Tag Archives: Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan

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.



On Writing the Acknowledgments

This month, I finish my Ph.D dissertation (a dissertation that is really speaking only the first draft of an eventual book, and therefore not “finished” at all). Throughout this process, I’ve thought often about the acknowledgments I will write. Who will I thank, and in what words? How clever should I be? How sentimental? How brief?

People remember these things. When I was deciding between doctoral programs, a colleague advised that I choose Berkeley Rhetoric because the majority of students thanked the Graduate Student Services Advisor in the acknowledgments of their dissertations. This, it seemed to my colleague, was a remarkable sign of a generous community and infrastructure of support. (Whether or not it was is beside the point.)

Recently, during a conversation about academic books (like, who ever reads them, anyway?), a friend recalled a line from a 2009 monograph by Eric Hayot: “I want to acknowledge, finally, the people who constitute the first concentric circle of my address …” Seven years later, my friend was still chewing on those words, as he contemplated who he was writing for and what forms of address would be adequate to the task.

I’ve written here before about the acknowledgments from Inderpal Grewal’s book, Transnational America: “[B]ecause there are communities to care about, there is something I care to write about.” I read the book in 2005, but I remember that line even now. Her words still sound to me like the most sensible and succinct causal explanation of the relationship between life and work, the subject of the writer and the object of the prose.

I think, too, of how my undergraduate advisor, Robyn Wiegman, thanked in her most recent book “a string of vibrant English teachers in public schools in Miami, Florida” for her first, elementary-school lessons in the grammar of “subject” and “object”—which were also lessons about the grammar of life.

And then there are the words from my grandmother, Lily Tharoor, who’s more thrilled than anyone that I’ve finished the Ph.D. When she published her first book, Household Hints (excerpts from which appeared in this magazine in 2008), she scrawled an extra line of dedication in my copy: “To Ragini, who didn’t help me with this.” I had promised to type up her manuscript and failed, so I deserved it. What’s more, I won’t soon forget it.

Acknowledgements often begin with the disclaimer that all cannot be acknowledged, too many must be thanked, the errors are mine, everything good comes from everybody else, etc. Pulling this off in a way that is honest and generous, humorous yet sincere, humble and alive to the privilege of having people to thank in the first place, is no easy art. A truly outstanding dedication can sometimes redeem even a very bad book.

Do you thank only those who contributed ideas or feedback directly pertaining to the book? Do you thank those who made your life more livable during its creation? How do you thank the people you have to thank, but don’t want to, versus those you want to, but who may not want the acknowledgment? In what order do you proceed?

In academic books, the often pages-long acknowledgments sections alternate between perfunctory (and in some cases contractually obligatory) listing of funding sources and previous publications, mixed with glowing words on everyone the author dined with during the decade it took to complete the book.

There’s a lot of name-dropping, as a matter of course. Acknowledgments create an aura of celebrity and credibility by association. Who you have to thank says something about who you are, who you can ask for help, and who’s willing to give it. And it says other things, too. I’ve used the acknowledgments sections in other people’s books in order to figure out who’s married to whom, who has kids, who is friends with whom—in other words, as a guide to figuring them out.

You notice when you don’t get thanked. You notice when you do.

Let me take this opportunity, then, to thank some people who can’t really be thanked in my dissertation, because I don’t really know who they are. Call it the opposite of name-dropping.

Thank you to:

…the neighbor downstairs, whose full name I don’t know, who hung around my living room while Mrinalini slept and I ran out to buy a suit the night before a major job interview.

To the skeptical interviewer who wouldn’t let up and probably lost me that job. Because of him, I doubled down on the nascent arguments in my dissertation and got a better job.

To the anonymous peer-reviewer who rejected the not-good article and didn’t mince words.

To the anonymous peer-reviewer who cheered the masterful, poetic rewrite.

To the administrator who wouldn’t let me give back my fellowship when Mrinalini was in the hospital.

To the editor who cold-called me from across the country with praise for an article I didn’t realize anyone had read.

Finally, to the readers of this column. Next month, June 2016, marks the 15th anniversary of my regular contributions to India Currents. It’s hard to quantify the mark that this magazine, and you readers, have had on my academic work, but I’ll try. You have given me a space to which to return—a space of literal column inches and virtual relations. You have presented “India” as a provocation. And you have given me time. Acknowledging you is a pleasure long overdue.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

Anatomy of a Mugging

On March 1st, when my daughter, Mrinalini, and I were coming home from school on a bright, late-winter afternoon, we were mugged.

