Author Archives: Aditya Desai

About Aditya Desai

Currently teaching and pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland. Spends the rest of the time in wanderlust about Baltimore and DC, looking to soak up good, fun culture.

Dharun Ravi Sentenced: A Moment to Consider Indian Americans as Convicted Felons

Dharun Ravi

Dharun Ravi, center, is helped by his father, Ravi Pazhani, second right, as they leave court in New Brunswick, N.J., Friday, March 16, 2012. Photo by the Associated Press.

by Aditya Desai

On March 16, ex-Rutgers student Dharun Ravi was convicted on multiple charges of invasion of privacy for online video streaming a gay sexual encounter between his roommate, Tyler Clementi, and another man. This led to Clementi’s suicide days later. Two years ago in 2010, Clementi’s death was headline news. Now, similar headlines appear once again—except with Ravi’s face on the front-pages.

In all respects, this story shows the worst and darkest outcome that can result from what someone would consider “harmless fun.” As a hate crime, Clementi’s death re-energizes conversations about homophobia, internet privacy, and online bullying. For all of the questions surrounding Clementi’s death, one aspect seems surprisingly under-discussed: the fact that Ravi is Indian American. After all, this hate crime involved a sexual minority. If so, how did racial minority slip from news coverage?

The Indian American community is often referred to by luminaries of science and technology, or making headway for America’s immigrant communities. It is a jarring to think that now, we have another public figure in Ravi and his hate crime.

As the Indian American population grows and prospers, it is unfortunate—and perhaps inevitable—that the darker side of our human nature shows. How do we react and accept those from our community who are cuffed and charged on the 6 o’clock news?

If names such as Sanjay Gupta, Bobby Jindal, and Deepak Chopra are commonly seen as shining stars, “apples-of-our-eye” as it were, is there any anxiety about what Ravi represents for Indian American attitudes regarding homosexuality?

Naturally, Ravi has been labeled a rotten apple of the good bushel, and the matter is seemingly brushed away. Fair enough, but this fracture to the Indian American image thus far in the media, against the Ravi case, merits further discussion.

Putting aside the notion of whether Ravi’s actions were pranks or purely homophobic, would a focus on his ethnicity, the community he came from, have shifted people’s opinions? Could it have  “softened” his image in his defense, or risk sullying the image of all other Indian Americans?

As a minority, is he held more accountable for ostracizing Clementi? Or is this our noble colorblind court system at work?

These questions are not meant to push any agendas. Ravi has been tried and convicted by a jury. But in the interest of promoting a better image of Indian Americans, we thought it prudent to provide a space to hear your thoughts.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.


Posted by on March 26, 2012 in Current Events


Amitav Ghosh Discusses River of Smoke

by Aditya Desai

Bengali-born South Asian writer Amitav Ghosh was in D.C. recently for a reading at Politics & Prose, a local bookstore. He discussed his new novel, River of Smoke, the continuation of his 2008 tome Sea of Poppies, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

River of Smoke is the second in a sweeping epic of his proposed Ibis trilogy (named after the trader/slave ship that the character’s lives are linked to) takes place during the 19th Century, plotting the rise of the East India Company over opium trade across South Asia.

Similar to the portrait in his book jacket, of a whispy, silver-haired, scarf-wearing cosmopolitan, Ghosh adopted an introspective nature as he read a small portion of his new novel. As the local Washington readership, of all ethnicity and age, listened to his temperate but emphatic narration, it was clear he had a genuine love of these characters and the world. The sequel was an inevitable need to live a while longer in this world far removed from him and his audience.

Ghosh Talk

Amitav Ghosh reading at Politics & Prose, Washington, D.C.

After the reading, the floor was open to Q&A. Over the course of discussion, Ghosh described his initial hook into the novel as being the opposite of the more common migrant narratives that seem to dominate Indian American or Indian English literatures. He said, that instead of the “moment of arrival” to the new land, he instead wanted to look at the “moment of departure” from home.

It was during this era in which the company’s trade routes doubled as the journey trails of the first Indian migrants West – resulting in the diverse Indian communities across Africa, the Americas, and the Caribbean today. The wide cast in the novels include not only Indian and British characters, but also American, Chinese, and French, making it a global conscious piece of fiction.

Though the two novels don’t depict this actual rise of migration, they provide a fresh flipside to thinking about how Indians have spanned their presence across the globe. As the works posit, India’s fertile soil and supply of indentured servants allowed the East India Company to efficiently harvest poppy and produce of opium, which became one of the great economic and political commodities of the time.

