse so green,

There are places where I’d like to be:

 

In your arms, in your eyes,

Watching you gaze, the paranoid.

 

In a country with so many people to meet,

I’ve never seen a man reading from a monocle.

Sidewalks so alone, hear them greet –

that lonesome band dressed in canonicals​.

 

And with a band so quiet,

There are places where I’d like to sleep:

 

In your arms, for a hundred years,

Hearing the sound of the paranoid.

 

At a clinic with so many beds to sweep,

I’ve never seen a bed with strangers on a feast

Nurses so shy, ignoring those who weep

They only smile to pacify the familiar beasts

 

And along the rooms so sterile,

There are tables you’d like to clean:

 

In your hands, a surgical knife

Watching you operate the paranoid.

*****

Regardless of how I conceptualized this abstract phenomenon of poetry, this group had made me feel that I wasn’t the only one trying to make sense out of the daily experiences and operations of the human ordeals and pleasures.

This article is part of the column – Poetry as Sanctuary – where we explore poetry as a means of expression for voices of the South Asian Diaspora. 


Vishal Vatnani is a man as ordinary as you can imagine. He is a 26-year-old data analyst working in San Francisco for a Fintech company. He enjoys writing poetry, playing guitar, reading self-help books, and slaving away his days working.

Former IC Intern Releases Anticipated Book

Shruti Swamy’s debut collection of stories A House is a Body is a highly anticipated volume, after the potential displayed in the publication of her stories in journals like the Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review Online among others. She is also a two-time winner of the O’ Henry Prize. It might interest our readers to know that Shruti worked as an intern at India Currents long before her fiction became widely known.

Short stories as a genre are more difficult to market than long fiction forms like the novel or even the non-fictional genre of the memoir. In the South Asian American literary archive, short story collections that have had a profound effect on audiences and changed our expectations forever include Bharati MukherjeeThe Middleman and Other Stories and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Interpreter of Maladies. More recently Neel Patel’s If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi also earned the distinction of becoming New York Times Book Review’s Editor’s Choice and NPR Best Book of the year. Swamy’s collection although firmly rooted in the tradition of diasporic South Asian American writing is charting new and unexplored territory.

What distinguishes Swamy’s collection is the persistent presence of trauma, loss, female vulnerability, and fulfillment in a transnational and transhistorical contexts.

While some stories like the last one in the collection “Night Garden,” invoke a very specific geographic landscape, others like “The Siege” and “Earthly Pleasures” seem to flow effortlessly between the genres of realism, mythology, and magical realism.

In “Earthly Pleasures” Swamy plays with the theme of unrequited love of a lonely female artist for a celebrity named Krishna, invoking the myth structuring the Bhakti tradition of India: Radha’s love for her divine and unattainable lover, Krishna. This unrequited love gets replayed in the medieval poet/ devotee Mira’s longing for Krishna which produces a flowering of her poetry. Similarly, Krishna is an earthly pleasure for Swamy’s protagonist Radhika and also her creative muse and obsession.

In “The Seige” Swamy weaves a story that resembles an Indian fable where an old queen is abandoned by her husband and loses her sons in battle.  This story may be read entirely as a fable, a throwback to an earlier pre-modern, feudal world of female victimhood, but it connects thematically to several other stories of spousal abandonment in contemporary North America. For example, “The Laughter Artist” and the title story “The House is a Body” as well as the final story “Night Garden” dwell on themes of husbands leaving their wives, sometimes on the abyss of despair and destruction. In both these stories, the husband or male partner who has left is a shadowy, indeterminate presence, but the effects of this abandonment are registered on the traumatized family.

In “The House is a Body,” the abandoned wife goes through the distracted motions of caring for a sick daughter whose skin is burning with fever, even as a wild California forest fire forces her to pack the detritus of her broken life and memories as she waits to get rescued, while almost succumbing to a desire to be destroyed by the fire.

In “Night Garden,” we witness a woman’s bond with her dog who protects her home from the attack of a cobra, holding steadfast to his task of guarding the home over the course of a night. The implicit comparison is evoked between the loyalty of the woman’s animal companion juxtaposed with the fickleness of her human partner who has abandoned her.

Swamy’s exploration of loss is not limited only to the loss of romantic love. In some stories, she touches on the loss of children or the loss of parents. In “Mourners,” a young infant is barely aware of the trauma of the loss of her mother which is being processed by her father and aunt. In “Didi,” in a rare moment of grasping his daughter’s fears, a father reveals to her the loss of her older brother in gestation. Even more unfathomable is the loss of a brother in “My Brother at the Station,” where a sister stalks her brother’s ghostly presence from the station to an apartment, only to realize that she could not cross the threshold and do her parents’ bidding and “beg him to return home.”  Sometimes, the elegiac quality of loss changes to the more jagged depiction of domestic violence registered on the bodies of women, in “Neighbors,” hidden by sense of shame and not acknowledged by other women even when revealed.