I use the word advisedly. Mugging is a term with a fraught and well-researched history. It occasioned one of the most well-known studies coming out of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in the late 1970s: Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order. In that work, the authors trace how “mugging” took hold in 1970s Britain as a racialized label for particular forms of street crime. Although street crime was not at any point limited to black youth, “mugging” became an alibi for the policing of black communities, in ways that elided relevant structural conditions including unemployment, poverty, education inequities, and complex migration histories.

I grew up in a fairly homogenous South Bay Area suburb: homogenous because my neighborhood was relatively affluent, and because the Bay is a deeply segregated metropolitan area. Since leaving home, I have lived in four cities that are less segregated, more urban, and less affluent. I lived for four years on the Berkeley-Oakland border, before the most recent wave of tech-spillover gentrification, in a mixed area of high and low-income housing. Now I am living in Hyde Park, the neighborhood of South Chicago that also includes the illustrious University of Chicago, but which is notoriously surrounded by areas of high crime.

I like where I live, as I liked south Berkeley. I want Mrinalini, too, to grow up in a genuinely diverse environment—not just ethnically, but racially and economically. I take umbrage when people ask me if my neighborhood is safe, because what they really are suggesting is that it’s too black. I won’t countenance the question. Especially now.

We were walking our usual route home from school: past a popular commercial complex and then down four blocks to our apartment. Mrinalini—who, at almost three, insists she is a “big girl”—was nevertheless in an Ergo baby carrier strapped to my chest like a little joey.

Around my neck were her schoolbag filled with stale snacks and my leather purse.

Clearly, the purse attracted the attention of the boys who then followed us home. I could call them young men; they were teenagers, somewhere between 15 and 18. They saw the purse and my distracted head inclined toward my daughter’s as the two us chatted on our walk home. And as soon as I turned the keys in the front door of our six-unit building, they were upon us.

In the movies, the moment of encounter when an assailant sneaks up on a victim (jumps from behind a door, or appears, masked, in a window) passes quickly, and then we are on to a tranquil scene happening meanwhile. In real life, however, this is the moment that plays over and over in your mind.

I thought somebody had fallen on me, a neighbor coming in from the street. Then, a split second later, I thought it was a friend sneaking up for a surprise. Confusion. The scene speeds up: I am turning; I am face to face with someone grabbing me, grabbing what feels like my head, reaching, grasping, pulling; my child is still strapped to my chest, and all the straps of the bags are mixed up. I am inside the front door which means I am too far away from the buzzer to ring for my neighbors. I am not yet inside the second door, which means I cannot get away.

Because I resist, and because the teen has to fight me and eventually break the purse off my neck by snapping the leather strap in two (I sustain minor whiplash and sprained fingers; Mrinalini, a cut lip), this is “strong-arm robbery” and not “larceny-theft.” It is over in minutes, and then the long tedium of credit-card-cancellation and new-phone-acquisition begins.

It is no surprise, this mugging, despite the fact that my neighborhood is heavily policed.Here, we have the Chicago Police Department (CPD) and the University of Chicago Police Department (UCPD), which is one of the largest private security forces in the United States. Just three blocks from our apartment, Secret Service agents sit guard in black Chevrolet Suburbans at the intersections surrounding the private residence of Barack and Michelle Obama. There are emergency call towers on every block and guards at each corner.

Later, I will meet no less than ten different police officers from CPD and UCPD, who arrive on the scene in a split second. I am given a police report and a case number, but no promise that they will recover any of my stuff. “This is my beat,” one UCPD officer tells me, a little shamefaced.

They want to know if I can identify the muggers. In this highly segregated neighborhood, in this highly stratified city, in which some are policed and some are given a pass, they have no dearth of suspects. “They probably live in your neighborhood,” one officer says. “Will you recognize them? Can you try?”

I won’t, I say. And honestly, I can’t. And I don’t even want to try. Worse than being mugged would be internalizing suspicion and setting the example for my child that there are some bodies on the street to be wary of. I’ve already been mugged. I won’t be complicit in the policing that ensues.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

To My Uncle Shashi Tharoor on his 60th Birthday

I’m sorry I shut the window on your fingers, curved around the frame of the steel car door. It was an accident; I didn’t know how quickly the automatic glass would close. We were driving around Durham, and it was the first time I really had you to myself. You were at Duke to give a series of talks that I, then a college senior, had helped to organize: a reading in the Rare Book Room, a lecture in the school of public policy, a dinner at that tony and remote place that only university big-wigs could go. The great Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman was there to break bread with you. Among others.

