Category Archives: Social Issues

A New York Vigil for Jyoti Singh Pandey

Photo by Athanasia Kotopoulos.

Shine Jyoti – A time for Remembrance & Action

By Lavina Melwani

They gathered on January 15 in the dark, in the biting winter cold in Union Square, Manhattan’s instinctive gathering place for protests and vigils, for remembrance and for times of loss. Encircled by towering buildings and rushing, frenzied traffic, they had come together, carrying lighted votives which glittered in the dark of the disappearing day.

It was appropriate that they had gathered here for though Jyoti Singh Pandey’s story may have taken place in a street in Delhi, it has gone on to become a global catalyst, not just for women but for men of good will, for all human beings.  Looking at the somber faces, not only Indian but of every race, one realized that sexual violence is something everyone has to contend with.  I could even imagine Jyoti Singh Pandey, huddled in a coat with a votive in her hand, standing in solidarity with the crowd.

She was us and we were her.

The ‘Shine Jyoti’ vigil had been organized by the nonprofit group Sakhi for South Asian Women which works with victims of domestic violence,  in conjunction with a host of women’s and community organizations. There were men, women, elderly and the young, babies in strollers. There were hand-made banners which told of the concerns, of the way sexual violence had infiltrated communities: ‘Jyoti, Your Light Shines Through the Darkness. Shine in Power”;”From Delhi to Ohio and Beyond: If you are not fighting rape, you are saying it’s OK”; “Silence hides Violence”; “Speak Even if Your Voice Shakes”; and just simply ‘Respect’.

Photo by Juhi Desai

Many voices were heard on the makeshift stage that night, men and women from different organizations expressing their grief and shock and what needs to be done in the future. “The violence and the painful details have been haunting us all,” said Sethu Nair, outreach advocate with Sakhi.  ”We feel anger, outrage, sadness, intolerance and perhaps what brings us all together  today is a feeling of solidarity, a knowing within us that it is time to come together and do something.  But above everything, what is outrageous and unacceptable to me is the silence. All of this awareness this case has brought forth has done little to truly address the silence that surrounds gender-based violence. And that silence is right here among us.”

She added, “It is quietly among us in the way we never truly acknowledge that rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, intimate partner violence, family violence, incest is not something that happens out there,  to other people, far from here.  Today, this gathering here is not only about Jyoti and India. Today is about us coming together to acknowledge that violence and abuse, that dynamic of power and control through that traps our own lives and spirits. It is right here, among us! It happens in the South Asian community right here in New York City.  It happens in all communities everywhere in the world.”

This solidarity vigil was also a catalyst for more action in the future. Sanjay Patil, a member of Association for India’s Development (AID-NY), announced a panel discussion by SABANY and AID-NY on February 6 to discuss the reformation of India’s criminal laws and justice system to protect women’s constitutional rights. For more information on participating, check

Many Voices,  A Shared Pain

I talked to Purvi Shah, a consultant on violence against women, who is also a poet and author of ‘Terrain Tracks’ ( She pointed out,  ”Sexual violence affects all our communities and each of us. As a result, each of us needs to be part of the solution. Ultimately, we are working towards a world where we can show healthy desires, starting with behavior that respects everyone’s body, integrity, and right to be fully human.”

Indeed, sexual violence can come in many forms, from spousal violence to ‘eve teasing’ to molestation and rape. Many community activists from different spheres of society spoke, proving that violence is the common denominator in so many relationships.

“We are here today to say that we all must work together to remove the stigma about talking about sexual violence, and to change our culture.  No one has the right to take someone else’s sexual consent, or control over their own body,” said Chai Jindasurat,  Coordinator at the New York City Anti-Violence Project , a national coalition which works within the  lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and HIV-affected (LGBTQH) communities.

As he pointed out, this is another community which is often silenced and minimized, as not too many people recognize that sexual violence is something that even LGBTQ people face. “There are many myths about LGBTQ sexual violence, including the myth that men cannot be raped, the myth that women cannot perpetrate sexual violence, the myth that LGBTQ people are sexually deviant.”

