The Cultured Traveler – A column exploring the many miles of what South Asia has to offer.
If you appreciate the vastness of the sea, boat rides, and heritage temples of India, then this place is for you. A place where you feel immersed in serenity one moment and the adventure in the next.
Okha is a small coastal town in the Dwarka district of Gujarat. It is surrounded by the sea on three sides and has a sandy beach on the Arabian Sea coast. BET Dwarka Island situated 3 km across a small creek from Okha port and reached by ferry, which was a memorable experience for me. For the about 20-minute journey, you only have to pay Rs 20 per person. If you want to hire a personal boat, you will have to shell out Rs 4000.
For me, amidst the clean blue sky, hovering seagulls, and the coos of birds, the soothing cool breeze was like a tranquilizer.
Indeed, Bet Dwarka is a magical, beautiful, untouched, and enchanting island. This is a place on the western coast of India where I get the opportunity to see both the sunrise and sunset from the ocean. It is a lifetime memory. The long stretch of the Bet Dwarka beach is perfect for a long walk. The best part was that I did not find a lot of commercial activities here and it might be because Bet Dwarka beach was the first in Gujarat that the Government earmarked for eco-tourism development.
The place derived its name from the ‘bhent’ or gift that Lord Krishna received at this place from his friend Sudama. The island is also called Shankhodhar as it is dotted with a huge number and variety of conch shells. Archaeological remains found under the sea suggest that there were settlements of the Harappan civilization from the Late Harappan Period or immediately after it, from the Indus Valley Civilization. It was an important shell-working center during the Harappan period. During the explorations in and around Bet Dwarka, a large number of antiquities of late Harappan period which include pottery, a seal, coins, etc, were found.
That is the reason Bet Dwarka has always stirred the curiosity of archaeologists. Probably because of the mythical claim that points that this place had been Lord Krishna’s original house in the yesteryears.
The Beauty of Nature
While getting to the jetty to board the boat, I saw people selling packets of bird feed. Not knowing why, I also bought some packets. And as soon as the boat left, seagulls flocked to the boat for the feed that’s in our hand. It’s was an incredible experience to see the gulls flying extremely low at such close range and even picking the feed from your palm. After getting down at the jetty, I walked for nearly 700 meters to reach the Lord Krishna temple. I saw hand-pulled trollies taking elderly persons to the temple. The main temple which closes at 12 noon, is believed to be built by Rukmini, wife of Lord Krishna. This is the place where Mirabai, the devotee of Krishna, disappeared at the feet of the Lord’s idol.
Story of Sudhama and His Gift
The main temple here is Sri Keshavrai Ji Temple. Interestingly, here the idol holds the shankha (conch) in an oblique position. The temple is like a palace, built in pink limestone and filled with carvings. Small shrines are built for every queen of Krishna. Rukmani who is believed to have carved the idol here is not found, instead, Satyabhama, the second wife of Krishna, is very prominent here.
Devotees offer ‘rice’ here, which reminds one of the legendary tale that tells how Sudama, a friend of Krishna, had bought him ‘rice’ as a gift.
When Sudama decided to seek Krishna’s help, to come out from his poverty, his wife packed him a handful of Poha to offer to the Lord. Sudama was hesitant about how to give his gift to Krishna. Krishna asked what gift his friend has brought for him. Sudama tried to hide it but Krishna took it and ate the Poha and offered it to his wife. Sudama returned without asking for help. But a surprise awaited him back home! Instead of his broken hut, there stood a palace and his wife and children were dressed in expensive clothes. That’s when he realized of Lord Krishna’s magical powers.
Apart from the main temple, there are various small shrines dedicated to Radha, Rukmani, Jambavati, Lakshmi-Narayan, Devki, Matsya form of Lord Vishnu, and many more. Hanuman Dandi temple of Bet Dwarka enshrines idols of Lord Hanuman and that of Makardhwaja – Hanuman’s son. According to myths, a drop of sweat from Hanuman Ji’s body was gulped by a fish who later delivered a son known by the name of Makardhwaja. Interestingly, the Bet Dwarka region has two Dargahs – Sidi Bawa Peer Dargah an Hajo Kirmil Dargah.
Mobile phones and cameras are not allowed inside the temple, so better leave either in the hotel or you will have to keep them in the lockers specially made for this purpose.
Suman Bajpaiis a freelance writer, journalist, editor, translator, traveler, and storyteller based in Delhi. She has written more than 10 books on different subjects and translated around 130 books from English to Hindi.
One of our seven beloved grandchildren asked the other day, “How do you say ‘reception’ in Indian?” She needed the information for her school paper, Growing up in a Multicultural Family.
A few months ago, another granddaughter had asked, “Has anyone in our family invented something?” for her high school paper.
The significance of Indian American heritage can be decoded through an understanding of “reason” and its limitations.
The renowned eighteenth-century philosopher, Immanuel Kant would say, “All knowledge flows from the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
The world continues to subscribe to the philosophy of Kant.
Science, six sigma, policies, laws & regulations, and the like are products of reason. America excels in the products of reason. Most Nobel prizes go to Americans and America is home to top-notch technologies, products, and services.
In spite of these incredible accomplishments, why then has America not been able to tackle racial disharmony for over a century?
The Thirteenth Amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery in 1865 and a host of newer laws, policies, rules, and regulations have been adopted since then, including the 1965 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.
Racism persists because the nation is limiting its pursuits to the products of reason, but the solution is not to be found there.
Swami Vivekananda was an Indian monk revered in his native land and widely respected in the United States. Asserts Vivekananda, “Indian thought dares to seek, and successfully finds, something higher than reason.”
Swami Vivekananda’s wisdom can be proved.
Intuition is immediate cognition without the benefit of the five senses and the rational mind. Perfect intuition translates into the capacity to discern truth from falsehood. We all have a certain level of intuition, but the accuracy is generally too low to be of any practical value.
How does one discover something higher than reason? Obviously, one cannot use reason itself for such an inquiry.
Seers have left behind clues in the form of discoveries over millennia that couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge, and in every case, the process used is meditation, known for thousands of years.
As an example, the four Vedas are the most ancient scriptures of humanity. Their knowledge and wisdom couldn’t have been sourced from previous knowledge as there was none. This is why they are referred to as “revealed” (Shruti).
Another example, physics realizes that the universe came into existence pursuant to a big bang moment 13.8 billion years ago when it was an incredibly small energy phase (10-33 cm in diameter), unbelievably hot and immensely dense. Physics realizes too that on the other side of the big bang, there was absolutely nothing, a void.
