The following post is part of an ongoing series by writers/authors in celebration of the 15th anniversary of the publication of Tanuja Desai Hidier’s landmark novel Born Confused, which is considered to the first ever South Asian American young adult novel (and in part inspired the creation of Brown Girl Magazine!)… as well as the 15th real-time birthday of Born Confused and award-winning sequel Bombay Blues heroine Dimple Lala. #BornConfused15
I am American.
I am Desi.
And a lot of people assume that I struggle with my identity.
I think the assumption comes from a belief that all first generation Indian-Americans had to struggle with identity if they were raised in small-town-America where the Indian population was minuscule. Yes, there is a fair amount of bi-cultural confusion that exists in our world, but that’s not the same story for everyone. Just because I didn’t have frequent encounters with other first-generation Indian Americans didn’t mean that growing up, I was an American Born Confused Desi.
Confused as a teenage girl? Abso-freaking-lutely.
But as an Indian-American? Nope.
I grew up in a home where Hindi, Punjabi, and English were all spoken like the hodgepodge mix of flavors in my mother’s silver spice tin. I lived in northeast Pennsylvania where I could count the brown kids in my elementary, middle and high school on two hands. Despite that, I loved and respected both of my cultures and was confident in my desi-ness. Maybe it was because my mother and father used to tell me bedtime stories about Hindu gods and warrior princesses right after I finished a Nancy Drew mystery I’d gotten from the library. Maybe it was because I started training as a Kathak dancer when I was seven, which was also right around the time I started soccer. Regardless of the reason, I was incredibly blessed to deftly straddle a cross-cultural line that I loved.
Knowing and loving my identity didn’t change the fact that I couldn’t always relate to the characters in the books that I read. Similar to being bi-cultural, I accepted at a very young age that publishing was white-washed, and commercial young adult romance and adult romance would never accept the richness diversity brought to the page. Publishing rarely if ever recognized first generation Indians as heroes and heroines of their own stories. Which meant, unfortunately, that my desi-ness could never be encapsulated in a book.
This horrible truth shaped my writing career for years. I used to write these ‘passion projects’ about dating and love which featured diverse characters, but I slipped them under the bed where I thought they belonged. The stories I did share with the world were my white American cowboy romances, which I sent off to agents and editors. I even sold a couple to a few small-time presses. The downside? The small presses highly recommended that I change my name because not only did first-generation Indian characters not sell but the first generation Indian authors were also a turn-off. The publishing industry gave my readers the outward appearance that I, an Indian-American author, was confused about my bi-cultural identity when in reality, publishing was confused about the world.
Until I met Dimple Lala.
Like many other Indian-Americans, I met Dimple through a recommendation from another reader.
“Nisha, have you read about Dimple Lala? She’s like us.”
I doubted the positive reviews at first. I figured this was going to be another stereotypical arranged marriage, Gwen-Stefani-bindi-wearing, chai tea latte, yoga, nama-stay cultural appropriation nightmare.
I can’t even begin to tell you how wrong my assumptions were.
Dimple Lala’s story was like celebrating Holi after a snowfall. She was a Jersey girl who loved photography and had a white best friend. She was a quirky confused mess who went to Basement Bhangra club nights in NYC—based on DJ Rekha’s Basement Bhangra—explored her sexuality and fell in love with someone who was unsuitably perfect. Dimple’s mom had dreams and aspirations that resonated with Dimple’s personal aspirations, and Dimple connected on a level deeper than language with a grandparent.
Reading about a character who has similar emotions and bi-cultural conflicts that can exist in a personal journey is one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. I wasn’t confused about navigating through two cultures like Dimple, but I lived in a world where I encountered American ideologies every day, and then went home to a place where my parents talked about traditions and values. Dimple’s life wasn’t identical to mine, but the texture of her existence felt the same as my own.
I knew there was a lack of diversity in fiction, but I didn’t hunger for change because I accepted the status quo from a defeatist’s position. I wanted to be a writer, so I’d play by the rules and write within non-diverse boundaries. But after Dimple’s story, every part of me that had lost faith in publishing was suddenly awash with power and hope and light. If this was what diversity could do for my heart, wouldn’t writing diverse books be just as restorative for my soul?
Dimple Lala’s story and Tanuja Desai Hidier changed the course of my career. I wanted my ‘passion projects’ to become the books that I sold and I shared with the world more than anything. From that moment onwards, I joined forces with other advocates in the industry to write and read diverse stories only to discover that believing in change is only the beginning.
Dimple’s story is part of the early diversity movement. Today, there is arguably less white-washing, but now we face the unfortunate battle of proving that all voices are not the same. We are not all stereotypes. We are not all clichés and catch phrases. Just because I want to write Indian-American heroines, doesn’t mean my heroine will be like Dimple Lala in Born Confused.
Which is why my first young adult novel, My So-Called Bollywood Life, is about Jersey girl Winnie Mehta who loves Bollywood movies, her parents, and her white best friend. She’s not struggling with navigating through both cultures, but like Dimple, she has the same textured bi-cultural life. I wrote it as a sort of homage to my upbringing, and also because I knew that if people believed that voices like Dimple Lala’s could exist in the world, then they’d see other Indian American voices and points of view like mine could exist, too.
Because of Hidier’s Born Confused, I am no longer a defeatist, I am no longer accepting of the status quo, and yeah, okay, I am no longer confused about writing diverse stories.
