One sultry evening in June 2000, a chance meeting in an unpretentious movie house showing the Shahrukh Khan-Aishwarya Rai starrer Josh provided an interesting twist to my professional life. A man named Aniruddh Chawda (A Lotus from the Nile, June 2011) engaged me in conversation during the intermission, and his first question was a more than fair one:
“Why are you watching a Hindi film and one without subtitles?” (After all, I’m an American woman from the upper Midwest whose hair has been white-blonde since graduate school in the 1970s. Not your typical Hindi film-goer at all.)
I explained to him that I’d long been interested in Hong Kong films—also without subtitles—and, in 1998, an online HK film friend had suggested I might like Hindi films. My undergraduate and graduate studies had been in Theatre Arts, so she thought I’d love the spectacle and the music of the films. She was right. I was hooked from the first film I rented (Pardes), and I still am. Being an avid reader and a writer, the next logical step was to dive into Indian fiction. Again, hooked!
Post-film coffee and dessert with Aniruddh ushered in a new and continuing friendship. At the small, throwback-to-the-1950s café, Aniruddh spoke of writing film reviews for a magazine called India Currents, and I casually mentioned that I, too, was a writer.
Many movies, meals, and visits to Chicago’s Devon Avenue later, Aniruddh alerted me to an opportunity to write a film review of Monsoon Wedding. He was writing the cover story about Mira Nair, and then-editor-now-publisher Vandana Kumar wanted someone else to write the review. Without wasting time, I sent a piece. Vandana put her stamp of approval on it, asking what else I might want to write for the magazine.
The answer was simple: book reviews! I also pitched article ideas to her, which resulted in a feature that looked at the perception of NRIs in Hindi films (NRI Number One, August 2002) and another that was an annotated bibliography/review of Hindi film books (Passion in the Pages, November 2003).
As for the magazine, I learned quickly that it is a platform for change and challenge, a guardian of culture and ideas, and a monitor of the present and future for its diverse readership. It is a thoughtful, contemporary publication that is open to differing points of view and embraces a high standard not often found in most mainstream periodicals. Every issue reinforces the fact that the staff not only knows what their readers want but, more importantly, the quality their readers expect. Longevity is the result of its attentiveness and diligence. Longevity means much, particularly in these days of rapid and startling changes in all facets of the publishing world. India Currents (IC) continues to improve and thrive in the world of magazines when many are folding, compacting, or relegating themselves to a strictly online or downloaded presence.
IC invests a great deal of ink and space on the arts—music, dance, cinema, books—and that alone makes it special. In a time when many believe the sole focus of education should be on science, technology, engineering, and math, India Currents recognizes that art is an important part of our lives. By freely giving space to books of all genres, IC promotes that idea and, as a bonus, literacy.
Between January 2001 and September 2011, nearly 300 books have been reviewed and myriad authors have been interviewed by virtually 60 contributors. Approximately 200 authors have been recognized by India Currents. Numbers aside, it is clear that literature is an important part of the magazine’s body. Among the books reviewed, there have been and will continue to be dozens of debuts by new and exciting voices that make my job so delightful and fresh with each assignment. It is that attention to new authors that makes India Currents a valuable resource and a champion for those who write about the South Asian experience. The Books section has grown from straightforward reviews to reviews incorporating the authors’ own words about their work to full author interviews and now even audio files of those reviews.
But what is the attraction to South Asian literature that makes it such a vital part of every issue of India Currents? Beyond the obvious, I believe that if you want to learn about a people, you must read what they are writing. Whether fiction or non-fiction, the writing is about what collectively matters to them, what’s happening to them, what’s affecting them. It’s their body of stories, their reflections of their world.
Without bias or censor, IC has looked at books about everything from films and music to cuisine and history. Books covering socio-global politics, religion, and spirituality have shared pages with biographies, memoirs, and accounts of immigrants’ issues.
South Asian fiction comes in all sizes and shapes from mystery, historical, and political to family drama, family comedy, and insurgency. The “chick lit” genre emerged and included South Asian authors, while coming-of-age fiction is a literary mainstay. Poetry, collections of essays or short stories, and anthologies are as easily represented. Travel narratives and self-help books amuse, enlighten, and guide. And no one is left out because the books that are reviewed cover everyone from pre-readers and emerging readers to independent and middle grade readers to young adults and adults.
From Salman Rushdie to V.S. Naipaul to Shashi Tharoor, from Jhumpa Lahiri to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni to Fareed Zakaria, the pages of IC have sparkled with names that are attached to best sellers and known the world over. Equally important, however, are the many new and promising authors such as Kiran Desai, Khaled Hosseini, Monica Ali, Roopa Farooki, and Indu Sundaresan (who now has been reviewed 5 times) to name only a few.
Their introduction to IC’s readers has been important because they belong to the new crop of writers who will continue to interpret their world with keen, critical eyes and a global perspective.
