Tag Archives: Jaya Padmanabhan

The Visual Artists in the #SALA 2019 Festival

Lucky S.F. Bay area denizens of the high-brow variety, you have yet another event to look forward to that is sure to amplify your festive Dussera season this year. If you are scurrying off to the many poojas, family gatherings and Golus (display of dolls), be sure to add this event to your calendar!  

Starting Sunday, October 6th from 12pm – 5pm, the beautiful environs of Villa Montalvo is home to the South Asian Literature & Arts Festival – SALA 2019. This event, the first of its kind in the US, runs from October 6th – 13th, showcasing a grand variety of visual arts, performing arts, poetry, book readings and panel discussions. 

Visual Arts @ SALA 2019:

Rekha Roddwittiya

Visual arts enthusiasts have special treats that thrill and educate. This event presents a great opportunity to meet with award-winning luminaries like India’s leading contemporary artist Rekha Rodwittiya whose work with distinctly feminist narratives has received critical acclaim. In a discussion titled Rekha @ 60: Transient Worlds of Belonging, Dr. Prajit Dutta of Aicon Gallery, NY will be speaking with Ms. Rodwittiya. 

Priyanka Mathew, Principal Partner of Sunderlande New York – an art advisory with a focus on South Asian art, presents an exemplary exhibition titled ‘Revelations: The Evolution of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art’. The show highlights works by Jamini Roy, Sanjay Bhattacharya, Krishen Khanna, Anjolie Ela Menon, Shobha Broota and G.R Iranna to name a few.

Also featured is a conversation with Dipti Mathur, a local bay area philanthropist and well known collector of modern and contemporary South Asian art. She has served on the board of trustees of several museums and is a founding member of the Asian Contemporary Art Consortium, SF.  

Deepti Naval

One of the highlights of the program is well known actor, painter and poet, Deepti Naval. U.C Berkeley professor Harsha Ram, will moderate a program titled “An Elaborate Encounter with Deepti Naval”, as part of the Confluences – Cinema, Poetry and Art segment. 

Cinema @ SALA 2019: 

Vikram Chandra

Indian cinema has a great representation at SALA 2019! The festival offers up a chance to interact with the men behind the popular Netflix original series ‘Sacred Games’, in two separate programs.

The trio of Varun Grover, Vikramaditya Motwane and Vikram Chandra will be interviewed by Tipu Purkayastha on Oct 6th as part of the opening day of the festival in a program titled ‘From the Sacred to the Profane’

A special event on Friday, Oct 18th tilted ‘From Text to Screen’ will feature Tipu Purkayastha . In conversation with him is noted director, writer, and producer, Anurag Kashyap. This program offers us an interesting perspective into their creative minds!

Literature @ SALA 2019: 

The literary world boasts of several names from the South Asian diaspora who decorate the local, national and international stage. SALA 2019 proudly presents writers and poets like Vikram Chandra, Minal Hajratwala, Shanthi Sekaran, Nayomi Munaweera, Raghu Karnad, Athena Kashya and Tanuja Wakefield to name a few, who will share their work in readings and discussions. 

Also being represented at the festival is the emerging Children and Young Adult genre of writers. Curated by Kitaab World, Mitali Perkins and Naheed Senzai in a program titled The Subcontinent’s Children. 

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Montalvo Arts Center and Art Forum SF, in collaboration with UC Berkeley Institute of South Asian Studies are jointly bringing to us one of the largest collections of contemporary South Asian writers, artists, poets, and personalities from theater and cinema. 

The opening day features various programs like art exhibits, panel discussions with internationally renowned writers and filmmakers, hands-on art activities, henna artists and dance performances. There are food stations offering up the many flavors of South Asia. This family-friendly event includes book readings, storytelling and hands on crafts for children. Visitors can also avail themselves of an art and literature marketplace displaying Bay Area artists and Books Inc. book sellers.  

The festival, the largest of its kind in the US is brought to us by Art Forum SF, a non profit that strives to promote emerging  visual, literary and performing art forms from South Asia.

Montalvo Art Center is well known for its mission in advancing cultural and cross-cultural perspectives, nurturing artists by helping them explore their artistic pursuits on their historic premises.

Free shuttle buses are available from West Valley College to aid festival goers.

Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

This article was edited by Culture and Media Editor Geetika Pathania Jain, Ph.D.

India Currents is a media partner for SALA 2019.

Pulling Passion’s Strings: The Life of a Master Puppeteer

Some things are hardwired into our DNA no matter where we might travel across the globe. Language and vocabulary feature right at the top of the list. The words ‘Karnataka’ and ‘handcrafted puppetry jumped out at me from my email inbox one morning. I was intrigued and soon found myself driving up winding California hillsides to a home in Los Altos hills for a lecture demonstration on traditional wood puppetry of Karnataka. Hosted by Bay Area art & cultural organization SACHI, the event featured Anupama Hoskere, a familiar name I had heard during my visits to India.

Together with her husband Vidyashankar Hoskere, Anupama founded “Dhaatu” an organization dedicated to all things puppetry related – the first of its kind, in Bengaluru. In Sanskrit the word Dhaatu means the root, the soul, the essence of everything. The Hoskeres established this non-profit organization with the aim of imparting traditional wisdoms that today’s world can benefit from. Annually, Dhaatu is also the venue of the famous Navratra Mahotsava – the pageant of dolls – depicting upwards of 5000 dolls displaying various scenes from Hindu mythology!  It was one of those ‘must see’ items on my list that had slipped through the cracks over the years, and now here Anupama was in my backyard! Serendipity or what?!

On a small stage in an intimate home theater, a single chair sat occupied by a brightly clad puppet. She was outfitted in elaborately fashioned jewelry and draped in a beautiful sari, her large kajal-laden eyes taking in the gathered audience, as we sat eagerly awaiting the evening’s program. Even in stillness she seemed to fill the space with her presence. It made you wonder what she might be like when animated.

Walking onto the stage Anupama’s presence was just as magnetic, the passion for her life’s work, evident in every word she uttered. Over the next hour we were initiated into the elements of puppetry, mythology, and a behind-the-scenes peek into this fascinating world! Currently on a 20 city tour of the U.S, Anupama and her Dhaatu team is raising funds for the ‘Support a Child’ program. They are showcasing a novel concept with their production of “Malavikagnimitram” – a romance set in the second century BCE, which plays out in the court of King Agnimitra of the Shunga dynasty. The lecture concluded with the enactment of a scene from the production featuring the puppet on stage, who was joined by Anupama’s daughter Divya Hoskere – an established Bharatanatyam dancer. 

Anupama graciously consented to an interview with India Currents in the midst of hopping across timezones on their hectic 20 city tour. 