How did “nothing” transform into the energy phase of the big bang? No product of reason has an explanation, and the explanation they do have is fraught with inconsistencies and paradoxes.
Inspired by Indian wisdom, my friend and associate physician turned theoretical physicist, Jim Kowall found the answer: “Consciousness of the void created the universe”.
How did seers know that meditation is the route to progress? They cite their Guru as their source, but how did their Guru know it? If you keep going back, you will eventually run out of Gurus, and then the question is, where did the first sage get the knowledge?
This is where the inquiry comes to an end, and the belief in God exponentially increases.
Meditation also brings about a rise in internal excellence, inducing positive changes from within. And this hypothesis can be tested as internal excellence can be measured.
Internal excellence has nothing to do with race, religion, gender, political affiliation, or national origin.
A rise in internal excellence is accompanied by a rise in positive emotions (love, kindness, empathy, compassion) and a fall in negative emotions (anger, hatred, hostility, resentment, frustration, jealousy, anxiety, despair, fear, sorrow, and the like).
So, society needs to do meditation to bring about a rise in racial harmony and a fall in societal discord. Who would have thought?
The ancient contributions notwithstanding, science is the appropriate body of knowledge to use when the system fundamentals are well understood. When they are not, but measurements are available, data-driven methodologies such as six sigma are appropriate. When system fundamentals are not well understood and measurements are not available, then enhancing one’s focus of attention as with meditation, remains the only route to new discoveries. Take care though, discoveries made this way must nonetheless meet the rigor of logical scrutiny.
Remember, transcending reason may well produce new knowledge, but once produced, it is subject to all the constraints reason imposes on all knowledge.
This in a nutshell is the significance of Indian American heritage. American heritage provides the best products of reason, while Indian heritage suggests that transcending the bondage of reason is the only route to further progress and teaches how.
Indian American heritage has the capacity to make a substantial contribution toward a better and more peaceful nation and world. These ideas should be front-and-center in the conversations to further strengthen US-India strategic partnership.
Pradeep B. Deshpande is an Indian-American academic in America for fifty-five years. He has interacted with Prime Ministers Rajiv Gandhi and P. V. Narasimha Rao, a friend and associate of his late father in the freedom struggle.
Acknowledgments. This article is written with the blessings of H. H. Gurumahan, Founder, Universal Peace Foundation, Thirumoorthy Hills, Tamil Nadu, India.
Madhubani literally means ‘forests of honey’ and refers to paintings in a distinct style that captures viewers’ attention with their vibrancy. ‘Madhubani’, is a folk art handed down over thousands of years from the times of Ramayana. Tradition states that King Janak of Mithila commissioned artists to make paintings for the wedding of his daughter, Sita, to Lord Ram. The womenfolk of the village drew the paintings on the walls of their home as an illustration of their thoughts, hopes, and dreams.
With time, the paintings became a part of festivities and special events. It was unknown to the outside world until the massive Bihar earthquake of 1934. House walls had tumbled down, and the British colonial officer in Madhubani District, William G. Archer, inspecting the damage, ‘discovered’ the paintings on the newly exposed interior walls of homes. Archer was stunned by the beauty of the paintings and their similarities to the work of modern Western artists like Klee, Miro, and Picasso. Slowly and gradually, Madhubani paintings from Bihar, India, crossed the traditional boundaries and started reaching connoisseurs of art at the national as well as the international level.
Madhubani paintings, done in villages around the present town of Madhubani, were usually done on freshly plastered mud walls of huts. These paintings use two-dimensional imagery, and the colors used are derived from plants. Traditional themes generally revolve around Hindu deities like Krishna, Ram, Shiva, Durga, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. The paintings also depict natural objects, like the sun and moon, and religious plants, like tulsi (holy basil). Other motifs include scenes from the royal court and social events, apart from activities from daily life.
Madhubani is a unique folk art that is said to beckon the gods every morning who comes invisibly to the household to bless the members of the family and to bring prosperity. Hence my fascination with it!
About Bandiworks and Me
I’m a multi-disciplinary artist who enjoys engaging with folk art from across the world – with a special focus on India. The idea is to share with people the simplicity of these creative forms and my love for them – I find them so empowering. I design and conduct experiential workshops for all age groups, giving a contemporary bent to heritage Arts and Crafts.
At Bandiworks, one of the artforms we worked with extensively is ‘Madhubani’ of Bihar. We have adapted this folk art to create contemporary custom-made articles of use as well as curated paired experiences which introduce you to Madhubani in different settings. Be it along with the traditional food of Bihar, the Dashavatar rendition in Kathak, or the intricate folds of Origami. This juxtaposition makes for thought-provoking forms of expression and gives rise to unexpected conversations.
India Currents and Bandiworks Connects
Join me, in collaboration with India Currents, for a free LIVE Madhubani drawing workshop on March 31st at 6:30pm PDT and 9:30pm EDT.
We often hear that Indian rulers throughout history never invaded other countries – never established colonies in foreign lands. The above statements are made, no doubt, to extol the virtues of our Hindu/Buddhist civilization – its emphasis on high philosophy, a penchant for peace, and deep-rooted spiritual (as opposed to materialistic) values. History generally bears out the validity of these statements. There are, however, some very notable exceptions.
The earliest example of foreign invasion (to Lanka) comes from Ramayana, whose historicity is, at best, questionable. But we cannot deny that the ethos for foreign invasions clearly finds favor in Ramayana. Of course, gods like Rama are judged differently from mere mortals like us. Then, there is in a famous Bengali poem, the legend of Vijaysingha, a prince from Bengal, subjugating the same Lanka (a favorite whipping boy, it seems) and rechristened it Simhala. A similar legend, I am told, exists in Sri Lanka that Prince Vijay came from somewhere in India and conquered Lanka. The historicity of this conquest, I gather, has not gotten universal approval from established historians. However, reverence for his exploits have withstood the test of time, thereby indicating our support for such endeavors, quite at variance with the ethos of non-aggression outside our borders.
Moving down in time, and based on firmer historical evidence, we find the great Maurya Empire of Chandragupta, Bindusara, and Asoka (322 BCE to 232 BCE) extending in the northwest into what is now Afghanistan and Balochistan and into the borders of Persia (Iran). In 305 BCE, Chandragupta Maurya led a series of campaigns to capture the satrapies left behind by Alexander the Great when he returned westwards. Seleucus I Nicator fought to defend these territories. Both sides made peace in 303 BCE with a treaty that gave Chandragupta control of the regions he sought, while Seleucus was given 500 highly valued war elephants in exchange. A map of Chandragupta’s empire in 320 BC (Figure 1) indicates that it included the entire present-day Balochistan under Pakistan and extending up to the southeastern end of present-day Afghanistan, including Gandhara, Kandahar, and Kabul Valley.
