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Sree wrestles Alan Hevesi, New York's Comptroller, for control of the lectern.

PHOTO: Jay Mandal

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Alan G. Hevesi
Comptroller of the City of New York

Cordially invites you to join him in celebrating
South Asian Heritage & Culture

Thursday, September 21, 2000
5:00 to 7:00 p.m.
The Public Hearing Room at City Hall

Keynote Speaker
Sreenath Sreenivasan
Co-Founder of the South Asian Journalist Association (SAJA) Journalism Professor at Columbia University

Honorees
Preeta D. Bansal
Solicitor General of the State of New York

Sarita Choudhury
Actor and Star of the motion picture "Mississippi Masala"

Dr. Sabyasachi Ghosh Dastidar and Dr. Shefali Sengupta Dastidar
Founders of the Probini Foundation

Dr. Mazhar N. Malik
Chairman of the Department of Neuropharmacology for the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities

Ram Kumar Nagarkoti
Videographer/Filmmaker, Special Events Producer, Actor, Musician, Cultural Coordinator and Member of the Board of Directors of the American Nepal Friendship Society

Harbans Singh
Founding Member of the Gurdwara Makhan Sha Lobano Sikh Center

Performance
Aladdin Ullah

Comedian

R.S.V.P.
Office of Community Relations
(212) 669-3734 / citizens@comptroller.nyc.gov

For security purposes, you must reply to be admitted to City Hall.

Subway directions to City Hall:
N/R to City Hall station
4/5/6 to Brooklyn Bridge
J/M/Z to Chambers Street

Note: On Thursday, Sep. 21, 2000, I delivered the keynote speech at a function organized by the office of the comptroller of New York City, as part of an evening honoring "South Asian Culture & Heritage." This was the first time that such a function had taken place at City Hall. On the right is the text of the invitation, including the slate of award winners (note how pan-South Asian the program is). After the formal function, a stunning array of South Asian dishes were served, donated by restaurants from around the city. About 250 people were in attendance. Below are the remarks I presented. Reax to sree@sree.net

[This speech also ran on www.rediff.com]

See streaming video of speech
http://www.avasian.com/sahc/

INTRODUCTION BY NEW YORK CITY COMPRTOLLER ALAN G. HEVESI:
So now let me introduce our keynote speaker. By the way, generic apology, when I mispronounce your name, please feel free to correct me, but please forgive me. Actually, my name is not Hevesi. It's HeveSHEE. And none of you knew that. He is the co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association, a group that represents more than 700+ journalists of South Asian origin in New York and other cities. He is a professor, as well, at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. At Columbia, he is founding administrator of the Online Journalism Awards, a prestigious new form of international recognition. He serves as faculty adviser of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and he won the group's national faculty adviser of the year in 1998. He's young, he's smart, he's fun, he's a great representative of the community... Please welcome our keynote speaker, Sreenath Sreenivasan.

Celebrating South Asiana
Keynote speech by Sreenath Sreenivasan

City Hall, New York;
Thursday, Sep. 21, 2000

Honorable Alan G. Hevesi, distinguished awardees, friends:

It's a singular honor for this product of the New York City public school system to address you tonight. And a pleasure to see so many South Asians -- or "desis," as many of us like to call ourselves -- gathered here. This is surely the largest gathering of desis in City Hall history. Perhaps we can lobby for something big -- how about replacing the bagel with the samosa as the official food of Queens?

As you may know, journalists like me can seize on a particular topic and cling to it with a ferocity that would make the most nasty New York rotweiller blush. Just ask some of politicians in Washington -- or even right here in Manhattan. But give us carte blanche -- as the comptroller's office did when I asked about a topic for today -- we are often at a loss.

But the theme of today's ceremony -- "celebrating South Asian heritage and culture" -- got me thinking. About South Asia and the phrase "South Asian." What exactly does it mean, especially in the context of this extraordinary mosaic of America and New York in particular? A city where most Pakistanis will tell you they met an Indian or a Sri Lankan or a Bangladeshi for the very first time. The same goes for almost any subcontinental you ask: in South Asia, meeting someone from one of the neighoring countries -- let alone working side by side -- is almost unheard of.

My involvement with the South Asian Journalists Association has made me realize what a provocative phrase "South Asian" is. Those who embrace it are embracing the idea that 1.5 billion people of the subcontinent can have something in common. That close to two million folks in the U.S. share in a destiny that unites them as immigrants, children of immigrants, or as visitors. Whether you are a Mt. Sinai Hospital nurse from Kerala, a Wall Street trader from Karachi or a desi NYU student whose parents came to Kansas a lifetime ago.

