When I was twelve years old, I had accompanied my parents and younger brother to Nathwara, a famous temple dedicated to Lord Krishna and located in the north-western Indian state, Rajasthan, to which I also belong to. As we were walking towards the temple, I could not help but notice a girl my age walking in the opposite direction; she was holding the hand of an older lady, dressed in the region’s traditional clothes: lengha, kurti, and odhna. The girl herself was in a lemon yellow frock but what stood out about her appearance was that she wore the adornments of a married Hindu woman: sindoor, bangles, bindi. Our eyes briefly met and then, she went her way and I went mine. Even at that time, I realised she was probably a child bride and the thought had been so unsettling and bewildering. The sight of those child’s large hazel eyes and the crimson sindoor has lingered in my mind for all these years…what is she doing now? Does she too have a daughter? And what dreams does she nurture for her? I will never know, and can only rely on my imagination for answers.
I have been visiting Rajasthan and particularly, Jodhpur practically every summer; for me, Jodhpur represents my late grandmother, its distinctive blue homes, the world’s best samosas (according to my taste-buds anyway!), rainbow hued clothes, and also, its massive fort. Yet, what it also represents to me are most essentially my roots and how much they mean to me, no matter how faraway I live.
Many people may be familiar with Rajasthan as seen in movies or incredible images – and indeed, Rajasthan is all that: stunning palaces, forts, and havelis and gorgeous desert landscapes. Yet, as I like to describe it, peel away the postcard glossiness and you will find numerous social issues compelling to be addressed and looked into. And it is then that the little girl and her eyes enter my mind, haunting me. If I had spoken to her then, what stories would she have told me?
As a journalist, I have often written about gender-based issues, whether it’s organisations seeking to empower women or profiling women challenging patriarchal norms, demolishing stereotypes and breaking glass ceilings. Whenever I returned to Rajasthan, I find myself speaking to women I meet there and seek to highlight the minor and major challenges that they faced through narrating their stories.
Several years ago, I approached the Jodhpur-based developmental organisation empowering the region’s communities, GRAVIS to document their women’s socio-empowerment projects. Quoting from their website, their gender program seeks to:
“unite women within village communities, work to raise their self-esteem and allow them outlets for creativity and expression. Through our women’s empowerment programmes, we encourage women and girls to speak their mind in public, participate in village meetings and take control of their own lives.”
I was specifically involved in speaking to women associated with the Self-Help Groups (SHGs). We drove up to the village of Phalodi and visited the nearby hamlets, some no bigger than a cluster of huts. In one of the larger huts, there was a group of village women gathered there for the monthly SHG meetings. I conversed with them for a long time, listening to their individual stories about how their lives had dramatically changed through the medium of SHGs and acquiring a greater degree of economic agency. If I was infinitely curious about what made up their lives, they were equally curious about mine. I told them I was there to convey their message, put into words the actions that they were taking to empower their lives.
About three years ago, while exploring the crowded bylanes of old Jodhpur, I noticed a sign above a shop declaring that the products it showcased were the handiwork of women working under the aegis of the women’s self-empowering organisation, Sambhali; when I stepped inside the shop, I saw colorful handicrafts, postcards, and other hand-crafted items adorning the shop. It was then I was introduced to Sambhali, which is doing such incredible work in Jodhpur.
I had the opportunity to meet Govind Singh Rathore, the founder of Sambhali, the teachers, the volunteers (many of whom had arrived from abroad), and of course, the Sambhali women and girls themselves. Govind told me that Sambhali means “rising of the deprived women.”
“The essence of Sambhali is its personal and needs-based approach to fulfilling the needs of the women and girls who come to Sambhali for help. We try to make these women and girls so independent that they don’t need Sambhali anymore: independent decision-making and looking after themselves and their families,” said Rathore. “We have taught literacy and vocational training; our students have graduated from school through our Scholarship program. We also run women’s SHGs and help women become entrepreneurs.”
In short, he said that when women come to Sambhali, they know that Sambhali will help them in one way or another. And indeed, when I sat down and chatted with many of the girls in a brightly painted school-room where they had their lessons, workshops (dance and photography amongst others), they radiated confidence and had begun to nurture dreams. One of the girls, Anita told me that she aspired a life beyond marriage: she wanted to be empowered and even if she did get married, she wanted her partner to understand and support her in whatever she did.
These stories I was able to write but what of the stories that I heard but could not share? A few years ago, I wanted to explore a story about women miners in Jodhpur; while their husbands and menfolk worked down in the mines, the women were seen shattering larger rocks into smaller pieces, surrounded by hillocks of stones. When I went to meet one of these women, she was accompanied by her 15 year old daughter. She told me that while her younger siblings were attending school, she either looked after them or helped out her mother. As I stood there, scribbling down their voices in my notebook, I asked what would happen after she got married. Her mother intervened, saying it all depended on whom the girl married and his family. Her daughter remained silent throughout the conversation, as if she had nothing left to say.
I could not write her story then; I am being able to do so now. It makes me think that whilst organisations such as GRAVIS and Sambhali along with many other dedicated individuals are introducing and implementing changes and allowing women to access and be part of it, there are many other women who are still far removed from it all. The hope is that as we narrate their stories, we can reach out to them and also, inspire them to reach out to others. Images provided by Priyanka Sacheti.
