My grandmother made me an American Girl, and an Indian one. I remember my grandparents visiting from India in 1993: my cosmopolitan Papa, as at home eating on a banana leaf as with fork and knife, and my ambitious Ammamma, who had moved from a Kerala village to London as a teenager, and seemed always to be renegotiating the shock of that initial encounter with Western cultures, values, and norms. They visited us often, and we them. My parents, who had come to the United States in the late 1970s for higher education, made it a priority—financial, temporal, psychic—to take my brother and me to India regularly. I went to India first at two months old and thus never registered the event of a first encounter. My Papa’s granddaughter, I ate comfortably with my hands. I would later laugh but never fully appreciate jokes about ABCDs and coconuts, so well-adjusted did I feel to my so-called hybrid identity.
But I thought a lot about what it meant to be Indian in America. I was eight years old in 1993 and had recently begun receiving my very own subscription to American Girlmagazine. As I have written before in these pages, the magazine featured real-life girls as paper dolls, and I was to be the centerfold of the August/September 1995 issue. I take no credit for that early foray into minor celebrity. My Ammamma saw the magazine, realized that they had yet to feature an Indian American, and gathered together the requisite photos and stories about my foremothers. The result was a paper pop-out version of me with accompanying text: “Meet Ragini Srinivasan—and some of the remarkable women in her family. Ten-year-old Ragini lives in San Jose, California. She can trace her family back 100 years, to her great-great-grandmother, who lived in India!”
So much meaning inheres in a single exclamation point. I was only able to trace my matriline back to 1906; previous paper dolls had taken readers to Ohio, 1783, and Iceland, 1834, to their great-great-great-greats, and so on. The fact of my being Indian compensated for my limited genealogy, something which my grandmother, perhaps because of her own experience as the lone sari-clad woman on London streets, had intuited: the allure of the exceptional and unusual ethnic subject. Sixteen years later, I read that introductory text as an announcement not just of an Indian-American girl to the motley readership of American Girls, but of the constellation of issues which would occupy my thinking, writing, and scholarship in the years to come. I have been interested in the ways in which we are each determined—by space, place, speech, and economies of culture, by birth and family, by social, political, and legal institutions. I have been interested in the ways in which we stage our “introductions,” to deploy the word in the broadest sense.
Meet Ragini: I have written for India Currents since 1999, when, encouraged by my mother, I submitted two unsolicited pieces to the magazine. It is perhaps not an overstatement to say that IC and I grew up together. When, as an 8th grader, I submitted my first piece, titled “Why I Never Became a Girl Scout,” India Currents was just 12 years old.
IC was by then a mainstay in Indian homes, and I had often heard my parents remark on the quality of the articles and opinions. Unlike certain other diasporic rags, IC did more than ethnic cheerleading, more than feel-good stories of spelling bee wins (though there was, and remains, a context for that kind of content).
I began contributing a regular column in summer 2001, after having been invited to do so by then-editor Vandana Kumar. For six years, my column ran on the “Youth” page. Unlike IC’s film, music, or book reviewers, recipe or advice columnists, or even features writers, I wrote creative nonfiction, fragments of memoir, and personal essays, very much in the spirit of “Desi Voices,” Ranjit Souri’s “Personal Items,” Lakshmi Palecanda’s “Bottom Line,” and even Sarita Sarvate’s “Last Word.” Mine was an “early” word from the second generation, the American-born children of India Currents’ original readership. In the years since, scores of other second-generation voices have filled the magazine’s pages, complicating its narratives, and revealing other sensibilities.
My first columns dealt with a mélange of teen issues (college applications, dating, driving, conformism), interspersed with sociopolitical reflections (on feminism, multiculturalism post-September 11th, animal testing, child labor, literary conventions) as well as attempts to interrogate (my) Indian-American identity. I had spent over a decade learning bharatanatyam, for example, and I wanted to understand the desire to preserve “authentic traditions” in diaspora. I attended an all-girls Catholic high school, and my columns reflected my evolving conceptions of mentorship and guru-ship, the nuances of sexism and racism in the classroom, and the politics of religion.
In 2003, I entered Duke University in North Carolina, where I did my undergraduate work in literature, anthropology, and women’s studies, and where my understanding of race, gender, and cultural production in America was necessarily complicated. My articles for India Currents grew more nuanced, reflecting my exposure to grassroots activism in Durham and engagement with crises like the lacrosse scandal and Hurricane Katrina from a position of painful proximity. My time at Duke provided me an invaluable perspective on the American South and enabled me to cultivate a more expansive understanding of “Americanness” itself, as a project inclusive of varied political attachments, cultural ideals, and historical investments.
During my college years, under editor Ashok Jethanandani, my writings for IC became explicit attempts at “translation,” attempts to pose theoretical questions concretely, communicate scholarly ideas in accessible, productive ways, and to engage in public life through writing. I became more attuned to the disparate expectations and interests of India Currents’ diverse readership, which continue to guide the writing I do today in the “Zeitgeist” column under the editorship of Vidya Pradhan. Whether writing about my wedding, my great-grandmother, or the philosophy of history, I strive to bring the same critical sensibility to the page while maintaining an ethos of honesty and generosity toward the reader whom I would hope to engage.
An Editor’s Questions
In mid-2007, I assumed the editorship of India Currents, a position I would hold for two years. Editing IC will always remain one of my greatest privileges and responsibilities. I learned a tremendous amount from the IC team, our writers, and from the imperatives of producing a text each month that could serve as a voice “of” and “for” a community both real and imagined. Throughout my tenure, I found myself alternately challenged, inspired, and perplexed by the demands of the magazine. What was our purpose, and why? For whom did we write?