King Asoka the Great made further additions to his empire in the northwest. A map of Asoka’s empire in 265 BCE (Figure 2) shows it to include entire present-day Afghanistan encroaching into the southeastern reaches of present-day Turkmenistan. Also, his empire expanded further across the Pakistani border in Balochistan into the eastern reaches of present-day Iran.
Thereafter, there is a mention of Hindu Shahis as rulers of Gandhara and Kabul Valley from 850 to 1026 CE. There is little mention of Hindu Shahis in Indian history about their origins. It appears that the dynasty was set up by a minister of the Kabul Shahi dynasty by usurping its existing ruler. The Hindu Shahis had a tenuous existence with the local Saffarids and Samanids. The Samanids captured Kabul around 900 CE, but the Hindu Shahis continued in the Gandhara till they were conquered by Mahmud of Ghazni.
Probably the most stunning examples of campaigns outside the traditional borders of India are the naval exploits of the Chola kings of South India, Raja Raja Chola (reigned 985-1014), and his son Rajendra Chola (reigned 1014-1044). Raja Raja Chola’s naval forces captured the northern part of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and also subjugated the Maldive Islands. His son Rajendra’s naval campaigns were even more impressive. He captured the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and brought the whole island of Ceylon under his control by imprisoning their king, Mahinda. In 1025 CE, Rajendra led Chola forces across the Indian Ocean and invaded the Srivijaya kingdom, attacking several places in Malaysia and Indonesia. This was surely a unique event in the annals of Indian history. The Cholas sacked Kadaram (the capital) and Pannai in Sumatra and Malaiyur in Indonesia. Rajendra also invaded Tambralinga, the Langkasuka Kingdom in modern Malaysia, and south Thailand. The Chola forces captured the last ruler of the Sailendra Dynasty, Sangrama Vijayatunggavarman. The Chola invasion engendered the end of the Srivajaya empire, whose maritime power declined under Chola attack. After this, the Cholas conquered large portions of Srivijaya Kingdom, including its ports of Ligor, Kedah, and Tumask (now Singapore). For the next century, Tamil trading companies from southern India dominated Southeast Asia. A map showing the Chola kingdom in 1030 CE is presented in Figure 3.
The Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s disastrous encounters with the Uzbeks in 1645-1647 should perhaps be mentioned. The Emperor was possibly driven by his dreams of recapturing the Mughals’ ancestral homelands in those parts. It was the only time in recorded history that an India-based power ventured across the Hindu Kush to annex a Central Asian territory. Shah Jahan himself moved to Kabul to oversee the operations and two of his sons, Murad and Aurungzeb were involved in various phases. The war ended in a status quo with the Hindu Kush remaining as the western border of the Mughal empire. The Mughals suffered heavy losses in the campaigns, both financially and in manpower, a lot of it due to severe weather conditions.
Finally, there was the Sikh empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780-1839 CE), which extended from Khyber Pass in the west to western Tibet in the east. Ranjit Singh had several encounters with the Afghans in the borders, starting from 1823 with the defeat of a large army of Yusufzai north of the Kabul River. The Battle of Jamrud and his march through Kabul in 1838, in cooperation with the colonial British army stationed in Sindh, became the last confrontation between the Sikhs led by him and the Afghans. It helped extend and establish the western boundaries of the Sikh Empire. In 1838, Ranjit Singh with his troops marched into Kabul to take part in the victory parade along with the British after restoring Shah Shoja to the Afghan throne at Kabul. The Maharaja’s general, Zorowar Singh, after successful campaigns to Ladakh, Gilgit, and Baltistan, marched into Tibet in 1841 at the head of a large army and fought successfully with the Chinese Qing forces. Within six months, he had conquered territory to the northwest of the Mayyum Pass. But then a strong Tibetan army descended down from Lhasa. He fought many a pitched action in the vicinity of Lake Manasarovar and was killed in the last one of these on December 12, 1841. A map showing the Sikh Empire from 1799 to 1849 is presented in Figure 4.
I contend that there are many more reasons for the relatively small number of incidences of Indian invasions beyond traditional borders other than our Hindu/Buddhist ethos. One principal reason could be that over the years, India, unlike China, has had few very powerful kings with large empires. It is self-evident that unless one’s kingdom reached the borders of India, the intervening territory had to be subjugated before venturing across the borders. Besides, the kings were kept busy fighting their neighboring kings as well as usurpers in their own kingdoms.
India’s geography – the high mountains in the north and seas around the peninsular south – there was a further deterrent to potential ambitions of Indian kings regarding campaigns beyond the borders. The high altitudes of the Himalayas and the very cold climates for much of the year were always formidable obstacles to overcome. And campaigns across the seas required significant development of naval technologies yet to come. It is perhaps no accident that the great European colonies of Britain, France, Holland, Portugal, and Spain in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, all sprouted after the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries with the advent of newer naval developments.
Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write.
Reena Kapoor’s debut book of poetry, Arrivals & Departures: Journeys in Poems makes this question even more relevant. Consider poetry a result of meditation, of thoughts, ideas, and memories that collect in the mind through observation. Reena grew up crisscrossing India as her father was a doctor in the Indian army. Her educational path is, like her poetry, quite diverse. She earned an undergraduate degree in Engineering from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, a Master’s from Northwestern University, and works as a software product leader in Silicon Valley. Kapoor’s debut poetry collection is thematically divided into sections interspersed with photographs she took. These images seamlessly connect her poetic utterance with passionate understanding. Recently I caught up with Reena Kapoor, a Bay Area resident, over email to pick her brains about her beautiful bouquet of poems and pictures.
IC: Arrivals & Departures is your debut poetry collection. What role did nostalgia play in putting this book together if any and how?
I am an immigrant and a traveler. And grew up as such – my father was a doctor in the Indian army and I grew up living all over India. In fact, I attended about 8 schools through high school, and call myself a “musafir” which is the Hindi/Urdu word for a traveler. Nostalgia plays a big role in my written word both due to my life circumstances and I guess to some extent life stage. Something about middle age and you start to see your life as it has been and how it’s brought you where you are. So looking back becomes much more natural vs. being younger where a solitary focus on the future is more apt and natural. My poems also express a “nostalgia” of sorts for what I don’t actually remember, ironically e.g., “koel” talks about the songbird that reminds me of childhood but the home is my parents’ current home which I did not grow up in but it still feels like mine…
IC:My reading of your collection introduced me to multiple themes, and a speaker addressing different voices. Can you talk about the various themes there are in your work, and how they interact with each other?
