Since New York City has long been known as the literary capital of the world, it only made sense for the Indo-American Arts Council to present the first ever South Asian Literary Festival this past week. The participants and attendees will surely agree, much was shared, great conversations were had and words from writers will never be forgotten. Here are just a few:
1. On identity and his life in New York, Booker Prize winner Sir Salman Rushdie said, “No where else will someone question you if you say you’re a New Yorker, you’re a New Yorker. If you’ve lived here twelve years or been here twelve days.”
2. On telling great stories during the LGBT stories panel, author Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla reminded us: “Writing is not an act of confession, but an act of the imagination.”
3. In a very vulnerable moment as she talked of the first real experience of loss in her life, award-winning movie director, Mira Nair, recalls a parent’s words when he lost the love of his life on the brink of what would have been a momentous anniversary. “He just kept repeating the number of years they had been married.” And her mantra, which she often repeats has always been, “If we don’t tell our stories, no one else will.”
4. On the concerns of telling a South Asian story, debut author of “An Isolated Incident,” Soniah Kamal says, “Some people like to bring sexy back, I’m bringing back my right to write about monsoons, henna, monkeys, bangles, mangoes and more. I spent four agonizing months debating whether I was a sellout if one of my characters gorged on mangoes. But, hey, it’s Lahore, it’s the summer, what else is he going to be eating: pancakes! No to exotification. A big yes to reality.“
5. On the often discouraging quest to get published, New York Times’ journalist Parul Sehgal turned to the audience and said, “Don’t get disheartened. Keep writing. People are reading.”
6. There was a lot of discussion on whether you have to be South Asian to tell a story with South Asian characters well, and if you are South Asian, should you limit yourself to stories with South Asian voices. Suketu Mehta, along with others, responded similarly, but in his words: “I don’t see why Indians should restrict ourselves to writing only about India.”
7. In response to a comment made by Rajiv Satyal, who moderated the panel on humor and publishing with brother and author of “Blue Boy,” Rakesh Satyal and writer, producer, comedian and author of “No Land’s Man” Aasif Mandvi, had us all laughing when he said, “So are you saying that I’m not as famous as Tina Fey? That’s what you’re saying, right?”
8. At the closing ceremony, Aroon Shivdisani, executive director and founder of IAAC and the mastermind behind the festival, raved about the week’s success with mostly standing room only packed attendance at all the sessions and said, “Next year, we will get bigger rooms. And the festival will only be bigger and better!”
9. On the final night, moderator and New York Times Journalist Patrick Healy asked Pulitzer winning playwright, Ayad Akhtar, “How do you deal with hitting a creative wall?” His answer, “I trust the wall.” But he also had the audience in stitches when he boldly said, “Punjabi’s are the southern Italians of South Asia, histrionic and expressive.” Being a Punjabi girl myself, I could not agree more. Excuse me while I take a moment to get my balay-balay on.
10. In closing, I have to share the moment that moved me and will stay with me forever. On the difference between books, movies and plays, playwright and script writer of the upcoming “Bangali Harlem,” Aladdin Ullah said, “It’s different. With books, you read it. With movies, you see it. But with theater, with the story coming alive on the stage,” and as he got choked up, he added, “You feel it.” And everyone in the room felt it.
The passion behind the power of a great story comes from the passion of the storyteller. And thinking back on IAAC’s event that’s the word that comes to mind — passion. The world of Literary Art is passionate and growing in fervor as new and vibrant writers emerge every day. We have much to celebrate. And many more stories to tell.
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).
The room erupted in applause when actress Poorna Jagannathan said: “In America, I feel like I am just getting started,” during The Juggernaut Summit that took place on Sept. 23, 2023 in New York City.
The particular statement, reflecting on Jagannathan’s career trajectory since shifting from Bollywood to Hollywood, also captured what seemed to be the overarching message of the day: South Asians aren’t having just a moment; they’re starting a movement.
Hosted by The Juggernaut — a subscription-based online South Asian magazine chronicling what it calls “the unstoppable rise of South Asians” — The Juggernaut Summit was a day-long gathering that welcomed over 200 attendees from inside and outside of the diaspora.
“This is the first summit, but hoping we can make it an annual event,” said Snigdha Sur, the founder and CEO of the outlet.
Sur shared that she noticed how segmented professional conferences tend to be — specific to tech, entertainment, and business, among others — and wanted The Juggernaut Summit to be different.
“Our generation really wants to connect across sector lines and support each other without competition. I’ve always really admired how the Black community has managed to come together in that way with Essencefest and the NAACP, and I thought ‘we [South Asians] need that.’”
The summit welcomed 24 speakers across seven diverse panels discussing topics including mindset, investing and innovation, retail in a 21st-century economy, geopolitics, artificial intelligence, food and entertainment.
The event was filled with a number of poignant and memorable moments.
The summit began with investor, entrepreneur and creator Sahil Bloom getting candid about his professional journey and upbringing in a biracial household.
Later, there was passionate discourse amidst the geopolitics panel of journalist Rana Ayyub, CEO of Bodhala and former Kansas State Representative Raj Goyle, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Azmat Khan — and even audience members.
While the topics were serious, there was also no shortage of laughs. When the investment panelists were asked “Team Gulab Jamun or Ras Malai?” both sweets were even distributed on stage.
Attendees and speakers alike were able to connect on shared experiences like grappling with guilt and taboos surrounding money, prejudice, and bias when trying to advance in their careers; social and political responsibilities as South Asians; familial expectations as immigrants or the children of immigrants, as well as little things like the event running just a bit on “Indian Standard Time” and not finding any restaurant that can cook as well as your mom.