Photo by Juhi Desai

The Sorrow of the Dhol, and a Poem…

As the vigil neared its end, Sonny Singh Brooklynwala brought out his dhol which usually brings such joy and vibrant energy with bhangra beats. Today it hammered out a sad, sombre tap which pervaded the air and made one focus, almost meditate, like a prayer. Then Purvi Shah, poet and activist, shattered the night with a powerful poem dedicated to Jyoti Singh Pandey and all the women lost to violence.

Here’s an excerpt:

To shine a light
for Jyoti and all the victims & survivors of sexual violence and for our future
Your eyes held so much wonder, marveling
at this movie – Life of Pi – this film that would be your last. Your brothers
miss your sparkle. Your parents, holding you now as flame.
Many names you have been called – treasure,
lightning, India’s daughter, anonymous. And even
your own: Jyoti, the light.
In your shadowed radiance, we raise
a lamp, lead darkness
into flame, death into survival.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.


There’s a lot of talk these days about India’s rape culture.
How it’s the most dangerous place to be born a girl. True.
Yet, let’s take this moment to shift lights: here,
in the U.S., 1 in 6 women is raped. Every 2
minutes, a sexual assault. A priest with hands
too near, a football coach groping, a partner forceful.
Seems like we have a legitimate problem as well.
Yet, how we throw stones, make a false distance. So we need
to pick up a candle in our own
neighborhoods, dorm rooms, lockers, homes.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.


A woman is not a metaphor.
She is skin and bones.
In fact, she is more – she is the courage of a baby bird about to fly.
She is the heart of a friend holding your hand at a hospital.
She is a soul watching a galaxy spinning around her.
These aren’t metaphors but incidences of light, the way hope, desire, dreaming, is as real
as light on your face in the mornings, as real
as the men & women facing
water cannons, tear gas on Delhi streets.
You just have to believe it to see it. You just have to see it to believe it.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.


Her name is Jyoti Singh Pandey.
Let us say, when we leave here tonight, Jyoti,
you may have lit
a spark in Delhi but you have
ignited a blaze across our world.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.
So why are we all here?
To shine a light.
Go then, shine.


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.


Witnessing the Dream, Searching for Stories

by Priya Chhaya

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

MLK MemorialEarlier this month I attended a sneak peek of the new memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. located in Washington, D.C. next to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial. The quotation at the top of the blog frames the memorial—we walk through a split granite boulder (symbolizing the mountains of despair) before reaching the 30 foot granite sculpture-a solid figure who symbolized hope for many. Situated between Jefferson and Lincoln along the Tidal Basin, the memorial represents not just MLK’s work during the Civil Rights movement, but also his broader struggle for worldwide human rights. One of the members of the internationally composed jury for this new memorial was Charles Correa known for his work on the Mahatma Gandhi memorial in Ahmadabad and the design for Navi Mumbai—a new section of Mumbai that is best described as a planned city. Gandhi influences Martin Luther King, and so it is fitting that one of the judges for a monument—one that is meant to be international in scope—is someone with an understanding of Gandhi.

As a high school student I looked to the Civil Rights movement as a moment to question my own gumption. Would I be able to stand up and protest injustice? Could I practice civil disobedience or the Indian counterpart satyagraha (the peaceful demonstrations inspired by the words and actions of Gandhi) if needed?

I also wondered about that first wave of South Asian immigrants in the 1950s. Those that came amidst this intense transformation of American identity. How did they feel? What did they think? What stories can they tell about becoming Americans?

So—this is my charge for the readers of HomeSpun. I would like to interview someone who emigrated from South Asia in the 1950s, or their descendant, that can speak to life during the Civil Rights movement. The interview(s) will be incorporated in a blog post later this summer. Please let us know if you are interested in the comments below.

Seeing the MLK memorial reminded me once again that history does have something to teach us—and that gaining equality is a constant struggle, something to be fought for and affirmed—so that the dream continues to be realized.

Note: The dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial will be on August 28, 2011.

