The Samosa Caucus: Representation Beyond the Oval Office

By Rafay Siddiqui

While the 2020 Presidential Election showcased Kamala Harris’ (D-CA) ascension as vice-president-elect, local elections throughout the country also featured progressive electoral strides for the South Asian community. 

In the House of Representatives, incumbents Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and Raja Krishnamoorthi — members of the famous “Samosa Caucus” — each reclaimed their respective seats this November. As testaments to their widespread popularity, the “Samosa Caucus” ultimately claimed reelection in dominant fashion, as the candidates averaged a staggering 45.5% margin of victory. Ultimately, such figures for ethnic minorities are unprecedented — underscoring a newfound demographic and ideological shift throughout the country.

Even in defeat, however, South Asian candidates rose to the challenges of mounting campaigns against establishment politicians.

In a bold political challenge, rising Democratic Socialist Shahid Buttar ran against incumbent Nancy Pelosi for the House of Representatives in California’s 12th-District in the 2020 election. At face value, such ambition appeared rather futile, as the Pakistani candidate earned only 18,000 votes in the 2018 midterm election; in stark contrast, Pelosi had served in Congress for 17 terms, serving as the Speaker of the House for the Democrats for multiple terms. Despite these disadvantages, Buttar’s progressive platform garnered momentum amongst constituents, earning him both a primary election victory and spot on the general election ballot.

Given these newfound successes, this ultimately begs the question: how have grassroots South Asian candidates garnered political prominence?

Beyond cultural heritage, South Asians — as with other minority candidates — provide a quality essential to a representative democracy: perspective. By experiencing a lifestyle distinct to a specific demographic, minority candidates form unique perspectives on prominent issues that other individuals may otherwise not discover.

Take Shahid Buttar, for example. As the son of Pakistani refugees from religious persecution, Buttar’s experiences with institutional discrimination likely shaped his perspectives on issues impacting political minorities in the United States. In addition, Buttar’s family faced foreclosures during his tenure at the University of Chicago, which may attest to the socioeconomic barriers that immigrants and minorities experience daily. Thus, Buttar’s life experiences — which have been shaped by cultural heritage — likely influenced his policy preferences and campaign platform. For instance, as an aspiring constitutional lawyer, Buttar advocates for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and ending mass surveillance.

Given America’s newfound political representation, how will this development impact the South Asian community going forward? Most importantly, not only can minority candidates implement favorable policies, but they can also validate minority constituents and their political viewpoints. As a result, younger generations in the South Asian community may feel galvanized to engage with America’s political institutions. Historically, youthful constituents have ranked among the least politically active demographics — namely due to systemic barriers such as limited polling places and extended wait times. Within collegiate settings, wherein students constantly face busy, demanding schedules on a day-to-day basis, political activism can be difficult to achieve without an underlying motivation. However, with the rise of South Asian candidates with progressive platforms, countless South Asian students may better resonate with the current political system, as their viewpoints are not only validated but also embedded in essential policies. Thus, within a nation of diverse perspectives and lifestyles, minority representation can uplift thousands of South Asian students and incite hope for America’s future.

Taken together, the United States has witnessed a rapid increase in ethnic representation and participation in government, especially within the South Asian community. Political diversity, the “je ne sais quoi” in politics, will ultimately be instrumental in leading upcoming generations to social prosperity in the United States.,_2020

Image Credits:

Diversity in Modern South Asian Art

By Rafay Siddiqui

For several millennia, art has served as a universal means to convey the experiences, epiphanies, and emotions of all cultures within their respective times. Yet, as it currently stands, humanity’s most celebrated artworks have imposed biases in favor of European creators. Within sites such as the Louvre, British Museum, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, exhibitions disproportionately showcase works from the Renaissance, Victorian Era, and other ages of European cultural prosperity.

That’s not to say modern institutions do not embrace cultural diversity in art. Indeed, museums such as the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany have taken strides in demonstrating the diversity, beauty, and sophistication of international art. Despite these efforts, however, this Eurocentric lens has effectively obscured the developments occurring within modern, South Asian artworks. 

Despite the limited coverage, South Asian art has shattered barriers in abstract representation. In recent years, South Asian artists have created contemporary masterpieces that combine modern techniques with historical traditions. Namely, one Sotheby’s exhibition, titled “Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art,” has showcased dazzling displays of craftsmanship with unique mediums and subjects. In particular, this article will analyze two extraordinary pieces by two artistic pioneers — Ram Kumar and Sayed Raza — to explore uncharted frontiers in South Asian art within the past few decades.