Even though Ghosh’s books attempt to draw parallels to today’s global situation (i.e. Western financial stakes in China and India,) Poppies and now Smoke are ultimately works of fiction, and engrossing reads at that. Though, I personally have not gotten around to River of Smoke, the first novel was a wonderful panorama of the men and women whose lives became caught up in these sweeps of power. Ghosh goes to great lengths as a writer to render each character vividly, as well as the time period, employing pidgin Hindoo-English dialogue and lush portrayals of Calcutta and the Ganges basin.

Functioning on many levels—from historical fiction, to adventure epic, to anthropological ensemble—the novels are rich in discourses that can apply to wide net of readers. For the Indian American community, Ghosh’s work certainly seems an apt extension of the grander history of South Asians crossing borders beyond the subcontinent. Don’t worry about reading the Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke in order—Ghosh states they are both distinct, separate works—a “Calcutta book” and a “Bombay book” respectively.

Here’s to the third, Mr Ghosh; perhaps bringing us the rest of the country in the same vibrant prose?

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Leave a comment

Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Literature


The Contagious Effect of Cricket

by Aditya Desai

“The cup stays in South Asia!” exclaimed my roommate, breathing, eating, and drinking India’s glory win last weekend as champions of the ICC Cricket World Cup, top tourney in that “other” sport that’s played everywhere except America. The final match against Sri Lanka, in a photo-finish final score of 277-274 runs, capped off a Cinderella sports story for India.

Indian Cricket Champions 2011

The champions celebrate with the World Cup trophy, India v Sri Lanka, final, World Cup 2011, Mumbai, April 2, 2011. Photo by Associated Press

Here in the States, while spring is mostly dominated by March Madness, there is still an undercurrent of Cricket Craziness. Thanks to the burgeoning South Asian community, cricket fans are alive in the West with the same fervor as any Sunday tailgater or home-plate season ticket holder.

In places with large populations of South Asian Americans, the sight of this unusual and “foreign” sport being played on baseball fields and in parks has become common.

The reactions and perceptions are almost cliché: Cricket is kind of like baseball—it has a bat, you hit the ball, and run to score. But the bat is flat? And why do you swing your arm around in a circle to toss? And what the heck is a wicket?

But I digress. Cricket is not so much of an otherness-sport anymore. The rising influence of immigrant communities in America has exposed many people to cricket, just as soccer has caught on with record U.S. viewership of the FIFA World Cup last year.

There are a few reasons to explain cricket’s growing popularity in the U.S. Many Indian immigrant players have spread the joy of cricket to their American friends. Over the years, cricket has become widely organized in largely populated Indian American areas. Cricket leagues sponsor games and local tournaments that are open to anyone who creates their own team.

In my locale of Washington, D.C., both the Washington Cricket League and the Washington Metro Cricket League organize games for teams comprised of players from all backgrounds: young and old, men and women, working professionals and students, Indians, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Sri Lankans, and more.

Similar teams and leagues exist all around the country. As a result, cricket is certainly alive and well in the States (yes, by the way—there is a USA Cricket team and a USA Cricket Association). Cricket, like all sports, has grafted itself into the national DNA of many countries over time. For these people, to play cricket means to celebrate their heritage. In the U.S., where different cultural groups rub shoulders, cricket has allowed South Asians to come together in healthy sportsmanship.

In the ICC, a lot of nationalism rhetoric swirls amongst the teams. This is especially evident between India and Pakistan, opponents in sport and the global political stage. Of course, they carry the identity of their home countries, and everyone knows it. Cricket is another arena for testing the rocky relationship between these two nations, leading to very real threats of rioting or worse. During that semifinal match, more than 1,000 police security personnel guarded players from both teams in their hotels.

Tensions that extreme don’t seem to carry overseas. In the U.S., many of my own friends (South Asians from all backgrounds) skipped work and school entirely to watch a satellite feed of the game from the early pre-dawn hours into the midday. Outside of the subcontinent borders, there is less geopolitical focus in the competition. As the semi-final, and then the final win for India culminated, my Facebook news feed was flooded with people cheering and exclaiming for joy—from those who lived cricket and those who still weren’t even sure how it was played.