The most joyful story in this collection is “Wedding Season.” which is an unabashed celebration of a lesbian relationship between a South Asian woman and her white female partner who are attending a heterosexual wedding in India. Even though they have not come out to their families, they revel in their surreptitious intimacy interspersed among the wedding rituals.

Swamy is masterful in her use of spare prose to evoke the most harrowing psychological experiences. Her stories span a variety of styles and genres from realism to mythic representations. Reading her stories is akin to reading poetry or entering into a dream state. Her characters seem sometimes to be indistinguishable from story to story.  They are not sufficiently varied and sometimes seem unidimensional in their experiences as survivors of trauma. Swamy is skillful in depicting characters on the brink of psychological collapse, but she rarely provides any experiences that offset their abjectness. Perhaps in the future, we will see more of her satiric commentary and sly humor which is offered fleetingly in “Wedding Season.”

The India Currents team is filled with pride to see Shruti Swamy’s burgeoning career after her time with IC and is here to cultivate the next generation of writers. Reach out to [email protected] if you’d like to work or intern with India Currents!


Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

“Beti Bachao!” Ask South Asian American Women

Trigger Warning: this article discusses sexual assault, rape, and trauma. 

When 29-year-old Srishti Prabha said she was sexually assaulted by her boss at her first job, she said she did not file a complaint with human resources. She did not find a lawyer and contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were no courtroom dramas or scalding accusations.

Why? Because the only story that Prabha, like many other Indian American women who say they’ve suffered sexual harassment, can tell is a story of silence.

“I had to run. I didn’t understand that I could say something. I was uncomfortable,” said Srishti Prabha, Assistant Editor for India Currents, a community news website based in the Bay Area.

“Our generation didn’t have the language. Growing up, my parents didn’t understand the culture, so I had to understand these boundaries by myself,” Prabha said.

Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has provided survivors of sexual harassment and abuse with a platform to hold their abusers accountable. What began as a grassroots social media movement has brought thousands of sexual assault cases to light, penetrating nearly every sphere of public life.

Within the South Asian community in the U.S., however, women and activists say the #MeToo movement has a long way to go.

Childhood and Cultural Taboos 

Prabha traced her silence about sexual harassment in the workplace to the cultural taboos she encountered as a child. According to Prabha, topics like sexual assault and domestic violence were left unaddressed.

“Indian culture sometimes doesn’t permit …flaws. It’s a culture that wants you to have the perception that everything is perfect, your house is perfect, your children are perfect, to give the perception of prosperity as opposed to honesty,” Prabha said. “Growing up, I didn’t understand what was going on…I didn’t know if someone’s mom was being abused. It was never a topic of conversation.”

Sex is still an unspoken and taboo subject in many Indian American households, agrees Pramila Venkateswaran, a women’s studies professor at Nassau Community College in East Garden City, New York.

“Indian Americans don’t even want to address anything sexuality-related. It’s a sort of a fear,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It’s a taboo they carry from their socialization that they bring here, and that refusal to discuss sexuality is to protect and barricade the family.”

Prabha’s personal experiences point to broader issues within the South Asian community. When dialogue about sexual assault is stifled across gendered and generational boundaries, survivors can become isolated.

“Women often carry the burden of unpacking their traumas alone,” Prabha said.

Public Speech and Private Pain

Unfortunately, laws and public pronouncements often haven’t supported those who’ve taken a stand against sexual abuse.

At a candlelight vigil in Chennai, India, a young girl mourns the death of Jyothi Singh, who was gang-raped and tortured on a private bus in Delhi.

The harrowing 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,” a response to the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, was banned by the Indian government for fear of provoking “public disorder.” When that same rape case incited protests across the country, politician Abhijit Mukherjee called the women participating in candlelight vigils “highly painted and dented, no longer students” (“painted” denotes a woman who is sexually promiscuous). His sweeping generalizations about the protestors undermined their outcry against sexual assault.

Meanwhile, producers of the Bollywood film “PINK, which was designed to raise awareness of sexual assault, grappled with India’s Central Board of Film Certification before its release.  This movie’s arguably most pivotal scene, which discusses the kind of language that runs rampant in public discourse about rape, received multiple verbal cuts to block “abusive language against women.”

Although the film was permitted to release with a UA certificate, which means that children ages 12 and below can see the movie with parental permission, Bollywood critics found that the censorship removed impact from a movie dependent on its realism.

“The community feels more progressive than they actually are at times,” Prabha said. “They’ll say something, but their ideologies don’t match the words they speak.”

The Indian community’s reticence on sex reflects India’s inadequate, underfunded sex education curriculum. According to a 2015 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, sex education is banned in six major states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka for fear of aggrieving Indian values. A 2013 study published by the National Library of Medicine reported that less than half of students from Mumbai colleges received sex education from schools or parents.

Unfortunately, lack of education and information leaves room for rampant misinformation about sexual health, reproductive rights, and most notably, consent. Rather than shielding the younger generation from talking about, thinking about, and having sex, these restrictions only reinforce rape culture within the Indian community and its diaspora.

What Works — And How

So what does work to help women?

New York-based nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women, which assists South Asian immigrant victims of violence, aims to convert #MeToo outrage into constructive change.