  1. Untitled by Benares Ghat

Crafted during the 1960s by Ram Kumar, one of India’s prominent 20th-century painters, Benares Ghat (left) provides an abstract representation of the city Varanasi — “one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism.” However, Kumar’s representation of Varanasi is noticeably unconventional, as the painting features “dimly lit lanes” and is “devoid of human presence” despite its cultural

significance. Additionally, observe that Kumar’s color scheme is monochromatic, as the painting mostly features dim shades of beige, blue, and amber. Coupled with fragmented shapes, Kumar’s South Asian work is heavily reminiscent of analytical cubism, a visual technique wherein multiple perspectives are melded together on a singular plane. In doing so, Kumar’s painting is meant to evoke introspection and silence with regards to Varanasi’s otherworldly yet deserted atmosphere in the midst of a chilly winter night. Thus, similar to Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and other Cubist artists, Kumar’s Benares Ghat evokes the emotional impressions that have been associated with the holy city of Varanasi.

2. Bombay Street Scene by Sayed Raza

Painted at the tailend of British imperialism in India, artist Sayed Raza’s painting provides a sensory depiction of a bustling commercial district within the heart of Bombay. Although crafted in the mid-20th century (1945), Raza’s composition seems to manifest Post-Impressionist ideals from decades prior, especially with regards to color.

Unlike Raza’s predecessors in the 19th-century, Post-Impressionists disregarded naturalistic usage of color and light by applying thick coats of paint with vivid hues. On that note, Raza applies this technique by applying gouache, a watercolor medium thickened by chalky, gluelike substances, to create a vibrant yet opaque and blurred atmosphere. Additionally, observe that the foreground’s human figures are depicted by blobs rather than meticulous lines and forms. Although more deliberate than an action painting, championed by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Raza’s painting imparts the “hustle and bustle” atmosphere that defines any major commercial metropolis, especially within India and its booming domestic economy. While not as visually abstract as Kumar’s Benares Ghat, Raza’s work embodies the intangible qualities of India’s transformative, prosperous urban life in light of independence movements against Great Britain. In this regard, Raza embeds South Asian lifestyles with modern techniques of abstract painting, enabling for an innovative, vivacious, and gorgeous visual.

Taken together, the works of Ram Kumar, Sayed Raza, and other pioneering artists are emblematic of a shifting dynamic in South Asian art. Namely, South Asian art is not confined to monumental architecture and overtly spiritual works. On the contrary, as evidenced by the discussed works, not only is South Asian art beautiful and diverse, but it also touches upon sophisticated themes and complexities of the modern South Asian living experience.

This development serves as a notable distinction for South Asian art, especially given the political climate within which collegiate students reside. Despite the rise of globalism in modern society, which emphasizes tolerance towards multiculturalism, Eurocentric attitudes still persist in “comprehensive studies” of art history, as Western works are placed in higher regard than Oriental creations. Although institutions such as Yale University have taken tremendous strides to incorporate international artworks within classes, systemic change to the status quo requires encouragement for students to expand artistic horizons.

As with Kumar and Raza’s paintings, however, such ambition need not be executed with words or curriculum only. Indeed, art can serve as a powerful mechanism to shed light on systemic issues and, in due time, affect social change around the world. As per Harvard’s South Asian Institute, artistic cinema such as Deepa Mehta’s 1998 film Fire can shed light on personal struggles, domestic violence, and gender discrimination plaguing South Asian society to this day. Yet, in another equally important regard, unconventional art forms dispel Eurocentric misconceptions of South Asian art molded by centuries of imperialism. No longer is South Asia the “Crown Jewel” to British rule, and no longer will South Asian culture be perceived in pejorative terms.

To accomplish this feat, then, do not be afraid to venture into uncharted artistic realms, for South Asian art has never been, and never will be, confined to traditional stereotypes. As with our predecessors, this current generation can not only subvert biases to European art but also inspire others to follow suit — one masterpiece at a time.

To view the remaining artworks of the virtual gallery, click here.

