Sunday, April 01, 2012

Late to the Opening. Late to the Farewell

I was the sixth mutineer. Kind of like the fifth Beatle, except no one really cares about the sixth mutineer. I showed up late to the opening party, and late to the farewell. The bunker has shut. So, I’m taking this opportunity to dust off desiblog and posting this SM farewell here.

I never said goodbye, I kind of just faded away from Sepia Mutiny, and from blogging. With the site’s shutting down, I began to think back to how writing started for me. Like so many of our stories on the blog, it was the aftermath of the September 11 attacks that brought me to the e-page. I started off as a self-proclaimed editorialist at the short lived website the Satya Circle, pontificating as a barely 20-something on issues that resonated with me, and I thought would resonate with the desi diaspora during that time: foreign policy towards South Asia, immigration, the diaspora and our music/culture.

And then I learned about blogs and started my own. If it related to brown, I blogged about it. Panjabi MC, Check. Hip-Hop with Bollywood samples. Check. Some brown face on a commercial, in a music video, on a tv show or in the movies. Check. Bad (and sometimes good) desi writing. Check. Progressive brown political issues. Check.

Then in August 2004, after the DNC, Abhi left a comment on my blog and asked if I’d join the group blog he was starting with a few others. I was a regular reader of Manish’s blog, and knew Anna, and Abhi’s brother from my GW days, and said sure. I’m glad I did.

The best part, people were reading what we were writing, and commenting. We had started what would become an 8 year conversation. Now those conversations are happening, and most importantly, they are happening everywhere. In the beginning, I spent day and night scouring the web for content and trying to put my own spin on it. We all did. My work life sometimes clashed with topics I would have loved to write about, so I focused mostly on arts, music and culture. It didn't matter, I loved it. And then for me, life happened. I got engaged, married. work. I had a kid. I no longer made time to blog or write, sadly. I hope I can make that time again.

I can’t remember my first post or my last one. I do have some favorites, but what I remember most was the excitement of that time. The newness of all that was happening. When we started, there were very few prominent South Asians on television or in music, or working on Capitol Hill or the White House. We remained in the background, and every time something desi peaked through the curtain, I or Manish, or Abhi, or any of the mutineers clamored to include it on the blog.

If a commercial had a desi-angle, who could be the first to post it up? Was that a Panjabi MC song on an ER episode? Is Dr. Dre getting sued by Bappi Lahiri? Is Aishwarya Rai, aka TMBWITW, going to show Oprah how to wear a Sari? When we first started SM, these instances seemed few and far between. Today, I have no idea how anyone could cover them all.

Fast Forward to 2008 and the present. I can’t think of a television network that doesn’t air shows that include South Asians or a newspaper that doesn’t feature South Asian names on bylines. It’s still cool, but no longer as out-of-the-ordinary to see desi wedding announcements in the NYT. Two South Asian-Americans are being thrown around as possible Republican VP candidates, and one as a potential Supreme Court Justice.

When we started blogging, SM was one of the few prominent spaces that existed to make sure our diverse voices were heard. We are no longer quiet. We are no longer up-and-coming. We have arrived. And, in it’s own little way, Sepia Mutiny was one of those vehicles helping us get here.

Thanks Abhi, Manish, Ennis, Anna, and Vinod for having me. It was a blast.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

In My Gully, Rupees Beat the Dollar

In the ten plus years since Asian influenced electronica started making the musical rounds, the sound has gone in various directions. From the pulsating Indian classical-oriented tabla and bass to bollywood dub step, the music has evolved and morphed with other styles of contemporary and popular music. A prime example of this evolution can be found in Hello Hello, the most recent studio album put out by the New Delhi-based duo of Tapan Raj and Gaurav Raina, collectively known as the Midival Punditz. Hello, released on Six Degrees Records, sees the evolution of Punditz’s engaging electro-desi sound into new directions I haven’t see the Punditz delve into in past albums. Don’t worry though, it’s mostly a good thing!