According to Anusha Goossens, Sakhi’s sexual assault program manager, education and intergenerational dialogue are a crucial part of the solution. As someone who works with Indian American survivors on a daily basis, Goossens says abusers use a “lack of knowledge” to gain control over women.

“It’s not something we talk about with our children,” Goossens said. “Without discussing or learning about healthy relationships, these women become vulnerable to sexual assault and ongoing abuse.”

Sakhi offers a 24-hour confidential helpline, where a trained professional can listen to and record their experience. To prevent the continuation of this cycle of abuse, Sakhi crafts a detailed safety plan and connects its clients with external services, such as defense lawyers, financial support, and mental health counselors.

Following #MeToo’s explosion on social media, Sakhi has seen a “modest increase” in the number of sexual assault survivors contacting its hotline. While Goossens conceded that a majority of Sakhi’s clients are newer immigrants who are less aware of the movement, she pointed to what one writer called a “wave” of #MeToo second-generation Indian and Bangladeshi survivors in New York who are discussing rape culture:

In response to the movement, Sakhi is actively working on youth outreach, even creating a text hotline to make young people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. The text line was positively received by the nonprofit’s clientele and provided a necessary doorway toward intergenerational support –– the kind of support that was not available to Srishti Prabha almost 10 years ago.

The grassroots #MeToo movement has played a major role in dismantling a  power dynamic that protects rapists. Though it can be difficult to use given cultural differences, it’s a platform that allows South Asian American survivors to discuss their experiences and educate the public, a remarkable change.

Recently, the @AdivasiLivesMatter handle used #MeToo to discuss the marginalization and abuse of tribal women, including the suspension of a case of a 13-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by police after she became lost while attending a fair in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

“(As) someone who works with feminist advocacy groups, I was pretty happy when the #Metoo movement happened,” Venkateswaran said. “It disrupts fear. It disrupts shame. That’s the kind of thing that has to happen all over.”

But #MeToo doesn’t necessarily protect Indian American women after they expose their abusers. When actress Tanushree Dutta accused film veteran Ganesh Acharya of abuse and sexual harassment, she was reportedly blacklisted in the industry, while Acharya continued to produce blockbusters and engage with the Bollywood fraternity.

And Dutta is certainly not alone. In the South Asian community, women are frequently blamed and ostracized for being honest about their experiences.

“What is not happening in (South Asia) is laws that actually help these women,” Venkateswaran said. “If some middle-class woman comes and outs her abuser, she will just be replaced. She becomes dispensable. Does she have a union protecting her? Does she have a support system that holds her job?”

But Prabha sees progress.

“I’m happy that the next generation is so much better off than I am,” Prabha said. “I’m always learning from the people younger than me. Maybe they’ll have the tools to address this. We’re late, but I think we’re really changing for the better.

If you’re struggling with sexual harassment, abuse or violence, please contact:

The Domestic Violence Hotline:                                                                                                                                 Hotline: 1-800-799-7233                                                                                                                                                Website:  https://www.thehotline.org/help/

Sakhi For South Asian Women:                                                                                                                                   Helpline: 1 (212).868.6741 or text 1 (305) 697-2544                                                                                                      Email: [email protected]                                                                                                                                            Website: https://www.sakhi.org/ 

Maitri:                                                                                                                                                                                Helpline: 1-888-8MAITRI or 1-888-862-4874                                                                                                              Email: [email protected]                                                                                                                www.facebook.com/maitribayarea                                                                                                                                   Languages: English, South Asian languages (countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Fiji Islands, amongst others)

 


Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. This year, Kanchan was selected as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program. 

The piece was first published here.

Featured Image: Y2krohit / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Photo 1:  Archer Ztudios / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Purple Socks and Plums

Saturday mornings are such a thrill, as I resumed teaching my dance class on Zoom. It’s amazing what some music and movement can do for your soul. Treating yourself to the magic of it can catapult you from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Just that little “extra!”

As I was dancing, instructing and chatting, I stopped to share something with my class.

I was pushing through my sit-ups, I looked at my feet and saw my purple socks and it just…made me happy!  The color purple makes me happy. And there it was, on my feet, saying a hello, as I was doing what I cherish so deeply—dancing and sharing that passion with others.  It was a colorful flash of comfort and a reassurance that I’m not only capable of getting through this day but I’m capable of making this day awesome.

My 10-year-old son Indra and I have been running every other morning – waking at 6 am and then out the door at 6:30 am for our 5-mile adventure. I treasure that time with every bit of my soul. We talk, we share, we laugh, we wonder.  And then, right when we start the running portion, we diverge.

He needs to rest; I need to run. And we let it be. I started to think that I should be challenging him to keep it up with me, to be the drill sergeant I know I can be.  And then as I came around my third loop I saw him peacefully sitting there, waiting for me to do the next round. He was enjoying eating a plum off of a tree nearby. Plums off of a tree.

There it is. Notice your purple socks and find your plums. Relish them. Don’t diminish the significance they hold.

