Haroon K. Ullah is a scholar, U.S. diplomat, and field researcher specializing in South Asia and the Middle East. Ullah currently serves on Secretary Kerry’s Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State Department where he focuses on public diplomacy and countering violent extremism. He grew up in a farming community in Washington State and was trained at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government where he served as a senior Belfer fellow and completed his MPA. He has a PhD from the University of Michigan. Ullah is author of “Vying for Allah’s Vote” and “Bargain from The Bazaar.”
Having spent many years in and out of Pakistan, both on official business and on my own research trips, I know well the nervous energy that pervades a metropolis like Lahore, where over 12 million people live and work amid the turmoil and terror of the post 9/11 era. Even the slightest boom or bang nails everyone’s attention. It might be just a car backfiring, or it might be a Taliban martyr detonating a suicide vest killing a dozen innocent citizens. On two different visits to the city, I was rocked by the ground-shaking concussion of a car bomb going off blocks away.
This is the background of terror Pakistanis know all too well, the landscape of uncertainty. My research has concentrated on how these terrorist activities, and the general breakdown in law and order, impacts the average Pakistani, the ordinary middle-class family. One thing I learned: when parents are constantly afraid for their children’s safety, the depth of their love shines through in a special way. Show your love now, for tomorrow may be too late.
Among the many wonderful families I came to know, Awais and Shez Reza stood out from the moment I met them in 2004 at a family friend’s dinner-party in suburban Lahore. They had raised three sons and, as I came to learn, gave them all of the support, love and affection one might expect of wise and sensitive parents. One of the dinner guests coaxed Awais into talking about his experiences in a harsh POW camp during the tumultuous 1971 Bangladesh war, and of his harrowing escape across India. He explained that what kept him going through this life or death ordeal was the thought that he must not let his newborn son grow up without a father.
“It gave me a reason to live at a time when I didn’t have many.”
His feelings for family, even when all seemed lost, struck me as especially poignant.
Over the next years, I got to know the Rezas well, and came to understand and appreciate Shez’s quiet strength and endurance. As a nurse in a large urban hospital, she cared for patients who had suffered traumatic injuries, often these were blast victims with little hope of surviving. Shez was trained to remain calm in the face of disaster, and this calm was channeled into the care and upbringing of her three sons. Her smile was irrepressible, her sweetness matched only by her motherly intelligence.
Through the years of their marriage, Awais and Shez Reza have endured first-hand the many upheavals their nation has experienced from the earliest years of its founding. Even with war and terrorism an everyday fact, the Rezas taught their sons the importance of peace and brotherly love, honest work and spiritual reflection. As the excerpt below shows, Awais and Shez were severely tested when one of their sons was caught up in dangerous events that have come to be all too common in Pakistan.
Excerpt from “The Bargain from the Bazaar”:
The knock on the Reza family’s door in Anarkali came late at night. It was not the knock of a neighbor needing assistance or the knock of a family member looking for shelter or the timid knock of the helpless begging for a handout. It was the unignorable knock of authority.
. . .A man in a plain shirt and tie held up an ID card. “Good evening. My name is Jamaz, and I’m a sergeant with the local constabulary, Mr. Reza. I’m sorry to bother you at this hour, but I need a few words with you, if I may.”
“Is Daniyal Reza your son?”
“Do you know where we can find him?”
“He stays at a hostel in Lahore.”
“Yes, we’ve searched his room. Daniyal has not been there for days. This is a serious matter, Mr. Reza. I realize he is your son, but if you know where he is, you must tell me. It is the law.”
Awais was not intimidated. He’d long ago passed the point where a policeman could frighten him. “I have seen you and another man watching my shop in the bazaar and our house. So you certainly know that Dani hardly ever comes to see us. Why are you looking for my son? What has he done?”
“I’m not at liberty to say, Mr. Reza. Do you know the imam at his madrassa?”
