Category Archives: Literature

Event: Book Talk with Dr. Nalini Natarajan

Friday, April 5th, 2013

12:30 p.m. — 1:30 p.m.

CFCH Conference Room
Capital Gallery, 2nd Floor

600 Maryland Ave SW
Washington, DC 20024
Google Map

Metro: L’Enfant Plaza

Free and open to the public.

The Indian American Heritage Project at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage (CFCH) present a brown-bag book talk by Dr. Nalini Natarajan, Professor of English at the University of Puerto Rico – Rio Piedras in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on her new book Atlantic Gandhi: The Mahatma Overseas.

Atlantic Gandhi examines Gandhi’s experience as a traveler moving from a classic colony, India, to the plantation and mining society of South Africa and argues that his diasporic life resonates with recent perspectives on the Atlantic, as an ocean that not just transported the victims of a greedy plantation system, but also saw the ferment of revolutionary ideas.


Growing Up Indian in America

Cover of “Are You Indian?: A Humorous Guide to Growing Up Indian in America” by Sanjit Singh

By Lavina Melwani

  • Does your family try to smuggle Tupperware containers filled with daal chaval into Disneyland?
  • Do your parents have drawers full of ketchup packages from McDonalds?
  • Do your parents yell into the phone even when they are not calling India?
  • Does your family own a Toyota or a Honda?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you are definitely, really, Indian! These are part of a quick quiz by light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek “anthropologist” Sanjit Singh whose book Are You Indian? is a humorous look at growing up Indian in America. Singh checks out the Indian American phenomenon right from infancy: where the little bachas are already being prepped for a spelling bee by their anxious and ambitious parents, to SAT and college admissions, and right on to the traumas of finding a mate.

Sanjit Singh has an MBA from the UCLA Anderson School of Management and lives in San Diego. He is an entrepreneur, a speaker, and a contributor to the humor blog Bad Swami. This is his first book—and yes—there is a testimonial from the author’s mother: “This book is a disgrace! Sanjit should have been a doctor!”

You are bound to find many anecdotes which resonate in your own life, and you realize Indian families all have the same dreams, issues, food, and very often, the same cast of colorful characters from immigrant parents to Indian uncles and aunts. In a chapter devoted to Indian uncles, Singh proclaims that Indian uncles are the world’s worst dressers—and he’s probably right. Just think back on your own portfolio of zany uncles and aunts!

Singh presents a clear picture of an Indian household. “When pulling up to the driveway, you will usually see a Honda, Toyota, or one of each. Wealthier homes have two Mercedes Benzes with personalized license plates that say something like, “KRISHNA1” and “KRISHNA 2”. All cars owned by Indians have a box of tissues and a towel in the trunk. No one knows why.

As you enter the home, you will notice about 30 pairs of shoes in the entryway, which usually prevent the door from being opened. You’ll open the closet to hang up your coat and notice that inside the closet is a full pop-up mini mandir that allows a quick, convenient drive-by puja as you enter or leave the house. As you move past the closet, you’ll enter a living room with uncomfortable furniture. You’ll be admonished to stay off these mid-century gems which are covered in plastic. The rule is you don’t get to use the “nice” furniture or “pee-lates” (plates) except when “reweird” (revered) guests visit.”

From matrimonial sites to the Big Indian Weddings to ABCDs and FOBs, nothing in the Indian American lingo escapes Singh’s sharp eye or funny bone—and he’s generally on the mark. He writes, “I guarantee you that across town, there is a kid named Abhijit who is practicing his spelling during dinner, after dinner, and on weekends. While you are playing Xbox, his parents are making him spell ‘succeedaneum’ both forwards and backwards, provide the Latin and Greek origins, and recite the definition.”