The themes in my work are multiple but they tie back to me, my life experiences and my take on life, and how to live a good one. A lot of what I say has to do with how I grew up, (what it was and I guess to some extent IS like) being a girl/ woman in India and then my own very personal attachments to people and interests and objects that hold enduring meaning for me.
IC: I quite like the interdisciplinary play of images and words, where sometimes the image is a poetic utterance itself. What was your process like in putting this unique book together? What do you want your audience to take away from it?
This is perhaps the hardest question for me – one that I get a lot of but one that I am pretty much at a loss to answer i.e., the “how” of writing my poems. The pen moves and I follow. I am led by an inner voice that I can’t turn away. When it arrives, I am compelled by words that spill out. I may polish or refine those words later but the initial and main body of the work almost creates itself. I guess it’s probably a given that I can’t “teach” poetry because the “how” of it is so elusive to me.
These poems have been “coming” to me for over a decade now and I finally found the quiet space to listen and put them down. But it was really my husband who pushed me to publish my work. I was plagued by the usual self-doubt that I guess many writers face – and I still do – as to who would be interested in my words or my ordinary life? The fact that even a few of my friends and loved ones have found some resonance in my poems has been one of my most precious gifts.
IC: You are not just a poet. With degrees from IIT, Northwestern, a keen interest in photography, theatre, and performance as well, did these other aspects of your creativity influence your writing, and if yes how did that come about?
Becoming an engineer was a practical and financial choice. I liked Math and Physics. And I came from a middle-class family in India where my parents emphasized the importance of being financially independent — especially for women. In those days in India, you could choose to be a doctor, or an engineer or a loser. So I ended up in IIT. I was always active in theatre and continued this pursuit through college and my early working years in the US. Photography came to me later with the iPhone 3…and the iPhone has continued to be my camera of choice. And Poetry came about the same time that I started capturing photos. I guess some latent creative impulses were clamoring for expression all along but I could only hear them once I felt a little more “settled”, a little more free, and in some ways liberated from my own expectations of “success”. It’s been a wonderful path and I am still loving every minute of it. My very first play “Art of the Possible” was played online recently and I am actively writing more theatre and literary pieces that will hopefully be produced soon.
IC: Every day before I sit to write, I like to read something that I love, irrespective of the genre. What inspires you to write?
The human condition. Nothing more or less. Why are we this way and what moves us and why? Finding happiness and meaning in the smallest of things is all there really is — yet it is also the human condition to chase so much else for naught; so much prestige, empty adulation, status, endless wealth yet most of which often leaves the traveler feeling alone and empty. Yet the chase becomes a life. Why? Eternal questions and I am not sure I will ever have answers. But the pursuit of such questions moves me and such learning is what I seek.
Dr. Manisha Sharma is a poet, fiction writer, and yoga teacher passionate about social issues in India. Her work is longlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, a finalist for the 2020 Cream City Review Fiction Contest, a semifinalist for the 2019 American Short(er) Fiction Contest. Her publications are in The Madison Review, The Common, Puerto Del Sol, The Bombay Review, and more. Currently, she is a lecturer in English and Yoga at two community colleges in Virginia and Ohio.
(Featured Image: Screenshot from CNBC coverage of the 2021 Inauguration)
I was pouring my coffee and almost spilled it when I heard Senator Amy Klobuchar’s words, “Our first African American, our first Asian American, our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris” waft from my TV. As nonchalantly as I had been watching the inauguration, that moment – those words violently ran through my body, as though all my ancestors were asking me to listen.
Kamala Devi Harris.
I was happy to hear of the Democratic shift in our Executive and Legislative branches of government and had voted accordingly, yet I remained skeptical. Skeptical if the words matched the vision.
I accepted Vice President Kamala Harris as a person of color, but I’m not sure why, I hadn’t rationalized the identities she presented. Her Indian-American identity was one she had disengaged from early in her career, rightfully so, only to reach out conveniently when she needed votes. I still voted for her, advocated for her. Not because of her Indian heritage but because of her qualifications, her recent policies, her passion, her willingness to adapt, change, and grow. She was a powerhouse and deserved a position that matched her abilities. This was the narrative I spun for myself and others.
But…it wasn’t until those words were uttered at the inauguration that I felt myself shudder. Shudder in disbelief. Shudder at the significance. Shudder at the thought of my connection to her.
A Lotus Goddess.
And there she was…like Lakshmi Devi, ready to sit upon her throne. Her purple garments, vibrant like the purple lotus. Rooted in America in the most American way – a child of immigrants from two spaces and places. I could not will that away and neither could she.
For so long, I denied seeing myself in Kamala in the interest of seeming impartial; to not be criticized for voting based on resemblance. I cannot deny it any longer. Our Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris is an Indian-American and I love her for it. I love myself for it. She will be a part of my history and I, hers.
Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.
Not a ray of hope, but a mountain of light emerged from the Kohinoor. A dazzling rock carved out from the Golconda mines. A mighty jewel for an emperor’s crown!
I steal a look at her chiseled profile, head bent over a book. Black lashes cast sweeping shadows. A twinkle of a tiny, but brilliant diamond in her nose. A glittering mustard seed. A diamond mined from the Kollur Golconda mines in Guntur district of Andhra. The mines that produced the legendary 100 carat diamond in the coffers of Babur, the founder of Mughal Empire. I touch the tousled hair splayed on my shoulder. The diamond gleams softly, reassuringly. My girl’s light may not be as lofty as a mountain but it warms my heart. Her limpid eyes are twin Manasarovar lakes in Mount Kailash. Her still waters are cool and sweet to quench my longing for life, born with an emotional acre of her own. Sunflowers, moonbeams and white diamonds bursting on rolling tides. A waxing, gibbous moon rising. The Pink City awakening to a fragrant deluge. My mother, warm and eager to hold her by my side. Her beauty summoned tears of joy. We laughed through our tears. She was here. Our own bundle of perfection. Made of sugar, almonds, makhanas, moonstones, tender secrets, clarified butter, cardamom, laughter, white clouds, musk and iridescent peacock feathers.
