This article is part of a campaign co-sponsored with the Washington Leadership Program (WLP), called#SouthAsianAnd – a campaign to showcase the stories of South Asians in America beyond our race and the stereotypes attached to it. Share your stories by Tweeting the hashtag #SouthAsianAnd and tag @BrownGirlMag to tell us how you are South Asian and more.
“Where’s your family from?” often asked by non-South Asian colleagues, and “So you must have family in India, right?” often assumed by fellow brown-skinned friends are two questions that are actually more loaded than they seem.
My physical features and shade of mocha allude to me being from the Indian subcontinent. I can barter and banter equally in Hindi, Urdu, and Gujarati. And yes, I can most likely be found shaking my hips to Bollywood’s weekly Top 10. But I’m much more than just “Indian.” I’m much more than just “South Asian.”
To the first question, my ancestry dates back to Gujarat, India, but I’m more immediately East African.
“What?!? How is that?”
Have you ever seen The Last King of Scotland or Mississippi Masala? Well, that’s an oversimplified and complete popularization of me. Four generations of my family were born and raised in East Africa.
Since ancient Babylon, trade has linked Gujarat and the African coast. From the 16th century onwards, many South Asians settled in East Africa as indentured servants for clerical work or semi-skilled manual labor in farming and construction. The 1860s, in particular, marked a large modern-day migration of Gujaratis to East Africa. Over 30,000 workers were taken from mainly Kutch, a district in Gujarat state and the largest district of India, to lay a railway line connecting Mombasa in Kenya to Kampala in Uganda. After the contract ended, about 7,000 Indians chose to stay back in East Africa—more so in Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Uganda—mainly for business and economic opportunity. In addition, these four countries actively ran a 450-year-old spice trade through the Indian Ocean and Gujarat’s ports of Cambay, Surat, and Mandvi.
Unfortunately, the prosperity of Indians in Uganda, mixed with racial tension among their black counterparts, soon led to their expulsion by President Idi Amin Dada in 1972. The Idi Amin government had a dream to preserve Uganda and the surrounding East African region for those of “true” and synonymously “black” African descent. Termed his “economic war,” he wished to replace the wealthy South Asian class- the Indians known in Swahili as wahindi, by displacing long established family units and distributing their ground built businesses to black civilians.
To put this into context, my family was given a 90-day ultimatum to pack up and leave shore. My mother was just 13, my father 18. Via civic accommodations, Indians immigrated to the United Kingdom and Canada, many went back home to India, and others sought asylum in neighboring Kenya. Today, however, about 10 percent of the 20,000 Asians presently in Uganda, alone, are returnees. Post-Idi Amin’s reign in 1992, then-President Yowri Kaguta Museveni formally lifted the ban on South Asians from regaining their African ethnicities, reacquiring lost property and reasserting their entrepreneurial zeal. Yet my family chose to stay in the West, finding Europe, Canada, and finally the United States as beacons for hope, investment, and higher education.
So to tie this tale together, my mother’s side is Ugandan and my father’s Tanzanian. But get this twist; my nani (maternal grandmother) is Mozambican, and therefore, due to colonial history, is also Portuguese. To the second question of whether I have family in India, the answer is simply “not anymore,” but this generally cues my confusing rant.
See how the labels “Indian” or “South Asian” just don’t cut it? I am #SouthAsianAnd because, although my roots sprouted in India, I don’t have existing geographical or familial ties to India. I grew up nourished by a melee of masaaledaar Indian and East African staples. I grew up using a muddled slang of Kutchi, Gujarati, and Swahili to convey common thoughts to my South Asian friends who just usually don’t know what I’m saying. But most of all, I grew to value my mixed heritage for teaching me, through my noble, resilient, and ever-loving family, what it means to struggle, survive, and still tread on a personal and professional path that always spreads the good.
Nur Kara is a medley of Indian ancestry and East African heritage, though also carry the labels of “female,” “Ismaili Muslim,” and “first-generation American.” Being part of refugee history and having lived through these various lenses inspires her to similarly share in others’ stories. A self-coined “skeptiste,” she questions the uncommonly questioned
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”
Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh is known for creating a mix of stylish (read: Channing Tatum-starring “Magic Mike”) and influential films (like “Traffic”).