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
For the literary vertical, BGM editor NImarta Narang was honored to delve into sci-fi with author extraordinaire Premee Mohamed. In ‘Sleeping Beti’, Premee details a wedding that is due to take place in two weeks after Anju wakes up 75 years later from cryopreservation…in space. The detail that Premee gives us is so engaging; her flair for creating new worlds is on full display. ‘Sleeping Beti’ also shows us that aunties are everywhere… even in outer space.
Anju was dying.
She knew she was dying because there was no possible way someone could feel this sick and live through it; she was sure she could feel death creeping through her bones as she heaved over the considerately-placed glass receptacle. Dimly she wondered who had put it under her head, and why it was glass — but her thoughts kept submerging in the pain and vertigo. At first, nothing came up; then, after an eternity, an endless rope of pink-tinged clear gel, as if she had eaten a whole bucket of the transparent fidget putty she kept in her office.
“Good, very good,” a voice said near her head. Anju seized on it like a rope thrown at a drowning woman. It was a warm voice, rounded, oddly familiar. “Good girl, Anju. Get it all out.”
She was good. She was being a good girl. She seized on that too.
The voice said, “It’s easier than having it extracted, believe me.”
Another more distant voice, said, “This is great. Better than we could have hoped, better than the model predicted. Her signs are all green across the board, look.”
The first voice said proudly, “She’s always been a strong girl.”
Anju sensed unconsciousness grappling for her, brushing its dark fingers warmly across her face. She fought it off and took a deep breath, rolling back onto the bed she had been dangling from. White ceiling above her. Square glass panels, bright white lights glittering against the glass-like stars. “What happened?” she croaked. “Am I in the hospital? Mom?”
A beat. Then a face leaning over her: not her mother but eerily similar, a resemblance more sister-like than twin-like, although Anju’s aunts on her mother’s side actually didn’t resemble one another in the least. This woman was a smudged copy. Same black hair, temples left artfully silver, worn in the same crown; same eyes, mouth. A bit bigger, more muscular. “No, beti,” she said gently, smiling. Same teeth, same shape. “You can call me Mrs. Sharma.”
But my mother is Mrs. Sharma, Anju almost said. “What’s going on?”
“… Let’s get you something to eat, hmm? It’s a long story.”
Her first questions were answered by the place Mrs. Sharma took her to eat: a glass table extruding smoothly from the wall as they approached, followed by two glass chairs and glass plates of food rising through the table’s hollow pedestal to sit neatly in divots on the surface. Anju stared at the food first. It looked like palak paneer and brown rice. She then stared out the window next to them, which looked convincingly like space seen from a movie spaceship. In real life, she knew, you rarely got views this pristine. The New International Space Hub, the CanaDorm, and the Pan-Asian Science Station, all had machinery, cables, screws, wires, bits of foam and plastic in the way. And none of them had windows like this.
Anju ate slowly and cautiously, because Mrs. Sharma told her to, and because she could barely speak anyway. The Earth floated below them, ochre swirls, yellow and amber, long streaks of sepia clouds, and below them somewhere the ocean, a dead-looking blue. They were in space. Genuinely in space. The fork, too, was made out of glass. She stared at it.
“Uh, isn’t this kind of … unsafe?”
Mrs. Sharma chuckled. She was eating the same thing as Anju as if to encourage her by example. She was wearing a baggy, oddly aerodynamic white jumpsuit like the one Anju had discovered she was wearing, and both now boasted tiny spots of deep green spinach. “It’s not glass. It’s transparent nanoceramic. Stronger than titanium. You’ll find we use a lot of it here. Hardly anyone uses real glass anymore. Artists, I suppose.”
“And here is … where exactly? Mrs. Sharma, I … what’s going on? Is this a … prank, a joke? Some kind of sim? Please tell me I haven’t been kidnapped for one of those billionaire reality shows.” She heard the whine in her voice and hated it but couldn’t help it. She’d never been so confused in her life and she didn’t want to be a bad sport, either. “The last thing I remember is going into Dr. Li’s office to get that mole removed on my chin…”
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Sharma said. “We did remove the mole. It wasn’t cancerous if you’re worried about that.”
“I was, but now I’m—”
“Let me explain. There’s a presentation later, also. A ‘sim,’ if you want to call it that.”
Anju gradually stopped chewing and simply stared as the explanation spooled out. Yes, she was correct to remember Dr. Li’s office, her mother fretting in the corner, Will there be blood? I will look away if there is blood! I don’t like to look! Mom prettied up in skinny jeans and sandals and a silk blouse because they were supposed to go to lunch later. The tiny, cold sting of the needle in her face. And then waking up here … 75 years later.
“Cryopreservation,” Anju said slowly. “But that’s not real. That’s … that’s sci-fi. I mean, movies…”
“Well, so was cloning, 75 years ago.”
“I … what? Are you a clone of my mother?”
“A modified clone descendant, not from original cells for several generations,” Mrs. Sharma said serenely, waving a hand to dismiss Anju’s horror. “Legally, modifications must be made. No unaltered clones. There are laws! And Precision Sharmaceuticals were the experts then, and the experts now. Which is why it was decided to take this very exciting step—”
“Are you referring to freezing me as—”
“We thought you would be delighted!” Mrs. Sharma seemed genuinely hurt, but Anju was quite used to this kind of unsubtle emotional manipulation from her mother, or even a lineage of her mother, and stared at her stonily as the older woman made a show of rallying to continue her explanation. Cryofreezing was already illegal on Earth, so both the cryo-tubes (“Wait, go back, why is there a plural there”) and the companies (“Again—”) (“Don’t interrupt, Anju, or we’ll be here all week”) had been moved into orbit, which was technically legal, and they did want to do everything by the books, after all.