Today she stands tall and lithe, with a delicate bone structure. Mango-bark tresses gleam on her shoulders. She curls them around her face, delighted in the effect. I smile. She twirls a silky strand on her finger, sifts her thoughts through a sieve of memory. I love the parts of her that are familiar. The unfamiliar aspects of her aptitude intrigue me. Melodies speak to her, her sense of style, her attention to detail. Simple pleasures of baking a perfect pastry. A shriek of delight at a “pun” unintended. Her competitive spirit in chess, golf and scrabble. “I take after my nani” she sighs in relief, when she surveys a well made bed, a gleaming kitchen, a tidy home. Different from my hurly burly ways. I thank my sweet mother as her gentle goodness gleams in the brilliant facets of my daughter’s soul. Together they shine brighter than the Kohinoor. An inimitable quality. Soft, supple, strong. Focused. Minimalists, both. Comfortable in vintage jeans, a well-cut soft blouse, small hoops. Her waif-like face, huge eyes and an aura of effortless beauty makes heads turn. My mother was also stopped in her tracks. Her regal bearing still inspires awe. They do not belong to a tribe. They have agency. Their combined Myrrh envelops me. She ties and unties the knots in her hair and heart. Her lustrous eyes search for a safe place. A garden to call home. Where her moonflowers will take root and grow.
She has a hint of “his mother”, in her knotted brow but lacks in worldly ways. She does not gesture with her eyes. Nor engages in endless banter with the motley multitude. The world wants to engage her in conversation. She looks up from her inner reverie, and politely responds to mundane questions: When will the flight take off? Are you traveling alone? What are you reading? She has her wits about her, to evade personal intrusion. She is good at concocting “travel identities”. My mother-in-law never even lifted eyes from her knitting, when we drove from Jaipur to Agra. But my moonbeam loves to go places. They avidly absorb history, art, culture, museums, gardens. This COVID lockdown has doused our wanderlust. We can’t fly to be with her ‘nani’, but we walk. We reminisce. We read, sing, paint. Tell stories.
Monita Sonihas one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India, and a heart steeped in humanity. Monita has published many poems, essays and two books, My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.
(Featured Image: Amulet for the protection of pregnant women and newborn children. Collected in Kochi, Kerala, India. Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Spanish, Hebrew square script)
Hanukkah, celebrated by the Jewish community, resonates very closely with Diwali, the Festival of Lights celebrated by Indics around the world. Triumph over darkness & pursuit of knowledge over ignorance. Hanukkah observance is starting today, December 10th, and will continue for 9 nights.
At India Currents, we celebrate diversity and inclusion, we’re marking the occasion with a piece on Jewish history from India. Jewish people in India and how their objects traveled around the world chronicle a sense of solidarity between India and Israel. We see it manifesting in friendship between the diaspora in California! We’ve come a long way. Scroll to the bottom to see the video of the Commonwealth SF event on this topic moderated by IC Ambassador, Somanjana Chatterjee.
Since becoming part of the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010, The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life has embarked in a multi-year project aimed at unveiling its extensive holdings that document the history of the Jewish community in Kerala, South India, one of the oldest in the world. The collection includes over 1500 items, which are being catalogued, digitally photographed, and displayed in rotating exhibitions.
Thanks to a dynamic collecting campaign initiated in 1967 by the late Seymour Fromer (1922-2009), in conjunction with Rabbi Bernard Kimmel (1922-1991) and scores of volunteers, The Magnes became one of the world’s most extensive repositories of materials about the Jews of Southern India, taking on an important role in the preservation of their culture alongside the historic Jewish sites in the State of Kerala, as well as national and private collections in Israel, where most of the Kerala Jews settled after the founding of the State in 1948.
These efforts are by no means the only connection between Kerala and Berkeley. David Mandelbaum (1911-1987), Professor of Anthropology at UC Berkeley (1946-1978), visited Kerala in 1937 and published a seminal scholarly article about its Jewish community two years later. Walter Fischel (1902-1973), Professor of Semitic Languages and Literature at UC Berkeley (1945-1970) and an authority on the history and culture of the Jewish communities in India, was the only North American scholar invited by the State of Kerala to take part in the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Paradesi synagogue in 1968.
The complete collection housed at The Magnes includes hundreds of ritual objects, textiles, photographs, archival documents, books, manuscripts, liturgical texts, illustrated ketubbot (Jewish marriage contracts), and amulets in Hebrew, Aramaic, Malayalam, Judeo-Spanish, and English. These materials constitute an invaluable source of information on the Kerala Jewish community and its deep connections with India’s society and cultures while also reflecting the global Jewish Diaspora across India, the Middle East, and Europe. Among its most notable items are the Torah Ark from the Tekkumbhagam synagogue in Mattancherry, Kochi, an extremely rare amulet on parchment designed to protect newborn children as well as women in childbirth, and the diaries of Abraham Barak Salem (1882–1967), a lawyer and politician active in the causes of Indian independence and Zionism, and one of the most prominent Cochin Jews of the twentieth century, which provide a vivid account of Jewish life in Kochi throughout the 20th century.
This project builds on years of curatorial work devoted to assessing and documenting the holdings of The Magnes, in collaboration with experts in Israel and the US. Its aim is to place these important holdings of The Magnes on the global map that historically connects Kerala, Israel, and Berkeley, inaugurating new season of research engagement with the scholarly community at UC Berkeley and beyond, and highlighting an important intersection between Jewish and Asian Studies.
Dr. Francesco Spagnolo is an Associate Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley and the Curator, of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life.
Making The Mosaic – A column that dips into the disparate, diverse palette of our communities to paint inclusively on the vast canvas of the Bay Area by utilizing Heritage Arts.
In 2016, Mosaic Silicon Valley commissioned their first two artists – Indian folk dance artist Srividya Eashwar and Mexican Folklorico artist Arturo Magana – to come up with two minutes of an informed, performative collaboration between their cultures. The mission was to bring their audiences together, to build a connected community – as diverse in the audience as on stage.
Srividya, artistic director of Xpressions Dance first encountered Arturo’s team rehearsing in their studio shouting out the “agrito” and stomping their feet to an infectious rhythm. She recollects, “I looked at my dancers and saw the concerned look on their faces as they feared about how they were ever going to dance barefoot next to a group that dances in shoes with nails in them?
But, “as soon as we started working together, we found that common thread,” says Arturo Magana, artistic director of Ensamble Folclórico Colibrí. It was fascinating to see how the two teased out a common rhythm – Srividya kept up the beat with her dandiya sticks to Arturo’s percussive feet.
Weeks later, I remember the thunder of dancing feet and the loud music as I approached the rehearsal space, feeling nervous about finding a stage that could accommodate these two large cultures. I was humbled by the enormity of the experience. Something real was taking shape from an idea born out of an instinct to stem the miasma of divisive forces spreading throughout the U.S. in 2016. “RaasLorico” was part of Mosaic America, an event that drew hundreds in Marin and Santa Clara counties.