I’m certain this level of sports fanaticism is familiar to Americans, even if the game isn’t. No matter what your background is, most people understand the act of donning on a jersey, snacks in front of the huge flat screen TV, and jumping out of the couch and screaming for joy when your team scores. The only difference is that Indians, and South Asians, have to adjust to the time zones.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.


Posted by on April 12, 2011 in Current Events, Social Life


Jhumpa Lahiri and Indian American Literature

Author Jhumpa Lahiri, photo by Elena Seibert

Author Jhumpa Lahiri

by Aditya Desai

This past weekend I attended the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Washington, DC, and Thursday night’s keynote address was given by no other than internationally acclaimed author Jhumpa Lahiri. The success of Indian American literature blossomed after Lahiri’s collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies, won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.  Lahiri’s first novel, The Namesake (2003), also inspired the 2006 film of the same name.

She spoke before a crowd of over 3,000, answering the perennial question, “When did you know you wanted to be a writer?” Lahiri touched widely upon the nature of growing up as a second generation immigrant in the United States: she struggled with her inability to read her mother’s choice Bengali poetry, and of course, she endured the cultural clash of choosing a writer’s life over more financially “safe” professions.

Indian American literature has become a burgeoning genre in the past decade, with a new generation of Salman Rushdies and Bharati Mukherjees emerging from the woodwork. As an aspiring young Indian American writer myself, knowing that so many Indian American authors have achieved such high levels of success is an affirmation of my own dreams and passions. I look forward to many days as a composer of lyrical narrative.

In talking with family, friends, and the Desi grapevine, I know Lahiri has quite a few detractors who criticize her for writing narrowly about upper-crust New England immigrants (she was raised in Rhode Island and got her graduate degree at Boston University), or for simply having too many downbeat endings which make the Indian American experience seem like a closet full of skeletons. However, Lahiri’s success is a critical step in bringing more South Asian names to bookshelves across the country.

Perhaps reconsidering Lahiri’s work, it’s not so much that the New England façade betrays the Indian sensibility, but rather that the Indian has now become part of the New England lifestyle. In the same way, the rise of this literary genre can add more to the Indian American story.

While at the AWP Conference, I also attended several panels that focused on issues in Asian (including South, East, and Middle Eastern) immigrant literature, from ethnic differences and multi-syllabic names, to post-9/11 tensions and convergence of cultural histories.

It is a great reminder of how art—whether it be the written word, painting, film, music, or so on—can be a great form of expression for those of us living a hybrid East West life. Organizations and communities that cater to our multi-lingual, multicultural voices exist all over the country to help further color and weave the fabric of not only Indian Americans, but America as a whole.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.


Posted by on February 10, 2011 in Literature


Tags: , , , , ,

Happy Navratri 2010

by Aditya Desai

As of last Friday, it is officially Navratri 2010, the Indian festival of nine nights. It is the auspicious time marking the start of the autumn season, when Hindus worship to the goddess Devi for good tidings over the coming season. The holiday is most prominently celebrated by Garba-Raas dances, where participants make pumped up foot movements, circulating around a lamp or picture of the Goddess.

While Garba is based on a series of coordinated steps and claps, it’s component, Raas, involves using dandia, or decorated sticks. Partners hit the sticks against each other’s, mimicking an ancient sword battle that the goddess Devi took part in.

Tradition aside however, Garba-Raas has become a significant melting pot for the Indian American community. The conflation of South Asian communities across the United States, Garba has attracted people from all backgrounds to gather and enjoy night upon night of dance, music, and fun.

At college especially, where people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds rubs shoulders with each other, there are always many who attend their first Garbas, and join in on the festivities. This includes not only non-Indians, but Indians as well, as the significance of the holiday varies depending on which part of the country you hail from.

However once you are in the circle, all differences are dropped and it becomes a beautiful pageantry of colorful saris and kurtas, swaying back and forth to the drumbeats. The annual Navratri Garbas have lead to an increased popularity in the style, leading to Garba-Raas competitions across the country.

For the community at large, Garba continues to be an important pillar in celebrating Indian culture and tradition in the country. People will come from far and wide to go to their closest high school gym or temple community hall to join family and friends. In some areas with especially large communities, sports stadiums and arenas have been used as Garba venues, such as Houston’s Reliant Stadium.

Along with being an important religious occasion, Garba-Raas in the United States has also become an opportunity for the Indian-American community to broaden horizons, increase presence, and offer a fun, festive way for people to learn about the culture.