Life is so full of complexities from the chaos all around us. The peace is in the simplicities that will save us. The little things. If we search for them, connect with them, let them fill us with joy, then we will flourish in that day. And then each day will flourish into the next until we find ourselves on the other side of this mess, better and more cognizant than ever before. We are empowered with the most simple intricacies inside this great big complicated world. Purple socks and plums. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.


Sangini Majmudar Bedner is a former Miss India USA, Stanford University graduate and professional performer and choreographer.  She enjoys life in Portola Valley, CA with her husband, two sons, and a crazy farm of beloved animals. She also offers an ongoing Saturday morning Zoom aerobic dance class, which can be taken live at 9 am or with a recorded link. Email her for info!  

Help Your South Asian Community Respond to DV

We need to pay attention to domestic violence in the South Asian community.

Providing support, resources, and intervention to those experiencing abuse is incredibly necessary, but what do we need to do to get to the point where fewer and fewer South Asian people experience domestic abuse?

Working towards a culture where we begin to acknowledge and break down the hegemonic structures that have shaped our community requires active engagement from all of us, regardless of if our lives have been directly affected by domestic violence or not. In one of the few notable studies on the topic, survivors emphasized the need for community empowerment and education to address gender-based violence in South Asian communities.

This summer, Narika, in collaboration with researchers from Harvard, is conducting a study in order to change this status quo. By collecting this data, we will be able to communicate the prevalence and severity of this issue through statistics, which is essential in engaging the community. 

If you would like to participate in our ongoing research project and help us begin to make this change, you can take the anonymous five-minute survey here, and sign up for an anonymous 10-minute interview here. Participating will also enter you in a raffle for up to $100 in gift cards to a Black-owned business of your choice.

Data shows that South Asians experience domestic violence at higher rates than other groups in America. Information is skewed due to the reality of underreporting in our community –– the variety of social and cultural barriers that South Asian survivors face to even report their abuse, from immigration to familial stigma. 

In one study, 42% of the 160 women surveyed reported that they had been physically and/or sexually abused in some way by their current male partners in their lifetime; 36.9% reported having been victimized in the past year. However, only 11% of those South Asian women indicated receiving counseling support services for domestic abuse.

Organizations like Narika begin to fill this gap of support services by providing culturally-informed counseling and programming for South Asian women and families. But one of the most significant obstacles of this work is how in the dark it is: there is very little academic research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities, despite the unique barriers and situations this community faces. 

This lack of data and statistics to support the necessity of their work prevents us from understanding this issue completely and, by extension, doing all that we can in order to build a culture of empowerment and allyship to address domestic abuse at its root. 

If you have any questions, concerns, or would like to learn more about this work, please contact [email protected].

Bhargavi Garimella is a sophomore at Harvard College studying Neuroscience. This summer, she is interning at Narika where she is conducting research on gender-based violence in South Asian communities.

Diksha Basu: ‘Immigrant ExPat Is a Spectrum, Not a Binary’

“It was easy for my parents. They wanted to live in America when America was the clear choice, they wanted to get married when marriage was the only acceptable option, and then they wanted to get divorced right around when divorce became socially acceptable. The times rolled with them. Now there are no rules. I can do whatever I want, be whoever I want, and I don’t know if I want that freedom.”

– ‘Destination Wedding’ by Diksha Basu

Internationally bestselling author and actor, Diksha Basu is originally from New Delhi and currently based between New York City and Mumbai. She holds a BA in Economics from Cornell University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. In a phone interview, Neha Kirpal recently spoke with Basu about her experience writing about immigrants in a globalized world, the great Indian middle class, and using humor as a tool to explore contemporary India.

Diksha Basu

Neha Kirpal (NK): Your new book Destination Wedding is all about “family, careers, and belonging.” Tell us how you came up with the idea for the story.

Diksha Basu (DB): One of my points of inspiration was my own big wedding in New Delhi a few years ago, which was such a wonderful and mad experience with all my loved ones from all around the world for one week in one place where I had grown up. It was such a whirlwind in a way, and this book was a way for me to relive parts of that. I didn’t quite get to live in the moment, because the bride and the groom never really get to enjoy their wedding the way their guests do. This book gave me the chance to go back and experience it all over again. 

NK: Tell our readers about how you use humor as a tool to explore contemporary India.

DB: I live in Bombay most of the time. A lot about India can be so frustrating, and I think that if I didn’t write about it with humor, it might be easier to get angry or annoyed. That said, I feel a deep and great affection for the country and all my characters. And I think my humor comes from affection and never through mockery. I write about my characters with a big heart. I love my characters, cities, and settings. I’ve always felt like I’ve belonged in both India and America—I split my time now between New York and Mumbai. I understand now that home is an idea, not a place. My feeling of home comes from my family. That also allows for humor and comedy.  

NK: Your book The Windfall reportedly started off as a collection of short stories that you were writing during your master of fine arts (MFA) at Columbia University. How did the structure change to a novel? What elements of the story collection do you think remain in the final book?