Publications like India Currents, which have ethnic-specific niches, operate on the logic that the content we produce is that which has been or would be excluded from or ignored by the mainstream media. Our motivation has historically been twofold: to profile individuals, highlight achievements, and circulate ideas which would otherwise never be published, and to inculcate in our readers the belonging, pride, and recognition that cannot be achieved through the consumption of mainstream media.
Ethnic publications thus first demarcate territory according to the perceived need for coverage of our minority communities. This need is expressed in different ways: our young people need role models; we must be able to “see ourselves” in the faces on TV and in newspapers; the dominant culture does not value our achievements, dances, movies, books, religions, or successes. We must “tell the stories” that wouldn’t otherwise be told. This raison d’être is called into question when, for example, the New York Times or the San Jose Mercury News has already profiled the young Indian filmmaker, say, whom IC is highlighting next month.
The question of “telling our stories” is one I broached in a pair of editorials (“Hyphenated Writing,” May 2008; “Stories without Limits,” June 2008), asking the following: In what ways do the concerns of a diasporic publication differ from those of India-based publication? How can we think critically about the vocabulary that is being used to describe the diasporic experience? What limits do we place on the content we produce? And what criteria do we uphold for the knowledge and experiences we communicate to our readers? Responses I received from certain incredulous readers were telling, particularly one suggestion that I look to our magazine’s name for a clue to appropriate subject matter.
But IC had always inhabited a more critical stance on identitarian issues, and I was never content with simply running “Indian” or “Indian-American” content. What did that mean, anyway? Weren’t there enough outlets out there running all-things-desi? The South Asian Journalists Association’s SAJAforum, for example, used to pick up anything and everything “desi in the news,” from bylines in major papers, to crime-beat appearances, to e-mail spam that arrived in the name of an imaginary Indian: “Wilson Patel wants to transfer money into a safe foreign account …” Today, SAJAforum is more discriminating about its posts, which perhaps reflects the proliferation of other desi-identified blogs.
Of course, critiquing what it meant to “tell our stories” did not mean that IC could escape that most difficult of questions: “Why is this article in India Currents?” When I was editing IC and we ran stories on subjects like poetry, social work, or global warming, we had to answer the question by profiling Indian poets and Indian social workers, by asking Indian environmentalists to share their journeys with our readers. We made it Indian—if not by authorship then by interviewee—in order to publish it in India Currents. Our content, then, was structurally and methodologically quite consistent, even when we were exploring new thematic grounds.
I sometimes found this a frustrating constraint on our material, but I struggled to come up with a better answer to the question of what merited publication in IC. My editorship also made me more aware and appreciative of the magazine’s unique business model. Since 1987, IC has been a community resource. That means that it has maintained incomparably low advertising rates, a free distribution model, and a reliance on freelance contributions to generate editorial content. Chris Anderson of Wired magazine has for some time been discussing the “new” economy of “free.” India Currents has employed a “freeconomic” model for years, realizing (as Google has now) that advertising can effectively subsidize the reader’s experience of the magazine. Of course, IC maintains the necessary “separation of church and state”-like chasm between the advertising and editorial departments. But the free model has enabled us to stay connected to—and support the continued existence of—small businesses, groceries, law firms, salons, and realtors. In a hyper-corporatized world of WalMarts, Starbucks, and oligarchic financial institutions, it is a creditable achievement.
Cultivating a Critical Readership
In 25 years, India Currents has come to command a certain commitment from its readers, advertisers, and contributors. As a longtime writer for the magazine, I believe we must continue to do the work we do, publish the stories we do, address the issues we do, and represent the readers we do. And, I believe we must be able to answer a very simple question from would-be detractors: Why?
There are many answers. Here’s one: A side effect of having an ethnic or community-identified readership is that many of our writers use “we” language. This has varying effects on readers. In India Currents’ case, those who identify as Indian, or in some cases South Asian, are faced with the choice of whether or not they want to be implicated in the narrative, argument, or anecdote in question. “Am I,” they must ask in response to every sentence read, “part of this ‘we’ or ‘us’ being deployed?” And to what end?
Those who identify as non-Indian, who read the magazine as a text representative of “an-other” culture, must reconcile their own “otherness” to the shared assumptions, knowledges, and bilingual asides of an “imagined” and actual community of writers and readers.
Certain letters that I received during my editorial tenure confirm that readers are often engaged in this kind of work. Consider this response from an Indian reader to Sarita Sarvate’s August 2008 story on yoga vacations. Sarvate had traveled to Kerala for a yoga retreat, only to find herself in a new age ashram populated primarily by Caucasian Americans and Europeans. Her article tried to come to grips with her conflicted feelings of belonging and entitlement, of being a tourist among tourists in her “native” land, of cringing at mispronounced slokas and being unable to assume standard yoga positions. The reader’s letter—a criticism of what she perceived to be the writer’s hostility to non-Indians at the ashram—was almost conspiratorial: “I would advise,” she wrote, “that we avoid creating misunderstandings between Indians and American readers.”
By asking readers to engage with the persistent deployment of ethnicity, and by providing open, progressive forums within which different visions of community might be complicated and challenged, India Currents is doing work that cannot be done by mainstream outlets, whether because of the muzzle of political correctness or the precedence that “news” often takes over commentary. We are perhaps even fostering new ethical reading practices, since our texts demand from readers a heightened level of investment, shared responsibility, and attention to potentially problematic representations.
Herein may lie the greatest potential of the ethnic and community media: Against the dictates of journalistic impartiality, and in spite of academic movements away from the privileging of knowing subjects, we have placed our bets on the enduring value of critical self-awareness. It is a privilege and an honor to be part of this ongoing effort with India Currents.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Berkeley.