While you may not agree with Singh’s verdicts on Bollywood films or Indian sweets, you still can smile at them, and you will learn new terms such as ISG—Indian Social Gathering—and all that goes on at one of these, and of course, the “Indian Goodbye” which goes on forever. Also, there are tips on inventing Punjabi nicknames. “To come up with a Punjabi nickname, pick any consonant and add the suffix “-ikku”, “-oopi”, or “-inku”. Examples include Tikku, Bicku, and Pinku.”

Are You Indian is a good read and gets you a few chortles and chuckles. And what’s better than being able to laugh at yourself?

Growing Up Indian: 6 Questions for Sanjit Singh

Author Sanjit Singh

1. Did you grow up in the U.S. and what part of India are your folks from?

Sanjit Singh (SS): My father grew up in Birmingham, England, and my mother grew up in pre-partition Pakistan and post-partition India (UP).  My parents’ marriage was arranged in India after which they lived in India and then in the UK where my two older brothers were born.  The four of them eventually moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where I was born and raised.

So, although I am technically a first generation Indian American, I am really a second generation westerner since my Dad was first generation Indian British.  So, growing up, I did not feel Indian, I certainly did not feel American, and I did not even feel like a “normal” Indian American.  I felt like an outsider in every sense of the word, especially in the 1970s when there were far fewer Indians the Bay Area than there are today.

2. Did you always see the humor in growing up Indian or was it something of a defense mechanism growing up brown in a white world?

SS: I wish I saw the humor back then but I was self-conscious, horribly awkward, and overly preoccupied with being different.  I was also not very good in school and suffered from what they would today probably describe as severe ADHD, but they were not very aware of this affliction back then or how to deal with it.  So my childhood felt like a struggle culturally, socially, and academically.

I think by the time most of us are in college, we begin to better appreciate our family heritage and start to see the two cultures we straddle a bit more objectively.  I think that’s when the humor begins to blossom…long after the “tragedy” is over.  Now that I’m in my 40s, I see my relatively mild suffering as a child as quite humorous.  My child self would probably hate my current self for laughing so hard at my child self.

3. Do you think children have it easier now?

SS: Generally, yes.  I enjoy the fact that it has become “more cool” to be Indian, aided by celebrities like Aziz Ansari, Mindy Kaling, and Archie Punjabi.  These three, for example, are part of great TV shows and not playing horrible stereotypical Indian characters.  I can’t believe the number of TV shows where this is the case, these days.  Also, India’s meteoric economic ascent on the world stage has created a lot more interest in and respect for Indian culture.

4. What’s a typical day for you and the entrepreneurial work that you’re involved with?

SS: I have two companies that are focused on business development, sales, and marketing.  One is in the shipping business and the other is in the language services business.  Essentially I am a middle man and focus my time on getting and servicing both private commercial as well as government contracts and I outsource all the work to vendors.  So my typical day is calling and meeting with decision makers, closing business, and ensuring that contracts are serviced properly.  Now, my typical day also includes promoting this book which has been both fascinating and fun!

5. What kind of a response have you had to your book? 

SS: Quite positive.  So far, people seem to find it funny and enjoyable and have been very kind with their reviews on Amazon.  Two things have surprised me a little.  First, my family both in the US and India enjoyed reading my work though I tease them relentlessly in the book.  Second, I’ve had people from many different cultural and ethnic backgrounds tell me they really enjoyed the book.  I footnoted extensively throughout the book to ensure that my stories were accessible for anyone and am very gratified that non-Indians have been able to follow along and have fun.

6. While Indian parents (uncles and aunties too) have their peculiarities, what do you think are their strengths?

SS: I think Indian Uncles and Aunties, on balance, teach their kids great values.  Many of them teach their children to work hard, get as much education as they can, appreciate everything they get, be frugal, and make their family a priority.


Lavina Melwani is an award-winning journalist who has written for several international publications including: India Today, Newsday, The Week, WSJ, Travel Plus and The Hindu. She lives in New York. Her online magazine, Lassi with Lavina, is about Indian art and culture. Click here to visit her website, Lassi with Lavina.


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.

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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in Literature


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


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