Masala In Ur Dosa – A column addressing identity through the lens of a Telugu Indian-American in conversation with his South Asian peers.
After a hectic day in high school, comparing notes with classmates to understand derivatives and limits to traveling to various suburbs in central Massachusetts to play tennis, nothing grounded me more than resting my forehead on the window of a moving school bus listening to my favorite song. The melodious vocals of Sadhana Sargam on her award-winning song ‘Manasa’ from the Telugu movie ‘Munna’. Fast forward 10 years, I still find comfort listening to Desi tracks every morning on my way to work. Recently, I came across a mix on SoundCloud called “A Decade in Rewind: Tollywood Edition“. A mix of familiar Telugu classics I grew up with blended with hip hop vocals and beats by a name familiar to those in the desi dance circuit, SandiSpell aka Snigdha Nandipati. Having seen her name as the 2012 Scripps National Spelling Bee Champion, I knew I had to speak to her and find out how she was breathing new life into songs that of us grew up with.
My interviews on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ primarily focus on identity. What has been a constant amongst the different personalities I encounter is this – this generation finds its own unique way to express their South Asian Identity. For Snigdha, one such outlet of her identity was through her music. Like many, she grew up singing and continued to hone her craft at Yale through her campus acapella group. While she learned how to harmonize with others, dissect melodies and beats, she wanted to implement the same techniques to the Telugu classics she grew up with. In between recording covers and acapellas of Telugu songs, she found herself in a community that many young South Asian creatives find their roots – The Desi Dance Network Forums. Check out my interview with Snigdha Nandipati on ‘Masalainurdosa presents’ to hear about what her Telugu identity means to her, and how she expresses it through her music.
Prithvi Ganesh Mavuri, MD is an Internal Medicine physician in the Southeast region in the United States. However, his other passion lies in learning about South Asian languages and cultures.
The coronavirus pandemic is a story shared among so many different generations, nationalities, and ethnicities. Although this moment of crisis has physically separated us from our friends and family, it has also bound us all within a joint reality. And what better way to spend the extra time at home than by returning to an endearing glimpse into South Asian literature? To encourage solidarity despite self-isolation regulations, digital publishing house Juggernaut Books and the celebrated Hindustan Times have created the video project, One Story, One Nation.
India Currents’ very own writer, Raji Pillai, is featured in Part 10 of the readings, alongside South-Asian celebrities. Each has volunteered their time to read a section from Rabindranath Tagore’s classic, The Kabulliwallah.
One of Tagore’s most acclaimed literary works, the short story focuses on a young daughter’s love for an Afghan Kabulliwallah, a merchant who often made trips to Calcutta. Tagore’s heartwarming narrative, which demonstrates how love crosses all borders and circumstances, is fitting during these dividing times. Although I read Kabulliwallah amid a flight home from India a few years ago, I found that revisiting this short story made me appreciate the simplicities of self-isolation.
A screen separates me from my friends and teachers, but I still have my parents beside me — just how protagonist Mini has the love of her father and the Kabulliwallah despite everything. And it certainly did not hurt to hear this tale narrated by the likes of Shashi Tharoor, Aditi Mittal, Chetan Bhagat, and Barkha Dutt. Each and every one of these narrators have poured their heart into bringing Tagore’s characters to life, from the charming naiveté of a young Mini to the devoted affection of the merchant.
“Read more books during this lockdown. Read more books on humanity, because they will inspire you to become a better version of yourself,” said Sabyasachi Mukherjee, as he opened up his own reading of the short story. Hopefully, we can all learn to celebrate a sense of belonging and unanimity by listening to Kabulliwallah.
Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.
News that actor Hank Azaria will no longer voice the character of Apu on The Simpsons has been received as something of a shocker. Typically, online reactions have run the gamut from blaming cancel culture to reception of the announcement by Azaria on Slashfilm as a sea-change brought on by wokeness. No doubt, Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu(2017) had much to do with intensified scrutiny of the controversial character. Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, an Indian immigrant who holds a PhD and manages the Kwik-E-Mart, a convenience store, first appeared on the long-running animated show in 1990, soon after The Simpsons’ debut on American television the previous year. All along, he has been voiced by Azaria, a white actor, who affected a fake accent. After Azaria’s revelation on January 17, the character’s future on the program is unclear.
In Kondabolu’s documentary, he and other (mostly male) South Asian American actors speak about the grief Apu has caused them. Some mention the racial taunts they received when they were younger, Apu being the inspiration for those jibes. The actors also explain how the popularity of The Simpsons and its resident brown store-clerk may have affected their careers as many of the roles they were offered were of a stereotypical nature and required an accent. Given the dearth of South Asian representation on US television and in cinema while they were growing up, these actors note the comparative hypervisibility of Apu who left a lasting impression with his sing-song accent which was not even provided by someone of the same racial origins as the character. Further, the actors muse, in standing in for South Asians in America, the character also skewed how that ethnic community has been perceived by mainstream society.
But for Kondabolu the problem isn’t simply Apu. It’s that Apu just doesn’t do enough. He could be a business tycoon. Lauding the show, Kondabolu says of The Simpsons that its Apu problem could be sorted not by killing off the character, which would be “very lazy writing for such a brilliant show … [G]ive him some upward mobility. If you’re saying satire is built in reality, there’s a lot of South Asians who run convenience stores … However, they often end up owning the place … They become like little moguls.” In other words, Kondabolu believes that the Apu controversy can be taken care of by portraying the character as not working class and as a successful model minority.
It is true that most representations of South Asian clerks in American media have been lacking. Where are the stories of South Asian laborers who are undocumented in the United States? Are there TV shows about convenience store clerks who deal with armed robberies? What of these clerks’ family lives or of South Asian women who are also employed in such professions? While makers of televised and cinematic entertainment have relegated the South Asian clerk to a spectacle of buffoonery that may often employ aspects of brown-faced minstrelsy, those critical of such depictions have taken the view that they do not illustrate the South Asian American community as being respectably well placed economically. Kondabolu’s documentary would be very different if it took stock of the actuality of the lives of South Asian clerks rather than only obsess about the kind of media representation that makes the South Asian American community not look like moguls.
Apu has been on television for as long as I have lived in the United States. I sometimes thought about how that character might be who customers had in mind when they interacted with my dad and his colleagues at the 7-11 he worked at. And while where that store was located was relatively safe, I worried about my father returning home on his bicycle after he’d completed the graveyard shift. On the days when he didn’t have much to say, I knew that things at the store hadn’t gone well. Sometimes he’d reveal that he’d had words with a customer or that it had been an exhausting night. I was glad when he quit his job.
Azaria may no longer voice Apu and that stereotypical character’s presence on The Simpsons may well cease, but US media still has a long way to go in giving voice to those that make up its working class.
The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.
Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya.
Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?
Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony. The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.
Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir.
Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se. There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls! And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.
Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there?
Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well. There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical. His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!
Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race.
Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny. To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down. I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue. I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.
Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you?
Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.
Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis! It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.
Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?
Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily. It does need an editor, however.
Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?
Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.