2001: Indian-American Odyssey
2001 will always be the year bookended by two horrific events—the 7.7 earthquake in Gujarat and the World Trade Center attacks and their aftermath. Somewhere in between there was the rest of the year with its own newsmakers, scandals, books and films. The U.S. Census Bureau released the 2000 census figures and estimated that the Indian American/Asian Indian population in the U.S. had doubled in the past decade to 1.7 million. 1.7 million people can make a lot of news—here is a lookback at some of the newsmakers.
India has a new man in Washington DC—Lalit Mansingh moved into the ambassador's residence in 2001. And he already has competition. Chancellor of Southern University Law Center, Louisiana, Bhisma Kumar Agnihotri, an active supporter of Overseas Friends of the BJP, was named Ambassador-at-large for Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and People of Indian Origin. Mansingh says he will depend on him for advice on NRI matters.
Piyush Bobby Jindal, 29, became the seniormost Indian-American in the Bush administration when he was named Assistant Secretary for Health and Human Services by George W. Bush.
The American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI), the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), the National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA), and the Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) combined acronyms and clout to form the Indian American National Foundation.
In Fortune magazine's annual survey of the 50 Most Powerful Women in Business, Indra Nooyi, president and CFO, PepsiCo Inc., rose to No. 10 from last year's No.43.
Forbes published its First Annual CEO Value Survey and three Indian Americans made the list—Steve Sanghi of Microchip Technologies at 70, Shailesh Mehta of Providian Financial Corp. at 156, and Ray Irani of Occidental Petroleum Corp. at 253. But before the year was out, Mehta was out of a job as well.
Rediff.com, the first Indian portal to list on the NASDAQ, acquired two U.S.-based companies, Value Communications Corporation and India Abroad Publications in a bid to increase penetration in the U.S. market.
Satyam Computers was listed on the New York Stock Exhange (NYSE) while Dr Reddy's Laboratories Limited based in Hyderabad became the first Asia-Pacific pharmaceutical company to be listed on the NYSE.
United Airlines launched direct daily flights between Chicago and Delhi making it the only carrier to fly nonstop between U.S. and India.
Silicon Valley tycoons like K.B. Chandrasekhar, B.V. Jagadeesh, Gururaj (Desh) Deshpande, and Kanwal Rekhi came together to form a India Lotus Inc., to fund an IMAX movie about the Taj Mahal with Aishwariya Rai as Mumtaz Mahal.
Here is a film the Silicon Valley tycoons did not put money into. Raj Jayadev's efforts to organize the temporary workers who make$ 6.50 an hour assembling HP printers became the subject of a documentary—Secrets of the Silicon Valley by Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman.
Ayesha Dharker who shot to fame as a suicide bomber in Santosh Sivan's The Terrorist, landed herself two high profile films- Ismail Merchant's The Mystic Masseur (with Aasif "Sakina's Restuarant" Mandvi) and George Lucas' Star Wars II. Hmm, looks like we will soon be seeing Ayesha dolls.
This was the year of Purva Bedi who seemed to be in every Indian-American film from American Desi to Wings of Hope and a slew of television shows. She commented, "We told one story with American Desi. There are so many stories to tell." And she might just be in all of them unless Ayesha Dharker beats her to it.
American Desi was the sleeper hit of the year. Made for a paltry $250,000, this light hearted college romp about Kris aka Krishnagopal Reddy and his friends, raked in over $1 million. It definitely made its young director Piyush Dinkar Pandya the most well-known young Indian-American director after M. Night Shyamalan.
M. Night Shyamalan signed a deal with Walt Disney Pictures for a film about mysterious crop circles called Signs. Shyamalan received $10 million for his last film Unbreakable.
After the sex debacle of Kamasutra, Mira Nair redeemed herself with Monsoon Wedding. A family drama about a Punjabi wedding in Delhi, shot with a handheld camera, picked up the Golden Lion at Venice proving that the Salaam Bombay director can still reel them in. "This is one for India, my beloved India, my continuing inspiration" said Nair.
Vishal Bhandari's look at the life of a sex worker, Maya the Reality, won the Best Foreign Film award at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, 2001.
While on films and awards, let's not forget Nandita Das who nabbed the best actress for her role in Jagmohan's Bawandar at the Santa Monica Film Festival.
And we still don’t know what action hero Steven Seagal was doing at the third annual Bollywood awards in New York City but then what was M.C. Hammer doing at the fundraiser for Gujarat earthquake victims with the likes of Bill Clinton and Shabana Azmi? Can't touch that.
John Kenneth Galbraith got a Padma Vibhushan from India home delivered. Other winners included congressman Benjamin Gilman and conductor Zubin Mehta. Poor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another distinguised ambassador to India like Galbraith, came up empty-handed.