. . . “The truth has been spoken. I cannot tell you where my son is. I simply don’t know.”
“Let me accept that for now as the truth. But I want your word that if you hear from Daniyal or learn his whereabouts, you will let us know. I want your promise.”
Awais shook his head. “I cannot make such a promise. Turn my own son in to the authorities? That I will not do. I will not do your work for you. You might as well take me to jail right now.”
The officer watched Awais’s lined and unyielding face. He finally broke into a half smile and patted Awais on the shoulder. “Very well, old soldier. At least you’re being honest about that. It tells me you are likely being truthful with the rest of it. I won’t keep you any longer, Mr. Reza. Good evening.”
“Good evening, sir.”
When Awais went back inside, he found Shez sitting up in bed, tense and anxious. “It was the police, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. You were right. They’re looking for Dani. For what reason he would not tell.”
Shez fixed her husband with a soulful stare. “Even terrorists have parents,” she mumbled distractedly. “We have to try to find Dani.”
“There’s no way we can do that. We don’t have the contacts that would help us find him. Besides, they’re watching us, remember. We could end up leading the police right to him. And then we’d be implicated too. No, we will not look for Dani.”
Shez said, “I keep asking myself, what did we do wrong? He was a sweet child and always listened to his parents.”
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography
Social media has stretched a number of news headlines:
“Social media rots kids’ brains.”
“Social media is polarizing.”
Yet those most affected by social media ideals are the teenage users. Apps like Instagram and TikTok perpetuate an image of perfection that is captured in pictures and 30-second videos. As a result, many young women chase this expectation endlessly. “Her” personifies this perfection in an unattainable figure the narrator has always wished to be. These ideals deteriorate mental health, create body dysmorphia, promote a lack of self-esteem, and much more. Even so, social media is plagued by filters and editing—much of what we hope to achieve isn’t even real. Therefore, young women, much like the narrator of “Her,” strive for a reality that doesn’t even exist.
When she walked into my life
Her smile took up two pages of description
In a YA novel.
My arms could wrap around her waist twice
If she ever let anyone get that close
Her hair whipped winds with effortless beach waves
And a hint of natural coconut
Clothing brands were created around her
“One Size Fits All” one size to fit the girl who has it all
With comments swarning in hourglasses
But when sharp teeth nip at her collar,
She could bite back biting back
And simply smirked with juicy apple lips
Red hearts and sympathy masking condescension
“My body doesn’t take away from the beauty of yours”
“We are all equal, we are all beautiful”
A sword she wields expertly
Aphrodite in consistent perfection
Cutting remarks with sickly sweet syrup
And an innocent, lethal wink
When she walked into my life
She led my life.
My wardrobe winter trees
Barren, chopped in half
Unsuited for the holidays
Mirrors were refracted under in my gaze
Misaligned glass was the only explanation
For unsymmetrical features
And broken hands
Still I taped them fixed
Over and over
Hoping to mold stomach fat like wet clay
Move it upward
Instead of sagging beneath a belt on the last hole
In the spring
She would stir me awake at 2 AM
“You need to be me”
Lies spilled from her tongue but
Fabrication spelled dichotomy
And I drifted farther out to sea
When she walked out of my life,
I was drowning.
Reliance had me capsized
Furrowed brows and glances away
Like spectators of a shark attack
They can watch but the damage is done
They clung to my mangled pieces
But I was mourning too
Today I looked back at my mirror
But glass turned into prism
Broken pieces rainbow
Colors coating clothes
She didn’t pick
She wasn’t perfect
Just lost at sea
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For BGM Literary, editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with writer Sri Nimmagadda. In this short story, we follow a man in a gray suit who makes a stop at a church to bide his time before a job interview. Sri Nimmagadda is the Chief Program Officer at MannMukti, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing the stigma around mental health in the South Asian community through storytelling and advocacy. He lives in Los Angeles with his dog, Rani, and is passionate about authentically growing inclusion and diversity through storytelling in the entertainment industry. Editor Nimarta was extremely grateful to have Sri join the legacy of wonderful and moving authors for the literary vertical in honor of Mental Health and Awareness month.
