Once upon a time if a desi had a cameo in a film, or wrote a book, that was enough to include them in mandatory chest-thumping end-of-the-year lists. No longer. Desis make the news (good and bad) with such regularity it’s hard to fit them into one list. Here’s a roundup of some of the Indian Americans who were the shooting stars of 2009.
Let’s start with something desis are not supposed to be good at—politics. Yes, there is Bobby Jindal, but the Louisiana governor bombed in his response to President Obama’s address to Congress. Brit Hume’s (Fox News) response was the kindest—“the speech read a lot better than it sounded.”
But some Indians did make it big in the political sphere in 2009. We’ve all heard about R2I—the desis returning to India as the economy sours in the United States. But usually they don’t go back to run for political office. Shashi Tharoordid just that, donning a mundu to win election to the Lok Sabha from Kerala. Now the suave former United Nations diplomat is a minister of state for external affairs and a fixture on television. The media-savvy Tharoor is a journalist’s dream, always ready with a quick quote, sometimes a little too ready. His resolution for 2010 might be “Look before you tweet.”
Closer to home, San Jose got its first South Asian city council member in 2008 with Ash Kalra. The Santa Clara County Bar Association honored him with the Unsung Heroes Award in 2009. Iowa State Senator Swati Dandekar was elected head of the National Order of Women Legislators. IAFPE, the Indian American Forum for Political Education elected Yogi Chugh its president. Watch out for more desis in politics as several gear up to run for Congress in the mid-term elections in 2010. Helping them will be the Indian American Leadership Initiative which formally launched a political action committee this year. We get to have our own Old Boys(and Gals) Network now.
Of course, the big news this year was the new team in Washington. President Obama became the first U.S. president to celebrate Diwali in the White House. He even pronounced mithai correctly. He also hosted his first Iftar dinner recently. Four Indian-Americans made the prestigious White House Fellows list but the real prizes were plum posts in the administration.
At least 20 desis made it high up the White House food chain albeit with complicated titles. Preeta Bansal, the former Solicitor General of New York, is now general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget.
Neal Katyal, the Georgetown University professor, best known for his role defending the Guantanamo detainees, is now Principal Deputy Solicitor General. Aneesh Chopra is the first Federal CTO of the United States and Vivek Kundra the CIO. Kal Penn put T.V. series House on hold to campaign for Obama. He became Associate Director of White House Office of Public Engagement. Arun Majumdar is Director of Advanced Research Projects in the Department of Energy. Agriculture has Rajiv Shah as undersecretary of research, education and economics. Farah Pandith parlayed a Bush administration appointment into an Obama post as U.S. Special Representative to Muslim countries. Ro Khanna is deputy Assistant Secretary for domestic operations of the U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service, International Trade Administration.
Suresh Kumar, once a sports commentator for Doordarshan, gets to be Assistant Secretary of Commerce and Director General of the United States and Foreign Commercial Service. Dr. Rajiv Shah became the new director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Like we said, sometimes it’s hard to fit it all into a business card.
High-profile U.S. Attorney for Manhattan Preet Bharara, who was the prosecutor on the Galleon hedge fund case, made news recently in the government takeover of four U.S. mosques and a New York City skyscraper owned by a Muslim organization suspected of being controlled by the Iranian government
Indian American businessman Vinai K. Thummalapally was nominated for ambassador to Belize. He becomes the first Indian American ambassador. Who is Thummalapally? Well, the political bundler helped raise $100,000 for Obama. More importantly, he taught the President how to make dal when they were college roomies.
Oh, and goodbye to bailout czar Neel Kashkari aka the $700 billion man. He headed the Office of Financial Stability till June 2009.
The desi who grabbed headlines by NOT taking a White House job was CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta. He took himself out of the running to be the next U.S. Surgeon General. Instead he made news by contracting swine flu.
The Winner of the IC Politics Award is an ensemble—the cast of the Obama White House 2009 aka “Desis in the House.”
Science and Technology
We don’t necessarily understand what they do, but Indians making it big in the sciences and R&D isn’t exactly news. For example, Vik Singh at Yahoo! was just one of 5 Indians on MIT’s Technology Review 35 Young Innovators under 35 of 2009. But you don’t get too many who are anointed bona fide geniuses. The MacArthur fellowships, nicknamed the MacArthur Genius awards, included two desis—Maneesh Agrawala is a computer visions technologist and L.Mahadevan is an applied mathematics specialist. Agrawala developed LineDrive that renders route maps like handdrawn sketches. Mahadevan investigates the principles that underlie the behavior of complex systems that address everyday things like why flags flutter and why skin wrinkles.