Time was even allocated to enjoy samosas and a cup of chai during breaks.
It was refreshing to hear many speakers including angel investor Arati Sharma and actress Richa Moorjani mention the importance of taking care of your mental health as individuals with ambition.
Oscar-winning director Mira Nair, food writer Priya Krishna, and director Sri Rao also urged everyone in the room to follow their passions and stay diligent noting there is so much work to be done in terms of South Asian representation and inclusion.
At one point in the day, Sur took to the brightly-branded summit stage to read a statement from the US Vice President, Kamala Harris, that reinforced these calls to action.
“The Juggernaut’s stories echo stories like mine and my mother’s,” Harris’s statement read.
“She raised my sister and me to take pride in our South Asian heritage and to believe that nothing was out of our reach. It is because of the values instilled by my mother that I serve as your vice president. Each of you here today has your own story too. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and continue to dream with ambition to achieve the impossible….May today’s summit motivate you to continue to move us forward and toward a brighter future for all.”
Today, there are many more South Asians in prominent public positions than ever before in America, but geopolitics panelist Goyle raised the question of what happens should the country reach what he called “Peak Brown” or issues abroad affect South Asians domestically.
While there are no clear-cut answers to this or many of the questions raised as of yet, they all come back to the same fact: South Asians are finally getting their seats at the table and change is upon us.
The Juggernaut Summit sparked inspiration and motivation and crucial conversations like this one that will continue outside of the Spring Studio venue.
Other guests and speakers at the event included: Benchmark General Partner Chetan Puttagunta, Anchorless Bangladesh founder Rahat Ahmed, Vice Chairman of SUN Group Shiv Khemka, CEO of LVMH USA Anish Melwani, Founder and CEO of Poshmark Manish Chandra, Unapologetic Foods co-founders Roni Mazumdar and Chintan Pandya, Vinay Menda, Sajani Amarasiri, Rohini Kosoglu, Keith Peiris, Samyutha Reddy, Amish Jani, and George Mathew.
In the context of history, the written word enables us to see life as one did, understand the experiences of others, and contextualize our past within our present selves.
Published in 2021, the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA)’s well-researched debut anthology, “Our Stories,” was written by 64 scholars, activists, authors, and members of the South Asian community. The anthology is a compassionate and anecdotal revival of our history, identity, and political standing in a nation with histories of welcomed immigration juxtaposed against deep beliefs of racism. Each story presents the promised freedoms of the new nation paired with its challenges and differences.
“Our Stories” explores the current South Asian American cultural climate, detailing accounts that had lasting impacts. These include the September 11 attacks, Black Lives Matter protests, and voting patterns from recent elections. A majority of the anthology focuses on understanding our past. The first account of South Asians on North American soil dates to the late 1700s, when many Pakistani and Bangladeshi men entered the land as laborers aboard steamships. Although the presence of South Asian Americans was far and few until the 1900s, their strife is important to learn about, share, and remember.
Before the civil rights movement, South Asian American history was fraught with the fight for citizenship and a battle with unbridled racism. Take the Bellingham riots, where South Asian mill workers were attacked and made to feel unwelcome in their place of work, elements of which are still present in today’s America. Take Kala Bagai’s story, and her reality when her husband took his own life in 1928, seven years after receiving his naturalization. After his citizenship was revoked, he was also refused a visa to return to India, and ended his life in despair at the paradox of his reality. Raising three children whom she put through college herself, Kala Bagai’s harrowing story is one to remember, especially during a time when women were celebrating the chance to vote. Her voice was not heard. The early ’90s saw xenophobia, culminating in similar stories and despite some improvements since the 20th century, citizenship status is still a source of financial stress, with its purgatory limbos and unpredictable results.
South Asian Americans can immigrate to the country today due to a combination of the 1990 Immigration and Nationality Act and the Hart-Celler Act (1965), two key policies passed that welcomed the wave of highly-skilled labor, especially in demanding areas of information technology, engineering, and science. Beneficial immigration laws have been driven by the hard work of South Asians and other minority groups in North America.
Apart from the tumultuous stories surrounding the hardships of immigration, “Our Stories” introduces some nuanced positives of the South Asian American experience. From observing the allure that Niagara Falls has on South Asian immigrants, to the famous South Asian American literary writers including Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni, and Jhumpa Lahiri, we can draw patterns between American culture combined with South Asian influence. Even the gradual growth of yoga as a practice in the West is explored — from the time of Swami Vivekananda, who is critical for bringing Vedanta to the West, to Rishi Singh Grewal, one of America’s first Indian-born yoga teachers. Originally taken as a mystical and magical practice, yoga has become more postural and meditative as it continues to spread across the United States.
We also have detailed accounts of impressive South Asian American women in history who helped break boundaries and create possibilities for not only South Asians, but for all women of the time. Dr. Anandibai Joshee, the first-ever South Asian American woman to receive a medical degree in the late 1800s, provided medical services for women in India who would rather die than accept medical assistance from male physicians. Pandita Rambai was another critical social reformer from the 1800s, whose hardships during childhood, drove her to provide a better life for women in India and around the globe.
Covering real-life narratives from the 1700s to the present day, ‘Our Stories’ is a must-read for every South Asian immigrant and descendant living in America. Understanding our history is critical while living in a country where racial identity is often both appropriated and appreciated. As South Asians continue to inhabit new geographies, we are entwining the history of the past with the happenings of the present, and the impact of that ancestral and spatial legacy will shape our future for generations to come.
You can purchase a copy of “Our Stories” through this link. Support SAADA by donating to the organization here.