P.K:   Thank you for speaking with me Anupama! The lecture demonstration was a wonderful experience. We would love to know more about the cause you are supporting with your tour of the U.S.

A.H:   At Dhaatu, we like to involve ourselves with causes like “Support a Child USA” – an organization doing creditable work that needs our help and support. They came to us with the idea of sponsoring a puppetry production on a tour of the U.S, and the idea was both challenging and exciting!  It also enabled Dhaatu to make a creative contribution to an already valuable cause. No questions asked when such an offer comes our way!

P .K:   Indian mythology offers a plethora of subject matter. Why choose this particular story for your production?

A.H:  Malavikagnimitram is a romantic comedy; an elaborate, many-layered story. It was originally a Sanskrit play written by the famous Kalidasa. It lends itself beautifully to a sophisticated production. And it also makes for great entertainment! It lets us showcase the exciting advancements in the field of puppetry that is being practiced today. Set in the 2nd century BCE, in Vidisha, in the court of King Agnimitra, the plot details the highly evolved artistic and cultural scene of the time period. The Indo-Greek war is mentioned – the war with the ‘Yavanas’! Details like a ‘Dolotsava’ ceremonial procession in a temple is depicted in great depth. It is a richly vivid portrayal of so many aspects of life of that period in history. Great material for a production! 

P.K:   Our life path takes us to interesting places. Yours has been more than just ‘interesting’ in every sense of the word! How do you go from a Masters degree in Engineering, a job and life in the U.S, to a totally divergent life hand crafting puppets?

A.H:   Passion! That is the one ingredient that makes such a shift possible! I was on what was widely accepted as the ‘path of success’ in a competitive world. And I was doing very well. But I didn’t really know quite how I got there! A day came when I realized that the enrichment I received in my childhood, had ultimately led to my being where I was. Then the question I was faced with was, “how can I give back what I received to the next generation”? This was what helped make my choice to return to what I loved most. 

P.K:   And what was the enrichment in your childhood like? We would love to know more about it.

A.H:   I was blessed to have grown up with my grandmother who told wonderful stories! Not just stories like Panchatantra etc that was common, but she also narrated scenes from Kalidasa’s Sanskrit plays. She was very well read, and passionate about sharing her knowledge. Nowadays children have many more options if they want to familiarize themselves with mythological stories. Our choices were limited. That’s why my grandmother’s oral storytelling was precious to me! We also had traditional Yakshagana troupes perform near where we lived. Watching those plays, we saw old storylines being depicted in new ways all the time! Creativity was boundless. That sort of learning and enrichment is priceless!

P.K:   Your audience is often comprised of children. How do you see their involvement in your shows?

A.H:   The impact of real time entertainment in puppetry is very different from virtual entertainment and engagement. And children especially, they get involved in a very deep way! Puppets  become more real to them than the people around them! Communication happens in a beautiful manner. Their minds open up differently and it creates a huge potential for self exploration with something they might go on to create by themselves. It is like opening a door to lifelong exploration! 

P.K:   What is their reaction when they connect with the characters?

A.H:   Different age groups express in different ways. But all of them engage 100%! It is fun to watch them get into the scene and characters! When we staged Bhakta Prahlada, after the final scene, the puppet Prahlada was garlanded! No one else was given this honor! It just goes to show that if the right setting is provided for a puppet show, audience – no matter their age – can engage in a wonderful way!

P.K:   Each of your puppets is created with such attention to detail! Where do you draw your resources for costuming, era appropriate jewelry etc?

A.H:  All our puppets are handcrafted to the tiniest detail! We design them and use a lighter wood to allow better handling. There are various resources to research and collect information. Ajanta-Ellora paintings, research by scholars on various dynasties, the staff at the Mysore palace for example. And there is the internet of course. But because historical authenticity is very important to us at Dhaatu, we take extra care and go in search of verified information. Many of the Puranas and epic poems have historical details and visual imagery given in great detail. You just have to know where to find it. But it is available. And it is a treasure trove for us when we start creating our own puppets. 

P.K:   You have been involved with puppetry on the global scene. How do you see the art form showcased in Czech Republic or Indonesia? How does it compare to the way it is received in India?

A.H:   I went to Europe as part of a scholarship. Then I realized that there is a division between art for children and adults. That is how it is perceived. Puppetry was mainly developed as an entertainment for children. There was a rebel movement which also developed alongside mainstream practices. Both thrived. Tourism is key to the survival of such artforms in Europe and Indonesia. In North India puppeteers had access to western and Japanese styles of the artform. So their styles became more contemporary. In South India we were untouched by such western influences and retained traditional styles. But with time, urbanization took away patronage for this artform. Without patronage puppetry cannot survive! Our numbers started dwindling. Today there is a new revival, a new energy on the puppetry scene. More traditional practices are being showcased and accepted once more.

P.K:   Under lining your comment from the lecture demonstration, I would like you to address the reasoning behind your choice of basing a majority of your productions on mythology as opposed to current social issues.

A.H:   It is my conviction that mythology is always a best seller! No matter what the storyline, and however repetitive, the manner in which you treat it will set you apart. South India’s Yakshagana is a great example of this! Yakshagana artistes depict so many subtle layers of the Puranas. Knowledge is important. And since mythology involves the use of all this knowledge, investing in this particular dimension of mythology stimulates the storyline.

Socially relevant subject matter needs financing and patronage. Also there is a limited timeline in terms of relevancy for many such topics. The Government of India has used puppeteers to implement their political agendas. If the government changes, their policies become irrelevant. And the patronage disappears! Puppeteers who invest considerable time and resources in the creation of specific puppets have no protection to weather such situations! It is a short-lived blip that leaves us high and dry! Mythology on the other hand, always endures and comes out on top!

P.K:   With your current production Malavikagnimitram, you have an interesting concept of combining live actors and dancers with puppets. Highly engaging, as we saw from the scene enacted during the lecture. Challenging as well I am sure? 

A.H:   Oh sure! It is like putting the puppets to a litmus test when a live dancer/actor shares the stage with them. My main concern was whether the audience would ‘see’ the puppet at all?! Or would the actor/dancer upstage the puppets? The current concept was built up slowly over two or three productions. We are still working on polishing it further, that process never ends. But in the end we realized that the puppets could hold their own!  The interaction between a live dancer and a puppet is magical! A great example of this type of interaction can be seen in our production Vijayanagara Vybhava”. You will see what I mean by puppets managing to shine on their own merit! Yes, there are challenges, of course. Stage design is the obvious challenge. The Proscenium theater design means there is limited space for dancers when sharing it with puppets. So we had to redesign the stage and the placement of characters over several iterations to make sure we could create this magic!

