Nandita Das Promotes Tufts Kashmir Initiative

SAPAC was fortunate enough to sit down with actor, director, and activist Nandita Das for a private interview during her visit to Tufts! Among other things, we spoke about our newly launched Tufts Kashmir Initiative. See what she has to say about the initiative:

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Meet “South Asian of the Hill” Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti

This piece is the first in a series of conversations with South Asian and South Asian diasporic members of the Tufts community. It is a part of SAPAC’s ongoing “South Asians of the Hill” campaign, which aims to broaden on-campus discourse regarding South Asian identity by documenting the diverse, lived experiences of those who link their identities to South Asia. 

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On May 5, 2014, SAPAC sat down with Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was extremely generous with his time, and our conversation left us with so much to grapple with as we think about growing South Asians of the Hill. Below are some excerpts, in which he discusses life in India, his first years in the United States, and raising children in diaspora.

On his upbringing in India

I grew up in Delhi when Indira Gandhi was in power. I distinctly remember at one point, you couldn’t go to school with hair that was this long [gestures]. There were policemen that would stop and measure how wide your trousers could be. We weren’t allowed to listen to Led Zeppelin and other classic rock, so that would all happen more secretly. That was the India I grew up in, not-quite-socialist and not-quite-capitalist – in fact, a little in between, a bit of a jumble of the two.

There was one television channel. Half of the movie was shown on Saturday, then the other half on Sunday. But during elections, they would constantly show movies so that people would watch television – as you can see, this was a very different India from today. Our literature was mostly oriented toward Britain and even Europe; American writing was there, but it was one stage removed, and didn’t figure as prominently.

On his first year in the United States

In India, we were basically students – but in coming to the U.S., though we were still PhD students, we made one step towards being grown-ups. Figuring out how to cook and taking care of things on your own was a process of self-discovery. I discovered that you could buy a nearly unlimited quantity of chicken. …In the first year, I think I ate only chicken and rice. At first, I did not really miss any foods from India, simply because of the sheer amount of chicken I had. But after a year, I started to miss street food, to miss home food. My wife comes from Bangalore – though we both grew up in Delhi – so she also has very distinct tastes.

I find that within India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh there are subgroups. Tamilians interact with Tamilians, Gujaratis interact with Gujaratis, and Bengalis with Bengalis. These “tribal clusters” exist within the South Asian diaspora as well. …But when you come from cosmopolitan cities like Delhi, there is no one thing called ‘South Asia.’ Those of us who grow up in cities like New Delhi or Mumbai are nomads, are not really accepted into those tribal communities.

On life in Boston

I moved to Boston in the early ’90s. Being a South Asian in Boston then was still quite… unremarkable. Boston is, on the one hand, a very parochial city, but it is also a center for academia, professional life, medicine – South Asians are dense in these fields. I never felt out of place in Boston.

At that time, South Asia was slowly coming onto the radar in America. I remember that people had started mentioning India and China in the same sentence as these two “emerging powers,” which was odd. It took me a while to get used to hearing India and China be placed together like that.

Back then, there did not seem to be any real political discussions amongst South Asians…we generally tended to fly under the radar, and our positions were not reflected in mainstream discourse. Then, as you see, it started to change, and we began to see South Asians finding their way into local and state politics, and organizing under presidential campaigns. We began to see the emergence of South Asians in the private sector, to see South Asians rising to the top of various multinational corporations. It seemed very odd at first, but now it has almost become commonplace. These things, for those of us who have lived here for a long time, have taken time to get used to.

On meeting Indians outside India

As a South Asian, there are always a few things we can go back to as common touch points. When you meet someone who says they are from Bombay, you ask them a specific set of questions – which year did they graduate, or where did they go to school – and everyone manages to find a common thread. It’s always surprising to people that within a nation of a billion people, there are so few degrees of separation. Whether it is remembering certain foods or songs from Hindi movies, there are always a few unifying elements that bring people from very different walks of life together.

On returning to India

Whenever I return to India I find that the country has changed, and not always in a linear way. It moves sideways, backwards, two steps sideways, and then forward again. I’m not quite sure whether I’m returning to a place I’m familiar with, or a foreign country altogether. It takes time readjusting to the reality of India.

On raising children in the United States

I believe that in raising our children, we extend our own lives. We didn’t go to school here, and we see primary and middle school through their eyes. To me, this is one of the joys of displacement – to set roots elsewhere, and then go through a totally different life with your children. My daughter right now is a senior in high school and navigating the politics of prom. We had a different prom back in India, and many of the anxieties that she goes through are so different from what we had to go through.

On his children’s interactions with South Asia

The ways they relate to their roots in South Asia are totally different. Our son is more connected to India – he loves Indian food, and he identifies as an American South Asian. Our daughter is more neutral; she actually doesn’t like Indian food, and is generally uncomfortable in India. Right now, if I’ll say that we all should go out to an Indian restaurant, she won’t want to. She prefers Italian food, “American” food.