A Dive into South Asian Literature

By Rafay Siddiqui

Charlotte Bronte. Mark Twain. Charles Dickens. Ernest Hemingway. F. Scott Fitzgerald — need I go on? In the grand scheme of literature, a considerable amount of novels anointed as “classics” by modern standards are usually penned by European and/or American authors. South Asians are already underrepresented as it is in countless social and political institutions in the United States. With regards to literature, however, South Asian society has especially received the short end of the stick. As it stands today, only one percent of children’s books featured protagonists of Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic backgrounds, and a mere four percent of books featured at least one character of color.

As a result, this unfortunate dismissal yields significant implications. Despite continuous economic and political growth, mainstream media and pop culture has not held South Asian society with high esteem, subjecting its vibrant history and heritage to a post-colonial inferiority complex. Deemed to this day as “third-world countries,” a distinction that is obsolete and dehumanizing, nations such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several others are needlessly cast aside in the global cultural anthology, preventing our perspectives, rituals, and customs from shining through.

Given this critical, overarching issue, it has become evermore important to showcase South Asian works in the United States and around the world. In the spirit of this cause, we will showcase several fantastic novels that have transcended literary archetypes and navigated the complexities of modern South Asian society. 

  1. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

Situated within a remote region of Mount Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, Desai’s story revolves around a retired judge whose orphaned granddaughter Sai asks for hospitality. Left in the care of the judge’s chef, who is fixated on his son Biju’s unstable culinary career in New York, Sai and her experiences with the judge shed tremendous light on the dichotomy of joy and despair — all while illuminating the implications of British colonialism within the modern world.

2. Exit West by Mohsid Hamid

Set within a nameless country besieged by civil war, Hamid’s Exit West tracks the romantic developments of Saeed and Nadia amid their attempts to immigrate. However, Hamid cranks the narrative’s complexity up another notch. Amid the political violence transpiring in the city, Saeed and Nadia begin to hear chatter about doors that behave as “portals” to other nations. Although reluctant to pass this threshold, the escalating conflict prompts the couple to leave their homeland behind, resulting in newfound changes in their relationship. Inspired by his home city of Lahore, Pakistan, Hamid navigates the characters’ feelings of loyalty, courage, and alienation through a metaphysical abstraction of their emotional and physical journey.

3. Suncatcher by Romesh Gunesekera

A coming-of-age novel based in 1960s Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Gunesekera situates Kairo within a dynamic yet unstable society. Schools are closed, governmental institutions are dysfunctional, and the news press is under dire threat. Meanwhile, as Kairo tinkers with western superhero comics, bikes, or daydreams, he meets Jay, a meandering teenager who collects fish and birds for his home’s grand garden. Over time, as Jay guides Kairo from fictitious worlds to resourceful ambitions, Kairo begins to realize the “price of privilege” and “embarks on a journey of devastating consequence.” 

Within a collegiate setting, bringing artistic expression to light yields significant implications for the South Asian community. Despite comprising the third largest Asian demographic in the United States, the community can feel outright ignored at times due to social and political distinctions entrenched for decades. In other words, “some important cultural and historical facts get lost in the search for a common story” (Patel, 2010). Coupled with archaic stereotypes, most infamously the “Model Minority Myth,” South Asian students may accordingly feel disconnected with their academic institutions and society at large, as their heritage is perceived as primitive and robotic. In the grand scheme, such labels imply that South Asian stories are not worth sharing — for the rest of the world to hear. 

Most importantly, showcasing South Asian literature with the world imparts valuable cultural experiences that resonate with global audiences — especially with immigrants. One study, in particular, affirms that feelings of solitude and loneliness are shared more commonly among first-generation migrants and native inhabitants. Given the imminent culture shock that migrants face, it becomes evermore important to bring South Asian literature into the limelight. In doing so, these books can serve as “portals into other worlds,” wherein children, adolescents, and adults alike can “see themselves” as protagonists navigating through common struggles and overcoming adversity.

For a larger, more comprehensive list of South Asian novels, check out the following link.

A Reflection: “Guards at the Taj”

By Durga Ganesh

I sat in the second row of Nitery Theater, Stanford’s block box theater, on opening night. As music director for “Guards at the Taj,” one of Stanford’s first South Asian-American theater productions, I had spent the past few months composing and recording the play’s soundtrack with fellow musicians. Tonight was the first time  an audience would experience our music in this context. The lights dimmed and audience chatter died down. A soft spotlight shone on set, illuminating the marble paint that depicted  the back of the Taj Mahal at dawn. Silence. More silence. Then, the quiet drone of a tanpura filled the room.