P.K:   Does India have guilds or cooperatives of puppeteers? And how difficult is it to procure funding for productions?

A.H:   No, there is no such thing as a guild for puppeteers as yet. State level academies and a Government entity –  Sangeet Natak Academy, do exist. And yes, it is a challenge to get funding. Private patronage what we have at the moment.

P.K:   What types of workshops does Dhaatu offer?

A.H:   Dhaatu offers workshops for all ages – starting at age 3 to adults! Puppetry and puppet making teaches aesthetics in a way that lego & robotics etc do not. They certainly have their positive points. But puppetry is multi faceted. Besides aesthetics, it also involves aspects of engineering and requires fine motor skills both in making and handling puppets. There is the aspect of movement with puppetry that needs to be mastered. When you are able to control a puppets subtle movements, it is a thrilling experience! 

P.K:   Your personal journey with puppetry started with a ‘leap of faith’. And you just found out you are the recipient of a prestigious award!   

A.H:   Yes! My phone was inundated with congratulatory messages since early this morning and that is how I discovered I had been awarded the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! It is a great feeling of satisfaction that a Nation has accepted this artform! My Bharatanatyam guru, the late Smt. Narmada received this award from the hands of the late President Abdul Kalam in 2007. For me to receive the same award is a great honor! I am overwhelmed!  All the growing pains and potholes that I have experienced with Dhaatu’s journey is validated by this acknowledgement and ultimate reward! It inspires us to do more and reach greater heights – in making magic with our puppets for the generations to come.

P.K:   What are your plans upon your return to Bengaluru?

A.H:   Maybe one day of rest and then it is back to work again! The festival season will start soon. During Dussera, Dhaatu opens it doors to showcase our incredible collection of dolls with ‘Dhaatu Navaratra Mahotsava’. We will have over 5000 dolls on display, depicting scenes from mythology. It is an annual event and we have been doing this for a decade now. There’s no resting until that is done! 

Anupama’s enthusiasm gives new meaning to the term ‘pulling strings’! Her passion and that of her team at Dhaatu is definitely award worthy. Dhaatu’s workshops and productions bear the hallmark of true creativity while contributing a treasure trove of traditional & cultural knowledge to children and adults alike.  

India Currents congratulates Anupama on the prestigious Sangeet Natak Academi award! 

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Pavani Kaushik is a visual artist who loves a great book almost as much as planning her next painting. She received a BFA from the Academy of Art University, San Francisco. Her new avatar requires creative juggling with the pen and the brush.

 

 

Go Back to Your Country!

Lunchtime at the intersection of Third and Geary in downtown San Francisco is a concerto of movement. Cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, strollers, bags, carts, pets perform a score as they make their way through narrow passageways that open and snap to shapes and bodies. Generally, all things great and small keep to the rhythm of the red, green and yellow lights.

We broke that rhythm one day.

It was 1993. I had been living in America since 1988 and the newness of my American skin had just about begun to recede. I no longer looked around curiously. I no longer answered hesitantly. The country I grew up in, India, was no longer dominantly inhabiting my thoughts. I was now a citizen of the world. What I saw others seeing in me was a person from another land, different in many ways, and alike in many too. What I saw in others were people like me who’d grown up unlike me.

So, it didn’t register that people were looking at me curiously, hesitantly.

My husband and I were meeting friends for lunch, and my husband was driving. It might have been Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar who was crooning over the car speakers as we both hummed along. The light turned yellow and he distractedly kept the forward momentum going. And then the light turned red. We were caught with the nose of our car a foot or so into the pedestrian walkway.

Trapped, we looked out as folks converged on us from both sides of the walkway. One or two people glared at us as they made their way across. Most ignored us. But as we watched, a man on roller blades stopped directly in front of us. He pressed his hands down on the hood of the car and banged once, twice, three times, hard and then harder with his fist, shaking the car, and then, looking directly at us, he yelled, “Go back to your country.” He paused, waiting for it to register before he turned and continued on.

Whitney Houston or Kishore Kumar continued singing, but we had stopped humming. The lights changed and we drove on.

1993 was the first time I was told to “go back to my country.” Since then I’ve received the words in a Target Health and Beauty aisle; while leisurely walking into Le Boulanger cafe with my nine year-old twin daughters chattering away beside me; and on several occasions in response to articles I’ve written. It was only the time with my twins that it scored painfully, for the deliverer of the message could hear my children babbling in their American accents, wearing their American clothes, and carrying their American books.

Those words should not really hurt, though. The strangers who uttered the words were angry, yes, but it was a careless, vaguely defined anger at their loss of momentum. They didn’t know enough about me, what I stood for, how long I’d been sharing their country, or for that matter, which country I came from for their anger to have much depth.

Their anger was not directed at me, but the idea of me—a non-white, non-native, un-American looking person competing for scant resources. For them, the words “going back …” were neither compensable nor redemptive. It merely seized the inconvenience of the moment and illuminated a shallow-seated aggravation, rooted in history and circumstance.

The notion of going back, it seems to me, demands a commitment to turn back time and space, both emotional and geographical; to return what is gained and to prevent further acquisition. It doesn’t matter that what I have gained has not come from someone else’s immediate loss.

Being told to go back gave me pause, each time, then and now. The words reflect how people place a value on me, my body, and my ideas. This value is inherently transient, for all three can be devalued instantly if I, my body or my ideas are not congruent with them, their bodies or their ideas.

My children and I never talked about the incident that occurred eleven years ago at Le Boulanger. At the time, it could be that they brushed it away as a rant, or they buried it because they could see that it disturbed me, or that they couldn’t understand what was said for they had never known any country other than the one they lived in.

I didn’t address the subject even in the years since because I wanted my children to process the words “going back to your country” without my own aspirational interpretations. Their belief in their belonging to America is something that they own. This ownership shouldn’t need affirmation or confirmation. They were born into this relationship between personhood and citizenship.

Yet I believe that they must prepare for the questions and comments. And if they lose some of their agency because of these questions or comments, it is only because they doubt who they are and where they’ve lived. Yes, we do own our spaces, though often we cannot choose our neighbors. We cannot control what others say, how they say it, or where they say it, so we must learn to regulate how much we allow it to affect us.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

Measure T – How Will We Measure Up?

On a pleasant October afternoon, a diverse group of media representatives gathered on a quiet street in San Jose, around a picnic table laden with goodies. This was not a mere picnic.The meet was hosted by Ethnic Media Services (EMS), a Bay Area non profit organization that calls for wider representation in terms of diversity on public issues. The organization works to increase the scope of the ethnic media to engage audiences and increase participation towards forming an inclusive democracy. It aims to give a human face to an otherwise “invisible” ethnic media sector.