Dipak Jain was named dean of the prestigious Kellog School of Management at Northwestern University while Vasudha Narayanan became president of the American Academy of Religions.
Peter Bhatia, chief executive editor of The Oregonian must have been pretty happy. The Oregonian won two Pulitzers this year - Public Service and feature writing.
Indians and food don't just mean the same old lunch buffet! Unless its from Amber India in Mountain View which was the only Indian eatery that made the San Francisco Chronicle's 100 Best Bay Area Restaurant list for the sixth year in a row.
The M.F.K. Fisher Distinguished Writing Award went to Pulitzer-winner Jhumpa Lahiri for "Indian Takeout" (Food & Wine) while Shobha Narayan won for her "The God of Small Feasts" (Gourmet).
Pankaj Mishra's The Romantics won Los Angeles Times Prize for Best First Fiction
Shamita Das Dasgupta, who co-founded Manavi, a New Jersey organization for empowering South Asian women, was the first Indian to be named a Bannerman Fellow. It has been awarded to 131 activists of color since its inception in 1988.
Neil Patel won his second Obie for set designs for four sets for Race, War of the Worlds, Resident Alien and I Will Bear Witness. Not to be confused with the Neil Patel who is staff secretary and key aide to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Alok Agarwal, Avnish Patel, Amol Achman, Deepa Pakkala, Deepika Sattaluri, Goumati Thackurdeen, Jayesh Shah, Manika Narula, Hafiz Nizam, Kamladai Singh, Kiran Gopu, Krishna Moorthy, Rajesh Khandelwal, Shakila Haque, Swarna Chalasani, Shabbir Ahmed, Valsa Raju—Just a few of those who were reported missing after the World Trade Center attacks.
Balbir Singh Sodhi—an Arizona gas station owner was the first victim of hate crimes against South Asians and Arabs after the World Trade Center attacks.
Ayub Ali Khan and Mohammed Jaweed Azmath—Two Indians from Jersey City picked up in Texas with box cutters, $5,600 cash and black hair dye remain suspects in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.
Ranjit Singh Sahota—the cofounder of MetaTV was arrested for using the Internet to coerce a 12 year old girl into sex.
Basmati rice lost out when agro-company Ricetec won a patent for the hybrid of Basmati and U.S. dwarf rice—rice lines Bas 867, RT1117.
Berkeley landlord and restaurateur Lakireddy Bali Reddy pleaded guilty to smuggling teenage Indian girls for sex, bringing Indians illegally for cheap labor, and filing false tax returns.
McDonalds ate humble pie when it admitted using beef flavoring in its french fries. Indian-American lawyer Harish Bharti filed the lawsuit on behalf of two vegetarian Hindus.
While on lawsuits, Merrill Lynch settled for $400,000 a case filed by Debasis Kanjilal that they had misled him with stock picks in companies in which the firm had undisclosed interests.
BOOKS IN THE NEWS
There was only one person in the food-stall who knew exactly what the sound was that was rolling in across the plain, along the silver curve of the Irrawaddy, to the western wall of Mandalay's fort.—Amitav Ghosh straddles centuries and empires in his magnum opus The Glass Palace and causes literary hiccups when he withdraws the book from consideration for the Commonwealth Prize.
Professor Malik Solanka, retired historian of ideas, irascible dollmaker, and since his recent fifty-fifth birthday celibate and solitary by his own (much criticized) choice, in his silvered years found himself living in a golden age.—Fury, Salman Rushdie's first real salaam to America and his new home, New York, found questions being raised about whether Rushdie's own golden age was behind him.
Not wanting to arouse Vishnu in case he hasn't died yet, Mrs. Asrani tiptoed down to the third step above the landing on which he lived, teakettle in hand.—University of Maryland mathematics professor, Manil Suri caused a stir with his mix of Bombay life and Hindu mythology in The Death of Vishnu.
God, what a dump. The heat. The dust. The flies, The shit. The crowds. You name it, Zalilgarh has it. Every horrific Western cliché about India turns out to be true here.—Shashi Tharoor tries to get into the head of an American reporter, Randy Diggs (and half a dozen others) in Riot-A Love Story.
Though it has now been two months, she (Mrs. Dutta) still has difficulty sleeping on the Perma Rest mattress Sagar and Shyamoli, her son and daughter-in-law have bought specially for her. It is too American-soft unlike the reassuringly solid copra ticking she is used to at home. Except this is home now, she reminds herself.—The prickly issues of home and immigrants are still the stuff of Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni's latest The Unknown Errors of Our Lives.
Not an Indian-American but certainly a diasporan, Sir Vidiaprasad Naipaul finally won the Nobel Prize for literature On the non-fiction side there was Sudhir Venkatesh's American Project: The Rise and Fall of an American Ghetto. And what year would be complete without another book or two from that writing machine Deepak Chopra? This time it's Grow Younger, Live Longer.