Priya Chhaya is a public historian that works with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She sees history wherever she goes and believes that it is an important part of the American (and Indian American) identity.


Posted by on June 15, 2011 in Diversity, History, Social Issues


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An (Asian) American in India

by Xiang Siow

Guest post by former Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program intern Xiang Siow. He is currently studying abroad in India through the University of Chicago.

Greetings from India! I’ve only been here for a short while but I’m already feeling quite at home and getting back into the school routine. I’m keeping busy with three hours of class a day, including one hour of Hindi. I’m even able to read some of the street and store signs now! Aside from learning Hindi, what we’re learning in class about Indian history and current events is definitely helping me understand this tremendously complex and interesting country.

Xiang Siow on Laxmi Road in India

I’ve heard so much about India from Indians I have met at university, people who have visited here, and of course, through depictions of the country in movies, books, and music. Perhaps most so, I recall Indian American friends speaking of their experiences in India and how their extended families there always welcomed them warmly when they visit. I remember stories of abundant hugs and kisses, presents, and of course, food. I can definitely see and feel that culture of hospitality in the extremely gracious way I have been received by the staff at my hotel, various tourist sites, and local stores.

As an Asian American who has been to other countries in Asia (often to visit family—and be stuffed with food), I am struck by the similarities I see between India and other places in Asia. Since I’ve been here, I’ve felt the same amount of liveliness, excitement, and energy on the streets as I’ve experienced elsewhere. Some would describe this as overcrowdedness and sheer chaos. I like to think of it instead as a passionate intensity of life, with merchants vocally trying to sell items to us foreigners at exorbitant prices, street vendors selling local drinks and food, and people always rushing to another place. These strong sights, sounds, and smells have been some of my fondest reminders of being in Asia.

There are of course differences between my experiences so far here and in other Asian countries. There are sights, sounds, and smells unique to India, like the autorickshaws looking for customers, delicious dosas and wada pav sold on the streets and the vibrant colors of the numerous fabric shops.

One thing that is definitely different for me is being immediately perceived as “foreign” by the local population. In my previous travels around Asia, when visiting family, for example, I’ve been able to “fit in” a little better because I look like most other people on the street. Here, however, I’ve had the experience of being pointed at and stared at by people who have never seen an East Asian face. The other day, when I was in a store buying a hat, the storekeeper even took a video of me! I was quite flattered by this “paparazzi.”

I do wonder exactly what I am perceived as. Unlike most of the other members of my group, who of course have had similar (and more extreme) experiences on the streets and in stores, I am not sure I am immediately seen as American. One of my Indian American classmates used this ambiguity to her advantage by getting a 95-rupee discount at a historical fort we visited. (There are sharp discounts for Indian nationals at historical sites; foreigners often have to pay up to 20x more for entry). I, however, could not pretend to be Indian and had to pay the foreigner fee. Exactly what type of foreigner was I though? Perhaps after I open my mouth it is obvious enough that I am an Asian American and not just Asian—but do everyday Indians have a consciousness of the Asian American community to recognize that people like me exist? If they don’t, I wonder when and if such an awareness will develop. As countries throughout Asia rise on the world stage, what role will be played by Asian Americans of all ethnicities, especially those who have spent considerable time in Asia? Might we, as Asian Americans, be able to impact how the rest of world understands America and what “an American” is?


Re: Joel Stein—It’s Not a Private Edison Anymore

by Aditya Desai

In America, there are Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Little Italys, Little Havanas, and so much more.

What to do about the Indian Brown Town?

One of the largest is located in Edison, New Jersey.  Recently, it was the subject of a travelogue entry by TIME Magazine writer Joel Stein as a humor piece. It was not met with all laughs, and caused quite a bit of fervor in the Indian American community.

Joel Stein on Immigration, New Jersey's Indian Influx, TIME

Regardless of Stein’s intent, what’s more important is that he spotlights what has forever been an issue with immigrant communities—how to integrate with American society. In Edison, the streets are lined with countless Indian shops and restaurants, along with many more American franchises managed by Indians.