A man in a gray suit stands in front of a church and looks up and through the entryway with the resignation of a desiccated man taking a bitter medicine he’s absorbed for years but simply accepts as a fact of his life, however unpleasant. So, the man in the gray suit — a get-up slim but not so lean as to emit a cockish, metrosexual air, scraggly lint escaping the seams across the surface in a manner that supposes either venerability or somewhat tired desperation — thinks about what it means to take a bitter medicine, the trade-off between the instantaneous sour, bitter, wretched, and cloying and the promise of perhaps a better tomorrow, or a better tonight, or a better five-minutes-from-now. After some consideration, this man in a gray suit — an outfit that some would’ve supposed he’d purchased from Goodwill, the night before, for a painfully wrought $95.67 with tax after getting into an argument with his wife about who was going to take the kids to school in the morning and fucking Brenda skipping out on babysitting again — steps inside the church.
This man in a gray suit — armed with a briefcase, and the last and latest copy of his résumé that he’d worked on until 1:30 a.m. the night before after Max and Annabelle had long gone to sleep and his angry, exhausted wife laid restless, in their shared bed, thinking about whether she’d consult the number of the divorce lawyer she’d been recommended by one of her girlfriends in the morning before deciding she’d give her husband another shot just as she had the night before and the night before that and the night before that — paces towards the front of pews almost cautiously, as if someone were watching him, afraid to be caught in the act of being vulnerable and giving himself up to some higher power. Maybe if you go to church and the pastor or some other demure, God-fearing soul sees you, they’ll call you out — who are you? why are you here? — and you’ll realize that for as much ado as people make about the unconditionality of God’s love, they make claims to His love the way they’d claim a parking spot or a position in a queue at a grocery store. Faith, it appears to the man in the gray suit, is really about paying your dues.
So the man in a gray suit approaches the front-most pew — the communion table before him standing guard ahead of a cross. He lays his briefcase down. He sits at the pew. He closes his eyes. Please, he begs Him in his own mind. I need this.
But then this man in a gray suit considers his pathetic whimper to God, how he can’t even acknowledge God by his name, how he begs Please rather than Please God like a weak, unfaithful man who cannot bring himself to say his wife’s name when begging her for forgiveness after his own infidelity. What a mess, he thought of himself. So, he tries again.
Please, God. I need this.
The man in a gray suit considers this again and admonishes himself for his cowardice — when you pray in your head, words and phrases, and sentences and prayers, and pleas twine and intertwine and mix until the signal becomes the noise and you can’t really figure out whatever you’re trying to say. So, for a half-second, you think the only way to get it out of your head is to blow it up so that it all spills out and maybe then God will understand how you really feel — and so he tries again, and puts his prayers to air. The man in a gray suit is not used to coming to church. This is his first time coming in a couple of years. He’s going to need a couple of tries to get this thing down.
“I’m sorry,” the man in a gray suit exhales, “I’m just not used to praying.” But that’s okay. Prayer is a process, the man in a gray suit would find, and what begins feeling ridiculous, or like grasping for spiritual straws, ends up feeling akin to a dam giving way to water; unrestrained, unexploited. So the man in a gray suit — the man who’s come an hour and a half early to an interview because the early bird gets the worm, only to find himself with an hour and a half to kill and nowhere but a church to grace with his presence — prays, and he prays faithfully, and he prays well. He picks up the Bible on the shelf of the pew in front of him, flips it open to whatever page presented itself and begins to read. He closes his eyes, and at that moment he feels safe, like God’s hands envelop him, and that tomorrow will be a better day, and everything will be okay.
Somewhere along the line, this stupid fucker in a gray suit fell asleep in the middle of Galatians and missed his interview.