And doing things by the books was precisely what Anju was doing here, to answer her question. An enormous tax loophole had been created when corporation mergers had been prohibited over a certain size, which the former CEO had realized they could dart through — “For everyone’s benefit, Anju!” — with a marriage and a specific clause in the prenuptial agreement, uniting not only two perfectly darling and very compatible young people, but two families, and two mega-corporations.
“But I didn’t agree to any of this! You’ve … My God, Jesus Christ, what the hell is going on here?! You … You abducted me, you froze me against my will, you—”
“I didn’t do any of that,” Mrs. Sharma said. “I didn’t even exist! Your parents made the decision. All the astrological figures have been calculated. A date’s been chosen. None of that was my doing. And,” she repeated meaningfully, “they thought you’d be happy.”
“My parents knew shit about me and my happiness! Or else they’d never have done this!”
“That isn’t true,” Mrs. Sharma said. “Come on, you need to watch the sim your parents left for you. And you’ll feel better.”
“One second,” Anju said. “I think I’m going to throw up again.”
It was a big room — like a miniature auditorium, a bowl shape sloping down to a platform in the center. Or, Anju thought morbidly, like one of those surgical theatres. They wanted to make sure that everyone could see the horror being enacted in the middle of the floor. Several more people, Mrs. Sharma had informed her, were expected; there would be a wait. Anju sat and shivered in her nanoceramic seat — relieved when Mrs. Sharma reached over and adjusted something on her white suit, sending a slow warmth creeping from her core down to her wrists and ankles, like the whole suit was one of those heated seats in a fancy car.
Cars. Did they still have cars on Earth? Or up here? Her car, a bargain-basement Honda Civic, hadn’t even had heated seats. That had been an add-on she couldn’t afford. Where was it now? Forget the car. Where was her life now? She had been partway through her master’s degree in sociology, (much to her parents’ highly vocal horror). Now she would never graduate. Her apartment! Had someone been watering her plants? No, they must all have died a few weeks later. Her mother had hated her place anyway. “Why can’t you live at home? We’re only a 40-minute drive away. Or at least in a nicer building!” Anju, upon reflection, didn’t think she had loved it; but she hadn’t hated it, either. It was somewhere to live and it was relatively quiet and it was hers. Away from her parents.
But her friends, the other grad students under her professor, the kids whose papers she graded at night … everyone would be dead now. Or almost a 100 years old. Her parents were dead. Everyone in her family was dead.
She waited for tears to come, but nothing happened, only a cold lurch of nausea deep in her core that the heated suit could not touch. People were filing in now, no one with recognizable faces like Mrs. Sharma, which she supposed was one small blessing. As he took his seat across the bowl, a dazed-looking young man nodded vaguely at her, and she nodded back: Hello, the gesture said. I see you’ve been cursed in the same way as me.
She wondered what had been taken from her husband-to-be, what kind of life they had destroyed. Better? Worse? How did you measure that kind of thing? She realized she was waiting for the shock to wear off before she could feel the full measure of grief and outrage and mourning and anger that she knew must be building up inside her. It couldn’t have all gone numb. She was not that kind of person. Her parents had never really seen that side of her, had they? She had been concentrating so hard on being a good girl.
The sim was short and very realistic; Anju even recognized, more or less, the speaker, who had been a chief something of her father’s company. He was a big shot now, sitting on the board of Precision Sharmaceuticals. He was joined by a brittle-looking, gorgeously haughty woman who turned out to be the former CEO of CellRegenixx, which Anju presumed to be the company they were marrying.
Together, spiritedly, they delivered their congratulations on the engagement, explained the legalities (no divorce, no annulment, for a period of 10 Earth years), displayed the spectacular bridal sari that had been preserved for 78 years in its very own anaerobic preservation tube, discussed the wedding ceremony, and the guest list (almost all of whom would be virtual, naturally). They were now thawing the pandit out as the stars, moon, and Mars were right.
“We’ll go over afterward and introduce you to Prab,” Mrs. Sharma murmured as the holographic man went on. “Later tonight. We’ll have to do your hair and makeup, of course.”
“I don’t want anyone to do my hair and makeup.”
“It’ll be easier, trust me. You won’t be familiar with any of the devices and they’re not very intuitive.”
“That’s not what I meant, I meant—”
“Don’t raise your voice, dear.”
Anju sat back and glared at the young man they’d chosen for her — Prab, was it? Must be short for something, as Anju was short for Gitanjali. Heir, like her, to a mega-corporation of impossible wealth and power and, like her, technically unable to inherit it. It wasn’t like a monarchy. This was the only way, the sim was telling her. She ignored him and studied the room. She’d already barked her shin about a dozen times on various half-invisible pieces of transparent furnishings or ship fixtures.
She thought about her apartment again and its opaque furniture and the exposed brick of the walls and the subtle, indefinable scent of the brick, the sound of her spider plants scraping gently against it in the breeze. And again she waited for grief and again it didn’t come.
The next morning, she tried to steal one of the ship’s escape pods.