Indians are no longer on the fringes of American society. Now, Kal Penn has been in the White House and Jay Sean is on the airwaves. But, on Main Street America, what is the next step for growing Indian American communities like Edison?

In his article, Stein labels the homogenized second-generation Indian-American teenagers as, appropriately enough given recent MTV-reality trends, “Guindians”—brown kids with slicked up hair and red dots on their forehead. It is certainly not the most flattering term to be given, especially by a non-Indian. Combined with phrases in the article alluding to oddities of Hinduism or Stein’s crying for his long gone childhood stores and eateries, the article is reasonably perceived as offensive. Although used as humor in his piece, the term “Guidians” nevertheless hits on the idea of the blended and melded “third culture” being created. A town like Edison operates somewhat differently from a Chinatown or Little Italy. The Indian population isn’t relegated to a certain area, and as a result the rift between cultures is less insular.

Whenever I go to Edison to meet my family, I’m bewildered just by how many Indians are actually there. They are from every part of India, from every religion and sub-culture. Like any immigrant population, the support system is nice to have, but at some point the integration should occur.

And that is where it gets exciting, folks. There is so much opportunity for cross-culture and new mixes of Indian-American sub culture. After all, Indians bring the world masala, a mix of different spices that intensify heat and flavor, each blend different according to the part of the country the cook (or mom) comes from.

What’s important though, is not simply permeating society with Indian shops and restaurants, but rather finding some kind of cooperation with American society. It’s not simply transposing Indian culture into this country, but also adopting what’s American. Chinese takeout is not very authentic, and Tex-Mex is, well, certainly very Tex over Mex. Likewise, the curry burger should be, I think, the point where Indian-Americans can say, “we’ve made it.”

Stein’s article may have been a misfire, but if it gets the Indian-Americans talking about their community and it’s place in mainstream America, perhaps we should cut down on the angry emails and digital riot-groups. It is the country of Mahatma Gandhi. Fight not, but instead make the potentially racist or discriminatory man understand Indians are here to grow with the rest of the country, and not against it.

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Posted by on July 7, 2010 in Current Events, Social Issues


Vox: Prejudices in Sound

by Rajshree Solanki

So what’s in a voice?

Does your demeanor change when you hear on the other end of the phone a person with an Indian accent helping your computer, banking, or other issues?

An Indian Call Center. Image transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:IngerAlHaosului using CommonsHelper.

Indian people are fully aware of what their accents sound like. Because of that, my dad chose to not teach my sister and me our ethnic language. He thought speaking our language would have an adverse effect on our lives. He felt an accent can only hold us back in careers or other opportunities. Teachers at my elementary school had told my dad that speaking another language in the home only confused me and caused delays in reading comprehension. If only my dad did not listen to them.

So what’s in a voice?

My voice is nasally. Yankee-ish with an occasionally tinge of a Southern accent.

My sister’s voice is smoky and heavy like that of old Long Island mother.

If you were to hear our voices, you wouldn’t even be able tell we were Indian Americans.

Prior to moving to the DC area, I was looking for a place to live and responded to an ad in the paper. When I got on the phone with the guy renting out the room, we chatted about the neighbors and the location.

“A lot of younger hipsters are moving into the area,” he said.

“That sounds great!” I said, looking forward to my move.

“Can I tell you how refreshing it is talk to you?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I’ve been getting a lot of calls from Punjab. You know the Patel, Singhs, Punjabs folks.”

I was quite taken aback by what he said. Did I not mention my name?

“Oh you mean dubbadubbadubba,” putting my worst impression of my mother’s accent.

“That’s right! Exactly!”

“Well, I’m one of them.”


Needless to say, I didn’t get the room.

So what’s in a voice?

Not teaching my sister and me our family’s language did have an adverse effect. I lost out on countless conversations with family in India, inside jokes with friends, and, most importantly, talks with my grandmother. Conversations between her and me were one-sided; mostly, it was her telling me to get married. Perhaps I won on this. But it is embarrassing when you, as 32-year-old adult, have to have your 12-year-old cousin translate for you.