Certainly many featured authors write from India but, it can be said, as many have begun their lives in or near the subcontinent and now write from an assortment of points around the globe. For example, Amulya Malladi, who has been reviewed four times, lives and writes in Denmark. Roopa Farooki was born in Pakistan but splits her writing time between England and France. Tahmina Anam, a native of Bangladesh, was raised in Paris, New York City, and Bangkok. She now resides in London. Chicago-based Mary Ann Mohanraj began life in Sri Lanka. Khaled Hosseini lives in the United States, but both of his highly-acclaimed books reflect life in his homeland, Afghanistan. Azhar Abidi was born in Pakistan but now makes Australia his home. Their location and where they’ve been influence their writing, their themes, and their perspectives. This gives us readers many opportunities to realize that when film director Subhash Ghai coined the phrase “global Indian,” it extended to the community of contemporary South Asian writers and literature.
There is one other group of South Asian authors making an impact: children of immigrants. Authors such as Ronica Dhar write about their own unique experiences, including the reverse immigrant question. Their own issues, conflicts, and beliefs, often rise in stark contrast to those of their parents and the generations before. Now it is less about the arranged marriage and more about the love or interracial marriage. A divorce or remarriage might be mentioned in a story. Now it is less a culture clash as an expected by-product of leaving India as it is straddling two cultures, finding one’s place, and understanding who one is in the world. It is less the traditional Delhi or India and more the “new” Delhi and the “new” India, signaling the recent changes in India’s economic growth, modern attitudes, and alternative lifestyles. I believe it is fair to say that these new voices take the concept of universal themes a step further and integrate the day-to-day issues and conflicts experienced by their generation with basic themes that resonate with readers around the world.
The topics and themes that concern today’s South Asian writer are as varied as the sheer numbers of books. When I read Alzak Amlani’s 25th Anniversary article (Being Indian In America, July 2011), I was struck by the parallels between the progression of issues that brought clients to his office and the progression of topics and themes surfacing in the writing by and about South Asians. My immediate impression was that art was not merely imitating but clearly reflecting life. Culture shock. Culture block. Women’s rights, politics, socio-economic issues, immigration, emigration, sexuality, and other social concerns have been moving from the shadows to front and center in both contemporary non-fiction and fiction. South Asian literature is shifting and expanding to absorb and include more controversial subjects. Taboos are examined, traditions are questioned, and the immigrant’s experiences aren’t necessarily the solo story in the spotlight.
This is not to say that India’s history, traditions, and customs are being shoved in a box in a dark and dusty attic. Those vital components of being Indian remain in South Asian writing.
Without them, the stories, the accounts, and the perspectives would become generic—perhaps “globally generic,” but that is not the same as “universal.” The difference is that these factors must learn to share space with the changes in focus, taste, and current events. With a pool of strong and gifted observer-authors, the traditional and contemporary coexist in harmony and offer an extraordinary body of work.
A decade after I began writing for India Currents, waiting for Ranjit Souri’s comedy troupe to begin at Chicago’s famed Improv Olympics, India Currents editor Vidya Pradhan and I chatted about how this is a great time to be a South Asian author. “Does it seem as if it is easier to be published as a South Asian author these days?” she mused.
I agreed that there seemed to be many more published South Asian authors these days and said, “You know, I was thinking of changing my name to something like ‘Jee Firangi.’ Maybe, when I start to peddle my own novel, that name might get me noticed quickly.”
Jokes aside, this is without question an enormously exciting time for South Asian writers and their readers. I am not “of” that certain population of people, but I am proud to be a long-time member of the India Currents family.
During this first decade of the new millennium, I have been privileged to work with four outstanding editors: Vandana Kumar, Ashok Jethanandani, Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, and now Vidya Pradhan. Each brought their own sensibilities, experiences, and viewpoints, propelling the magazine to increased respect and readership. And each has been a writer’s dream: painless to work with and effortless to learn from. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity not only to continue to explore a variety of authors and genres of South Asian literature but also to do two of the things I love the most: reading and writing.
I was only kidding about adopting the pen-name Jee Firangi, but I am not kidding when I say that 50 book reviews after Monsoon Wedding, the IC experience continues to enrich my life through association with the staff and writers-contributors, through the words I read and contemplate, and through the conversations I’ve had with a variety of authors. It is my hope that you, the India Currents audience, have found and will continue to find pleasure in the books my and my colleagues’ reviews have suggested.
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Jeanne E. Fredriksen now reads and writes from the Raleigh-Durham area, a location that loves the arts and their artists. Almost immediately, she happily found a theatre there that specializes in Hindi films. She would also like to thank her good friend Aniruddh Chawda for being at the Des Plaines Theater that one summer evening.
This retrospective was part of a series of articles by regular contributors in celebration of the magazine’s 25th Anniversary.