It wasn’t something where she could have argued later that she thought was a good idea at the time; she had eaten breakfast with Mrs. Sharma’s supervision, and then asked about the “Uh, hygienic facilities?” Thankfully, the older woman hadn’t insisted on accompanying her to help her ‘figure it out,’ which Anju had been worried about, and on the way back Anju had darted into a side corridor.
At first, she really had just wanted to explore the ship by herself. She marveled at the combination of carpet and tile, all intricate and colorful, in sharp contrast to the pale metal walls and transparent nanoceramic everything else. And then she had looked up to see the surprisingly extensive signage indicating yes, the facilities, but also a gym, a spa, and directions to the engine room, control room … and “Emergency Exits.”
Of course, on a spaceship, she had reasoned, you couldn’t have an emergency exit; exiting was in and of itself an emergency. So, it must have been something else. She had followed the directions, therefore, initially out of curiosity, and then upon seeing the unguarded room full of beautifully-appointed, arrow-shaped pods, had instantly decided to take one.
For about 30 seconds, as the pod powered up and began its initiation sequence (“Please wait … determining power levels”) it looked as if this would be the easiest exit of her life. Much easier, frankly, than her attempts to sneak out of her parents’ fortress-like mansion as a teenager, what with all the hired help in the house and the security system, and the placement of her bedroom, and the wall around the—
Sirens, alarms, strobe lights, lasers, and attack drones. Mrs. Sharma hauled her away for a respectful but thorough talking-to. After that, there was no more unsupervised wandering; the only exception, she discovered, was spending time with her husband-to-be, Prab, because he had supervision of his own.
“Its name is Satya,” Prab said gloomily.
“I hate it,” Anju said.
“Me too.” He reached to brush some of the dangling leaves away from his face, but the drone was already doing it for him; a featureless grey sphere with a couple of pin-sized red lights on it and grey limbs that folded out from its equator as if it were taking things out of its Bat-utility-belt.
They were in the atrium, where they had been told the wedding would take place when the stars were right, in about two weeks. If Prab and Anju had thought the dense and tangled greenery would allow them a minute’s privacy, they were wrong; Satya the drone had no visible propellers (Anju had no idea how it was staying in the air) and simply nudged through the foliage like a determined bird. The air smelled of hidden flowers, damp earth, sap, dirt, mold, wet concrete. Ordinary smells of a greenhouse back home, or the botanical gardens on campus.
“Anju Sharma,” she said after a minute, leaning on a decorative stone bridge over a little trickling stream.
She didn’t shake his hand. Eventually, he came over and leaned on the bridge next to her, not too close.
For a long time, neither spoke. Then he said, “Those … aren’t fish, are they?”
“Oh. Huh.” She squinted. He was right; they were projections of koi and koi-shaped shadows; very good, but not real. Occasionally the water shimmered in just the right way and the fish seemed to glitch. “The future is bullshit,” she said bleakly.
“How did they get you?” she said, turning to look at him properly. He was about her height, with a lot of curly black hair held back in a ponytail and the beginnings of a beard. He also looked like he hadn’t slept for about a week, rather than, like her, having been asleep for a large part of a century.
He sighed. “My parents took me to a cookout at my cousin’s.”
“They put a pill in my frozen yogurt. I felt it in the back of my throat just a second too late to do anything about it. It was too easy. If I was a writer, I wouldn’t even have put that in a book. Who just swallows a small hard object they find in their dessert?”
“Well, same,” she said. “I went in to get a mole lasered off. And you know what? Now that I’m thinking about it, it was my mom’s idea. I’d had that mole my whole life. You can see it in the photos where I’m graduating from kindergarten, for Christ’s sake. And all of a sudden, she’s like ‘Darling it could be cancer, you’d better get it removed’,” Anju said, gritting her teeth with sudden anger as she realized it, “they knocked me out with the so-called ‘local anesthetic’ shot. I also genuinely think Mom wanted me to not have the mole in my wedding photos.”
“Oh man,” said Prab. He had a broad California accent, so that when they had first spoken on the way into the atrium Anju had thought he was putting it on. Now she found she rather liked it.
“I can’t believe they did this to us,” Anju said, pushing away from the bridge. She couldn’t stand the fake fish anymore. The stone path to her right led into a kind of fern tunnel, a dozen types of soft green fronds growing out of artfully placed stones or cement, so she walked through that. Prab followed. “I’ve been trying to figure out how to get out of this, how to, I don’t know, contact the authorities, something. It’s practically sex trafficking!”
“We don’t have to have sex,” he said meekly.
“Oh, shut up. That’s not the point. I mean, in an arranged marriage, at least in my family, you get veto power. You’re absolutely allowed to say ‘I don’t like that boy’ at any stage in the process. Then they find you a new one. Or they don’t. Listen, I’m not saying the system is perfect, but I have — had — friends who were perfectly happy with whoever their family picked, and some who insisted on normal dating, and everything in between. I’ve never seen it so you can’t say no.”
“Me neither. I mean … actually, I guess for the girl’s family,” he said as if he was thinking about it for the first time. “I think it’s just expected that the boy will say yes to whoever.”
They paused, in the fern tunnel, and thought about that for a while. Prab reached up and ran one of the fronds through his fingers, gently collecting a bead of water that he flicked to the floor.
