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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 email@example.com
BY NEW YORK CITY COMPRTOLLER ALAN G. HEVESI:
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
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.
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 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.
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.''
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?
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" --
Thank you for your time.
Reax to firstname.lastname@example.org
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