Maula Mere Maula

Aaj Ki Raat Chamakte Sitare

Chand Kahan Hai

Hamare Dil Mein

Maula Mere Maula

The stars are shining brightly tonight.

Where is the moon?

In our hearts.

[Audio link to the song is here.]

A historical play set in 1648, the year that the Taj Mahal was unveiled to the public, “Guards at the Taj” takes a magical realistic approach to exploring the legend surrounding this mausoleum. As the story goes, Shah Jahan ordered that all the 20,000 laborers who built this monument to his deceased wife must have their hands chopped off, so “nothing as beautiful may ever be built again.” Two guards are charged with this terrible task, and the tension in their close bond is explored, as executing this order alters their lives forever. 

As music director, I was tasked with creating music that reflected South Asian-American identity, to contextualize this historical play in the South Asian-American experience. The problem was, this required that I somehow find a way to intelligently articulate what South Asian-American identity meant – at least for myself – before I could translate it into music.

My first few attempts at composing for the opening scene failed spectacularly. I struggled to present Indian classical inspired music that stayed true to its classical origins while being presented to a broader audience. Telling myself that I was making the music more “approachable,” I wrote bland phrases that wouldn’t inspire emotion, and promptly tried to compensate with unnecessarily complex melodies. By attempting to cater to every type of audience member, my end product would have pleased no one. I certainly felt dissatisfied. 

Around midnight on another seemingly useless recording session, I caved. Emotionally exhausted, I ignored the play, my class work, and everything else that took up too much of my brain. I closed my eyes and channeled all of my frustration into my violin, belting out phrases straight from the heart. It was at that moment that everything clicked. Emotion is universal, and as long as my music evoked the appropriate emotion in me and my musicians, we could convey it to the audience. Some could find my music too classical, while others might criticize contemporary influences, but if I created music that was authentic to myself and my experience as a South Asian woman from the Bay Area, that was enough.
To me, my South Asian-American identity is best described as a hyphenated identity – not a single entity, but rather a beautiful mishmash of seemingly disparate experiences. That is why I tear up listening to MS Subbbulakshmi’s rendition of “Enta Matramuna” in the morning and jam along to Coldplay’s “Adventure of a Lifetime” hours later. That is why I play Indian classical music on the violin, a European instrument. And that is also why, although I am a Carnatic musician fluent in Tamil, I wrote our opening song in Hindi and sang it with Hindustani influences.

Chand Kahan Hai

Hamare Dil Mein

Where is the moon?

In our hearts.

Cooking, Cross-stitch, and Covid-19

By Abeni Eliz

I’m sure many other South Asian college students living in the US can relate to the struggle of rarely visiting their families. While my classmates would stay at their grandparent’s house “for the weekend,” I had to wait at least four or five years so that my parents could save up money for a trip to India or for my grandparents to be able to make the long journey from India to America.

The exception to one of those long waits was 2020. It was supposed to be a year full of milestones for my family, and my Ammamachi (my mother’s mom) wanted to be here to see it. I was especially excited because it was my senior year of high school, and she was visiting just in time for graduation. My grandmother arrived in the US in February, and all was going according to plan, until March 13, 2020, when California went on lockdown, and schools went online. Of course, like the general population, we were not worried at the time. I had been assured by my school that lockdown would not last longer than March and that everything was on schedule. 

And then, March passed, and we were still stuck at home. My mother, a healthcare worker, warned me not to expect too much from the next few months, but I was determined to ignore her warnings and hope that the rest of the world would stay-at-home so that Covid-19 would pass quickly. 

Boy, was I wrong. 

As many of you are aware, April passed, then May; prom was canceled, and graduation followed suit–I was furious. 