There are, of course, people within the community who dislike the phrase strongly -- they feel it takes away from the narrower national identity they know better... Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. Many Indians in the US are particularly unhappy with it: they think they get drowned in this larger identity, when they dominate by virtue of their numbers and history.

A California-based columnist wrote a piece for Rediff.com, an Indian Web site, entitled "Why I am Not a South Asian." In it he slammed America's "intellectual laziness" and the "loss of branding" by those of us who use "South Asian" when talking about the diaspora. The writer, Rajeev Srinivasan (we are not related), railed against the false presumption of commonality among desis by various groups, including SAJA (we were honored to be named at the top of his list). "We lose by pushing South Asia," he declared.

I believe he is wrong about this and there are plenty of people just like him -- including Pakistanis who don't like being lumped together with India.

In April, Columbia's Southern Asian Institute received an e-mail message from an Indian upset that the Institute's map of South Asia showed more than just India. "If you don't know what is India shut your mouth don't try to give some map representing all the countries... If you don't remove the sketch, you will face the consequences soon. Regards..."

I say all this as a proud Indian -- my first identity. An Indian not at all ashamed of being from India -- as I have been accused of more than once. I just happen to believe that South Asian is a valid label, too. "Too" being the key word.

I feel I can speak authoritatively about the common experience that South Asians have and the wonderful heritage we all share. And not just because I happen to be married to a former gold medalist at the South Asian Federation Games.

I went to high school in the Fiji Islands and have gotten a first hand look at how seriously my Fiji-Indian friends -- generations removed from British India -- took their desi-ness, their heritage, their culture. I have also seen how proud Caribbean South Asians in New York are about their connection to an ancient and beautiful place. A place most of their grandparents have never seen.

I do understand that some of the smaller countries and cultures can get lost in the mix. I also acknowledge that there isn't a single, monolithic South Asian "community," but rather separate communities that can celebrate their differences while sharing in their commonality. It is by pandering to those who would keep us separate, we all lose.

These are exciting times to be a South Asian here in the U.S. From the old economy to the new economy, from popular culture to public service, desis are having an impact disproportional to their numbers. One example: when the Minneapolis Star-Tribune wrote this year about the hottest trend in American fashion, it declared that the bindi had replaced last year's hottest trend -- mehndi. And then there's the bidi -- the one desi trend I am not proud of.

Speaking of being proud, I want to take you specifically to one date this past spring: April 9. That Sunday, I sat transfixed as Fiji's Vijay Singh won the Masters, defeating the world's best golfers.

The next afternoon, I was at a small announcement ceremony at Columbia, where it was announced that Jhumpa Lahiri had won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction -- becoming the first Asian winner of the prize. In the course of those 24 hours, South Asians had broken through in two quintessentially "American" arenas. Winning the Masters at hallowed Augusta and a Pulitzer -- the wording reads: "for distinguished fiction by an American author, preferably dealing with American life.''

Bathing in all the success of the community is one thing, but it is also important to acknowledge and do something about the desis being left behind in these dot-com-obsessed days. Many South Asian organizations are, in fact, fighting great odds to improve those lives, but there's a lot more that need to be done.

We also need to look beyong our own comfortable walls and to get more involved with the city we live in, becoming active participants in the New York experience as well as the desi one.

Incidentally, it has always bothered me that there were no desis on "E.R.," the hit NBC show. What kind of hospital was that in a country where almost 10 percent of the students in medical programs are South Asian?

Standup comic Aladdin performs for the crowd. PHOTO: Jay Mandal

Well, I am pleased to tell you that a friend of mine, Purva Bedi -- who is here tonight -- will get to play just such a role in the new season of the show. How many times she gets to appear depends on the support the desi community shows her, by writing to NBC, by encouraging them to keep putting on diverse characters -- just like hers. You see, as with little kids, decision makers in the media need positive reinforcement and feedback. That's a good lesson when it comes to articles in the press, too.

Writing to the editor when they do a responsible story is as effective as dashing off angry letters when they do an irresponsible one. There's plenty of irresponsibility to go around; that's why SAJA runs a mailing list called "Dissecting American Media Now" -- or D.A.M.N.

To my way of thinking, a group needs a sense of maturity to identify itself in a broad way, and your presence here tonight -- as representatives of your own nationalities and as South Asians and as New Yorkers -- is an affirmation that we are mostly on the same page. And for a journalist there's no greater sense of satisfaction.

Thank you for your time.

Reax to sree@sree.net

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