It’s no surprise to see his name attached to stars like Claire Danes, Dennis Quaid, Timothy Olyphant, Jim Gaffigan and writer Ed Solomon (of “Men in Black” and “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” fame). But a story about the Guyanese community in Queens, New York was quite unexpected.
“Full Circle” is a whirlwind thriller that released in July on the streaming platform Max.
The six-part mini-series centers around the foiled kidnapping of Jared Browne (played by Ethan Stoddard), the son of Samantha and Derek Browne (Danes and Olyphant) and grandson of celebrity “Chef Jeff” McCusker (Quaid).
The scheme is devised by Savitri Mahabir (played by CCH Pounder of “Avatar” and “NCIS: New Orleans”), a wealthy Guyanese businesswoman with a host of nefarious ventures, and her right-hand man, Garmen Harry (Phaldut “Paul” Sharma). Mahabir is seeking revenge for the recent murder of her brother-in-law by rival Edward Chung, but what does this have to do with the Brownes?
The answer to this question and the unraveling of other dark secrets is what “Full Circle” is all about.
Now, if this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. The show is fast-paced and makes good use of cliffhangers to keep you watching, but, frankly, the episodes are shaky — quite literally in terms of camera work and figuratively.
Early on, Soderbergh darts between stylish, abstract shots of objects in the shadows and minute details that may create an air of mystery, but ultimately just confuses viewers, raising questions that never get answered.
Most of the acting also leans toward melodrama, but many of the supporting cast members — particularly Sharma and Zazie Beetz (as Detective Mel Harmony) — are commendable, delivering natural performances with the right doses of intimidation and snark.
On paper, the plot of “Full Circle” has all the pieces for suspense, but writer Ed Solomon seems to lack confidence in the viewer to figure it all out, opting against compelling revelations in favor of long-winded monologues summarizing everything for the viewer. This is needed, unfortunately, as most other dialogues are unproductive; consisting solely of characters responding to questions with more questions.
Another major point of contention is the portrayal of Guyana and the Guyanese community.
While The Hollywood Reporter suggests the team had several creative consultants, those with knowledge of the country could say the series actually offers a convoluted image.
The attention of Guyanese viewers like myself may pique hearing familiar words like pickney (children) and bad eye (evil eye) and catching glimpses of Georgetown. Those in Queens may smirk at the mention of real-life venue, Gemini’s Lounge, but other elements arguably come off as reductive and a bit unflattering.
The Guyanese characters are the antagonists. Mahabir is shown lying, cheating, stealing and plotting murders with a smile on her face. She doesn’t use facts or strategy to guide her actions, but Obeah practices and fear of curses.
The casting of these roles is also up for debate considering several staging choices were made by the creators.
For example, an early scene shows a Hindu funeral with a pandit reciting prayers and a chowtal (North Indian classical music) group sitting by in white kurtas and shalwars. This is a familiar sight for many Indo Caribbeans but, as the camera pans, audiences are introduced to several Afro-identifying actors playing the mourning family including Pounder and Jharrel Jerome (as Mahabir’s nephew, Aked).
Guyana is a diverse nation where cultures and racial identities often intermingle and, of course, there very well can be Afro-Guyanese Hindus with Indian names, but one could argue the series missed a huge opportunity to offer rare Indo Guyanese representation in these roles.
While Pounder (born in Guyana) and Jerome are talents with impressive resumes, it begs the question if they were the right talents for the roles. To some viewers, the answer is no.
“Guyana is trending right now. There’s the oil, the booming tourism, chefs on TV and Instagram,” shared Sonia, a young Indo Guyanese woman from Queens, reflecting on the show with me. “In that way, I’m happy [the country is] on people’s radar, but [it seems like] nobody looked into the characteristics of the people before casting. Some things are just not culturally correct. The Obeah is dubious and the Guyanese accents will leave you scratching your head.”
This reaction is not surprising. Aside from Pounder and Sharma, none of the cast is Guyanese, let alone Caribbean. In fact, Pounder shared in an interview that pages of the script were rewritten several times to play with Guyanese elements.