DB: Yes, that’s right. The book started off as a collection of short stories that I was writing during my MFA and it slowly became a novel in the year and a half after I graduated. From the original story, hardly any of them remain. But that’s when I discovered my characters. I needed to write the stories in order to understand, know, and love my characters as deeply as I now do. But the structure of the novel changed completely.

NK: The Windfall is about the changing aspirations of an average Indian couple. How did you come up with the story?

DB: Before I started working on The Windfall, I was stuck in the void of writing about twenty-something women, because everyone says “write what you know.” Twenty-something women were just not interesting to me, and other writers had done it much better than I ever could anyway. I handed one of the first short stories from this collection very nervously to my professor Gary Shteyngart. Not a lot of people at Columbia were writing through humor but Gary came back to me a week later saying that he read it on a flight to China and found himself laughing out loud on the plane. I am so deeply indebted and forever grateful to Gary for reading and giving me the encouragement—and the permission, really—to write from the perspective of a middle-aged Indian man. His feedback gave me the confidence to keep writing these characters and to keep using humor as a tool to explore contemporary India. Later, I am forever grateful to my agent Adam Eaglin for reining in some of my attempts at humor. The book, I hope, is very different from a lot of the work coming out of the subcontinent right now. 

NK: How do you think your books speak to the current moment in India? What worlds, or collision of worlds, are they invoking?

DB: We live in a globalized world where the terms “immigrant” and “ex-pat” are quickly losing meaning. Indians in America no longer live afraid. They’re not on the peripheries, and non-Indians visiting or living in India are doing so for reasons other than tourism or volunteerism. There are a large number of immigrants that now defy definition and stereotype. There are people from all over the world who choose to live in countries different from those of their birth, but they still carry within themselves a sense of self-identity that isn’t necessarily tied to a nation or a race—and even if it is, it’s a source of confidence rather than a reason to apologize. 

There’s a global tongue emerging that goes beyond language. While parts of the world are also getting increasingly divided and frightening, some boundaries are also dissolving. The points of reference for a certain wealthy global elite are all the same. We live in the era of global citizens and that is a world that I really like to explore, which is what I do in my books. I know I’m making heavy generalizations here, and of course, I know there’s a worrying global refugee crisis on, there’s a lot of racism that the world is being forced to confront and contend with, and the luxuries of global citizenship feel so indulgent to speak about—but that is the world that I happen to write about. Fortunately, there’s room for all stories. Immigrant ex-pat is a spectrum, it’s not a binary.

NK: In a sense, your books bring out the plight of the great Indian middle class—neither rich nor poor. Please elaborate more on this “middle ground”, one that is “too confusing to explain to an outsider”.

DB: I write about a cross-section of society. My characters are never sitting in ivory towers. They live, breathe, and interact with the cacophony of the cities where it’s impossible to stay separate. The reason I like to write about and am currently living in a very urban Indian city like Bombay is that you have to be a part of the complicated fabric of the city—you can’t avoid it. The crossroads of property and wealth, the haves and the have-nots, the blurred line where the marginalized meet the mainstream—this is what I’m most drawn to in my work. There are so many windows through which one can look at the world, and this is the one that I choose. I love exploring how people from different worlds connect with each other, what humans have in common when there seems to be nothing at all in common. Do we surround ourselves with people who are mirrors or windows? How does that change how we see the world around us? I don’t have an answer for that. But it’s something I like to explore and keep coming back to in my work.

NK: One of the characters who is featured in both your books, Mrs. Ray, is a young widow who defies the stereotypes of widowhood. As someone independent and unconventional outside of social norms, what was your inspiration behind her character?

DB: Oh, I love Mrs. Ray! The idea of widowhood, and especially young widowhood, fascinates me. Women of Mrs. Ray generation in India are so often defined in terms of their relationships with other males—their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. What happens if you end up without any of those? Who are you? Who gets to define you? And what if it happens to you when you’re still young enough to have more years ahead of you than behind you? It’s almost as if Mrs. Ray has to keep it a secret that she is okay being widowed, that she’s happy living life alone, that she has her own sense of self that she doesn’t want to apologize for, and that she enjoys drinking whiskey!  

NK: Your father, Kaushik Basu, was India’s Chief Economic Advisor. You also studied economics at Cornell University. In a sense, was it inevitable for you to write books about Delhi’s explosion of extreme wealth?

DB: My father and I are very close. I’m very inspired by him when it comes to making things accessible. My father is a very technical economist. When he writes for newspapers or gives talks, he has the ability to engage people who have no background or interest in economics, and I’ve always admired his ability to do that. He’s an economist while also being a storyteller. Growing up, he often helped me with my math homework, and I developed a real love for math while studying it with him. He doesn’t allow his own breadth of knowledge to make it boring for others. So, I suppose I have grown up thinking about and discussing economics at home—but more on a micro-level, not on a macro level. So, I don’t know if the stories of my books are necessarily because of my conversations at home but definitely the fact that I am a writer is very much because of my parents who are also storytellers and readers. 