Ethnic Media Services Founder, Sandy Closehas worn many hats an award winn

ing journalist, editor, and Director of New America Media (NAM) which was the first and largest collaboration of ethnic news organizations. She founded EMS to continue key projects with ethnic media in December 2017.  The agenda on hand was Measure T – A bond issue for Public Safety and Infrastructure which is on the ballot for San Jose voters in Santa Clara County, on November 6, 2018.

The location chosen for the meet was Rock Springs Park, a children’s park, situated against a lush backdrop of wooded area. You wouldn’t think much of it, were it not for the image on the media briefing that was handed out. A dramatic picture showed the same park totally flooded with murky water. A second aerial shot showed a residential neighborhood similarly flooded, rows of half submerged cars lining the street. These images were from the February 2017 flooding of Coyote Creek. Years of drought had led to an accumulation of brush and other vegetation all along the creek bed. This meant that it could not channel the large volume of rain water, which further led to the overflow and flooding.

Ms. Ming Ngoc Do, a local resident and flood survivor, gave a moving first-person account of the flood. She spoke of the devastation and helplessness, she and many of her friends faced due to being displaced from their homes. Lack of warning from the USGS and other authorities left the residents angry and frustrated. Roughly 14,000 homes were evacuated and the city sustained nearly $100 million in damages.  Ms. Do, spent days after the waters receded, cleaning up debris and salvaging belongings. “It was a very very tough time for us! We cannot sustain another flood!” she exclaimed.

Support for Measure T:

San Jose is the largest city in Northern California. It has experienced rapid growth in the technological sector which has resulted in a booming metropolis, leaving its aging infrastructure suffering at the same time.  Measure T makes an important point when it comes to addressing the upgrade of existing infrastructure. It takes into account that infrastructure improvement does not mean adding concrete and asphalt; but instead, aims to work with the natural environmental systems that surround us. It calls for preventive measures being put in place to help in effective disaster planning measures.

San Jose Mayor, Sam Liccardo spoke at the event and called for critical action in favor of Measure-T. With reference to the Coyote Creek flooding, Mayor Liccardo stated that important lessons had been learned in the aftermath of the event. He outlined how the sum of $ 650 million would be used to update community services like emergency operations, 911 communication facilities, fire and road safety, flood control measures, and repairing seismically vulnerable local bridges, to list a few. $50 million of the funds will be allocated towards buying land in Coyote Valley to protect against floods and preserve water quality.  He lauded Measure T as being a forward-thinking, 21st century infrastructure; working to co-exist with the environment, and for the protection of nature. “San Jose is at the forefront of such a bond measure”, he stated.

Alice Kaufman, is the Legislative Advocacy Director with Committee for Green Foothills, a Bay Area organization whose mission is to protect the open spaces, farmlands, and natural resources through advocacy, education, and grassroots action. Ms. Kaufman stressed the importance of retaining our green spaces in this rapidly expanding world we live in. She added her voice towards preserving healthy, working ecosystems as being our best investment in the future. The Committee for Green Foothills is a strong supporter of Measure-T.

Andrea Mackenzie and Mark Landgraf represented the Open Space Authority, an organization whose main objective is the conservation of natural environment. They work to preserve undeveloped land and restore it to its natural state, while safeguarding water sources and regional trails. They also work with partners and private landowners on acquisitions that help achieve their objective of preserving greenbelts and urban buffers. In the case of Coyote valley, the idea is to acquire land surrounding Coyote creek, and planting vegetation that helps soil absorption while purifying aquifers. This will create a natural flood protection zone that prevents catastrophic events like the flooding of February 2017. Measure-T will allocate a budget of $50 million towards such improvements in the Coyote Valley.

Opposition for Measure T: 

While it has a broad bipartisan coalition support, Measure T has its share of nay sayersCitizens for Fiscal Responsibility (CFR) has voiced concerns about the proposal. Their argument is that the city of San Jose should take a conservative view on fiscal measures. In an already existing housing crisis, homeowners will be looking at an increase in property taxes with this bond proposal. CFR is concerned that such a move will make the dream of home ownership unattainable for many San Jose residents. This will further lead to landlords raising rents to offset the increase, squeezing tenants and worsening an already escalating rental market. CFR states that San Jose has the funds it needs, but cites government inefficiency as the reason for poor management of its budget. It is one of the voices against the proposed bond measure.

The Silicon Valley Tax Payers Association is another organization that argues against Measure T. Calling taxpayers to ‘Vote NO on T’, the organization cautions residents that the long term interest (25 – 30 years) on $650 million is a setback that neither they nor the city can afford to undertake. Their argument is that while many of the communication technologies Measure T seeks to improve are necessary, they will likely be obsolete over the period it takes to pay back the interest on the bond.

The tag-line for the bond measure reads, “Measure T puts SAFE-T first”. The list of proposed improvements promise a city better equipped to mitigate damage from inevitable natural disasters.

A two-third voter majority is required to successfully pass the measure. The date to vote on Measure T is November 6th.

Will San Jose measure up?!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

H-1Bs—The Best and the Brightest?

H-1Bs—The Best and the Brightest?

A relevant piece from our archives, on a topic that is still a hot-button issue. First published on March 14, 2017.

What is this notion of the best and brightest? For one, it is the most conflicted banality of the moment. The term is generously used by liberal politicians and business leaders to make the case for H-1B immigrants, but the phrase has a long history of ideological righteousness much reviled by conservative politicians.

The Wall Street Journal reported that IITs were ranked fourth behind Stanford, Harvard, and University of California for incubating the most number of students who formed billion dollar startups in America.

In 1972, David Halberstam, a Pulitzer prize winning New York Times journalist, wrote a seminal book questioning President John F. Kennedy’s foreign policy decisions during the Vietnam war. He called it The Best and the Brightest. The book debunked the foreign policy credentials of the best and the brightest in Kennedy’s administration. Halberstam wrote about how this group of academics and intellectuals, “all of whom had seemed so dazzling when they had first taken office,” ended up becoming the architects of one of the worst disasters of American history.

It was just a few weeks ago that Stephen K. Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist, was spotted in an airport carrying a copy of The Best and the Brightest. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Marc Tracy writes about Bannon’s respect for the book and quotes him as saying: “It’s great for seeing how little mistakes early on can lead to big ones later.”

In the book, Halberstam describes an incident between a “dazzled” Vice President Lyndon Johnson and his mentor, Sam Rayburn, after the Vice President’s first Cabinet meeting, when Lyndon Johnson exclaims enthusiastically to Rayburn: “how extraordinary they were, each brighter than the next,” referring to the intellectually attuned Cabinet staff. To which, Rayburn responds “you may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say, but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.” That story, according to Halberstam goes to show “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract facility and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.”