I lost out.

So what’s in a voice?

We have stereotypes that we don’t even know we have.

When you pick up the phone, and you’re talking to that person at the other end, does your demeanor change?

When you hear an Indian accent, what do you do? Does it make you angry or curious?

I was listening to a local DC radio station on my way to work. The topic was on the National Spell Bee, and they were planning a fantasy bee bracket. The hosts talked about their top picks would be any of the Indian American participants. A person who was Indian American called in and talked about the importance of education in the Indian American community.

The host then said, “Wow. You speak really good English.”

Um… thanks.


Posted by on June 9, 2010 in Social Issues


The rise of the Indian American Politician

by Nina Sudhakar

“Politics as usual” in the United States has frequently been stereotyped as the exclusive domain of old, white males. However, the past several years (and particularly the most recent election) have indicated that serious inroads are being made regarding minority participation in politics.

A recent trend to note is an increase in Indian American Congressional candidates who, according to a recent article by Hill publication Roll Call (full article here), wield some serious fund-raising power.

Manan Trivedi, running for a Congressional seat next year, estimates that about 20-25% of his fund-raising came about as a direct result of his network of Indian “uncles and aunties.”

Young Indian American candidates may be soliciting their parents’ generation for cash because that wave of immigrants has now achieved a degree of economic success that makes them more willing to part with their money. The local Indian American community may also be heartened by the presence of visible politicians such as Bobby Jindal (Republican Governor of Louisiana), and may recognize not only the need for an Indian voice in American politics, but that these leadership positions are an achievable goal.

However, making a withdrawal out of the “Bank of Uncle and Aunty” is definitely not as easy as going to the ATM. Fund-raising has always involved the cultivation of relationships, and it is no different in the close-knit Indian American community. Maryland House Majority Leader Kumar Barve notes “[Y]ou have to have another person ask on your behalf in order to be successful. Because Indians don’t want to give their money to anybody. We’re cheap.” Instead of picking up the phone, some candidates opt to send a trusted delegate directly into a potential donor’s home.

The idea of hitting up someone you know for cash is probably as old as the concept of money. But the phenomenon of Indian Americans reaching into their pockets for Indian American candidates is an exciting political development. While Indian American funds cannot alone guarantee success at the polls for Indian American candidates, these donations certainly indicate the encouraging trend of greater political participation and engagement among the Indian American community than ever before.


Fair or dark, Indians are still lovely

by hithapalepu

My mother spent most of the summer in India.  Upon picking her up at the airport and receiving a much-needed hug, she exclaims “You’re so dark!”

I spent one weekend outdoors the entire summer.  My skin was one, maybe two shades darker.  And after six weeks away, minutes after reuniting with her, I hear about my skin color.

The Indian fascination with being as fair as possible is as inexplicable as the Caucasian obsession with being tan; everyone wants what they don’t have.  The fair-skinned folk want more melanin; the darker-skinned people want less.

This cultural notion traveled with our parents from India to the United States, as did the beliefs of coconut oil being the best treatment for dry hair and kajol being the best tool to line eyes.

However, our generation has a different approach to Indian beauty.

Our generation has replaced coconut oil with deep conditioning treatments.  We opt for sharpened eye pencils over the traditional Indian kohl.  Our application of sunscreen and proper clothing isn’t to ensure we don’t tan, but to protect our skin from the increasingly harmful UV rays.

It’s not about how fair our skin is, but taking care and making the most of it, from proper skin care to careful makeup application.  While our mothers yearn for us to grow out long, glossy, thick black hair, we opt for a variety of cuts (from pixie to long locks), color (rich caramels to deep chocolates), and treatments (keratin to reduce frizz and coarseness).

Much of the second-generation Indian experience in the States has been redefining the traditions and values we learned from our parents to suit our modern lives.  Beauty is no exception.

So while our mothers may bemoan about our tans lowering our loveliness, we smile and embrace our shades, and how lovely they really are.

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Posted by on September 21, 2009 in Culture, Social Issues