It’s been interesting to see South Asia through their eyes. It can be both a traumatic and a heartwarming experience…you watch them see things in India that they find shocking or embarrassing, and then they turn to you and ask why people do these things. As someone who has grown up there, you take these sorts of things for granted. But with your children, you start questioning and are forced to confront that aspect of your life. These two things – children and displacement – are important together. We grew up with a set of assumptions, and it’s important to have those assumptions questioned, like why servants eat at a different table, or why there are even servants at all. People always expect that the cows on the street, the beggars, that these will be the shocking things. But cows and elephants aren’t the issues. It’s the other, subtle things that you don’t expect.

On how South Asia influences his children’s lives

What has been disturbing with the children was the past year, which has been rough on the perception of life in South Asia. One part of South Asia – Pakistan and Bangladesh – has always had a lot of tension and political stability represented in the news, and India has escaped that. But now, because of the series of recent gang rapes, corruption, venality…suddenly, you find yourself questioning whether there is something fundamentally wrong with this part of the world – its culture, its sociological makeup, the overall context. It’s something I’ve often asked my son. He has had problems in terms of speaking to his colleagues at work: When they would say it’s a “really dangerous part of the world to travel to,” at first he would feel quite defensive, and then he would question why he felt so compelled to defend a part of the world that technically, he isn’t responsible for. That’s part of the tension.

My daughter, right now, is going through her college applications. She feels strongly that she wants a small liberal arts college, so we have been visiting several of these schools, mainly in the Northeast. I had mentioned to her the lack of diversity at many of these schools, but she had said, “It’s not a problem for me; I just want to be around people who are energetic” and that diversity was not such an issue. She did an overnight visit at [a NESCAC school] and said it was a great place, but on the way back, I told her that it had felt very White. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she had said, and I remember thinking that maybe she didn’t think it made a difference to her. Then we visited [another NESCAC school], and as we were debriefing in the car, she said, “I know I don’t want to go to [this school], but after visiting it I now realize that I don’t want to go to [the first school] either.” [The second school] is very diverse, and I think that maybe – even though there’s nothing South Asian about her other than the way she looks – she realized what she missed. Perhaps this is a part of her process of evolution – we all discover things, these hidden compartments within ourselves, and maybe she will in the future relate to these aspects of life in different ways.

On “South Asian”-ness

The reason I feel that people coming out of South Asia are so inherently creative and adaptable comes from their exposure to extremes. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty, extreme comfort and extreme wretchedness – these exist side-by-side in South Asia. If you are used to that, you can adapt to essentially any setting. Growing up in a suburb of Boston, you might only have one kind of exposure – whereas I can be put in any setting and still be able to function because I have been in the heat and the dust.

Being from South Asia is a blessing. This is a part of the world that has constantly been influenced by other parts of the world, be it through travel, migration, invasion. There is an inherent sense of globality that one misses almost anywhere else. I believe the reason you see so many South Asians doing so many things is that we have a “multicultural gene” inherent in us – we are often mediators, able to see both sides of an issue. I feel that being from South Asia has made me a citizen of the world. I would hope that my children will feel the same, that they will use their “South Asian”-ness to feel comfortable in any setting.

On SAPAC’s “South Asians Of The Hill” Campaign

The cultural awareness of South Asia here has been interesting, in that people have certain impressions of what the writing is about, of what movies and food people enjoy. There seems to be a highly homogenized or standardized version of what “South Asia” is all about over here. For example, Diwali seems to be the de facto Christmas equivalent now – but for my family, Diwali is not the biggest thing. In fact, if you look closely you will see that every part of India – let alone South Asia – has its own different major festivals, and then minor festivals too. But I feel that each time you [SAPAC] conduct one of these interviews, you are peeling back layers of the onion and discovering the diversity behind each South Asian identity.

Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti is Senior Associate Dean of International Business and Finance and the Executive Director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context.

Vidya Srinivasan and Gautam Kapur are sophomores at Tufts University and members of SAPAC’s Executive Board.

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Why I’ll be wearing a salwar this Friday: On diaspora, identity, and visibility

My father, like most fathers, has his stories. This particular story takes place when I was three or so. As my father tells it, I came home from preschool one day and informed him with the utmost solemnity that, while Gopal (his name) was an Indian name, my name was American.

