In 2000, the Indian-American Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with The Interpreter of Maladies, making her the first South Asian—and, at 33, among the youngest of any ethnicity—to be named in that category. She appeared on The Charlie Rose Show, wearing crimson, her hair gelled back into a chignon.
Ever since then, twenty- and thirtysomethings of South Asian descent—that would be Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan—have emerged in a very public way on New York’s cultural stage, and we’re not talkin’ Kaavya Viswanathan. Art centers have been chartered, dance ensembles formed, fashion companies founded—and many more books, both fiction and nonfiction, written and published. Herewith, some names to learn.
Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan
“Serendipity!” said Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan on Wednesday, March 7, standing near the main gates to Columbia University on Broadway at 116th Street. “The first name for Sri Lanka was Serendib. That’s my people: We’re serendipitous.”
Ms. Ganeshananthan was wearing a red, thigh-length winter coat with the hood flipped up. At 26, she is working on her master’s thesis at the journalism school while refining the text of her first novel, Love Marriage, an intergenerational saga about a Sri Lankan family, slated for release in spring 2008. The novel is Ms. Ganeshananthan’s first delivery on a plum two-book deal she signed with Random House in September 2006.
“I feel very fortunate, in that I get to skip the getting-to-know-your-editor step,” she said. Here’s where the serendipitous part comes in: Ms. Ganeshananthan was born in 1980 in Hartford, Conn., to a mother who is a Montessori nursery teacher and a father who is a physician. In kindergarten in Bethesda, Md., where the family relocated, she hit it off with a classmate, Rebecca Shapiro. The two were side by side all the way up through high school; then Ms. Shapiro headed to Brown and Ms. Ganeshananthan entered Harvard. Following a senior thesis (the skeleton of Love Marriage) supervised by Jamaica Kincaid, a post-collegiate year on staff at The Atlantic Monthly and an M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Ms. Ganeshananthan—who goes by three first names: the one on her birth certificate; a shortened form thereof used by close friends; and her pen name, the letters V.V.—got herself an agent to shop around her manuscript.
By then, Ms. Shapiro had become an editor at Random House. “I’m her first acquisition ever,” Ms. Ganeshananthan said proudly.
Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh
Last week, a bottle of Veuve Clicquot was holding pride of place on Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh’s desk in Fayerweather Hall of Columbia University. The 40-year-old professor of sociology and African-American Studies, filmmaker and chapter subject of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s runaway best-seller Freakonomics, has much to celebrate. In October 2006, he released his most recent book, Off the Books, a fresh take on underground economies. He also just completed a new manuscript, a kind of memoir of the years he spent as a doctoral researcher from the University of Chicago embedded in a blighted South Side Chicago neighborhood interacting with drug dealers, pimps, prostitutes, pastors and ordinary residents.
Professor Venkatesh arrived in Binghamton, N.Y., at the age of 5, from Madras, India, and was raised in Orange County, Calif., where his own father is an academic.
His own appointment at Columbia, which he assumed in 1998, is the only job he’s ever had, he said. Concerned that the ivory tower was too confining, “I started making films.” His first documentary, Dislocation, which follows families as they relocate from condemned public-housing developments, aired on PBS in 2005, and his second, Abhidya, about one South Asian–American woman’s exposure to the post-9/11 effects on her community, is winding its way through the festival circuit. “Filmic representation helps me in my sociological writing,” Mr. Venkatesh said.
Roopal Patel called from her hotel in Paris, the tony Lancaster in the Eighth Arrondissement. Paris Fashion Week was over, but for Ms. Patel, who last January was promoted to senior women’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, there were yet another two days of atelier visits and meetings in the French capital. As a consultant on stylish women’s wardrobes all across Manhattan and beyond, Ms. Patel makes the trek to Europe at least four times a year, for the twice-yearly fashion seasons and their pre-collection showings. In Manhattan, the 33-year-old’s fresh face is a familiar sight on the social circuit: She’s a very photogenic captive on PatrickMcMullan.com and Style.com, for which she once worked as market editor. “I don’t consider myself a socialite,” she said. “Being out and about in New York to see what the ordinary woman on the street is wearing is part of my job. It’s important to be on the pulse.”