And I stayed angry, until June. I “graduated” from high school and was free to spend as much time as I wanted with my grandmother, who had been patiently sitting at home while the world fell apart around her. My Ammamachi is one of the strongest human beings I have ever met and has faced every trial with optimism and courage that stems from her faith. She has, like the grandparents and great grandparents of so many South Asian Americans, experienced tremendous loss. She has been through many illnesses that have left her body relatively weak, but she has lived by herself in India for as long as I can remember, occasionally visiting us when she could. Then, in early 2018, my Ammamachi was diagnosed with cancer. Thankfully, she is now in remission, but the toll it took on her health makes her part of the immunocompromised population that is extremely vulnerable to Covid-19. Consequentially, she was stuck at home with nothing to do, a fact that did not cross my mind until I graduated and was left in the same situation. I decided to make a conscious effort to spend quality time with her and learn how on earth she had kept herself busy for the last (at the time) four months of quarantine.I found that she loves to complete cross-stitching patterns, even though they strain her eyes. She loves to cook South Indian food and can do so with no recipes, no measuring cups, and apparent immunity to a hot stove. I asked my Ammamachi to teach me everything she knew, and we began a summer full of thread and spices. Teaching me to cook and sew made her happy, and the time we spent together took both of our minds off of the chaos unfolding around us. The rest of the summer quickly passed, and she taught me to make flavorful South Indian food, to speak a bit of Malayalam (a South Indian language spoken in my family’s home state of Kerala), and even to appreciate Mallu cinema.

My Ammamachi stitching masks!

But I gained so much more than that in the nine months my grandmother was living with my family. When I look back on the months I had been in school, and she had been left to her own devices, that’s when I truly see who my Ammamachi is. In April, while I was concerned about missing out on prom and graduation, my grandmother was running out of important medicines that had to be prescribed and refilled. My parents hurriedly searched for and eventually found a way to refill her medications, and meanwhile, my Ammamachi was calmly sewing masks for our family and friends. In May and June, while I was upset about prom getting canceled and my graduation being “modified”, my grandmother was working on difficult cross-stitch pieces that she wanted to gift us, to decorate our home. While I was complaining about not being able to even eat at a restaurant to celebrate college admission, my grandmother was cooking up a storm in the kitchen of our favorite South Indian dishes. My Ammamchi’s generosity, love, and resilience, I realized, comes from a unique combination of South Asian tradition and her unwavering faith.

In SAP and similar South Asian clubs at UCLA, I have seen the beautiful ways that South Asian youth are breaking down out-dated, traditional ideas that do more harm to our community than good. As South Asians, we are taught to honor our parents and our elders by obeying their every expectation, a tradition that I believe should end with our generation. Instead, let us replace it with a tradition of learning from their experiences. Many of our parents and grandparents have sacrificed so much for the betterment of us and our children. We have a duty, not to fulfill their visions for our lives, but to use what we can learn from their life experiences to make a positive impact on our communities. Spending time with my Ammamachi inspired me to reconnect with my identity as an Indian and a Christian. Learning about my past from my grandmother through the stories she told of God’s faithfulness, the recipes she passed down to me, and the optimistic way she views life, even during a global pandemic, has reminded me why family is such an important aspect of Indian culture and the Christian faith. Family means always thinking of those you love, even during your own difficulties. It means a relationship in which both persons find comfort and solace from their personal problems, through time with each other. For my grandmother and me, it was through cooking and cross-stitch. I don’t know with who or through what you can find this comfort, reader, but I strongly encourage you to branch out to family members and friends. This time of quarantine has physically isolated us from those we love, but putting in the effort to connect with loved ones inevitably reminds us that those people also love us. Know that you are loved, and don’t be afraid to remind yourself of that fact by reaching out. You never quite know what will come back to you.

Me, my Ammamachi, and my younger sister in traditional Indian saris

Dosa with Butter Chicken: Musings of a Culturally Mixed South Asian

Growing up as a South Asian in the early-2000’s suburbs of Dallas was an incredibly affirming experience. My parents moved to the Dallas area in the mid-‘90s and have seen the South Asian community flourish since then. My earliest memories are of shopping at the first Indian grocery store in the area that opened up a few miles from our house, and in the years since, what started off as a small strip mall store subsequently exploded into eight locations across the North Texas area. I remember being thrilled when an Indian movie theater opened up nearby — if we’re being honest, part of me was always a little scared it would be closed down every time we went. The Carnatic music teacher I used to go to lived in my neighborhood, and I had access to religious education fifteen minutes from my house. All of this to say, on paper my cultural experience as a South Asian in America was relatively picturesque.