Venkatraman Ramakrishnan nabbed the big prize. The Indian-American scientist, now at Cambridge, won for his work on the ribosome. He has been studying the ribosome, which makes proteins, since his post-doc days at Yale.
Finally, some science news everyone can wrap their heads around. NASA crashed a spacecraft on the moon’s southern pole in October to find out if there was water there. The engineer behind the $40 billion project was Alok Chatterjee, a veteran of ISRO who now works for NASA.
The IC Science Award goes to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. We are not 100 percent sure about what a ribosome does, but a Nobel is a Nobel.
Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of Pepsico, sometimes dubbed the “India-born cola queen,” has become a fixture on the Forbes list of most powerful women. That’s been four years in a row. Nooyi belongs to an exclusive club—just three percent of Fortune 500 Chief Executives are women. Still on PepsiCo news, the company just appointed Jaya Kumar the President of its Quaker Foods & Snacks. Kumar, the chief marketing officer for Frito Lay, is moving to healthier foods like Quaker hot cereals and Rice-a-Roni.
Sara Mathew was already President and COO of Dun and Bradstreet which sells information about corporations. This year she assumed direct leadership of D&B’s U.S. Customer Segments.
Vanity Fair published its New Establishment 2009 list of the top 100 Information Age power brokers. Number 78 was Vinod Khosla who raised $1.1 billion in two funds to invest in green tech.
The IC Business Award goes to Indra Nooyi (again). We are running out of things to say about her.
They might not be attracting Sandhill Road venture capital yet but young entrepreneurs are popping up all over the country. Some of them are scrounging in your trash.
Nikhil Arora, 22, co-founded BTTR Ventures which uses coffee waste to grow gourmet mushrooms. BTTR Ventures was nominated for BusinessWeek’s America’s Best Young Entrepreneurs. The company was also selected as a top 12 finalist (and the only American team) in the BBC/Newsweek World Challenge for Social Ventures.
Still on the green beat, California teenagers Adarsha Shivakumar and his sister Apoorva Rangan started Project Jatropha to wean farmers in Karnataka off environmentally destructive tobacco growing to planting a bio-diesel source—Jatropha. Shivakumar just won the Bowers Environmental Youth Leader award, a sort of environmental Nobel for youth. His goal is to create a “mass movement where small farmers collaborate with environmentally enthusiastic youth who will inherit the world.” Now that’s what we call California Dreaming.
“Desigineer” Pranav Mistry from MIT’s Media Lab worked on “Sixth Sense” hand-gesture controlled technology straight out of Minority Report.
Two college grads Bilal Memon and Usman Ahmed launched a hugely popular website called MyLifeIsDesi.com. You too can blog on topics like Academics, Cheapness, Dads/Uncles, Moms/Aunties. Just end the blog with the words My Life is Desi. Here’s one—Today I opened my fridge at home and saw a dozen large yogurt containers. None of them contained yogurt. MLID.
Other young desis made innumerable lists and honors like the Intel Science Talent contest—American Idol for brainiacs—as well as the 2009 Fellows from the Davidson Institute. Also what’s a Spelling Bee without an Indian American winner? This time it was Kavya Shivashankar. The 13-year-old spelled “laodicean” to win the Scripps Spelling Bee. Now there is even a South Asian Spelling Bee. Do we really need a separate desi Spelling Bee—how about someone starting a 12-step course for Spelling Bee de-addiction instead?
A special nod to 6-year-old Arun Asthagiri of the South Pasadena Children’s Orchestra. He was part of the youngest orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall.
The IC Young Desi Achiever of the Year goes to—we wouldn’t dare to single one out. We are too scared of the mummies and daddies of the rest of them.
Arts and Entertainment
America’s Got Talent. And desis have Ishaara. The high-octane Bollywood dance group of UC Berkeley students wowed audiences with their dance numbers. Anoop Desai aka Anoop Dogg could not make it past seventh place in American Idol but hey, he got to ring the opening bell at NASDAQ. And he has more Twitter followers than Priyanka Chopra.
Down was up for Jay Sean. The British-Punjabi singer, born Kamaljit Singh Jhooti, claimed top spot on the Hot 100, lost it to Britney Spears and then reclaimed it a week later. He’s also Number 1 on US Top 40. Life can’t get much sweeter. Abhishek Bachchan and Aishwariya Rai Bachchan held hands on Oprah andPadma Lakshmi is pregnant.