“I did actually ask Mrs. Sharma if I could say no,” Anju said, nudging past him to reach the other end of the stone tunnel. This area was devoted to orchids, dozens of varieties and colors, impossibly perfect.
“Did you? Good for you. I can barely look her in the eye,” Prab said.
“She’s kind of overbearing,” Anju admitted. “Anyway. She said of course I didn’t have to agree to the marriage. But she also spent about 40 minutes explaining to me what it would mean for, you know, the company, the literally millions of employees back on Earth, how much better it would make their lives. And how long this has been in the works, and how hard they’ve worked to keep that family business loophole open. How much my parents wanted it, how hard they looked for a merger partner and a man my age who would be compatible, and how many times the birth charts were run. They were obsessed with that part. It couldn’t just be anyone. It had to be someone compatible at however many points of compatibility.”
“Don’t ask me,” said Prab. “I was born in America. My parents were the ones who knew all that stuff.”
“Yeah, same. And no brothers or sisters so I mostly had to go off what I heard at family weddings for cousins and whatnot.” And now all my cousins are dead, she almost said, but she was also thinking of the rest of that conversation with Mrs. Sharma: the letter from her mother, specified to be delivered ‘just in case’ Anju was being ‘difficult,’ still unread in her jumpsuit pocket. “Your life will be limitless now, Anju,” Mrs. Sharma had said sweetly, putting her big, warm hands on Anju’s shoulders. “It will be as big as the galaxy! You’ll have money, ships, travel, clothes, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Didn’t you always dream of a life like that?”
She hadn’t. She had barely been able to dream of a week where she got enough sleep and maybe got to see her friends for lunch once or twice. But it had been hers, her life, constructed by her out of materials she had chosen. Mrs. Sharma stared at her blankly as if she’d started speaking another language. “What does that have to do with anything?” she’d said.
“At least you got out,” Prab said, laughing weakly in the face of Anju’s silence. “You know, I had cousins that teased me about it. Look at Prab, he’s 26 and getting his Ph.D. and still living at home…”
“You were getting your Ph.D.?”
“Yeah, high-energy physics. Which is funny. If my parents had just waited a little longer to do this, they could have put me in one of those — you know. Like Best Groom Match Magazine. Saying ‘He’s a doctor!'”
“Wrong kind of doctor.”
“I guess so,” he smiled a little and then returned to his somber state. “I always did what they told me. I never thought they were telling me to do anything … really unreasonable. I never questioned them. What was there to question? I had the basement to myself in the big house, I had a nice car, they gave me money. I never had loans. We fought about my major but as long as I was going to be some kind of prestigious scientist, it was okay that I wasn’t going to be a real doctor. And then this. I wonder how long they were planning it.”
“Probably longer than you think,” Anju said. “Did you hear that they picked up that bridal sari three years before they ambushed us?”
“What are we going to do?” she said, louder than she had intended. Her voice cracked in the middle and she thought tears would finally come, but still there was nothing. Only the despair and frustration, as heavy as lead around her; inert, cold.
He blinked. “What do you mean?”
She stared at him. Then she turned and left.
Back in her room — beautiful, transparent, and incredibly dull, because no one had thought to take even a single personal item from her old life to carry into her new one — Anju opened her mother’s letter. Incredibly, after so many years, it still smelled of perfume. Mom liked perfume and had perhaps a hundred bottles in her vanity room, a place Anju had liked to go as a child and had been permitted as long as she didn’t touch anything. It was enough to just look at the ranked bottles topped with spheres or octahedrons, angels and demons, wings, feathers, faces.
She sniffed the paper and felt the tears build up. Even before opening the letter, she knew what it would say. It would not be a heartfelt missive about how much her parents had loved her and how they knew they were doing the right thing to give their daughter the best possible life. Nothing her mother did was heartfelt. It would be brisk and affectionate and above all, extremely confident that her daughter would do her duty as demanded. What else had Anju done all her life?
They had never fought. Fighting would have implied that Anju was maintaining a position. Instead, she had simply shrunk down, diminished, become quiet and obedient, gotten the grades she had to get, and escaped only after making it out of her undergraduate degree, expanding her boundaries the tiniest bit so that she could experience the wildness of real air and not something her parents had already pre-vetted and pre-filtered.
Now she wished that they had fought. At least it would have felt like a connection. She unfolded the letter and read it, trying to stretch it out, because it was so short. Everything her mother had felt necessary to say fit in ten lines. The clear expectation; the assurance that Anju would indeed do what she was told; the ‘caretaker’ that would make sure Anju would do it properly.
What were you going to do with your life anyway? MS.
No ‘Love, Mom.’ Just her initials.
Anju folded it up and sniffed it again and put it on the transparent shelf next to her bed. It was the only thing in the room with a scent.
“I don’t know,” Prab said. “I think you need to ask yourself what you want out of life, you know?”
“Are you trying to give me an existential crisis?”
“I hope I’m not,” he said. “Are you going to finish that?”
“No, go ahead.” Anju handed him the paper bag of doughnut holes; she had lost her appetite.
He said, “I mean, my parents had this talk with me all the time. You know. The reason they came to America. They asked themselves what they wanted, and they answered it, and then they went to get it. So I did the same thing. Money, security, safety, those were important to me.”