The album’s opener, Electric Universe, is a strong tune, that marries a bansuri based melody with the now very-trendy vocoder lyrics and an up-tempo western dance groove. Universe is a good start to a very good album, and serves as a nice introduction of the diverging sounds to come. The last track is an acoustic version of Universe, except with unadulterated vocals and acoustic guitar by fellow Asian-massivist Karsh Kale. In fact, Kale’s influence on the album is heavily felt, with credits on more than five of the album’s 11 tracks.

With Hello, it’s clear that the Punditz haven’t forgotten where they came from, or the type of music that has led them to be called “the sound of 21st century India.” The album has the raga and folk influence I have come to expect and love from the Punditz, but also a classic rock and pop influence that one might hear in the nightclubs of Delhi, Bangalore, or Bombay.

With songs like Atomizer, and Har Ek Baat, which combines the poetry of the Urdu Poet Ghalib with the Punditz’s tabla and bass beat, the range of the album becomes very clear. For me though, it’s tracks like Sun Mere Sanam, Naina Laagey (my favorite on the album), and Drifting, that keep me listening over and over again. All three feature a skillful layering of traditional Indian sounds and instrumentation, and seamless incorporation of vocals (in the first two) and modern electronic production. (Six Degrees is offering Desiblog readers a free download of Drifting here). And for the classic-rock fans, the Punditz have included their hommage to Led Zeppelin’s “Four Sticks,” which builds, quite nicely I think, on the Indian sounds of the original.

While I liked most of the album, I thought some things were off. On Tonic, the folk-influenced vocal sounded disjointed with the beat, and the only redeeming thing about the amateurish rap was the line I chose for the title of the posting. But, one or two tracks aside, the Punditz come through with a solid album, which I’ve had playing on repeat for the better part of the last two weeks. Check it out (the album is available on itunes and amazon), and let us know what you think. For those of you on the left coast, the Punditz will be appearing this Thursday (4/16) at the Mighty in San Francisco, with Karsh Kale. Nothing beats seeing these guys live.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Right to Bear Arms?

It's been far too long since I've been able to write, but some events of the past few weeks have really started to motivate me to start writing again. So this is my modest effort to try and start it up again.

I was pretty horrified to read this Associated Press article detailing some events surrounding a shooting at party at a Lakehouse, just west of Columbia, South Carolina. Yes, I know shootings happen throughout the country, but this instance is weird, and truly points to the need for additional gun controls.

A South Carolina man shot an unarmed teenager to death after a scuffle at a weekend party thrown by his children, then shot two teens involved in a retaliatory shooting at his home, authorities said Tuesday.
The party throwers claim the deceased teenager, 17-year-old Deshaun Rashad Clark, stole their cell phone. Reeves' son went to the family's other nearby home to get his father, Francis Marion Reeves III, 62, who brought a loaded pistol and unloaded shotgun back to the lakehouse. Reeves was told that his daughter had been attacked at the party and watched as his son was attacked by three people. So what happens next? According to the article:

After Clark returned with friends, Reeves shot him, prosecutors said. Partygoers scattered and friends took the injured teen to a fire station. He died at a hospital.

The unfortunate part is, this didn't end here.
Reeves returned to his home afterward and was sitting on the front porch when one of the slain teen's friends drove by and shot at his home in retaliation, police said. Reeves fired back with a shotgun, police said, striking two teens who were in the car. They were not seriously injured.
I wonder what might have happened if Reeves had not been an owner of firearms?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

I'm Bringing Desi Back

No, I am not referring to Sanjaya Malakar, because I wouldn’t want American Idol commentators to think that desi-Americans are monolithic in their support of him (we’re not), and I am not referring to me because well, desi never left my life. What I am getting at is the attempted resurgence of desi influences in mainstream American popular music, and surprisingly (or not so surprisingly depending on how you look at it) the current effort by producer extraordinaire Timbaland to bring desi back by featuring two desi-ish tracks on his latest release, Timbaland Presents Shock Value. The first of the two is “Bombay” featuring British-Asian songstress Amar, and the other “Come Around”with our girl M.I.A., which for some strange reason is only available in the U.S. as an import.