I’ve heard this story a thousand times – muffled by my comforter when my father would talk me to sleep, over the roar of the car engine as he taught me to drive – but over the years, I’ve come to unpack it a little more, to fill in the pauses in his speech. Of all the things I must have thought and said when I was small, my father remembers this one instance so vividly, every retelling the same. I wonder whether it’s because this is the moment that he started to realize that the life in this country he and my mother were working so hard to give me was shaping me in new and unpredictable ways. I wonder whether he even had an answer for me that day – whether he told me the true origins of my lofty Sanskrit name and the aspirations he had given voice to when he affixed it to me. Worst of all, I wonder exactly when in my mind this idea first took root, that I couldn’t be Indian and “American,” that the Indian parts of me were un-”American,” that the best way to survive was to pick “American” over my own father.

When I know what to look for, I notice moments like this one dotted throughout my life like drops of payasam that drip off the ladle in my unpracticed, too-American hand when I serve myself. There was the day I stopped letting my parents and grandparents speak to me in Tamil. The day I’d dread every fall, when my mother would come talk to my classmates about Diwali (how privileged was I to have a mother who did this for me, and a school system that permitted it?) and I’d have to sing one of the classical Sanskrit devotional songs I studied on weekends. The fans I’d furtively turn on when I had friends over, hoping they wouldn’t say my house smelled “exotic” or “like spices” or “different to my house.”

There weren’t many South Asian kids at my school, and over time the invisibility (or perhaps the hypervisibility?) of it all started to wear me down. I remember being elated the day we learned about Jim Crow laws and segregated bathrooms: My first grade teacher knelt down and told me gently that if I’d been around back then, I would have been waiting in line for the “Colored” bathroom with her. I forgot to be sad, so glad was I that there was a space outside of “White” where I belonged with other people who looked like me, but didn’t really look like me. Over time, I grew up, I started reading more, and I came to realize what’s wrong with the term “person of color,” but in that moment, suddenly less alone, I was flying.

Things have gotten a bit better since then. I’ve met South Asians of all sorts and non-South Asians who let me drop words like “diaspora” and “second-generation” and “post-9/11″ into casual conversation. I’m learning how to find the music and poetry in the negative space around this country’s dominant picture and coming to understand that my choice to identify as “Indian-American” is real and politicized and itself an act of resistance that challenges the dichotomies I internalized so long ago. But despite  these supposed indicators of “progress,” when Gautam and I took a long-awaited trip to the Smithsonian over spring break, I could hardly believe my eyes when I read that one in every one hundred people in this country is Indian-American.

Visibility isn’t everything, and there’s so much else that I wish were different about South Asian-America (a lot of it starts with and comes back to histories of colonialism and anti-blackness). But I really do believe that there is power in asserting the right to self-identity, and there is so much to be learned from examining how the identities of those around you intersect with and diverge from your own. This year in SAPAC, we’ve talked about elections and women’s rights in the world’s largest democracy, about partition and trauma in Kashmir and statelessness and governance in Tibet. But as the year draws to a close, we feel that it’s time to turn our attention back to this campus, where South Asian strength, kinship and identity exist in a multitude of ways. This Friday, we invite all of you who link some part of your identity to South Asia – whether you were raised there or are the product of any of its multitudinous diasporas, or if it has shaped your life in other ways – to join our “South Asians of the Hill” photo campaign. We hope that you’ll take this opportunity to reflect on what South Asia has or hasn’t meant to you, and that this event will begin the process of charting new pathways of support, understanding, and solidarity. If you are comfortable, we also encourage you to consider wearing South Asian clothes for the day – I know I will be, as part of my un-learning how to separate my worlds and compartmentalize myself.

Vidya Srinivasan is a sophomore at Tufts University and a member of SAPAC’s Executive Board

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“Google brought nations together in 3 minutes and 32 seconds. The politicians of both countries couldn’t do this in 66 years”

“Google brought nations together in 3 minutes and 32 seconds. The politicians of both countries couldn’t do this in 66 years,” announced a comment on Google’s Facebook page. This got me thinking.

The positive impact of the media is, more often than not, underrated. While most people focus their energy on scoping out the negative effects of the media – whether it is racism or sexism – Google’s recent ad, “The Reunion,” is a step in the right direction toward improving India and Pakistan’s long-sour relationship.

Google released the ad two weeks ago and it has already garnered over 6 million views. The short ad tells the story of how two long-lost friends who were separated during partition, Baldev and Yusuf, are re-united through the power of Google search. Baldev’s granddaughter Suman intelligently makes connections from her dadu’s stories and utilizes Google to connect with Yusuf and his grandson in Pakistan. Together, the friends’ grandchildren organize Yusuf’s visa and plane tickets so that he is able to surprise Baldev for his birthday. The last scene shows the emotional reunion of the two friends and instantly brings the viewer to tears.

Ogilvy and Mather, India (an international ad agency) was responsible for the creation of this masterpiece that received an overwhelming response in both India and Pakistan. This ad evoked such emotional responses because of the importance that the partition of India and Pakistan holds in South Asia’s collective memory. 1947 lingers on in the memory of South Asians, crowded with images of separation, violence, hostility and agony.