“Were they? Or were they just the things your parents told you were important?” She was looking down at the artificial fish again, even though they gave her a headache. Or maybe it was Satya’s electrical field, which made her hair stand up when it got too close. She waved the drone away. “Mine never told me but I knew. Yeah, money, security, safety. Prestige. Image. Status. They didn’t just want to make money quietly, they wanted everyone to know it. And they wanted their baby, their only child, to be this kind of … crown jewel. That’s why they did this, you know.”
“I know. But what can we do? This is what we were frozen for. Looked at a certain way, it’s possible this is what we were born for. And would it be so bad?” His voice took on a slightly pleading note — not for himself, Anju thought. Not for his ego, or their future marriage. But this life, in space, spectral and shimmering, constructed out of nanoceramic and gems and gold, was being dangled in front of them but neither of them could touch until the marriage took place.
“It’s not whether it would be bad or good,” Anju said. “It’s that they took my life away. And they gave me something I didn’t ask for and don’t want. Don’t you miss your life, Prab? Your work, your friends?”
“Of course I do! But we can’t get them back. We may as well make the best of now.”
“But we’ll be right back under their thumbs. More, if anything. We won’t have a life. We’ll be controlled and monitored the entire time. We can’t make the best of that!”
“Yes we can,” he said brightly. “I believe in us!”
“You’re an idiot,” she said. “I give up. I’ll see you at the wedding.”
As the day approached and the celestial bodies moved in their paths, Anju unexpectedly acquired several security-slash-drone ‘cousins,’ who began to follow her around in unnerving silence. This left Mrs. Sharma to complete the arrangements for what appeared to be a surprisingly traditional wedding, minus the celebrations that came before, since no one would be arriving till the final day. Anju was surprised to find herself upset by this. She was 24; marriage seemed like an infinite distance away. She never dated anybody seriously. She hadn’t ruled marriage out completely; no, but she had not been thinking about it at a conscious level.
Even so, there must have been a part of her mind that, like her mother’s, was grinding away somewhere, some hidden sub-routine thinking about what her wedding would be like. And if she had to say it out loud, she would have admitted that there should have been parties, dancing, music, all her far-flung cousins and uncles and aunties, a house full of flowers and real presents and joke presents and houseguests sleepily scratching their hair and yawning as they figured out the coffee machine.
Not this cold and sterile ship full of administrators and bureaucrats and cryo-tube scientists and security people. Definitely not putting her hands into what looked for all the world like a toaster oven and waiting while it carefully printed the henna lines onto her skin. That was when she finally burst into tears, but since she couldn’t move her hands while the chemical curing process was taking place inside the machine, she just had to cry and snot onto her jumpsuit. It wasn’t supposed to be a machine! It was supposed to be her cousin Vera, who had steady hands and did mehndi on the weekends for extra cash!
“Are you distressed?” said one of the security drones.
“Go eat a magnet,” Anju said.
When her hands were done and dry, she followed her entourage back down the hallway to a warm little room where Mrs. Sharma proudly dressed Anju in the red bridal sari, “All the best, darling. The sari is entirely hand-embroidered, which is literally, not metaphorically, unheard of these days.” Mrs. Sharma grabbed one of the specialized drones to do her makeup and hang the jewelry. Her mother’s, Anju noted. Gold and sapphires and diamonds like stars in the sky.
The atrium was filled with ranks and ranks of transparent chairs arranged in a semi-circle around the big central gazebo, hung with vines and garlanded with very convincing but again, Anju suspected, not real flowers. Prab and Anju walked down the stone path together, not touching or looking at one another, unaccompanied, painfully aware of it. Anju felt the makeup on her face only psychologically; in fact, it had gone on in a mist, and she knew there was only the thinnest possible layer of pigment.
To squeeze through the family loophole, legally, it must be the case that the predecessors are deceased and the successors are assigned positions out of necessity … Anju still had to admit she wanted her parents there, her quiet father, her glamorous mother, watching her walk up the steps to the tiny fire and the thrones and the cushions. She knew no one in the crowd of real and virtual people except the board. And Mrs. Sharma, sitting in the front, nodding encouragingly, dressed in a blue lehenga so encrusted with crystals that it must have weighed twice that of Anju’s sari. Many guests seemed recently thawed out, a little shaky, like the pandit.
She sat down and did as she was told. A comforting smell of incense filled the gazebo — synthesized, she could not help but notice and is emitted from a couple of small nozzles buried in the vines. A world of glass, a world of fakery. A world in which she would be pressed like candy into a mold, and come out like this, shaped and transparent.
How can I escape?
She was still wondering as she and Prab signed their names on the register, pressed their thumbs to the screen, allowed their retinas to be scanned. Prab was smiling uncertainly, but it had a glassy look to it, as if, Anju thought, he had asked for a sedative before the ceremony.
And somehow his odd, glazed pliability made it easier to do the next thing — another thing, she would tell people later, that didn’t at all seem like a good idea at the time, but seemed bright and obvious as a flame.
“So I’m officially CEO now?” Anju said, drawing her face back from the retinal scanner.
“Well, you and Prab are co-CEOs.” Mrs. Sharma was beaming. “You look so good, darling. So fresh and young! Now, we have a list of policy proposals that need your signatures, those were developed some months ago, so we need to—”
“And I can do… Whatever I want, right?”
“With the approval of the board, and with the approval of your co-CEO,” Mrs. Sharma said, her voice dropping into tones of suspicion. She was too late.