In reality, though, I felt quite lost in my identity. Unlike most Desi parents, my parents had a love marriage, and their families are from completely different parts of India. My mother grew up in Mumbai — fluent in Marathi and Hindi, with a vast knowledge of Gujarati and Sanskrit. On the other hand, my father, who is from the outskirts of Thiruvananthapuram, spent a significant amount of his childhood in the US before his family moved back to Kerala, and admits that his Malayalam leaves much to be desired. English was really the only common language between my parents, and as a result, my sister and I never had the chance to become fluent in Marathi, Hindi, or Malayalam. My mom would speak to us in Marathi every now and then, and we would hear her speak with her family back home, so we picked up quite a bit of vocabulary eventually. Once my mom introduced us to Hindi movies, my sister and I would watch them back to back with subtitles at the bottom, almost as if we were making up for lost time. Over time, our Hindi vocabulary improved as well. My Malayalam, on the other hand, is almost nonexistent: I know the numbers 1-10, a few conversational words, and the names of my favorite dishes, but I so badly wish I knew more.

Within the walls of our home, it never felt like anything was missing, but as soon as I would interact with other first generation South Asians, I would start to feel alienated. Kids younger than me could rattle off entire conversations in their mother-tongue and bond over their unique cultural identities. Most people I know don’t have to figure out how to split their limited vacation time amongst families living in two different Indian states. And it certainly didn’t help that I didn’t grow up around any blood relatives other than my parents and my sister. Living as a South Asian in the US meant oscillating between my American and Desi identities, but being a culturally mixed South Asian mingling with other South Asians meant that I had to learn how to code switch even amongst my own people. Eventually, imposter syndrome would kick in and it just became easier to call myself an American more than anything else, even though I adored and wanted to push my South Asian identity to the forefront.

The first time I really analyzed what my identity meant to me was in college: I was hanging out with one of my best friends from middle school, who also happens to be Malayali, when one of his friends came by to say hi. My friend introduced me and said, “Sharada is also Mallu. Or, half-Mallu” in a mindful attempt to respect my identities. Before I even realized what I was saying I blurted out, “Oh my god, I forgot I was only half.” Even though he was right, I realized I never viewed myself as half-Maharashtrian and half-Malayali — it feels like all of me belongs to both categories. It took me decades to be able to not only feel comfortable in asserting all of my identities but to love everything that comes along with it. For example, not only do I get to translate Hindi memes for my Malayali friends, but I also get to correct people if they try to tell me that North Indian food is better. It’s a unique experience that not many of my peers can relate to, but it’s shaped me into the multidimensional person I am today.

Intercultural Conversations are Necessary to Celebrate Indian Identities

Steam rises from the openings in the lid placed atop a uniquely shaped pan. Six shallow cavities are spread evenly across the surface of the pan to cook the batter into perfect half spheres, making gundpangla, a Karnatik breakfast dish. 

Saturday mornings, when perfectly browned and crisp gundpangla were served paired with a flavorful coconut chutney, were some of my happiest. I easily polished off ten to fifteen as my mother emptied several rounds of these addictive dumplings onto the tray on the breakfast table. Bhimsen Joshi’s cassette played in the background, entrancing us in a lyric-less melody, evoking emotion purely through the rise and fall of his notes. It would occasionally be interrupted by my mother animatedly shouting in Kannada due to a poor phone connection on a line with extended family in India. 

Almost everything about these Saturday mornings and most days growing up were filled with immersive experiences into Karnatik culture thanks to my mother. The food, music, language, and way of life I was exposed to were direct nods to our roots in Karnataka, a state in southern India. Despite this rich education about where I came from, I spent most of my life hiding my colorful South Indian heritage. A lack of representation in both Indian and Western media about what it truly means to be South Indian and the scarcity of conversations around the numerous subcultures within India usually meant even my most cultured Indian friends had no idea what Karnataka was, much less what its culture entailed.

I’ve been lucky enough to have grown up in a diverse environment when my family moved to the U.S. in 2004. I was surrounded by South Asian people all through high school and college –  I took for granted how easy it was to own the fact that I was Indian-American. There were people I could share my culture with and others who were open-minded about learning so I never felt the need to hide my Indian-ness. But I did hide my South Indian-ness, particularly my traditional Karnatik upbringing because it was the lesser known side of India. The India portrayed in both Indian and Western media is usually North India and when Central and South Indian culture are represented, a mockery is made of them and the full extent of its richness and breadth is not truly captured.