Several years on, the relationship between India and Pakistan still has yet to see better days. Wars have been fought, bullets have been shot, negotiations have been attempted, but the media’s power has not usually been harnessed. Millennials across the world spend most of their time using some sort of media, whether it is watching TV shows, tweeting or blogging. It has often been posited that the future of the relationship between the two states must therefore go beyond mere empty political gestures and feeble negotiations. Instead, a lot rests in the hands of us millennials.

Ogilvy and Mather did it right. They targeted the millennials – the generation that grew up hearing stories about partition from their grandparents and through (often one-sided) narratives in history textbooks. It is this generation – the future of South Asia – that has formed strong bonds with their Indian and Pakistani counterparts in universities across the world. Therefore, by showing how the granddaughter (a tech-savvy millennial) surprised her grandfather, O&M and Google were able to touch the hearts of both those who actually experienced partition and those who can proactively do something about it.

The difficulty in obtaining visas for both countries has proved challenging for several reasons. A land that was once joined can no longer be accessed with ease, thus limiting cultural exchange and sustenance of friendships – both old and new. Recent improvements allow those over 65 a visa on-arrival, but lack of awareness about this option has resulted in low usage.

Nawaz Sharif recently stressed the importance of improving India and Pakistan’s relationship at the opening of a literary and cultural conference in Lahore. “India and Pakistan are mirror images of each other and therefore we must have good ties. This is a necessity,” he said. “We must aim to dismantle visa requirement between the two countries.”

Sharif’s choice to talk about such an important issue at a cultural conference again ties back to the importance of using media tools in world politics. Global beverage giant Coca-Cola also released an ad early this year showing the machines they installed in India and Pakistan. The machines enabled citizens of both countries to interact with each other, thus offering actual connections between the people. Using media to create social change at a micro-level is a step in the right direction. These micro-changes will hopefully encourage broader political and social change – allowing India and Pakistan to finally work on mending the wounds of partition.

Google’s ad illustrated the emotions associated with the reunion of two long-lost friends, whereas Coca-Cola’s effort demonstrated the ability to form new friendships across borders.

What politics can’t achieve, the media can strive to.

Watch the video here and (keep a tissue handy – tears are guaranteed). It is also interesting to take a look at the comments on the video.

Sunaina Basu is a senior at Tufts University and a member of SAPAC’s Executive Board

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To Tackle Poverty, We Have To First Understand It

From the tactical beggar who knocks persistently on the BMW car window to the spirited 10-year-old entrepreneur selling phone chargers – every street corner in New Delhi is bustling with contradiction. Growing up in a city as multifarious as my own, my message to the respective leaders on how to more effectively end poverty would be to first, understand it.

In our increasingly convoluted new world order, just as development can no longer entail a one-size-fits-all approach, poverty too must be understood from a contextual standpoint. Like development, poverty cannot be addressed through a linear and progressive series of widely agreed upon processes. The reality for a man engaged in crude-oil theft in the Niger Delta differs immensely from the marginalized widowed woman in Vrindavan, India. Demographics, politics, historical trends, cultural values, economic models – these are amongst the many factors that determine the nature of poverty and thereby its remedy. While pro-poor growth measures have proved to be statistically successful in China, Brazil’s pro-poor social policies have been better suited to its national context and capacity for redistribution methods. Poverty is not homogenous, so neither is its solution.

Beyond context, comes sustainability. As economist Colin White stresses, modern economic development is a process by which economic development becomes self-sustained. Relatedly, short-term fixes often perpetuate vicious poverty cycles. The scope of India’s poverty is at great odds with its growth story. Why? – Because India has persistently pursued unsustainable lack of poverty-reducing growth. While liberalization and information technology has invigorated its burgeoning middle class, the one in every six urban Indian residents living in slums is a parallel reality that is too often sidelined. The need for long-term participatory measures is growing increasingly apparent.

To end poverty in a sustainable manner, we have to change the way we view those in poverty. They are not targets or recipients of development. Further, poverty reduction must be understood beyond the quintessential notion of meeting basic needs. Instead, the approach to reduce poverty must be participatory and address the precursors to economic development. Whether through education, integration or job creation, the fight to alleviate is a protracted one. Nonetheless, across the developing world, the potential to do so lies in its promising demographic dividend. While countries like Singapore have recognized the importance of harnessing its youth potential, others like India have failed to create opportunities for its young. 85% of India’s jobs remain within ‘informal’ enterprises due to a dire lack of job creation on the part of the government. Walking through my own neighborhood towards the main street, these facts and figures are so pertinent between the idle security guard and the disheveled shoe-cleaner.

Embrace the context, ensure its sustainability and make it participatory. Poverty reduction begins only once we move away from a skewed paternalistic understanding of it.

- Zara Juneja, Chair of SAPAC & Senior at Tufts University

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