This Top Chef doyenne wants to raise awareness for endometriosis which she suffers from and that makes pregnancies difficult. But she made more news by revealing that she butters her belly every day after her shower.
M. Night Shyamalan formed a company called The Night Chronicles which will produce a thriller per year. Hope he has a sixth sense about it. His last filmThe Happening was anything but. In desis-in-films news, Mira Nair’s Ameliahit the screens with the appropriate respectful bio-pic Oscar buzz. But what happened to Shantaram?
Yes, there was a desi spotted in the Michael Jackson story. Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran performed the autopsy on the King of Pop but no one could pronounce his name. He was also the medical examiner in the O.J. Simpson case several years ago.
And of course there were Azharuddin Mohammad Ismail and Rubaina Alifrom Slumdog Millionaire who were part of Oscar madness this year (along with Pinki from the short Smile Pinki). Jai Ho. ’Nuff said.
But the IC Arts and Entertainment Award goes to—Shahrukh Khan for a perfect storm in a chai cup. While coming into the United States, he was held up by immigration for a couple of hours. That became an international effigy-burning incident. It was also great publicity for his forthcoming film about a Muslim man who comes under suspicion in post 9-11 America. It’s called My Name is Khan. (Are its credits going to thank the Department of Homeland Security?)
The Written Word
In an annus horribilis for journalism, some desis managed to make good news. Raju Narisetti left The Mint in India to become managing editor at theWashington Post. Playwright Rajiv Joseph was among the 10 writers who won the prestigious Whiting Writers’ Awards, given annually for “exceptional talent and promise in early career.” Amidst the plethora of books by desis a couple stood out. Rakesh Satyal fictionalized the savory-sweet story of an Indian American growing up gay in the burbs in Blue Boy—a story long time coming (out). Cheeni Rao wrote about being a homeless drug addict on the streets of Chicago in his memoir In Hanuman’s Hands. Kudos to both for moving the literature of the diaspora beyond food motifs and cardamom dreams.
Mallika Dutt, who runs Breakthrough which combines popular culture with hard hitting human rights work, was honored with the American Courage award from the Asian American Justice Center. Sakhi, the women’s rights group Dutt helped co-found, celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, was named one of America’s Best Leaders by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, for his work in promoting interfaith dialogue.
Not Quite the Honor Roll
Billionaire Raj Rajaratnam, co-founder of Galleon Group LLC, was charged with conspiracy and securities fraud. Rajaratnam, who was born in Sri Lanka, was also sued by survivors of Tamil Tiger attacks for giving millions to the Tamil Relief Organization. Anil Kumar, a director of McKinsey & Company and Rajiv Goel, managing director of Intel Capital were also charged with insider trading. A lot of Blackberries in Silicon Valley are hastily deleting their names as we speak.
Fashion designer Anand Jon once dressed the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Janet Jackson. Now he has been convicted of sexual abuse and rape of minors and sentenced 59 years to life. He claimed he was set up by models he had rejected.
The American dream came to a dead end in the cul-de-sac of the recession for many desis, some of them with tragic consequences. In 2008, Karthik Rajaram, distraught at being unemployed, killed his wife, three sons and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself in a well-heeled Southern California suburb. In Detroit in 2009, unemployed engineer Lakshminivasa Rao Nerusu was charged with killing his wife and kids. In the SF Bay Area, R Devarajan shot his wife, kids, and his brother-in-law’s family before killing himself. Engineer Jing Hua Wu was let go from his job at SiPORT, a semi-conductor company, and returned the next day to kill CEO Sid Agarwal and two others in a shooting spree.
The Undercovered Tragedy of the Year—the model minority grappling with the stigma of recession and job loss.
Desis mourned the loss of one of their brightest. Stanford computer science professor Rajeev Motwani, who had mentored and advised Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google, accidentally drowned at his home in Atherton. “Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it,” said Brin on his blog. The first ever annual Pan IIT American Leadership awards gave Motwani its lifetime achievement award posthumously.
In the world of ethnic media, one of its stalwarts, Prakash Parekh, publisher and editor of the Gujarat Times, passed away in New York. Pakistani American veteran journalistKhalid Hasan, former press secretary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, died in Washington D.C.
World music lost one of its giants. Sarod maestro Ali Akbar Khan who gave Indian classical music a home in the West, passed away in California. He said if you practiced for ten years, you might please yourself. If you practice for thirty you might please your guru.
In today’s world of instant Twitter success, that’s a lesson worth savoring.
Sandip Roy is the host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media.