NK: Apart from being a prolific writer, you are also an occasional actor who has reportedly acted in two plays, a TV show titled Mumbai Calling, and a film called A Decent Arrangement. Does your acting help your writing, or the other way round?

DB: I love writing dialogue. I love the space between what people say and what they think they are saying and what they actually want to say. That space is where the stories are. In mainstream Bollywood, the stories are not in the space between the lines—and there’s no room for subtlety. I really like the television and film industry and I think the entrance of streaming networks like Netflix and Amazon are changing the kind of television and films being produced and consumed.

The Windfall is currently in pre-production with anonymous content in Los Angeles to be turned into a TV show, and I’ve also just signed a development deal with a very exciting team for Destination Wedding. I am going to play a more active role in the screenplay of Destination Wedding, because I think that’s a very obvious progression for me—combining both my career in acting and fiction.

Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world. 

What Would My Mother Say to Donald Trump?

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic began, I have been thinking of my mother. If ever there was a person who was ready for an epidemic, it was my mother. She was the FDA and the CDC combined. Her advice on health matters was prescient. Fearing cancer, she refused to use artificial colorings in food even though the FDA would not study and ban some for six decades. She suspected that fats like margarine, which were solid at room temperature, would stick inside you. When you consider that she was raising children in India in the nineteen-fifties you have to marvel at her audacity.  

Yet she was a middle-class woman with no college education. Not for lack of ambition, mind you, but because women of her generation were not even expected to finish high school. She had worked alongside Anglo Indian girls at the General Post Office in Mumbai during the Second World War however and felt nostalgic for her life as a working woman.

One of my earliest memories is of being taken to the family doctor because she thought one of my legs looked shorter than the other and suspected polio. We lived in the old part of Nagpur then, where stones were covered in saffron paint and worshipped as Gods. Where women wearing nine-yard saris carried offerings of oil to the temple to appease the goddess who had scourged their children with smallpox. The women did not know science, my mother said, so they catered to andhashraddha, blind belief. She was so wary of superstition that she refused to keep the vatasavitri fast she was expected to observe as a Hindu woman in order to obtain the same husband for the next seven incarnations. 

I can see her now, sitting on the doorstep and reading Dr. Spock’s Baby and Childcare, the only mother I knew to do so. Dr. Spock was her bible and her Bhagavad Gita. Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Jonas Salk were household names in our family.   

Sarita Sarvate’s mother

My mother was devoted to science because she lived in a world teetering on the edge of calamity. In his thirties, my father had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and had to move his family from Mumbai to his hometown of Nagpur in case he needed help from his brothers. My father’s plate and eating utensils were kept separate, he never hugged or kissed me, he lay in his cot, resting. His chest X-Rays were stored in a locked trunk and the word TB was never uttered in my earshot, yet I sensed death in the air. Streptomycin, the cure for tuberculosis, was either around the corner or had recently been invented, but not commonplace in India, I suspect. I recall being taken by an aunt to a series of TB-themed Bollywood movies, similar to the cancer movies of a later era in Hollywood. I would cry at the imminent death of the hero or the heroine in these movies, not realizing that the films allowed me much needed catharsis. 

Dangers lurked everywhere. Cholera, typhoid, and malaria were rampant. I had to drop out of preschool because of measles.

After my father recovered, my infant brother was taken ill with diphtheria in the middle of the night and carried to the hospital in a rickshaw by my mother. 

Upon her return, she made a bonfire in the yard and threw into it her clothes, including the best sari she had worn to the hospital. It was the only sure method of sterilization she knew, since alternatives like clothes washers and powerful detergents were not accessible to her.  

Health and hygiene were never far from my parent’s minds. So that when the Nagpur Improvement Trust began to develop land on the outskirts of town, my mother withdrew from her post office savings account the money she had saved from her job in Mumbai and made the down payment. Soon we moved to our new house with running water – cold, not hot – and a flush latrine and the quality of our life made a quantum leap. 

Slowly, India began to catch up with my mother’s ideas. Newly independent after one hundred and fifty years of British rule, the country aimed to build a public health system along the lines of Europe. Public health workers began to come to our door every month to ask if anyone had a fever and if the answer was yes, to offer pills. This was how malaria was eradicated in our region. Later, one of my aunts began working as a public health worker as well, distributing contraceptives to women in remote villages.  

Our community celebrated all of the Hindu rites and rituals while maintaining a firm belief in medicine and science. Thousands of cities and towns like mine thrived across the nation. No wonder then that India began to nurture one of the largest workforces trained in science, medicine, and engineering in the world.  

My mother is long gone from this earth. But I wonder what she would say if she learned that many citizens of the nation of Dr. Spock are denying vaccines and science today. What would she say if she discovered that there does not exist a nationwide public health infrastructure capable of coping with COVID-19 in Dr. Spock’s America? What would she say if she learned that not only is there no such system along the lines of what many European nations have and what India and other developing countries have always aspired to, but that many Americans do not even expect to have it? 

Would she laugh at the jokes many Indians are posting on social media about Americans belonging to the flat earth society?  

Or would she feel incredibly sad?   