So thanks, Dimple Lala, for the career advice, and happy fifteenth birthday!
Nisha Sharma grew up on a steady diet of Bollywood movies, eighties classics, and romance novels, so it comes as no surprise that her first novel My So-Called Bollywood Life, features all three. Nisha credits her father for her multiple graduate degrees and her mother for her love of Shah Rukh Khan and Jane Austen. She lives in Pennsylvania with her cat Lizzie Bennett and her dog Nancey Drew. You can find her online at nisha-sharma.com or on Twitter and Instagram at @nishawrites.
Indian-American commercial real estate and land consultant Anita Verma-Lallian launched Camelback Productions at an event held in Paradise Valley, Arizona, Jan. 7. Billed as the state’s first women-and South Asian-owned film production and entertainment company, it will focus on South Asian representation and storytelling, according to a press statement issued by Verma-Lallian. The announcement follows “Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s $125 million film tax credit for film and TV production that was introduced in July 2022, “ the statement added.
The Jan. 7 private launch party and meet and greet introduced investors and supporters to what’s ahead for Camelback Productions.
Noting the “major push to see minority groups represented in the media over the past few years,” Verma-Lallian said she wants to see more South Asians represented. “I want my children to see themselves when they watch TV. I want my daughter’s dream to become an actress to become a reality. Skin color shouldn’t be a barrier to that.”
The event opened with remarks from Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, who has served as the city’s 62nd mayor since 2019. She welcomes the company to “the greater Phoenix community.” She expressed confidence that “the team will attract some of the country’s top talent to the Valley.”
Guests at the event included actor and comedian Lilly Singh, actor Nik Dodani, Aparna of Netflix’s “Indian Matchmaking,” Bali Chainani and Anisha Ramakrishna of Bravo’s “Family Karma” fame, and Paramount+ executive P. Sean Gupta, to name a few.
The company is Verma-Lallian’s first venture into the film industry. She is known for providing full concierge services for land seekers and developers of all types of sites and assists investors in discovering viable properties in the Phoenix area through her company, Arizona Land Consulting, the statement added.
Named in honor of the iconic Camelback Mountain in the Valley, Verma-Lallian says she wants her production company to have the same indestructible foundation. Camelback Productions plans to begin its first project later this summer.
It’s always a flamboyant affair of colour, emotions and grandeur when Karan Johar directs a film, and his latest blockbuster “Rocky Aur Rani Ki Prem Kahani” is as K Jo as it gets. After recently being recognised at the British House of Parliament for 25 years as a filmmaker, Johar is back to doing what he does best — bringing together families and star-crossed lovers, but this time with a modern touch. He makes a decent attempt at showcasing progressive ideals and feminist issues while taking us on this family-friendly ride.
“Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani” is a larger-than-life film revolving around the love story of a boisterous Rocky (Ranveer Singh) from a wealthy Delhi family, and Rani (Alia Bhatt), a sharp journalist from a progressive Bengali household. And of course, despite belonging to completely different backgrounds and lives, our protagonists, in true Bollywood fashion, fall hopelessly in love through a string of slow-motion gazes, warm embraces and some truly breath-taking song sequences in Kashmir’s snowy mountains. They are then forced to face their opposing families which brings along the family drama in the second half of the film.
The plot is not the film’s strongest point — there’s no real surprise about what’s going to happen next, and yet the film doesn’t fail to keep audiences engaged and pack an emotional punch. This is down to its strong acting, witty dialogues and K Jo’s classic, beautiful cinematography.
Ranveer Singh sinks into the skin of his character with ease – not only does he make the hall burst into laughter with the help of perfectly-timed gags but he pulls off those dreamy gazes ,expected in K Jo’s heroes, to evoke that typical, fuzzy-feeling kind of Bollywood romance. Alia Bhatt’s intelligent and undefeated character is no less a pleasure to watch on screen — not only does she look breath-taking in every shot but her feminist dialogues earn claps and cheers from the audience as she brings a progressive touch to this family drama.
Albeit, while Bhatt’s dialogues do their best to steer this film to the reformist drama it hopes to be, some of Singh’s gags and monologues on cancel culture bring out bumps in the road. The film could have done better to reinforce its points on feminism and racism without using the groups it tries to support as the butt of jokes.
There is also a case to be made about how long these Punjabi and Bengali stereotypes can go on with often gawkish displays of Ranveer’s ‘dilwala-from-Delhi’ character among the overly-polished English from Rani’s Bengali family. But it is with the expertise of the supporting cast, that the film is able to get away with it. Jaya Bachchan in particular is as classy as ever on screen; the stern Dadi Ji holds her ground between the two lovers, while Dada Ji Dharmendra, and Thakuma Shabana Azmi, tug at our heartstrings showing that love truly is for all ages.
Saving the best to last, it is the film’s cinematography that makes the strongest case for audiences to flock to the cinema. The soul-stirring songs steal the show with their extravagant sets and powerful dance performances that treat the audiences to the much-awaited cinematic experience of a K Jo film. While audiences may already be familiar with the viral songs, “What Jhumka?” and “Tum Kya Mile“, it was the family-defying fight for love in “Dhindhora Baje Re” that really gave me goosebumps.
Overall, the film does exactly what it says on the tin and is a family entertainer with something for everyone. It will make you laugh, cry, and cringe at times, but nothing leaves you feeling as romantic as some old school Bollywood with a mix of new school humour, in true K Jo form.
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).