Aditya Desai is pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Leave a comment

Posted by on October 15, 2010 in Culture


Kudos to Archie Panjabi, TV star and Emmy winner

by Aditya Desai

I don’t get much time to watch TV, and so one can imagine that I wouldn’t have much interest in tuning into the Emmy Awards. However, I was very delighted to read the headlines and see that British Indian actress Archie Panjabi snagged the award for Best Supporting Actress Drama for her role in CBS’s The Good Wife.

Upon learning this, I clicked over to the show’s IMDb page and main website to see what type of character she portrayed: Kalinda Sharma, a sexy, confident, stiletto-clad private investigator for the show’s Chicago legal firm. She wears smart outfits, dishes clever words with the judges and lawyers, and is supposedly by fan speculation a closeted lesbian.

Here now I, who had zero interest in the show five minutes prior, applaud such a strong and well-defined character of Indian descent. And what is even more commendable, the show’s writers did not retroactively make her Indian upon casting Panjabi. Rather, she was originally written as a “Bollywood Erin Brockovich private investigator” as told in this LA Times interview.

This comes from a steadily growing presence of Desi characters on television, well-known examples being Kelli Kapoor from The Office or Mohinder Suresh from Heroes. But now with an Emmy win, the industry has, intentionally or not, acknowledged the Indian community’s presence in the legal world, typically portrayed in the media as being affluent and high-powered.

So I raise my glass in kudos to both Archie Panjabi and The Good Wife’s writers and production team for creating an Indian American character that simply inhabits the same great personalities played by mainstream actresses without making it about the ethnicity.

I may just decide to make some time in the schedule to tune in to a couple episodes.


Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Diversity, Entertainment


Indian Americans and the Ground Zero “Mosque”

Editor’s Note:

The Indian American community was affected by post-9/11 politics, as seen in documentaries such as “Divided We Fall: Americans in the Aftermath,” which explored the effects of post-9/11 sentiments on the Sikh American community across the United States.

How, then, is the Indian American community affected by the issues surrounding Park 51? And how does the community itself respond?

In the blogosphere, there has been a variety of discussion on the issues surrounding the building of the community center in Manhattan. Major outlets such as the New York Times have recorded the range of opinions on the subject; visit NYTimes’s The Thread for “an in-depth look at how the major news events and controversies of the day are being viewed and debated across the online spectrum.”

Historian Scott Kurashige comments on PRI’s The World that after WWII, America had faced similar controversies surrounding Japanese American community centers and any sort of religious institutions along the West coast.

Both the New York Times’s Room for Debate and the Washington Post’s On Faith also provide forums for discussion.

Blogger Aditya contributes to this conversation by sharing his personal thoughts on the matter within the context of the Indian American community.

by Aditya Desai

With September around the corner, perhaps a two-cents on the endlessly debated Park 51, or the “Mega-Mosque,” would be proper.

The Indian American community, which includes a good number of Muslims, is certainly directly affected by the rhetoric, outcry, and the ultimate fate of the Islam interfaith center being built just blocks away from Ground Zero in New York City.

The situation is clear: First Amendment, okay. President Obama approves, okay. We can even further accept that, in all likelihood, it is not a breeding ground for the future generation of suicide bombers and jihadists. Rest assured, the building will likely go up.

The question is not the fidelity and religious nature of Park 51, but whether or not it besmirches the lives lost on September 11th. It is this issue that has divided people in a profound way and honestly in a way not seen perhaps since the ‘08 election.

Many Indian Americans have voiced their opinions against opposition. Fareed Zakaria from Newsweek returned an award he received from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League upon learning that the organization was against the building of Park 51. Indian journalist MJ Akbar also wrote a column signifying the building as a symbol of partnership between America and its Islamic communities.

There are also many middle-ground opinions; and Indians have weighed in as well. Many, like New Yorker Vandna Jain, still feel that the wounds of 9/11 are too new and that the mosque is an insult to the victims’ memories. Others think an anti-Muslim fear is still prevalent enough that the building should be reconsidered.

Indian Americans come from a culture that has had its fair share of tensions with Islam, such as the Babri Mosque being built at the site of the Hindu holy city Ayodhya.

In the month of India’s Independence, this is a resonant issue for the Indian American community. The fate of Park 51 has already become a litmus test to see just how tolerant America is towards Islam, but could it also be the same for minority groups overall?


Posted by on August 25, 2010 in Current Events


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 103 other followers