The idea behind bringing different arts together is simple: It is to build a sense of Belonging. While all of us appreciate the diversity in Silicon Valley, we all lead segregated lives, not everybody is included in the same way. Economic opportunity has made us impervious to history, the pursuit of building a better home has blinded us to historic struggles that literally handed us that opportunity on a platter.
We see attractive buildings but don’t understand that they are built on Native ground; we see the reticence of Japanese-origin Americans but may not understand that some have been marked by internment; we see successful brown farmers but do not realize that they are “Mexican Hindus.” Each of us belongs to our own tile but we need to now build a Mosaic from our tiles that affirms each identity while confirming each of us as Americans.
An effective way to pave the path is via the Arts, using culture as a way to organically commune with one another and build familiarity and friendship. Mosaic Silicon Valley, which I Co-Founded with the help of Usha Srinivasan, purposefully and deliberately chooses cultures, representative artists, and venues. The audience and artists are hyperlocal. The lineup for a museum might be influenced by the exhibits on display. A commissioned work is typically a deep-dive into local history. Each event is a work in progress, a dialogue in the ongoing conversation towards belonging.
So how did Srividya and Arturo converse through their dances? Watch below!
Have you any cultural experiences you would like to share? Please write in!
Priya Das is a writer, dancer, and co-founder of Mosaic Silicon Valley. She is fascinated by the intersections between history, culture, convention, traditions, and time.
The answer is NO if “normal” means “status quo ante” or going back to what we were before. The answer is neither disappointing nor a surprise. It is absurd to expect something to stay standstill in an endlessly rotating planet called Earth which is somersaulting in an immeasurably vast universe. Our impatience, however, in waiting for the dreadful pandemic to end is indisputably natural. Sure enough, It will end because nothing lasts forever.
So what will post-pandemic pictures unfold to our weary eyes?
We have to watch what follows with cautious optimism. Jumping off the hell is not synonymous with plunging in heaven. The spectrum of the post-pandemic period will be interspersed with new challenges testing our prophetic prudence. Have we mastered our learned lessons or will our fickle memory sequester it in oblivion? If we are intelligent enough, it will prepare us for the future. For the sake of brevity and expediency, let us settle our hopes and fears in two classes.
WHAT WE HOPE FOR:
We hope to have surmised that we are truly mortals who have learned that death does not always visit us in small and scattered incidents. It may as well raid us in a sweeping, devastating way and compel us to feel like helpless prey. As we dreadfully watched the steep rise in brutal mortality caused by the pandemic, science also told us that such catastrophes are not unprecedented.
We have been frequented by episodes of smallpox, polio, plague, cholera, Hong Kong and Spanish flu, and such disasters of diseases propounded by microbes. We feel like running deers chased by a terrifying tiger close behind. The pandemic we are facing is neither the first one nor the last one. A second pandemic could well be preparing itself, waiting for its opportune time. They may be unpredictable but chronologically sequenced with the passage of time.
We hopefully are better prepared each time, cautiously cognizant for the world. We have to communicate faster than the velocity of the worms and combat by a joint endeavor. This is the only way to curtail our mortality imminent upon a visit by unanticipated invaders. Pointing accusatory fingers at who started this microbial massacre will only amputate our aiding arms. United we stand, Divided we fall.
“Let us hang in together, or indeed each one of us will hang separately,” as most prophetically pronounced by Benjamin Franklin.
A bacterial war will be won only by sound teamwork unifying the whole world as a single team. By not learning this lesson this time, we made a serious mistake of creating Divided Countries of the World and paid an exorbitant price for it. History has a pattern of repeating itself unless we are vigilantly watching with a discerning eye.
What we hope not:
We hope not that this pernicious pandemic leaves any sequelae behind. Sequela is a medical term used for complications that emerge long after the disease disappears. This infection is new to us and therefore, we are not completely knowledgeable about the course it may run. We will have to combat all complications as they come.
Not only the physical but also the psychological damage that the pandemic can leave behind may need to be faced factually. Our particular concern should be centered around our children who have painfully grown through a period of sustained trauma and deprivations.
I met a young man who passed his childhood in a war zone. Years later, he wakes up screaming at night when hearing an ambulance pass by. Children, in general, may be equipped with greater immunity against the disease but they are also more prone to retain a sustained memory of a mental trauma that they were exposed to. No math can predict the extent of the aftermath. It is essential to remember this aspect because children of today will be the deciding fate of tomorrow.
I am also concerned that too many stream sessions and loss of interpersonal interactions may lead us to subordinate the value of human touch and direct encounters. To deal with peoples’ images rather than people themselves can push us downstream fostering a phobia for live human interactions. Our emotional and physical closeness to each other is the very bulwark on which we sustain. Let us not be unmindful that we need each other to survive and thrive.
“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing, “ said T.S. Elliot.
The social, economic, and emotional impact of this catastrophe should not be underestimated either. Depression, suicidal tendencies, self-effacing and destructive patterns of behavior, and horrors of hooliganism may surface much to our dismay.
Finally, we hope this tragedy does not drive us away from God. God may not protect our Temples and Churches but the secret of our love and happiness lies in God hidden in our hearts. We keep on hoping because Hope is nothing but the constancy of faith. Most faiths have accepted and established a parent-child relationship with God. The more we are disappointed, the more we turn to Him until we are hale and healed. The course of our actions will let us see who we are and who we are not. Our deepest compassion for the bereaved families should never fade.
Peace! Peace!! Peace!
Bhagirath Majmudar, M.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Pathology and Gynecology-Obstetrics at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. Additionally, he is a poet, playwright, Sanskrit Visharada and Jagannath Sanskrit Scholar. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Mainstream South Asian American diasporic fiction focuses mostly on the post-1965 generation of immigrants, beneficiaries of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished national origins quota and facilitated the arrival of highly skilled workers from India and other Asian countries to help the U.S.
Yet the history of immigration from India, China, and Japan to the U.S goes back much further to the early years of the twentieth century, at least, when many Indians, particularly Sikhs from the state of Punjab arrived in California to work in the logging and farming industries. Although historians like Karen Leonard and Ronald Takaki among others have documented this early history of Asian immigration, very few fiction writers have tapped into this rich history for their fictional explorations. Rishi Reddi breaks new ground by undertaking this ambitious project in Passage West.
The novel follows a group of Sikh men, particularly two friends Ram and Karak from 1914 to 1974. The novel begins with the death of Karak and Ram’s preparation of a eulogy which provides a narrative flashback into the life of his friend. The early part of the novel sets up the geographical landscape of Imperial Valley, California, where the two friends find themselves after stints in the British army, time in Hong Kong, and a brief experience in the logging industry in Oregon, for Ram.