Like much of the album, both tracks are solid. Bombay is a straight up Hindi track, it features Amar’s vocal (rather than simply using it as a hook), its addicitve, and makes good use of the “Bollywood of Yore” effect. The track has additional production by long-time Timbaland collaborator Jim Beanz, who recently released a couple of sanctioned remixes of two Nelly Furtado Tracks featuring Amar, Promiscuous Girl and Maneater, both of which are available for free download on Amar’s myspace page. Many of you might remember Amar for her hauntingly awesome vocal on the opening track Jaan of Talvin Singh’s groundbreaking compilation Anokha. On the heals of Anokha, she released a solo album, Outside, produced by Nitin Sawhney, but then seemingly fell off, until Beanz’s remix of Promiscuous started to make the rounds. For now anyway, it seems Amar may be the new Raje Shwari, the singer Timbaland and many others used for their Indian hooks a few years ago (Indian Flute, Bounce, Disco etc.), but hasn’t really been heard from since. I hope things work out better for Amar then it did for Raje.

As for the M.I.A. track, I don’t know, I can’t get enough. It’s got M.I.A.’s grimey rapping style, Timbaland’s typically solid production, and desi beats, incorporating and flipping the hook from a recent indi-pop hit “Let the Music Play.” The only thing wrong with this track is it isn’t on the American release.

Do I think Timbaland can bring desi back? I hope so. He’s gonna need help though, and by the lack of really good records from the desi diaspora over the past couple of years, it is going to be tough. For too long the desi music scene has relied upon British-Asian talent to bring the heat. I love British-Asian music, but its sound has gotten stagnant and it is time for desis on this side of the Atlantic to step up. From the word on the street and from what I’ve been hearing, I’m hopeful.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Tabu of the Namesake

It is a picture that I imagine many who read this blog have a variation of in one form or another. You know, that image of the the nuclear desi-America family, returned to the sub-Continent for a long (summer) vacation, of mom, dad, brother, sister posing in front of the Taj Majal. The group is huddled close on that bench hoping for the perfect portrait. And really, how can the picture be bad? That grand marble monument towering in the background, its skewed reflection glimmering in the rectangular pond. Observing that familiar image reflected on the movie screen and understanding that feeling of closeness and comfort of being together in a foreign place, put a big smile on my face, as did most of Mira Nair’s latest film The Namesake.

I have to admit, this was a very personal book for me, I think for most of us. I even made my mom, who doesn’t usually read “English novels” read the book, and she loved it.

I find it hard to have high expectations for movies based on books. I have been burned too many times. With that in mind, my expectations for the movie were upward leaning, but not over reaching. I didn’t know how Nair could add visuals to a novel that was for me already so vivid. As the stunning opening credits blurred between Bengali and English, I immediately knew Lahiri’s story was in good hands. Nair and her longtime collaborator Sooni Taraporevala’s treatment stayed true to the novel while also providing an original point of view. Their take does a fine job of including the highlights of the book, but in their attempt to hit all the major points, the movie misses some of the extras that made the story so poignant. (Warning: Spoiler Alert, especially if you haven’t read the book)

The inclusion of the Ashima and Ashoke’s early years was good, but I wanted to see more of their early married life, more of Ashima’s struggle adjusting to life in America. To life without her family. To life without the familiar. I wanted to see her overcome that struggle, and grow into her life in America, as we saw in the novel. I think that is an important part of the story, and not spending enough time on some of these nuances took away from the story’s gravitas. The significance of the late night/early morning phone call for example, how was the audience supposed to know that odd-timed phone calls only meant significant news from India, usually bad?

I also wanted to see more of Sonia (Sahira Nair) and Gogol (Kal Penn). As my sister pointed, the book gives Sonia the shaft, so it was wrong for me to expect more of her in the film. Fine. But on their trip to India , I wanted to see more background, the disappointment from the kids in having to leave for their whole summer vacation, more awkward interaction between the American cousins and their family in Calcutta. I wanted the audience to understand and the movie to show that feeling of having all this family so far away, whom the ability with which to connect to is handicapped by distance. As cliche as it sounds, I wanted the film to show more of the duality of hyphenated-American life. But in the end, this is a minor quibble.