Born in Queens to Kenyan Indians who now reside on Long Island, Ms. Patel earned a marketing degree from N.Y.U. “The great thing was, there was an Urban Outfitters right around the corner,” she said. Her fashion ascendancy began there, “folding sweaters and sweeping floors.” Apprenticeships at boutiques in Soho and a stint doing visual merchandising at Club Monaco led her to the threshold of Fifth Avenue’s behemoth of sartorial luxury. It’s been a steady climb from her entry-level position as a fashion coordinator. Her Greenwich Village apartment is a sanctuary. “When I have down time, it’s about stepping away from fashion,” she said. In Christian Louboutin mules, no doubt.
“When Oprah said this thing, when she started this school in South Africa and she was like, ‘I finally realized why I haven’t had kids’—like all these people are my kids—I was like, ‘I’ve said that!’” said Czerina Patel.
It was 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 7, and Ms. Patel was standing in the cold outside the Manhattan Center on 34th Street amid hundreds lined up to audition for Oprah Winfrey’s new reality show, The Big Give. The somewhat Biblical intention behind the show, set to air on ABC later this year, is to collect a group of characters who will vie not to get hired or dominate an island, but to liquidate a stash of Oprah’s coin in service to their chosen higher social ideals. Ms. Patel, 32, who last year accepted a George Foster Peabody Award for broadcasting on behalf of Radio Rookies, the WNYC program that trains disadvantaged youngsters to produce radio documentaries about their life experiences—which she helped steward as senior producer from its inception in 1999—thought the concept could work for her. She’s recently founded an organization, Yenza.org, to help improve the lives of children and young adults in her native South Africa.
“It’s not just about the child I may have or may be a parent of,” she said. “It’s about the kids I work with, the kids I connect with on the street, on the sidewalk.”
On Friday, March 9, the day the film The Namesake hit theaters, Kal Penn spoke to The Observer by phone from Shreveport, La., where he’s currently shooting the sequel to Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.
“It always weirded me out when there would be Indian-American folks who would say, ‘You know, you shouldn’t be an actor—we’re Indian,’” he said. “Well, what does that mean?! I mean, I know what it means … because of particular immigration patterns—the post-’65 Asian Exclusion Act that allowed immigrants from India to come specifically just to fill labor shortages in medicine and engineering. So, you know, it’s a very specific type of immigrant group that had these degrees, or was pursuing those degrees, and that’s why they were let into the country. But of course, when those folks have kids, you want your kids to do what you do, if you’ve done it successfully—I mean, you know …. So I know that that’s what the real reason was, but it always manifested itself in things like: ‘Well, you’re Indian, you should be a doctor.’ Really, should I? And that’s on both sides: I’ve had Indian people tell me that growing up, and I’ve also had teachers tell me that growing up, when they would tell me they had Indian food for dinner the night before. So it was really more perplexing than anything else, because I always thought, ‘Man, people got issues with identity here!”
On the wall of fashion designer Rachel Roy’s office in the garment district hangs a framed illustration, roughly 8½ by 11 inches, standard paper size, of the Hindu goddess Radha.
“Especially in a Third World country, I think it’s very uplifting for women to have goddesses as their image of what they can live up to,” she said.
The Indian-Dutch Ms. Roy was born and raised in Southern California. After years as creative director of the women’s and children’s divisions of Rocawear, the clothing company co-founded in 1999 by her husband, Damon Dash, she launched Rachel Roy, a popular women’s clothing line.
“I would love to see strong, intelligent, well-dressed women, already in their lives, come to my showroom or come and view my collection and love it,” she said. “That, to me, is the biggest compliment, because they’re fine—they don’t need another piece of clothing.”
In 2006, Ms. Roy was awarded a Bollywood Award for fashion design.
“I love the fact that my first award in the design industry came from the Indian culture,” she said. “I think that also speaks volumes about how much, culturally, Indians support each other.”
Atul Gawande and Shahzia Sikander
MacArthur “genius grant” winners (from the 2006 cohort) Atul Gawande, surgeon and New Yorker staff writer, and Shahzia Sikander, painter, warmed to the idea of a sit-down tête-à-tête with The Observer on the topic of creative process. But Mr. Gawande, 40, was too swamped with his practice at Boston’s Brigham & Women’s Hospital and his professorial duties at Harvard Medical School. If, however, you’re a fan of his 2002 National Book Award–nominated work, Complications, keep an eye out for next month’s release of Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, a collection of Mr. Gawande’s essays previously published in The New Yorker and The New England Journal of Medicine, where he writes the “Notes of a Surgeon” column.