Anju’s heart pounded. Sweat soaked into the layers of fabric at her back. Could they put her in jail for this? Not very likely … “I’m abdicating as CEO. With my co-CEO’s permission, of course, and the board’s. I’m appointing Mrs. Sharma as the new CEO. Try to keep me and I’m not signing anything ever. That’s the deal. Any objections?”
All the air seemed to leak out of the room. At her side, Prab let out a frankly hysterical laugh. She knew how he felt. She couldn’t stop smiling. Everyone was staring at her, mouths open, whether they were hundreds or thousands of miles away or present. One woman, Anju couldn’t help but notice, had actually clutched her pearls.
She didn’t think Prab would follow her, but he did, and they left the room full of shouting people without much notice; the board hadn’t been difficult to convince, and the swapping of Mrs. Sharma’s name for Anju’s had been signed off by the company lawyers in two minutes. They had the forms all ready to go, after all. Anju felt slightly delirious and wasn’t sure whether to laugh or scream. “What are you going to do now?” she said over her shoulder.
“Oh my God. Oh my God! I have no idea. What did we just do? What did you just do? Why did I go along with it?”
“Because you always do what you’re told.” She stopped, pulled him into a doorway, and put her hands on his shoulders. She squeezed hard, digging her newly-painted nails into the thick fabric. “Prab! For Christ’s sake. Look at me!”
“But, but we … we can’t just… ”
“You can go back if you want! What are you following me for? They’ll take you back. You won’t be CEO, but you’ll have a job, you’ll have a cushion for the rest of your life. Money. Whatever you want. You know that! And if they don’t, I don’t know. Tell them you were coerced.”
“Anju, you turned down this … gift, I mean, not even turned it down, threw it back in their faces…”
“No I didn’t,” she corrected him. “I passed it on. I re-gifted it. And a gift you don’t want is a waste anyway.”
“I guess so.” He took a deep breath and started to laugh, the first real laughter she thought she’d heard from him. “That was amazing. Her face. What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to go find those escape pods again.”
“And then what?”
“And then I don’t know.”
“I’m your husband,” he said uncertainly. “I should go with you.”
“You can if you want,” she said. “Are you listening to me though? I said if you want. I’m okay being separated. What do you want out of life? I just answered it. You have to do the same.”
“What was your answer?” he said, stooping to pick up one of her earrings. “Here.”
“Thanks. Uncertainty. Poverty. Adventure,” she said. “I never had an adventure in my whole entire life. I never even met my friends at the mall after dark when I was a teenager. But now…”
“Anything goes. You can follow me if you want. Or you can go have your own adventures. No one’s going to tell you what to do anymore,” she said, looking up at the signage again. “Not even me. Here we go.”
The sirens blared; the strobes flashed. This time, no one responded, and the pods finished their initiation sequence, checked their power levels, ran through diagnostics … and shot free from the ship like dandelion seeds, bright specks against the darkness of the sky; unnoticed and unpursued.
Just a hop away from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple is the headquarters of a groundbreaking biotech company, started by a South Asian trailblazer named Nina Tandon. Tandon has been running her startup Epibone, for over a decade, with the mission to grow bone and cartilage for skeletal reconstruction — an endeavor that presents commercialization opportunities in the medical field. Prior to that, she was a PhD and MBA graduate from MIT and Columbia University, respectively. I met Nina Tandon at our alma mater, The Cooper Union, where she was a speaker at a TEDx event we hosted. She stayed in my mind for years after graduating; I was in awe of the grit paragon before me and all that she had achieved by deciding to pursue multiple technical degrees, and then channeling her enterprising spirit to start her own company. I finally sent an email asking her if we can chat about her journey and what eventually led her to start a biotechnology firm in New York City; an industry that has recently seen traction in areas such as Brooklyn Navy Yard and Sunset Park.
Nina Tandon grew up in a nuclear family with two sisters and one brother. Hailing from a family of engineers, almost all of the Tandon children went to the same unassuming college in the heart of the East Village — The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
“I guess I was from a little bit of a geeky family of four kids. All four of us eventually became engineers,” Tandon said, reflecting on her background. “I wasn’t that into sports as a kid. I was kind of told I was a little klutzy. I don’t know if I really was! I was interested in community theater. It was called the Main Street Theater, and I really enjoyed doing all these musicals and stuff. I think that was probably my most favorite hobby. I also liked sewing clothes for myself and my stuffed animals.”
The best part about Tandon’s response was the way her genuine passion for these creative subjects shone through. Her interests were like any other child’s. So how did she choose her major? What were the little decisions that led her to pursue the path that she is on today?
Both of Tandon’s grandfathers were engineers working on either canals or railroads. This played a key role in her parents decision to emphasize STEM education early on; Tandon even took college-level classes in high school. She was raised with parents who believed that sitting at the table was an earned opportunity, so they naturally coaxed their children onto the known and sturdy path of science and math.
As South Asian women, we talk a lot about generational trauma and not enough about how generational career paths steer us towards certain specialties. Tandon pointed out that one parent being an engineer is a big factor in determining if you’ll be an engineer.
“I felt like that [engineering] was a preordained destiny for me, and that I had to kind of fight for [keeping] humanities in my life. So I kept doing high school drama. I studied languages like Italian, Latin and French. I really wanted to have a broader education.”