Would she be shocked that the US has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths?

What would she say if she learned that in defiance of medical advice, the president of the nation of Dr. Spock and Dr. Salk refuses to wear a mask? That he has suggested that people should drink Lysol to cure COVID19?  Or that they should shine ultraviolet light on their inner organs?  

Would she curl her lips and ask if Donald Trump studied any science in school at all? 

Sarita Sarvate has written op-ed pieces for the Los Angeles Times, the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Baltimore Sun, and Salon.com among other publications and has written her Last Word column for India Currents for twenty-five years.  


Featured image is of Sarita Sarvate’s Parents. 

Six Yards of Draped Emotions

Until recently, traveling to India meant carrying a half-empty suitcase, so it could be packed with saris to be brought back to the US. But as the Indian immigrant population began to grow, the second suitcase was no longer necessary. We have gone global and so have our methods of expression. I can find any type of sari at a local shop near me, as I would in the sari shops lining the streets of Abids in Hyderabad.

The quintessential Indian drape, 6 yards of sheer fabric or the Sari, has been a trusted sakhi for all women of all ages and personalities. The word Sakhi comes from Sanskrit, meaning girlfriend – a friend with whom you shared your innermost secrets, a friend for life. South Asian women feel connected to their roots, in a foreign land, whenever we drape ourselves in a sari, our fond sakhi. We feel her embrace and forget our inhibitions. 

“Sari stores thrive in many Indian enclaves in America. Among the largest is India Sari Palace in New York, with a vast inventory from India, as well as Japan. Many in the Indian community wear mostly saris, and so there is a constant demand even in America. Just looking at the stores in ‘Little Indias’ across America indicates the sari market is thriving. In the 60s, many women were reluctant to wear saris in the US, afraid they would stand out. But in multicultural America…there seems to be a new pride in one’s roots.”, writes Lavina Melwani, “And why not? After all, there is quite as graceful as a sari.” 

The sari drape got revolutionized by Garden Vareli, a brand that used women who were modern, bold, and draped the sari in novel ways.

Garden Vareli’s marketing expert, Santosh Sood, emphasized, “We had a sari ad that celebrated the sexuality of women unabashedly, but without being vulgar. A woman does not always have to be somebody’s mother, daughter, wife or sister. She is she and that is her identity.” 

Thus began the sari revolution. It no longer was the attire of the homemaker or of the average middle class. It was a bold fashion statement. Navroze Dhondy of Garden Vareli, commented, “For the first time, it was a shift from the sari being perceived as boring, everyday wear without any sensuality to a smart, bold and sexy attire meant for the modern woman.”  

Princess Niloufer

But long before Garden Vareli, Princess Niloufer of Hyderabad and the daughters of Vijaylakshmi Pandit were refashioning the sari and making its presence known, globally. The sisters, Nayantara Sahgal and Rita Dar, after their graduation in the summer of 1947 from Wellesley College, went to Mexico on a visit and met the legendary painter and fashion icon, Frida Kahlo, and dressed her up in the traditional Indian attire.

Princess Niloufer, a Turkish princess, learnt to drape a sari when she got married to Prince Moazzam Jah, son of the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1931, and was always seen in a sari even when overseas. 

The sari today has become an expression of who the person is and of their style. Women are not draping them in just the traditional way but are experimenting with their drapes. Blouses are being replaced by Crop tops and fashionable blouses, t-shirts, and jackets. Belts are being worn to hold the pleats better and some saris also have a pocket for your cell phone. The sari, itself, is being draped over pants and skirts and isn’t necessarily worn with a matching blouse. 

The function of the sari has expanded beyond the function of the home. Women are not only walking and exercising in a sari but also running marathons.

But more importantly, there are Sari Sakhis all over the world – friends who share their love of saris and its utility. The sari connects, empowers, and gives voice to South Asian women, regardless of how far apart they may be.

Saree Speaks: A Revolution

Saree Speak Members: Yogita Pradip Hudekar (right), Sunayana Mundra (middle), Namita Arora (left)

Vini Tandon Keni, sari influencer and founder of the group, Saree Speak, has managed to start a sari revolution! Founded in April 2016, the group has 144,722 women of South Asian diaspora including many celebrities and movie stars like Kalpana Iyer, Anita Kanwal, Himani Shivpuri, Indira Krishnan, and the famous designer Anita Dongre. I spoke with Vini Tandon Keni to get more insight into the sari revolution:

AM: Other than your love for saris, what inspired you to start this group? 

VT: To encourage and make draping saris more acceptable and friendly to the younger sari wearer.

AM:  Being a member of this group, I know that you not only decide the theme of each month but also encourage members to share their personal stories and stories associated with each sari. Is this why the name Saree Speak was chosen or is there another reason as well? 

VT: Speak is the common name for all my groups. Another word for ‘voice’, another word for ‘share’. When you share you add to your joy or reduce your fear.

AM:  How do you inspire your members?

VT: We try to promote the unconventional styles that have come up, to add interest to the sari. Give it a variety, make it the fashion-forward.