Unflattering stereotypes in Bollywood about South Indians being uptight, having unrealistic, ridiculous accents, eating bland food, and shining a negative light on our studiousness kept me from ever talking about where I was from to avoid being associated with these ‘uncool’ labels. Instead, I was always first in line to talk about Hindi movies, recommend the best joint for chole puri or spicy paneer tikka and naan, or flaunt a salwar suit. Although distinctly Indian, none of these displays of cultural enthusiasm were a tribute to my own background. They were just the popular side of India, and therefore much easier to talk about. 

Seeing someone, whether Indian or otherwise, show a glint of recognition when I talked about North Indian culture because they’d seen it in a movie or tv show felt like a victory. I didn’t feel comfortable explaining that my life was so different than what was shown on those screens to avoid any negative interpretations of what being South Indian meant and also because the topic never came up. Even though I grew up with plenty of Desi friends who hailed from different parts of India, there was never any curiosity about the depth and breadth of each others’ cultures, so we filtered our Indian identity to what was shown online and moved on.

I wish I’d openly talked more about holidays in my Karnatik household, marked with holgi, a sweet bread with hints of coconut, turmeric, and aromatic cardamom or kadubu, a stuffed dumpling of sorts. Or dinner parties ending in watching compilations of Gangavathi Pranesh’s stand-up, a comedian who primarily performs in Kannada. Or summers spent with countless hours in my grandmother’s closet, asking her about sari styles and watching her don those 9 yards of fabric in a traditional Karnatik kachhe drape for the temple. There was clearly no shortage of exposure to my Karnatik heritage growing up and I should’ve worn it like a badge of honor. 

It’s taken me a long time to overcome the negative messages I internalized about South India from the media and raise these intercultural conversations within my South Asian circle. I’m constantly amazed at how diverse India is and how it’s not uncommon to grow up learning upwards of four languages in large cities given the volume of individuals with unique backgrounds crossing paths on a daily basis. Why then do we avoid being curious about each other’s unique subcultures and celebrating the beauty of so much diversity? While it’s satisfying to find common ground with someone talking about India in a way that’s accessible, I owe it to my colorful upbringing to shine a light on Karnataka and all its gems. And in the same vein, learn about other cultures in India to normalize that being Indian is not one-dimensional.  Our overarching Indian identity — the values we hold close and the history we’re a product of – remains common and unchanged, but the one-of-a-kind threads we join to weave the tapestry of the country is what makes it so great. It would be a disservice not to boast every aspect of your Indian-ness and lift up others who are doing the same.

Speak Up

The list of reasons I love being Bangladeshi never ends. I can’t get enough of the delicious cha my abbu makes for me, the vibrant sea of shari’s gliding around at family weddings and the feeling when my maa helps place a tikli symmetrically in the center of my forehead. As much as I take pride in my rich culture, I am also willing to hold it accountable. The summer of 2020 awakened a beast in many of us. We felt hurt and angry at the treatment of Black people in America. And after that rage was expressed in the streets protesting, on social media and in honest discussions with friends, we were left to look at ourselves. To truly enact change, we must address the implicit and explicit biases harbored as individuals and as a community. Those conversations start with our families.

As a child, I learned about the harsh treatment my parents faced being Deshi and living in the states in the ’90s. They’d have to lug their clothes in trash bags to the laundromat from their apartment and passing drivers would yell that they were “dirty Iraqis.” No one deserves such vicious treatment. Yet my maa and abbu immigrated here from Bangladesh, not Iraq; they received hate from assumptions born out of ignorance, labeled as something they’re not because of how they look. The Islamophobia only worsened after 2001 with my Muslim family members receiving so much disdain from people not willing to accept that extremism doesn’t define an entire religious group. I figured since Deshi folks from my parent’s generation knew what it felt like to receive hostile attitudes, they wouldn’t give the same to any other community. But that turned out to be far more complex.

Once I visited a family friend’s house because their son, Raffi*, had been in a pretty bad accident. One of Raffi’s friends, who flew in from out of town to visit him, was walking up as my maa and I arrived. More guests stopped by and eventually we sat together to eat dinner while Raffi rested in the other room with his friend. As we were eating and chatting one of the uncles stated how thoughtful it was for Raffi’s friend to fly in. An auntie chimed in with “Yes, he’s one of the good Kalo boys. He’s such a good student too” I nearly choked on my torkari. Yet another auntie squealed, “That’s so rare, you know they’re naturally more aggressive.” My jaw dropped! This particular auntie was a doctor!! No wonder Black folks are terrified of not being taken seriously and receiving proper care from health care professionals.  It makes me feel ashamed that my Deshi community would perpetuate this kind of harmful stereotype. I don’t care how many times I hear these dangerous assumptions – it’s always blood boiling, if not surprising. First, they praise Raffi’s friend for his kindness, then they dare to criticize “his people.” I’ll be honest, that was one of the times I fell silent. I didn’t say something when I should have. I don’t feel good about sharing this, but I know I’m human and it takes time to find your voice. I use that moment as an everyday reminder to speak up now.