I walked you through the gardens and drove you around campus, and it was then, during one of those drives, as we were discussing your imminent departure from the United Nations after a celebrated career and its premature end in October 2006 at the vetoing hand of George W. Bush’s John Bolton, that your hand got slammed.

I remember how you winced. And I remember taking you to the airport later, after that exhausting couple days of events, throughout which you were, as always, exceptionally generous with your responses to even the least inspired questions. You heard the best version of each question, its inner and unthought potential, and you inverted it and returned it with the full force of your creativity and intellect.

You gave a lot of yourself during that trip, and I was tired just watching you and walking with you between events, and I thought about how this was what you did all the time, day after day, traveling here and there to appear before new audiences, to eat and drink with covetous strangers, to just be available, really. I remember the sadness and affection I felt for you then, as I watched you descend the escalator, your black roll-aboard in tow.

Since that afternoon in March 2007, you have worked in the private sector, you have been based in three countries, you have twice stood for elected office in India and won, spectacularly. You have been married twice. You have accomplished much. You have come under fire. You have become even more famous (in some quarters, infamous) than you were then, more celebrated, ever more public. You have gone viral on YouTube. You have published dozens of articles and half a dozen books. You have traveled and tweeted, a lot.

These are the things that the world sees and the chattering classes chat about, which appear on your Wikipedia page in occasionally suspect form, which provide cartoonists the ammunition to draw you up, and ignominious economist-politicians the gall to mention you at all. To the extent that they get you right—that they see and hear what it is you give of yourself every day—these artifacts of your publicity might matter. But to the extent that they don’t see or hear you, to the extent that they don’t know who you are, they matter not at all.

Now you are sixty. And what I want to tell you in honor of your birthday is that I hear you and I see you, descending the escalator, ascending the stage, boarding the plane, answering those thousands of emails, responding with unmatched largesse to the questions of the world.

When you moved from the United Nations to the private sector, I began to edit a magazine, this one. You encouraged me, as you always have, to give it my all.

Then, when you went back to India in 2009, I went back to school to pursue a doctorate, as you had done so many years before. You went back to India and I went back to school, where I would begin the research that would become a dissertation about going back to India, about the narrative registration of repatriation. That’s part of it, anyway.

And you are an absent present in this ongoing work of mine. You are the returnee-repatriate who was once an expatriate writer. You are the old Indian Anglophone—with an accent “more British than the Brits’” and that too born in London—faced with the entrepreneurial aspiration and pent-up desire of the New India. And you, unlike so many in your position, have embraced it, proverbial warts and all. You have married into the New India; you are laboring for it; you are allowing it to make its claim on you as you make your mark on it.

You made a tremendous leap of faith in returning to India, but it was not your first leap. From the French you learned in a summer, to the Malayalam and Hindi you have honed. From Boston to Singapore to Geneva to New York to Dubai to Trivandrum. Linguistic leaps, global leaps, leaps of faith: you travel and write and speak because there is more of the world to know and to which to give.

I admire you deeply for this, for the optimism that undergirds all of your movements, and for the obstinacy with which you refuse to capitulate to the cynicism that seems so often to the rest of us like the only reasonable response to a beautiful but ugly world. Happy 60th birthday, Shashi Mama. May you be seen and heard. Or, to paraphrase the American novelist John E. Williams, may you be yourself, and know, ultimately, what you have been.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

On the Difficulty of Making Friends

The scene is a winter party, Chicago, the year 2015. There are large platters of powdered cookies and plates of soft cheese. There is an eight-quart stockpot of mulled wine on the stove, all floating orange segments and cinnamon spice. And there is an older crowd: professors and the partners of professors, the recently tenured and the not-so-recently and the soon-to-be.

In this mix, I, one of two graduate students present, seem quaintly young, with my heavily pigmented hair and asymmetrical cut. I find a glass, am poured wine. I talk to the lovely host. I smile around the room, out of practice. The small talk I usually make is with small people, under three feet tall. Small talk with grown-up strangers that is only moderately mediated by alcohol, but does not take place over the dinner table, is a different game.

I find a spot on a corner couch and begin conversing with a man who, it turns out, shares my alma mater. But he was there some three or four decades before I was, and after a few minutes, it becomes apparent that we are not only talking about different times, but different places entirely.

“I loved it there,” I say. “I couldn’t stand it,” he counters.