Sari Stands

The sari has withstood the test of time, the pressures and struggles. It has fought to keep its place against the salwar kameez, trousers, jeans, capri, churidar, tights, and the palazzos, and became its own entity. And as Tandon says – every sari has a story. Just as we wear our scars, we women wear our saris, close to our hearts with pride and with joy. 

So we drape ourselves in six yards of fabric, layered with our emotions, identities, and voices. We remain wrapped in the warm embrace of our sakhi, our friend, our modern armor – our sari.

Anita R Mohan is a poet and writer based in Fairfax, Virginia.

Reckless Facebook Comments to Facing Trial

Megha Majumdar’s novel, A Burning, released on June 2 is a highly anticipated debut by an Indian American writer this year. Majumdar grew up in Kolkata, India, and then attended Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University where she pursued graduate studies in sociology. She is currently an editor with the online magazine Catapult.

I approached Majumdar’s novel with a bit of trepidation. Advance praise from acclaimed authors like Amitav Ghosh and Tommy Orange made me feel that perhaps my expectations had been primed to an unreasonable high which the experience of reading the book would not be able to fulfill.

However, this novel actually captured me from its opening pages and kept me in its spell till the end. Its appeal stems from its taut narrative structure resembling the plot of detective fiction or courtroom drama, albeit without the typical resolution of such popular genres. This novel’s purpose is not so much to uncover who committed a heinous act of terrorism but to expose the ways in which the Indian state has failed its most marginalized communities.

The novel unfolds through the point of view of its three major characters: Jivan a young Muslim woman who finds herself accused of terrorism on the basis of a thoughtless comment she writes on Facebook; Lovely, a member of the transgender Hijra community who takes English lessons from Jivan and aspires to become a film star; and PT Sir, a physical education teacher who was once a mentor for Jivan but who, in his quest for political power, quickly abandons any moral compunctions.

The two female characters’ narratives are offered in first person while PT Sir’s sections of the novel are rendered in the third person. This parallels the greater intimacy that readers are invited to forge with the two female characters.

In the very first chapter, we are informed through Jivan’s voice that a train has been torched at a station near her house. She sees the burning train but just rushes home to safety. In the shanty home that she occupies with her parents, she follows a Facebook thread on the train burning incident and writes the reckless comment accusing the police and the government of inaction towards the victims and equating them with terrorists. Her comment goes viral and soon she is accused of being friends with a well-known terrorist recruiter. She is arrested and becomes an inmate of a women’s prison. 

In the sections which follow in her voice, we hear of her family’s history of eviction from lands considered to be rich in minerals, the brutalization of her father by the police, the tenuous efforts to start a new life in Kolabagan driven by her searing ambition to step into the middle-class and rescue her parents from destitution. 

Like Jivan, Lovely, too, is struggling to enter middle-class, overcoming the obstacles of poverty and the ostracism she faces as a member of the transgender/intersex Hijra community.

While we have seen representations of Hijras in Indian fiction, Anjum in Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness being a notable example, Majumdar offers a fully developed and complex emotional life of Lovely. She faces constant humiliation but never loses faith in her ability as an actress. Yet, traditional expectations of patriarchal society prompt her to push away Azad, the love of her life, and drive him to a traditional marriage that will give him children, even though he had resisted the idea before.

PT Sir is already a member of the middle class, unlike the two other protagonists. But he aspires for more power and more of a sense of importance beyond the humble borders of a teacher’s life. His ambitions lead him to seek refuge in the culture of political sycophancy, paying obeisance to the nationalist party leader, carrying out petty acts of subterfuge, and gradually dispensing with the last vestiges of moral conscience.  

In depicting contemporary India under a neoliberal regime that on the one hand ushers in a consumerist urban culture, Majumdar is fearless in exposing its underbelly with its total disregard for the lives of the poor and the destitute, and the myriad ways in which the nation betrays them. To this, she adds an astute understanding of the role of social media platforms in exacerbating the dangers of disenfranchised citizens.

Everyone, including Jivan, can have a cellphone and a Facebook account, these platforms make her more vulnerable to becoming a target of social media outrage and scapegoating. Her impulsive comment on Facebook exposes her to being branded as a terrorist in the court of public opinion well before her actual trial. While social media provides Lovely the opportunity to disseminate her acting video and finally command the attention of a serious producer, it covertly censors her from expressing support for her friend Jivan, as the culture of fandom is fickle and aspiring stars have to carefully calibrate their personal and political comments to retain popularity. 

Social media is depicted as a source of power and currency, all other institutions of a democratic society seem to be crumbling. The media, the police, the justice system are all shown to be mired in corruption. In an era of beef lynchings, attacks on journalists, police brutality on students in various universities, and scapegoating of individuals as anti-national, there is an uncanny correspondence between the fictional and the real events.

Currently, mass protests against police brutality on minorities in the U.S instigate a fight for global criminal justice reform and support for Black Lives; this novel and its concerns resonate with dreams of justice by oppressed people across continents.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.


A Burning: by Megha Majumdar. Knopf, June, 2020.