Upon graduating from Cooper with a degree in electrical engineering, Tandon found herself at the nexus of both a historical and personal moment. The Human Genome Project, an international research project led by a team of scientists to define and sequence the base pairs of human DNA, had just wrapped up, establishing the significance of genes and how they can be modified to cure diseases. At the same time, Tandon’s brother was diagnosed with a genetic retinal disease which motivated her to join a retinal implant project at MIT.
“I felt it [his condition] could better be cured by genetic cures than by engineering approaches to neural prosthetics; it was a big ‘aha’ moment for me. I discovered the beauty and pervasiveness of electrical currents in the body. I was an electrical engineer, so I was really drawn to cardiac development, wound-healing, and how you can use traditional engineering techniques to modify, say, technical signals to quote cells into becoming new tissues. I was drawn to that for my PhD. I was growing electrically-active tissues like skin and cardiac, and I was really drawn to the wider world of healthcare as I moved into consulting after my PhD.”
Tandon pivoted back to academia because that’s where some of the most interesting companies were coming from. There were some companies developing skin in the early 2000s. And on the other side of the spectrum, there were those working on cardiac tissue that have multiple cell types, and electromechanical coupling which would not deliver results in the near term. But in the middle there was cartilage and it’s a tissue that affects millions every year.
“As a society, we’re replacing millions of joints per year, just because of a couple of millimeters of damaged cartilage. And growing cartilage and growing bone isn’t as hard as growing cardiac tissue. So I thought to myself, in the next 10 to 15 years, we’re going to make an impact.”
Working at McKinsey after her PhD, Tandon got a 30,000 foot view of the healthcare industry and understood the nuances of healthcare policy on technologies.
“It’s about big companies buying little companies. That I don’t think is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to make a little company. I was thinking to myself; I’m growing all these things in the microscope, but they’re related to the politics and the economics of the world.”
Tandon followed her intrinsic passion and curiosity within the space, channeling her inner theater kid that brimmed with creativity and wonder. After identifying that building a company was what she wanted to do, Tandon thought the best way to really build it, while working on the idea, was to pursue an executive MBA at Columbia.There she was able to dive deep into the ethical issues that lay in the biomedical field, including understanding the repercussions of the Affordable Care Act, or the stem cell wars.
“If I want to transform technologies, and from benchtop to bedside, I’m going to probably need to transform myself from a PhD student and a scientist to an entrepreneur.”
And thus, Epibone was born.
Innovation in the biotechnology space can take years due to lengthy R&D times and process approvals. After years of hard work, Epibone received FDA approval for their osteochondral product (living cartilage affixed to a bone base) to go into clinical trials for indications in the knee.
“There was no singular ‘aha’ moment, but several. Biotechnology takes so long; it’s more gradual.”
An Alternate Career Path and Life Advice
If you ask almost any high-schooler, interested in the medical space, what they want to be, the answer is inevitably a healthcare worker (ie. doctor, nurse, physician’s assistant, etc.) In general, South Asians tend to have a one-dimensional focus when on the medical school track, since that is what the applications require: incessant and obsessive dedication to a career path that is emotionally, physically, and financially grueling.
However, Tandon’s career path is an important one to consider as it provides an alternative yet impactful option for those who want to make a difference in public health. You can have an impact on public health — an area that the pandemic proved to be important to each every person on this planet — without going to medical school at all. Some examples include working in medical policy, pharmaceutical engineering, biomedical devices, and bioinformatics.
“There’s a million ways to contribute to society, even if you’re more interested in helping to foster human health than just being the person who can implement society’s current best practices for medical care. I would just urge everyone, parents included, to take that broader view that entrepreneurship might be a better way to help the world.”
Tandon’s journey from engineering to entrepreneurship is one that isn’t usually explored in the context of the South Asian diaspora. Often South Asian Americans, or immigrants, remain in the middle management sector, even after racking up multiple technical and business degrees at amazing schools. Ultimately, it is up to the individual to determine where their happiness can stem from. Some that have gone through the immigration journey may be at their mental limits to pursue additional risk. For some, the immigration journey may have the countering effect: the “make the most of what you can” effect, despite the adversities faced. The capacity to take a risk and believe in building something without expecting immediate returns creates the necessary vacuum for advanced innovation.
Tandon ultimately chased her curiosity for electromechanical system design, biomedical politics, and the human condition around aging. Being raised in a family of engineers, and with the freedom to explore her artistic self, Tandon was allowed to be a “klutz” and deeply learn from her interests and her failures. Tandon was also well aware that the destination she desired was all about a long journey. With Silicon Valley, tech tycoons, and unicorn startups abundant in the news, it is easy to forget that every industry requires patience and dedication before immediate results…or revenue.
With resounding clarity, Tandon passionately stated that entrepreneurship isn’t entirely based on innate, creative talent. Much like any artist, it is important to hone the skill through hours of work; in the case of biotech entrepreneurship, this can look like hours of case studies and fervent discussions with professors and students. Doing her MBA gave her the chance to treat her time at Columbia as an accelerator program, giving her access to world-class professors and research facilities.
Tandon’s inspirational story is a reminder that our careers develop as we do. So often young adults are plagued with fear of what the future can and should hold. However, if we approach our careers with a growth mindset, there are opportunities that spur from internal curiosity and external support.
To learn more about Epibone, visit thewebsite. To learn more about Nina Tandon, clickhere.