THE BEAUTIFUL PEOPLE
Jhumpa Lahiri caused quite a stir in the bhadralok circles of Kolkata when she went there to marry Time magazine journalist Alberto Vourvoulias. Like a good Bengali groom, Vourvoulias wore a dhoti with a silk kurta, while Lahiri was in a traditional red sari with flowers in her hair.
Baywatch's buxom babe Pamela Anderson in her newfound zeal for PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) cannot wear leather anymore. The lucky designer who gets to create a fake leather outfit is Delhi's Rohit Bal.
“Let us all join our hands, heads and hearts together and bow to all perfect and liberated souls, and to all spiritual teachers.”—Gurudev Chitrabhanuji, the first Jain leader to lead the U.S. House of Representatives in prayer on the occasion of Mahavira's 2600th birth anniversary.
“He lost to George W. Bush in Trivial Pursuit.”—David Letterman lists the Number One reason in his Top Ten Signs Your Neighbor is The Monkey Man after reports of a monkey man terrorizing Delhi residents.
“Whenever the history of Indian produce in the U.S. is written, I will be the first person to be mentioned.”—Harbajan Singh, owner of Samra Produce and self-styled "King of Okra."
“I believe what happens to India is one of the three or four most important things that will determine the future of all humanity for the next 50 to 60 years.”—Bill Clinton, India's new first friend.
“I know this is not how you expect a U.S. ambassador to speak but it (the imposition of sanctions on India after the nuclear tests) was wrong.”—Richard Celeste, outgoing U.S. ambassador to India. The sanctions were lifted in 2001.
“America will not be a nagging nanny to India anymore.”—Robert D. Blackwill, incoming ambassador to India.
“This is the ideal time for an entrepreneur. You can hire engineers. Rents are cheap. When you start at the top of a business cycle you can only go down.”—Kanwal Rekhi, angel investor in the beleaguered Silicon Valley as dot coms went bust.
“I earlier used to think that only the so-called art films would be in demand abroad. Now I am convinced that even people in the U.S. will be interested in our masala (popular) films.”—India's minister for Informationa and Broadcasting, Sushma Swaraj comes to Hollywood.
“After President Kennedy's death, Jacqueline Kennedy became Mrs. Onassis, but our Sonia Gandhi is still Sonia Gandhi.”—Indian National Overseas Congress president Surinder Malhotra welcoming (and confusing) Sonia Gandhi to the U.S. on her first official visit.
“I did feel that the harshest criticism of my work came from India ... I felt attacked for something beyond the writing. Attacked for who I was, and why I was. And it pressed all my buttons about feeling that I could never satisfy expectations for being an Indian.”—Jhumpa Lahiri, proving that even a Pulitzer is sometimes not enough.
“Although I think Bush has been doing a great job, one of the themes we hear constantly is that the people who did this are cowards … Look at what they did. First of all, you have a whole bunch of guys who are willing to give their life. None of them backed out. All of them slammed themselves into pieces of concrete. These are warriors.”—Dinesh D'Souza on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher.
“If Osama bin Laden wore a baseball cap instead of a turban, would we be beating up and shooting people wearing baseball caps?”—Navdeep Singh Dhillon in an op-ed for the Fresno Bee.
“An American Sikh has been killed, unjustly so. Our government will do everything we can, not only to bring those people to justice but also to treat every human life as dear and to respect the values that made our country so different and so unique.”—George W. Bush to Sikh leaders after Sept. 11 attacks prompted a rash of hate crimes.
“So many people lost their lives. And you're obviously happy to be alive but the question persists: why me?”—Manu Dhingra, World Trade Center attack survivor who had second and third degree burns over 40 percent of his body.
The Indians (all 1.7 million of them) have arrived: Top 5 Proofs
No. 5. Move over feng shui. Vedic City was built according to Vedic principles and incorporated on July 25, 2001 by the City Development Board of Iowa. Why Iowa? That’s where transcendental meditation guru, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi has his Maharishi University.
No. 4. Washington's biggest political scandal had an Indian connection. Congressman Gary Condit's lover, missing intern Chandra Levy got her first name from her mother's fascination with India.
No. 3. Something as apple-pie-all-American as Betty Crocker books brought out Indian Home Cooking by Raghavan Iyer.
No. 2 Seen on a billboard in Jackson Heights, New York—a hoarding for MetLife Financial Services featuring a cricket bat-swinging Snoopy and the line: Zindagi ki Googly Per MetLife Ka Sixer.
And the No. 1 reason that the Indian has arrived—the Presidential cat in George W Bush's White House is named India!
On that note, happy new year from all of us at India Currents.
Sandip Roy-Chowdhury writes for Pacific News Service and hosts the radio show Up Front on KALW 91.7 FM.