Readers are gradually introduced to tumultuous events sweeping through the world, the growing farming community in the Imperial Valley consisting of Sikh and Japanese farmers, the restrictions to land ownership and citizenship rights, the inability for Sikh farmworkers to bring their families with them leading to the growth of bachelor communities, the growing racial hostility, and violence against Asians in the U.S, expressing itself in infamous incidents like Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that carried passengers who were British subjects from India and who were denied landing rights in Vancouver, Canada, which was also a British colony and were forced to return to India.
We also notice the growth of revolutionary politics with the rising influence of the Ghadhar Party, which consisted of expatriate Indians who raised funds to support armed anti-colonial resistance against the British, going so far as to support Germany during World War 1.
The emotional core of the novel resides in the compelling description of two forbidden love stories. Both Karak and Ram develop relationships with Mexican women who they meet in the farming community. In spite of the anti-miscegenation laws, religious and linguistic differences, Karak marries Rosa and starts a new family and life with her. Ram, on the other hand, is attracted to Rosa’s cousin Adela but feels torn by his loyalty to his wife, Padma, and the son born out of their brief union. Ram and Padma at the beginning of the novel are deeply in love with each other, but as vagaries of their lives and the cruel immigration laws unfold, their ties gradually attenuate.
The racist immigration system is rendered most visible in their harrowing separation. At a more public level, we see the passage of Alien Land laws that restrict land ownership by non-white races, forcing many farmers to become internal refugees looking for land in other states or underpaid employees of farming corporations. Even more poignant is the depiction of Sikh and Japanese soldiers joining the U.S. Army in the First World War, being lured to this task by the promise of citizenship. Yet, in spite of their service, they are denied recognition and dignity for their brave service. Reddi provides us glimpses of the losses faced in the trench warfare as well as the deadly attack of the Spanish influenza of 1918 which claims the life of Amarjeet’s best friend, the Japanese American Harry Moriyama.
The most brutal rendition of racism is offered in Reddi’s depiction of the sustained attempts by agricultural corporations to exploit the Sikh farmers, not having the right of land ownership, by cheating them of their harvests. This results in the climactic episode in the novel which leads to a murder, the near lynching of a Sikh man, and the long-term effects of this traumatic event in Ram’s ability to return to India.
Reddi’s novel is the product of sustained archival research. She has conducted interviews with descendants of Sikh Mexican families, as well as historical research on the harassment, racism, and violence that these early immigrants were subjected to. She seamlessly weaves historical characters and events in the rich tapestry of her novel. This novel dispels the monolithic model minority myth of South Asian Americans. It celebrates the working-class roots of early immigrants from India, the multiplicity of religions and faith traditions that these immigrants came from and united to fight against common injustices.
In addition, the novel highlights solidarities between various minority groups, not only the marriages between Mexicans and Sikhs, which is very different from the mostly endogamous marriage traditions of South Asian marriages but also the solidarities between Japanese Americans and Indian Americans. This is a novel that deserves serious scholarly attention and should be embraced by more courses in South Asian American literature and history. However, even though this novel is the product of intense scholarship, the research does not burden the writing. The novel flows effortlessly. It is deceptive in its elegance and simplicity and powerful in its empathetic portrayal of early South Asian Americans.
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.
On January 28, 1900, Swami Vivekananda looked out at the white audience at the Universalist Church in Pasadena, California, and spoke out against anti-Black racism. “As soon as a man becomes a Mohammedan, the whole of Islam receives him as a brother with open arms, without making any distinction, which no other religion does … In this country, I have never yet seen a church where the white man and the negro can kneel side by side to pray.
Half a century later, a young Black man sat down inside the British Embassy in Washington, DC, and refused to move. African American pacifist Bayard Rustin became director of the Free India Committee in 1945, working to end British rule in India. But it wasn’t enough to just talk, so Rustin began leading sit-in protests at the British Embassy, repeatedly getting arrested as he worked to help free India, two decades before he went on to organize the 1963 March on Washington, site of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.
Why would a Hindu monk speak out against anti-Black racism? Why would a gay African American civil rights leader repeatedly face arrest fighting for India’s independence? South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. Our histories are deeply intertwined, even if our communities don’t always know it.
I don’t know if Vivekananda was scared to condemn American anti-Black racism. But I heard fear, or at least a great discomfort, when I talked to a young Desi activist speaking out against anti-Black racism. She wasn’t scared of engaging in civil disobedience, but the thought of talking to her parents left her speechless. “When I act in solidarity with Black people in this movement, I want to call my parents into the struggle,” she explained. “After an action, when Ma calls and asks if I’ve eaten and if my health is well and how is school, I want to tell her everything … Instead, I say, ‘My health is good, Ma.’ And it breaks my heart.”
South Asians and African Americans have been standing up for each other for over a century. If we knew our shared history, would it make the conversations easier?
The Black Bengalis of Harlem: 1880s-1940s
Growing up in California, many of my South Asian friends were instructed by their parents that they weren’t allowed to marry someone African American—racism cloaked as “tradition.” But over the last several years, historian Vivek Bald has uncovered a history we were never told: when we were new to the United States, we were welcomed by African American communities, to intermarry, and built rich mixed lives together.
Between the 1880s and 1940s, two waves of South Asian men came to the United States, marrying and building new lives in African American, Creole, and Puerto Rican communities. Bald traced the story of these men and their lives in a strange new country in his groundbreaking book Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.
The first wave of these immigrants came to the United States from the Hooghly district of Bengal between the 1880s and 1910s. They worked as peddlers across the East Coast and the South, selling embroidered silks and “Oriental” goods from Bengal. These dark-skinned Muslim immigrants found homes in communities of color, with many settling in New Orleans. Bald found records of about two dozen South Asian men in New Orleans who married African American and Creole women.
Moksad and Elizabeth Ali married in 1895 and had six sons and a daughter. In 1900, they were living in a joint family in New Orleans’ Third Ward: Moksad, Elizabeth, their children, Elizabeth’s sister, and brother-in-law, and her 80-year-old grandmother, a freed slave from Virginia. The Alis later moved to Mississippi, and by the 1920s, the next generation of Alis had moved to New York’s Harlem neighborhood, where a new Black Bengali community was about to form.
From World War I to the 1940s, the second wave of working-class Bengali ex-seamen was finding their way to New York, often settling in Harlem, the heart of African American New York. Vivek Bald, an intrepid history detective, scoured New York City marriage records to uncover the stories of Harlem Bengalis marrying African American and Puerto Rican women.