Hobbled by this narrative, it is no wonder that when the same term came to be applied to those poor, unsuspecting foreign nationals who came to America armed with H-1B visas to connect the wires of innovation in the Silicon Valley, it became baggage that they either had to live up to or confront.

As the number of H-1Bs increased, the labor bottleneck eased somewhat, and those who began to lose jobs because of incompetence, lack of knowledge, incomplete education, insufficient application or a combination of these factors found a bogeyman they could easily identify. Today, “the best and the brightest” is used as both an invective as well as an invocation. It depends on one’s political bent.

As a reader recently commented in response to one of my immigration columns: “The education system [in] India [is] far worse, but they are able to infest the United States with mediocre engineers, disguised as the best and brightest engineers. The problem is the dumping of inferior tech workers from India displacing American workers.”

The commenter is only partially wrong. The Wall Street Journal reported recently that India’s Indian Institute of Technology schools were ranked fourth behind Stanford, Harvard, and University of California for incubating the most number of students who went on to form billion dollar startups in America. But not all engineers who are hired in the H-1B program are from the IITs or from top notch institutions. And not all engineers hired from top notch schools are necessarily the best or brightest.

The issue is about volume and displacement, stupid! Elementary science terms have become yardsticks of aggravation.

People who enter the pool tend to displace others from the same pool and the more this happens, the more there is a pervading sense of affliction. In 2016, there were 236,000 H-1B applications received, an increase of 3,000 from the previous year.

We may argue that these jobs that H-1Bs are hired for are not always replacements, but merely the right fit for the right job at the right price. Even so, grievance is a perceptive state and given voice to even by those who are not really good fits for those same jobs.

Many folks I talk to tend to provide anecdotal evidence of at least one H-1B engineer they know, or they’ve heard of, who performed sub-par at his/her job—who had poor communication skills, did not speak up at meetings, was behind schedule, delivered an inadequately thought-through product, required more training, or had deplorable personal hygiene habits. It’s about the impact of numbers. The pervasiveness of an idea begins to take hold, if enough people have enough anecdotal evidence.

It’s a time of crisis for H-1B visa holders and applicants. This cannot be about working longer and harder anymore. That alone, unfortunately, may not be sufficient to stave off the perils of imminent White House policies.

Writing about Robert Kennedy, Halberstam recounts how “toughness fascinated him; he was not at ease with an America which had flabby waistlines.” That frame of reference has not changed much since Kennedy’s time. As America’s H-1B policy heads to the chopping block, it is time to cinch those smart belts. America has no patience for even a hint of slackness.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

India Currents Wins Big at SF Press Club Awards!

The San Francisco Press Club’s 40th annual Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards were held at the Hilton SFO Airport Hotel on November 16.

India Currents magazine won a total of nine awards under various categories. Here are the winning entries:

Overall Excellence:Third Place: India Currents 

Commentary: First Place: Nirupama Vaidhyanathan, “Why I will listen to Rush Limbaugh.” 

Features: Second Place:  A Community’s Concerns: From portrayals, representations to youth struggles by the following authors:

Geetika Pathania Jain, Erasing the Accent, 

Vamsee Juluri – Does History Matter?

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan – How Much Is Too Much? The Price of Pushing Kids to Attain Elite Status

Political:  Third Place: Questions of Affiliation and Electoral Choices by the following authors: 

Jaya Padmanabhan – It’s the Race Card, People!

Nirupama Vaidhyanathan – The Clear Choice and Vote!

Feature Story / Light Nature: Second Place: Ranjani Iyer Mohanty, No Country for Gray People.”

At the awards ceremony, San Francisco Press Club President Antonia Ehlers said, “We are here to celebrate the exceptional work you do throughout the year. You do your best every day to tell your stories with honesty and integrity. This year, we had more entries for this contest than ever before. Your entries were judged by the press clubs of Milwaukee, San Diego, Orange County and Cleveland, and the judges certainly were impressed with your work!”

The crowd welcomed event emcee Tara Moriarty from KTVU news, 2017 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient David Louie from ABC 7, and San Francisco Press Club Service Award recipient, radio legend Peter Cleveland.

The Bill Workman News Writer Award for the best daily news story was given to Michael Barba from The San Francisco Examiner. Workman’s wife, Marla Lowenthal, was also at the event.

 

 

The Forgotten Tale of Shikhandi

Eating Spaghetti With Your Hands

When Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, visited America in September 2016, he made a point of remarking that he believes in “integration” and not “assimilation.” “People shouldn’t have to drop their cultures and traditions when they arrive in our cities and countries,” he stated.

Before I disagree with him, let me explain what exactly the difference is between these two ideas.

Assimilation is an immersive experience, where the immigrant’s culture is submerged within the dominant one. There is a full absorption of the host country’s culture and carries the implication of homogeneity. Integration, on the other hand, occurs when a society accepts the differences in its census and makes room for those differences. Analogically, integration is a floor of unique and separate tiles—a mosaic; assimilation is a floor of oak strips, subtly different, and remarkably uniform.

It seems pretty easy to agree, therefore, with Khan that integration is what we should base our public policies on as a society. It feels essentially abhorrent to force immigrants to conform to the cultural mores of a majority.

What is America’s culture, you ask? Not Stephen Curry or Steve Jobs, but what they embody. In big-scape it is independence, individualism, respect for the rule of law, freedom of choice, public cleanliness and a solid work ethic.

In other words, we immigrants should be allowed to practice our religions, to speak our languages, uphold our traditions, eat our foods, celebrate our festivals, wear our clothes, and watch our movies. Wearing a sari to a public place should be as accepted as wearing a pantsuit. And, too, wearing a hijab should be as accommodated as wearing a habit or a yamaka.

But I believe that there must be limits on integration. Otherwise, society can devolve from fellowship, progress, and cooperation to conflict and conspiracy. The beginnings of which we are seeing with the rise in hate rhetoric against our communities.

E pluribus unum is the motto of America—out of many, one. Assimilation is more likely to fit the American motto. Integration can result in out of many, many.

In physics when systems are left alone, they tend to move to a state of greater entropy. Society, in that sense, is just another system. Groups of people, when not regulated, tend towards extremes, not because they are evil, but because they are inclined to think in narrow ways.