Ms. Sikander, 37, whose reinterpretation of the classical South Asian art form of miniature painting has gained her exhibitions at MoMA and the Whitney, is far afield in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and her native Pakistan. Last year, she was named to the Forum of Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. “I’m hoping to use this experience in a tangible way,” she wrote in an e-mail. “I’m involved with an organization that provides top-level education for the underprivileged (Teach a Child). I’m also in the process of setting up an artist-residency center in Lahore as a platform to exchange ideas and shed prejudices through personal observations and interaction.”
Rajiv and Payal Chaudhri
“Early on, we made a very simple rule when we realized that we’d be together,” said art collector Rajiv R. Chaudhri, referring to a verbal contract he made with his wife of two and a half years, Payal. “Both of us have veto power on anything that we look at, so either of us can nix a potential purchase if we didn’t like or we didn’t like it enough. The net result is that it has worked very well for us—it keeps both of us happy, and it pushes the quality of the overall collection as well.”
The Chaudhris rank among the world’s most prominent collectors of Indian art. In September 2005, Mr. Chaudri broke the record at Christie’s on the highest bid ever paid for a piece of Indian art – $1.6 million for a painting by the 81-year-old artist Tyeb Mehta.
During the recent Armory Show, Manhattan’s largest art fair, the Chaudhris opened their apartment at Riverside Drive and 83rd for one morning to a pre-selected group of Indian-art enthusiasts to view their impressive holdings.
Mr. Chaudhri started collecting 15 years ago, he said, and has also become a significant patron of the arts. In 2001, he founded and ran for two years the Indo Center for Art and Culture in Chelsea. Next week, selections from the Chaudhris’ collection will be featured in the first solo exhibition by an Asian artist at the Tate Modern in London.
“My focus always was on building a collection that would hang in museums,” he said. “In public spaces.”
When Gilles Mendel, president of the fur-specialty fashion house J Mendel, a family business for five generations, was seeking to repackage it into a more youthful brand—also one that could be worn in warmer climes—he went looking for fresh talent to help him realize his vision. He found an F.I.T.-trained designer, originally from Orissa, India, named Bibhu Mohapatra. Mr. Mohapatra joined the company at the end of 1998 as assistant designer and was appointed design director in 2004. This past fashion season, editors raved over the fall collection, which Mr. Mohapatra oversaw. J Mendel was awarded the Glamour Award, capping a year in which the label rose to become a first choice for that most coveted of customer: the red-carpet-walker. “Celine Dion wore a J Mendel gown when she performed at the Oscars, and Kyra Sedgwick wore one to the Golden Globes,” said Mr. Mohapatra, 34, speaking by phone from Orissa, where he is on a “part-vacation, part-work” trip. In the past year, he has also dressed Beyoncé and Salma Hayek. “My favorite was Sienna Miller,” he said. “We did a coat for her that she wore in Factory Girl. It’s the white mink coat with the black stripes on it; it’s in the movie all the time. I went to fit that coat with my patternmaker, and Sienna was really charming and a delight to work with.”
“You discover who you are in crisis,” said the novelist Akhil Sharma, sitting in his Upper West Side apartment clad in a black sweater, giraffe-print pajama pants and rose-colored socks. When Mr. Sharma was 10, his brother, three years his senior, plunged into a swimming pool, hit his head on the base and lost consciousness underwater for three minutes. He’s been in a coma ever since. Finding themselves at the limit of Western medicine’s power to revive their son, Mr. Sharma’s parents appealed to Hindu faith healers.
“Not just homeopathic doctors, which many people use,” Mr. Sharma said, “but really just lunatics—people who would come and do all sort of strange things to my brother as a way to wake him.”
Born in Delhi, Mr. Sharma immigrated with his family to New York in 1979 at the age of 8. He became an investment banker, despite a year as a Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University and as an undergrad at Princeton, where he wrote under Joyce Carol Oates’ supervision. Banking held his interest for three years, before he turned to writing fiction full-time. He has since racked up some coveted accolades, most recently inclusion in the British literary journal Granta’s list of “Best Young American Novelists Under 35,” announced on March 2 at a reception at Housing Works Bookstore.
The novel he’s currently working on is inspired by his brother’s tragedy and the community response to it.
“Self-sacrifice is supposed to make you holy in Hinduism,” he said. “Somebody who sacrifices themselves for somebody else becomes very virtuous.” Very virtuous people are thought in his culture to have magical powers, he said. “I mean, literally magical powers. So, when I was a child, mothers would bring their children, before SAT exams, over to get blessings from my mother, because it was supposed to be good luck. And that’s where you begin getting the cool, weird strains of what does it actually mean to be Hindu, to be Indian, in America.”
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