It is very upsetting, but these are sentiments I’ve heard more than a few times. They’ve bought into the stereotypes that Black people are loud, unruly, misbehaving. Nothing like us. As a teenager, I got the impression that I shouldn’t date a Black person. It felt like there was a ladder of hierarchy and they were perpetually at the bottom. The model minority myth pits “us” against “them.” White supremacy pits minority groups against one another to keep the system in place. When in reality it should be all of us against white supremacy. Solidarity among all minority groups has the power to topple the notion that marginalized communities must compare themselves to each other to be the “best.” It is disastrous when the South Asian community harbors anti-Black ideologies.

I am a light-skinned Bangladeshi but have freckles on my nose and cheeks which I adore. Sadly I’ve noticed that admiration begins and ends with me. For example, every time I’ve had makeup done for a cousin’s wedding the makeup artists ferociously insist on covering up “all these marks on your face!” Of course, I never let them, but would things be different if I was darker-skinned? As a tween who visited Dhaka regularly, I saw ads for skin lightening creams everywhere. I remember finally asking my maa if I could try one. She gave me a swift and decisive “NO.” But if she didn’t look out for me, would I want to cover my natural face? It’s easy to believe skin tone determines your worth when people constantly comment and attempt to decrease your melanin value. The colorism doled out within South Asian communities is so casual, as if someone’s noting rainy weather. Comments like you’re getting too dark, she’s fairer than you, they would be so pretty if they weren’t so dark circulate readily. I’ve often wondered how much of it stems from self-hatred instilled over generations. Generations before us were taught to praise paleness. “Bleach your skin”, “dark is undesirable”, “dark skin is worth less than pale skin.” In this kind of climate, it’s important to love ourselves and stop the cycle.

As a teen I found myself speaking up more, even if I couldn’t express precisely why I felt the need to do so. Once I was in the car with my maa and she was complaining about a man she encountered at work. He was Black and she used the derogatory word, “Kahli”, with a tone denoting contempt. I took a gulp of air and firmly said “You’re being racist, don’t say things like that.” She shot back with, “I’m not! How can I be racist?” In the next moments, I genuinely thought I would get kicked out of the car. But miraculously, I was allowed to stay and I began ruminating on that last phrase. It can be especially difficult to tackle the topic of bigotry knowing our families have had no walk in the park living in this country. To this day people are insidiously rude to my maa’s face and tell her to go “back to where she came from.” My abbu has randomly been denied permits and had to jump through hoops just to build a deck in our backyard. It is rough for any immigrant here. I started to understand that a large part of our community thinks they’re immune from displaying racist behavior because others discriminate against them. Of course, that’s not how it works. 

Millennial and Gen-Z Deshis are quick to raise their voices against anti-Black hate. While it counts for something to make a post or call out a friend, the mindset starts at home. No one has a chance to break through to the hearts and minds of your family like you do. Until we confront those who are closest to us we continue to be a part of the problem. I’m sharing these personal stories because I acknowledge it’s not easy to talk to family. Each member has to put in the work and take time to create new habits. Unlearning deeply rooted colorism and racism isn’t a linear path. Even if it’s scary I’m always really glad when I speak up. People can change at any stage in life. My family has grown over the years thanks to a lot of tough, uncomfortable conversations. They’re still questioning and self-educating, and so am I.  

Calling out colorism, Islamophobia, nationalism, caste discrimination and classism is beneficial for South Asians as well as other marginalized groups. Racism won’t end overnight, but it’s absolutely unacceptable to let it perpetuate. We need to do our part to become true allies not only to Black folks but also to the AAPI, Indigenous, Latinx, MENASA communities and more. Our vibrant South Asian cultures are not defined by their worst faults. We can make that a reality by loving our skin for what it is, standing up to the people we love the most, unlearning biases and remembering we are not alone in this fight.

* Names have been changed