That’s why folks live in America for decades and disdain the idea of citizenship. These eligible green card holders believe that life in America is “temporary” even when temporary runs into years and generations. They continue to harbor a primary allegiance to their country of origin. In the meantime, these same people fashion a decent life in suburbia and do not hesitate to take advantage of America’s public schools, libraries, parks and community centers. The argument you hear is that “but we pay taxes” and it goes towards maintaining these same public facilities. True, but it’s like having a paying guest who pays the rent and gets dinner every night for years on end, but doesn’t deign to clear the dishes ever. It is not required therefore it is never done.

Here’s a statistic to take home with you: Only 56.2% of adults of Indian origin, residing in America, were citizens in 2012.

For sure, a multicultural society is a more tolerant society. But extreme multiculturalism creates chaos. If we all spoke in different languages in the same room, it would be cacophonous and hard to understand. At some level, we must, as residents and citizens of America, speak or learn to speak the language of our country, literally and figuratively. We must uphold the traditions of America as well as we do that of the countries we left behind.

A Pew Research Study published in February 2017, found that 84% of Americans believe that for a person to be truly American, it is very important or somewhat important “that he or she share American customs and traditions.” Only 15% believe that embracing America culturally is not that important.

What is America’s culture, you ask? Not Stephen Curry or Steve Jobs, but what they embody. In big-scape it is independence, individualism, respect for the rule of law, freedom of choice, public cleanliness and a solid work ethic. In small-scape, America’s culture is knowing not to eat spaghetti bolognese with your hands at an Italian eatery, yet comfortably using your digits to dip that roti into a bowl of dal at Amber Cafe.

True, there’s also stress, loneliness and the collapse of the family unit in American society, but America is no different from other countries in this way. What America provides in spades is the possibility for success. The Indian-American community, in particular, is comfortably aware of this.

Peter D. Salins in his book Assimilation, American Style refers to how residents and native born residents of New York in the early 20th century endorsed three norms for integration. Accepting English as the national language; believing in liberal democratic and egalitarian principles; and having a strong work ethic and moral values.

I believe the norms for integration are the ability to speak in English as the language of economic necessity; becoming citizens and exercising the right to vote; and giving back to America.

I do agree that people shouldn’t have to “drop their cultures” when they arrive in America, as Khan mentioned. Additionally, too, they must absorb the culture of where they live. Accommodation must be both ways. If America can accommodate the cultures we bring with us, we must accommodate America, the country we have chosen, and its culture.

Jaya Padmanabhan was the editor of India Currents from 2012-16. She is the author of the collection of short stories, Transactions of Belonging.

It’s Not You, It’s Me

“Bullshit is everywhere. There is very little that you will encounter in life that has not been, in some ways, infused with bullshit.” Those words formed the opening of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show exit monologue.

As breakup speeches go, Stewart’s was delightfully wry and provocative. In his trademark style, Stewart performed a rant about what’s wrong with the world.

When Margaret Sullivan quit her post as the public editor of the New York Times, she titled her last blog, “Five Things I Won’t Miss at the Times—and Seven I Will.” She was careful to put more on the positive side of the divide. Still, it read like a “This is why I’m leaving, and oh, by the way, I’ll miss you” diatribe.

Recently, there was the ingenious exit by Sree Sreenivasan, the former Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sreenivasan, ostensibly performing his digital duties, wrote a short piece, which he titled “Onward & Upward: Leaving The Met After Three Magical Years,” and published it on social media.

Sreenivasan placed a stunning picture of a hawk circling and “enjoying The Met” above his article and compared the hawk to himself, “I feel like this every day when I walk into the museum—and even when I just think about it.” He invited readers to contact him for coffee and drinks or to go on a walk and brainstorm ideas on what he should be doing next. Brilliant!

My own exit from India Currents and from page 3 of this magazine is going to be more of an “It’s Not You, It’s Me” version.

After much deliberation, I have decided to walk on the somewhat riskier road of full time writing and publishing. In the days ahead, I hope to give voice to the many essays that have, for some time, lived silently in my head; I hope to work on my half-finished novel; and I hope to read more.

When I arrived at my desk, over four years ago, I had a very clear personal objective: to learn as much as I could about the art of editing, in order to become a better writer. As the days flew by, I began to understand that it was really the art of reading that I had to re-learn. That revelation changed my relationship to words forever.

What I will miss dearly is the sheer thrill of receiving a submission that is so exquisitely stitched together that I’m forced to read it again and again. First, to re-experience the wonder of its words, and second, to critically examine its intricate layers.

Sure, there have been many challenges. While print is still very much germane for India Currents, digital platforms are increasingly providing volume and diversity to our readership and content. The most interesting, and perhaps obvious, detail is that these platforms react in wholly different ways to our content.

So, if an essay rife with novel ideas and clear thinking does not perform as well as I think it should on our website, I’ve immersed myself in a world of numbers and analytics to get a better sense of the pulse of our online readership—to understand and predict how readers read, where they read, when they read, and what they read.
And if an article does do well across platforms, the challenge lies in replicating that success consistently.

While these dilemmas have kept me up many a night, the exhilaration of bringing out an issue every month, one that is brimming with promise, prose, and personality, has always been the compelling force that woke me up every morning.

Several of you have sent me beautiful notes that I will treasure always—perhaps even pin up on my wall in my new office. As one reader wrote in an email, “It’s sad that you are leaving … However, I am sure The Show Will Go On.”

He is absolutely right. With new direction and fresh ideas, the magazine can only evolve into something even more vibrant.

As I bid adieu, I take with me the knowledge that this magazine will remain in good hands with Nirupama Vaidyanathan, our new editor.

Thank you, dear India Currents readers, writers and my colleagues. It’s been an incredible journey. Ciao!

Jaya Padmanabhan, Editor

The Audacity of My Secularism

At a dinner recently, the conversation drifted to the politics of religion in India. A friend, who relocated to India about a decade ago, scoffed at the idea of secularism. He called it “appeasement politics,” a political creed that has resulted in the marginalization of the majority in India.

Furthermore, as a personal belief system, he implied that secularism had an intellectual stranglehold on faith. Secular people, he opined, often seem embarrassed by their own religious roots, and were given to critically examining their own religion, but unwilling to consider other religions in a similar manner.

For most of my life, I’ve believed that secularism means respect and tolerance for all faiths and people of all faiths. My friend’s version of secularism seemed to be a subversion of my beliefs. So I began to think about what secularism means to me.

My father was a secular atheist and my mother is a practicing Hindu. I grew up in Christian boarding schools from the age of four and was taught catechism as part of the school curriculum.

Despite my formal religious instruction, I clung to my father’s secular atheism as the answer to religious and social intolerance. But it also came with a certain lack of belonging—a passport to a citizenship of non-participation.