To be fair, I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators had difficulty finding actors for the characters, especially Indo Caribbean actors. But for those familiar with the country, “Full Circle” could appear to have haphazardly mixed the actors as well as bits and pieces from a variety of Guyanese cultures in an attempt to create a catch-all portrayal, rather than a necessarily accurate one.
Today, there are talks of not one, but two Jim Jones biopics starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon Levitt, respectively, but Guyana is more than the dark history of Jonestown or shady acts like those orchestrated by Mahabir.
Guyana is a country with a rich history, diverse culture and proud people. As one of the first high-profile Hollywood productions to highlight Guyana, it’s disappointing to see “Full Circle” fall into Jonestownian tropes of using it simply as a poverty-stricken place to be exploited, where people will do anything for money and personal gain.
While it’s exciting to see Guyana and the Queens community in a mainstream series and to hear Hollywood bigwigs utter names like Essequibo, “Full Circle” also exemplifies just how much room for growth there is in Indo Guyanese representation.
Hopefully “Full Circle” is just the first of many productions to explore Guyanese culture and, in the near future, we can escape the negative stereotypes that remain so prevalent. For the time being, the series is one that leaves a lot to be desired on many fronts.
Like many 90s kids, I was obsessed with Disney and the beauty of its animation. At four years old, I saw my first move in theaters: The Lion King. I spent the next year watching the movie everyday and singing along to “Hakuna Matata.” Disney was a way to relate to my peers and bridge the gap between my two identities.I remember being especially fond of Jasmine and Pocahontas. Their brown skin and black long hair matched mine. When I wasn’t watching Disney movies with my sisters, we watched Bollywood movies of the Golden Era. As the years passed, I prioritized balancing my passion for Disney with the intersections of my identities.
2022 was the first time Diwali merchandise became available in large retail stores. My town’s library even had a “Diwali” section in the Children’s section. The world is finally transforming and Diwali is becoming “mainstream.” After years of advocacy and cultural awareness, we are finally witnessing the representation of our culture, traditions and holidays. Upon hearing of JASHN Productions’ first-ever Diwali Dance Fest taking place in Walt Disney World, I immediately began planning. My passion for Disney had grown from movies to theme park adventures. Diwali, the festival of lights combined with Disney World magic was bound to be spectacular. And, oh boy (Mickey Mouse voice), did JASHN surpass all expectations.
The first event, held in Walt Disney World’s Disney Springs, was the first Diwali parade. Dancers of the many dance studios performed in 20 minute synchronized dances. Hearing Diwali announced over the PA system had me near tears. The vibration of the dhol beats within the Bollywood rhythms had the shoppers engaged. The sea of dancers adorning the vibrant colors of Diwali fit in perfectly with the Florida sun.
The real dream was seeing Mickey and Minnie Mouse on stage with “Diwali” spread across. The Diwali Dance Fest included over 400 youth dancers from across the United States. These dancers, from 17 different dance schools, specializing in a variety of different forms of Indian and Indo-fusion dance, performed in Animal Kingdom’s Finding Nemo Theatre. Each dance led the audience to different regions of India; the music ranged from classical and folk to Bollywood and hip hop.The hosts Nisha Mathur and Sway Bhatia represented the joining of both worlds. Mathur is known for her SonyTV show, “Keys to Kismat” and Bhatia is the voice of character, Karishma on the very first Disney children’s show Mira the Royal Detective. International singer and performer Raghav, ended the show with his hit, Angel Eyes as a select group of dancers performed beside him.
Hearing the Indian music I had grown up with, brought me endless joy to finally witness such a level of representation, especially in a place so special to me. Experiencing a Diwali celebration in the most magical place on Earth with all generations was one of the best parts.
An after-party for performers and families, took place following the showcase in The Lion King theater. I was dancing and singing to my favorite Bollywood hits after enjoying this Disney Spectacular. Disney has always been my happy place; Walt Disney World will forever be the place where my greatest dreams came true. From enjoying a day at Animal Kingdom, in Indian attire, with Minnie Mouse ears to dancing along to the songs that filled my home. I have experienced a level of representation I never even knew possible. I have finally seen the gap bridged between my two identities. Never have I been more proud to be an Indian-American.