After some time, I see someone I know. I stand; I make my way to a crowded part of the room in proximity to her elbow and shoulder, tapping-distance. I don’t have much to say other than hello, and after I say it, with what I hope is warmth, I have nothing else to say. I like this person, but I don’t know her very well. I am not sure that we are friend-material. I am not sure what it would take to become friends, what exchange of intimacies, what shared experience, how many meetings, how many different modes of contact and communication would be required. I myself chafe against over-familiarity and so try not to be too familiar, too friendly. But I like her. I think she would be nice to get to know, and I wonder what it would take to make something like that happen: a friendship.

Later, after another abortive start, I find myself in conversation with this woman and a friend of hers, who I like just as much. The talk moves forward in fits and starts. Then a pause, awkward smiles, until someone takes up the football and runs. It feels very much like a sport that requires effort and perseverance, training, muscle memory. Equally, it is a mental game, this social practice called making friends.

Silence again, a smiling-apologetic parting of ways.

Awkwardness, and yet the stakes here are fairly low. I will likely not see most of these people again, as I don’t imagine that I will be living in this particular city for long. Actually, it is a matter of mere months more. In the last 18 months, we have lived in Berkeley, Princeton, and Chicago. We have friends in all of these places, which sometimes feels like none of them.

Academic life is like this for many people for a very long time: a condition of migrancy. Of always moving, never settling. Of making and leaving friends, collecting contacts, moving through rooms an outsider and interloper, here only for the year, only for the semester, only until the next appointment, only until the gig is up.

Migrancy (before it leads to immigration or naturalization, if it does) is a condition of betweenness, double-consciousness, what the cultural theorist calls “‘not-here’ to stay.” Which is a good description of how I feel these days, in the third city I’ve lived in, in as many years, as a dissertation-writing spouse, following my husband around on a tour of this country’s fancy universities.

My parents were immigrants from India, but they decided to be here, in California, to stay. They could find their chosen family, and they did. We’re here, but not staying, so why bother making friends? Why do the coffees, the walk to the lake, the texts, the emails and pleasantries and dinners, the clean-up after, the food preparation, the table setting, the family introductions, the showing of albums, the telling of stories—all the things you have to do to cultivate intimacy with would-be friends you didn’t grow up with, didn’t go to school with, don’t work with, don’t naturally run into every day?

Maybe the answer is that it’s not about making friends, but about flexing those socialization muscles. About cultivating the urban disposition that allows for strangerly and neighborly exchanges that need not develop into relationships, in the heaviest sense of the word. Maybe small talk is small for a reason: you are supposed to hold back, inhabit the silences, find a way to sit with the uncertainty of your own murky intentions and inch your way toward something approaching an honest exchange.

This, I find out belatedly, is a tenure party. Our host has just been tenured, which means that he is now effectively “married” to the institution where he works—which happens to be the institution near which I live, but to which I have no actual affiliation. This is his home. I imagine belonging here, buying a house, making and keeping friends. I imagine a rooted life. Then, I go to grab my coat from the pile and, pulling it against my chest, I make my way to the door.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a doctoral candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.

Women in Business

India Currents is an important facet of America’s emerging multi-cultural identity. It’s a monthly publication that explores the heritage and culture of India as it exists in the United States. The magazine covers a wide range of subjects – politics, arts, literature, travel, and even recipes – tat are of interest to a general readership. Over the years, India Currents has won considerable recognition for it’s content, including awards from New America Media, The Arts Council Silicon Valley, and the South Asian Journalists Association as well as nominations for the Utne Independent Press Awards.

India Currents has been in publication since 1987, when it started as a utility for the burgeoning South Asian community. Today, the magazine is published in two print editions as well as online, but it remains true to its original ethos and is free to all California subscribers.

For the first time in 21 years, India Currents has two women at its helm. Vandana Kumar, a veteran in the publishing business, has worn many hats in two decades – from working on advertising and the calendar to serving as Editor and now as Publisher of the magazine. Her goal for India Currents is that it be a “passionate voice of the community that evolves with the changing diaspora, while remaining accessible, usable and relevant to the times.” That’s where Ragini Srinivasan comes in: a second generation writer and aspiring academic who’s not much older than the magazine itself. As managing editor, Srinivasan is expanding India Currents’ relevance for a younger, more web savvy readership with stories that challenge established notions of the immigrant experience. Both women agree: it’s an exciting time to be thinking about India in the Unites States.