Barack Obama, in his book, The Audacity of Hope, talks about growing up secular, much like I did. His mother was a secular humanist. “In her mind, a working knowledge of the world’s greatest religions was a necessary part of any well-rounded education. In our household the Bible, the Koran, and theBhagavad Gita sat on the shelf alongside books of Greek and Norse and African mythology.”

Obama’s father was a Muslim who became an atheist. His stepfather was a Muslim, who became a skeptic. While growing up in Indonesia, Obama studied in a Catholic school as well as a Muslim school, where the “meaning of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer” was part of the curriculum. Later as a young man he embraced Christianity because, as he puts it, he wanted to belong to a particular community of faith that had a mandate for social change. In spite of his religious affiliation, Obama has frequently spoken in favor of secularism, “[In America] we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation. We consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.”

In my case, Christianity was what I was formally taught, Hinduism was what I culturally and socially assimilated, and secularism is what became my moral guiding light.

When my children were young, I realized that I had an obligation to show them the value of community faith participation. I had to offer my children the choice to believe. So I recruited my mother to help us understand and perform the practice of Hinduism. And I, too, put the Gita and the Koran on the same shelf for easy access.

Most importantly, I wanted to teach my children that belonging to a minority religion carries particular responsibilities as well as particular inconveniences.

Here in America, the exoticism of Hinduism will always be disconcerting. As immigrants from India, whether we accept Hinduism or not, we are likely to be called upon to explain its practice and philosophy, even as members of other faiths from India.

I believe that it’s important to engage with religion in real and academic ways before choosing to attach or detach from it.

The important distinction to keep in mind is that to be non-Hindu is not to be against Hindus. And to be Hindu does not carry any disrespect to other religions. Likewise, to be a non-Christian is not “unchristian.”

This is my version of secularism.

Indeed, it is easier to be an atheist and secular than to be Hindu and secular. But secularism is not a religious agent. Just as morality is not the birthright of any religion.

Secularism is about equal consideration. And, secularism has helped define the moral moments of my life with and without religion.

An Infinite Series of Beautiful Patterns

You’ve probably heard this story, but it bears repeating: In 1918, when Cambridge mathematician G. H. Hardy visited his protégé, Srinivasa Ramanujan, at Putney, they boarded cab number 1729. Habitually given to looking for distinguishing patterns in numbers, Hardy felt compelled to remark to Ramanujan that he found 1,729 rather dull. Promptly disagreeing, Ramanujan responded with the number’s exceptional characteristics: 1,729 is the smallest number that can be written as the sum of two cubes in two different ways (123 + 13 and 103 + 93).

When New Yorker reporter Charles Bethea asked Emory mathematics professor Ken Ono what was unique about the number 73—which represented the record number of wins that the Golden State Warriors were poised to notch for the 2016 NBA season—Ono’s response was equally inspired. “I like the number,” he told Bethea. “It is the sixth emirp.” Emirp is prime spelt backwards and emirps, Ono explained, are prime numbers that are also primes when written backwards. So 73 as well as 37 are prime numbers.

The creativity behind discovering patterns in numbers and equations was brought up at a panel discussion at Stanford on the making of the film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, based on Ramanujan’s life. Ono was a panelist at the event and he used the word “artistry” to describe Ramanujan’s work. Others on the panel—Princeton professor of mathematics Manjul Bhargava and the director of the film, Matthew Brown—seemed completely at ease with this idea of Ramanujan’s work being an expressive art form.

Indeed, when Ramanujan’s process of discovery is examined and compared to other great artists, so many parallels can be found.

Leonardo da Vinci, the artist who gave us The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, was known to be obsessively driven to observe, record, analyze and sketch. His art form was decidedly scientific in its approach. His paintings are breathtaking observations of nature and the puissant energy of movement and stillness.

So also Beethoven, Bach, and Indian artist and mandolin maestro U. Srinivas. These musicians explicated the purpose and vitality of sound through a rigorous investigative process.

Ramanajun’s three legendary notebooks contain between 3,000 to 4,000 mathematical discoveries. He had in abundance what is essential for any artist: keen insight, and a talent for persistence.

Ramanujan was engrossed in the explorations of equations just as an artist would. To the exclusion of things and people around him. In a 1987 BBC documentary on Ramanujan, his wife Janakiammal says, “All I can tell you is that day and night he worked on sums. He didn’t do anything else. He wasn’t interested in anything else. Just sums. He wouldn’t stop work even to eat. We had to make rice balls for him and place them in the palm of his hand. Isn’t that extraordinary?”

There’s a particular and startling beauty in finding patterns, whether in numbers, words, behavior, music or in natural formations around us. And to questions about that beauty, Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos is famously known to have said, “it is like asking why is Beethoven’s ‘Ninth Symphony’ beautiful? If you don’t see why, someone can’t tell you.”

Perhaps the point is not to question whether Ramanujan was an artist or a scientist. For it is only in the intersection of the two that extraordinary works of genius are produced. Without analytical bearing, poetry is a mere collection of words set to meter. Without recognizing the exquisite skill it takes and the knowledge it exposes, math is a mere tedious process of proofs and calculations.

A work of art must radiate an uncommon perception. A work of science must uncover hidden truths. And each requires a particular skill and rare imagination. Ramanujan’s equations and theories advanced our knowledge of how we relate to the world around us. He drew exceptional patterns with ordinary numbers and gave infinite color to our world. He was an uncommon artist in the pursuit of truth.

Get the Spelling of Gandhi Right, Please!

Browsing through the display at Berlin’s Black Box museum (depicting the impact of the Berlin Wall on the history of Germany), I happened upon a reference to T. N. Zutshi, an Indian, who traveled to East Berlin in 1960 wearing a placard proclaiming, “The first step toward freedom: Get rid of your fear and speak the truth!” The picture of Zutshi with the crude German signboard slung around his neck standing in front of barbed wire was particularly stark and greatly inspiring, for I’d heard about this man, who considered himself a “citizen of the world,” and had courted arrest and fought for those he had no real affiliation to, other than that they were, like him, humans.

In the picture, Zutshi was standing along with Carl-Wolfgang Holzapfel, both of whom were arrested by the East Berlin police for five days, according to the little information bulletin alongside the pictures.

Both men were described as followers of “Ghandi.” And, what’s more, as I skimmed through the texts of other languages, I noticed that our Mahatma’s name was spelt correctly in all but the English translation!

This was not the first time I have come across this misspelling of Gandhi’s name and it has never failed to irk me.

But, standing there in a dimly lit museum passageway in Berlin, peering at the English massacre of Gandhi’s name, it seemed more than a sloppy error.

Surely, there were editors involved? Surely one of them knew the correct spelling of one of history’s greats? And then there was the curious behavior of the Germans, who did know what the correct spelling of Gandhi was, but yet had not elected to correct the English version.