The community eventually spread outside Harlem, but the Bengali men, their wives, and their mixed-race families would continue to come together to celebrate Eid-al-fitr, and host an annual summer celebration bringing together hundreds of members of the scattered community.
Dreaming of Freedom, Standing Up for Civil Rights: 1920s-1947
From the 1920s onward, Indian and African American freedom fighters started recognizing the links between their struggles against colonial rule and racist oppression. Gerald Horne, Sudarshan Kapur, and others have written extensively about this history, often focusing on African American scholar and civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois, who corresponded with Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lala Lajpat Rai, and others.
By 1942, Horace Cayton, Jr. would write “it may seem odd to hear India discussed in pool rooms in South State Street in Chicago, but India and the possibility of the Indians obtaining their freedom from England by any means has captured the imagination of the American Negro.” The NAACP, the prominent African American civil rights group, passed a resolution supporting Indian autonomy that same year, with accompanying statements from major African American artist-activists like Paul Robeson, Countee Cullen, and Langston Hughes.
African American poet Langston Hughes, a leader of the Harlem Renaissance, wrote eloquently about the shared struggle of Indians and African Americans. “It just does not make sense,” he wrote, “for the Allied leaders of the Western world to make beautiful speeches about freedom and liberty and democracy with India still in chains and Negroes still jim-crowed.”
One of Langston Hughes’ several poems about Indian liberation, “How About It, Dixie” connected Indian political prisoners and African American victims of racist police brutality. It reads, in part:
“Show me that you mean / Democracy please— / Cause from Bombay to Georgia / I’m beat to my knees / You can’t lock up Nehru / Club Roland Hayes / Then make fine speeches / About Freedom’s way.”
Jawaharlal Nehru was devoted to solidarity with African America, connecting both with friends like Paul Robeson, and through intermediaries like Cedric Grover. After India gained independence, solidarity was complicated by the need to maintain good relations with a white-led American government. However, in a secret memo to the first Indian ambassadors to the U.S. and China, Nehru remained clear about India’s position: “our sympathies are entirely with the Negroes.”
How African Americans Created South Asian America: 1950-1960s
We are in the United States today because African American activists organized, bled, and died to overturn the racist laws keeping us out. American laws long restricted immigration from South Asia. While several thousand South Asians had journeyed to the United States by the early 20th century, the Immigration Act of 1917 explicitly barred our immigration. Three decades later, the 1946 Luce-Cellar Act loosened the restrictions—but allowed in only one hundred Indian immigrants per year.
From the 1950s onward, new waves of African American activists took on the policies upholding American racism. Civil rights activists organized in the face of social pressure, mob violence, police brutality, and domestic terror. In Mississippi, NAACP activist Medgar Evers was shot and killed in his home. In Alabama, four little girls were killed when their church was firebombed. In South Carolina, three students were shot and killed by Highway Patrol officers on a college campus. In Tennessee, Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as he stood in support of local African American union workers. The list goes on.
Some early South Asian immigrants participated in the civil rights movement. For example, in his book Colored Cosmopolitanism, historian Nico Slate describes how in the mid-1960s, two professors in Jackson, Mississippi stood with their African American students to help desegregate the city in the mid-1960s. Hamid Kizilbash (from Pakistan) and Savithri Chattopadhyay (from India), both faculty members at Tougaloo College, challenged racial segregation and terror, taking advantage of their ambiguous racial status. (In one instance, a white mob stopped attacking a bloody Kizilbash after a priest yelled “he’s not Negro, he is Indian.”)
The civil rights movement won one of its biggest victories with the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Services Act of 1965, which created South Asian America as we know it today. This law ended the racist restrictive immigration quotas, allowing us to become one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, with over 3.5 million South Asians in the United States today.
While the burden of the civil rights movement was carried largely by African Americans, perhaps no group has benefited as much from African American activism as Indian (and particularly upper-caste Hindu) Americans. Fifty years after the civil rights movement, the median Indian American household income is over two and a half times higher than that of African Americans, in part because of immigration policies favoring the selective import of skilled foreign workers like my father.
I grew up in the United States, and never questioned my right to be here. But my wife Barnali Ghosh came to the United States as a graduate student; and stayed on as an H-1B worker. Learning history made a deep impression on her. “I realized that my presence in this country, and the existence of our Desi community, was possible only because African American activists helped overturn anti-Indian immigration laws. How do we repay the deep debt that we owe?”
South Asians for Black Lives: 2014-
Seventy years ago, Bayard Rustin, a gay African American civil rights activist, repeatedly engaged in civil disobedience to support Indian independence. Across the country, South Asians are starting to repay the debt, at a time when African American activists are asking other communities for their support as they organize against racism and police brutality.
In Ferguson, Missouri, after Michael Brown was fatally shot, South Asians whose businesses were impacted by protests stood with their African American neighbors and often saw their neighbors stand up for them. Ferguson resident Anil Gopal, president of the St. Louis Asian Indian Business Association, described to India Abroad how “Black people came to help the (Indian) community … Some of them even kept vigil outside the store as long as they could, to protect the stores.”
In New York City, the DRUM (Desis Rising Up And Moving) South Asian Organizing Center brought together over a hundred community members to discuss race and policing in light of the killings of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, before starting a march against racism and for immigrant rights.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, South Asians organizing with #Asians4BlackLives have been engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience against institutions responsible for killing African Americans.
Across the country, South Asian Americans are divided about how we understand our relationship to African Americans; many community members have never given much thought to the topic. The Queer South Asian National Network developed a free curriculum on confronting anti-Blackness in South Asian communities, which is being used for 1–2 hour workshops in New York City, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and beyond. Little by little, some community members are choosing to repay the debt, continuing the century-long tradition of solidarity.
Growing up, I learned a version of our community’s history where we desis worked hard, pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, never connecting with other communities of color.
But for over a century, South Asians and African Americans have lived entangled lives—Black-Bengali marriages, Vivekananda speaking out against anti-Black racism, satyagraha in the civil rights movement, Indian Muslims offering Black Muslims a more global perspective, Dalit activists learning about Black Power, long histories of individual friendships, and African American activists who first fought for our independence, and then helped end the barriers to our immigration.
Knowing our history leaves us with a choice. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard some of us openly express anti-Black racism; perhaps this is linked to casteism or colorism, or maybe we’re mimicking what we see and hear around us. Will we ignore our history and give in to some of our worst instincts? Many community members are choosing a different path, celebrating our shared histories, and helping add a new chapter to one of our best and oldest traditions.