So what compels our English speaking brains to substitute a gh for a dh?

In most English dialects, there is a digraph for gh, which is either silent as in “fright,” pronounced as an “f,” as in “cough,” or said with a slight exhalation for the “h” as in “ghost.” So yes, there is a phoneme for gh. And, too, there is a marked difference from the way that phoneme is used and the way Gandhi is pronounced.

Though the common English word “bathing” is a close enough comparison to the way Gandhi is uttered, there is no English phoneme for dh.

For sure, spelling mistakes are easy to make and so are typos. Much depends on how we phonetically sound them out.

To me, learning the spelling of words is a product of reading—a process of capturing the spellings of words like images onto my brain. The more you encounter the word or name in books and publications the more it is likely to leave a spelling impression.

In fact, Catherine Snow, an expert on language and literacy development in children, says that “Spelling and reading build and rely on the same mental representation of a word.”

When it comes to foreign names that we rarely come across, careful research and attention must be allocated to get the spelling right. Many proper nouns do not adhere to typical orthographic constructs, like Schwarzenegger or Dmitry Medvedev.

Errors with names that we see or read frequently are rather revealing. I feel compelled to make assumptions: like perhaps the person hasn’t read anything since Stuart Little; perhaps he lives buried under broken up bedrock; perhaps his tv remote is embedded into his hand.

When museums, articles, books and public forums misspell certain famous names it is a consequential error. It can result in reinforcing and perpetuating the mistake.

And it’s pretty egregious that Wiktionary, UrbanDictionary, Wikiquote and RaceandHistory have entries for “Ghandi!”

The argument to be made is that those who misspell Gandhi’s name rarely mean him any disrespect. So, perhaps, the Black Box museum wasn’t being disrespectful. It’s a matter of precision and attention to detail: touted German qualities.

Gandhi is quoted as much as Martin Luther King is, but I have not encountered anyone spelling Luther as Lhuter, have you? When we make the effort to spell people’s names right, we show that we care. Take the time and get it right, folks!

letters to the editor

In the Matter of Race
Regarding Jaya Padmanabhan’s editorial on “race” (“It’s the Race Card, People,” India Currents, March 2016), I am Indian on my mother’s side, so for better and worse it doesn’t show in my name in our one-surname-only society.

Merle Oberon, the late movie star (Wuthering Heights, etc.), was also Indian on her mother’s side, but lived at a time when one had to hide our Indian heritage, else one would be subject to discrimination.
(I love Mahatma Gandhi’s response when he arrived in England and was asked what he thought of British civilization and he said, “That would be an excellent idea.”)

About “race” and the Oscars, it is a fact that blacks are well-represented statistically in movies, on TV, and in ads, whereas Hispanics, Indians, East Asians, etc., are very under-represented. It is WE who should speak up and insist on inclusion, and accurate inclusion. (When Jodie Foster was given an Indian husband in her film The Brave One, I believe he was made a Christian, which is not typical and gives movie-goers a false impression.)

Keep up the good work but avoid cross fanatics and don’t give in to incorrect ideas and terms about nationality and race. I am just as Caucasian as the next average person here and am very proud to be Indian, all of our major western languages began in India, and much culture besides (for instance, the word “ignite” comes from the fire god Agni).
Henry E. Collins, Los Angeles, CA

I am three-quarters Indian and read your editorial with interest.

First, I might encourage Indians—people from India or of Indian origin—to correct those who call Native Americans “Indians.” Columbus thought he’d landed in India. Had he thought he’d landed in China, most Americans would still be calling Native Americans “Chinese.” Or, ironically, red Chinese (as in red Indians, who are not red, but this culture likes to assign colors for easy, if inaccurate, reference).

Second, Indians are Caucasians. Yes, typically darker than European Americans, but/and still Caucasian. Color or shade is one thing, race is another. Feel free to educate average Americans, be they “white” or “black,” about the word Caucasian, which most don’t understand. Nor have most heard of the Indo-European family of languages, although they speak one (usually only one).

And using the word “Asian” to cover the by far biggest continent population-wise (also the biggest geographically) is lazy as well as inaccurate. It’s like always saying “European” and never saying French, German, Italian, etc. There are far more differences within Asia, culturally and racially, than there are in Europe. “Asian” reduces this complex continent which will, in time, be the world’s power center and ignores its fascinating and increasingly relevant differences and contributions.
 Wilhelm Sanborn, Santa Monica, CA

In 1992, I got a call from a Human Resources representative because I had marked myself as Asian in one of the forms. I didn’t know any better at that time. My logic was that India is in Asia, therefore I’m an Asian (the choices on the form were very limited then, Caucasian, Hispanic, African American, Asian)

I remember the conversation vividly. He said that they were going to cross out Asian and mark me down as a Caucasian.

I was bewildered. I had never thought of myself as a Caucasian. Basically, I was informed that when you look at facial features and body type, Indians are closest to the Caucasian race.

If that is the case then Nikki Haley has a reason for identifying herself that way on the form (even though her motive might have been different). The forms have more options now and many times I have seen South Asian as an option.
Suchitra Bhandarkar, email

I am not sure that I agree with Jaya Padmanabhan entirely about it being confusing and hence OK to identify yourself as white (“It’s the Race Card, People,” India Currents, March 2016). Can you imagine the row it would have caused if she had said that she was Black, instead?

If you parse it carefully, the categories are supposed to represent ethnicity/race, but I do agree that the labels are very misleading when you say Black and White. Maybe it should be more like African descent or Caucasian etc.

Of course it is also interesting that many states do not require you to fill in that race category but South Carolina does! Maybe you should write an article along the lines of how archaic/misleading the choices are and use that to frame the larger racial argument.
Shyam Pillalamarri, email

Chuckles and Giggles
I loved the article by Usha Akella (“Pomegranates and Potatoes,” India Currents, February 2016). She perfectly describes the “pom” and “pot” (such apt abbreviations!).

The writer has a great imagination. The paragraph where the pom and pot are asking the mirror as to who stands taller is funny. I chuckled when the mirror said to the pot to take a good look at itself and lose some of its weight. It still brings a smile to my face as I write this.

And the way the author refers to God’s creations and how the potato was an afterthought was simply inspired!

She perfectly describes the pom: the peeling of which is a torture. And the pot, the poor pot, existing merely to gratify the belly. It isn’t torturous to eat, peel, cut, fry, or even microwave. It pleasurably satisfies the hunger of human beings.

An hour after reading, I was still thinking of the words and sentences Usha used so eloquently.
Meenakshi KP, San Diego, CA