In the novel, Gogol’s character kept the story moving, he was the protagonist. What I found suprising was that in the film, it was Ashima, to the credit of Bollywood actress Tabu, who pushed the story forward. Tabu’s take on Ashima was simply brilliant. Her performance was flawless and natural, and she really made the character come to life. For me, Tabu stole the show, completely overshadowing the perfomance of every other actor in the film. If I was to identify with any character in the book, it would have been with that of Gogol, but in the film, it was Ashima, who made me feel at home. In her, I saw our mothers, and their struggle. I can’t say it enough, Tabu’s performance struck me, and is reason enough to go back and see the movie again and again.

I must also give credit to Irfan Khan, whose subtle, guarded portryal of Ashoke, represented perfectly the hands-off desi style of hands-on parenting. He stayed far enough away to not be outwardly emotionally involved, but close enough for us to know he really cared. Zuleikha Robinson’s Moushimi, I didn’t like her character, but Robinson played it greatly. Moushimi is sultry and trashy at the same time, and Robinson brought this ibe to the movie in the short on-screen time she was alloted. I know many a reviewer disagree with me and have genuinely liked Penn’s performance, given that this role was his first major dramatic one, but I wasn’t too impressed. After his appearances on 24 and Law and Order (and to be fair, Penn should take any role he gets, terrorist, 7-11 clerk, or otherwise—he will be soon starring in an upcoming comedy pilot on ABC about paramedics) my expectations were low, and to that end he didn’t disappoint. Just comparing his reaction to Ashoke’s death with Tabu’s, Penn’s seemed force. The dramatic didn’t seem natural to him. I think Nair must be given credit for her ability to draw out whatever drama she could from him, but my wife and I both felt he used that same dumbfounded expression (the one we saw in American Desi, Harold and Kumar, Where’s the Party Yaar?) throughout the film. This may come across as hate, but clearly Nair saw something in him, and I think he can do better. To give him the benefit of the doubt, this was his first major dramatic role.

In the end, Nair’s big-screen translation didn’t disappoint. The visuals were more subtle than Monsoon wedding, but striking nonetheless. The transitions between countries were seemless, the blending of Calcutta’s massive bridges and streets into New York’s was natural, and symbolic at the same time. She did it, Nair successfully added color to an already amazing story. I mentioned earlier that I smiled almost the whole film, until the last seen anyway. It was the final party held at the Ganguli home dramatized on screen that got me in the end. Ashima is saying goodbye to the family she and her husband had created in America (from the novel):

“For 33 years she missed her life in India. Now she will miss her job in the library, the women with whom she’s worked. She will miss throwing parties. She will missing living with her daughter, the surprising companionship they have formed, going into cambridge together to see old movies at the Capital Brattle, teaching her to cook the food Sonia had complained of eating as a child. She will miss the opportunity to drive, as she sometimes does on her way home from the library, to the university, past the engineering building where her husband once worked. She will miss the country in which she had grown to know and love her husband. Though his ashes have been scattered into the Ganges, it is here in this house and in this town, that he will continue to dwell into her mind....”

Great film. Go see it!

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I'll take the Calphalon Indian-Wok

When my wife and I were trying to decide on new pots and pans last year, it was kind of hard to pick the right set. Not only were we confused by the all-clad versus the myriad types of calphalon sets, we wanted to get some nice “crockery” that would be good for cooking Indian food. Outside of the handy prestige pressure-cooker that I am slowly learning how to use, we couldn’t find any real options for fancy-shmancy cooking pots-and-pans specifically for Indian food. So imagine my surprise when I was perusing the most recent Williams-Sonoma catalog and found a whole section dedicated to Indian spices, Indian food-specific pots and pans, and Williams-Sonoma Kitchen recipes for a variety of different indian food items, including, samosas, chapatis, and even kheer (Indian rice pudding). Sure, my mom would kill me if she knew I entertained the notion of buying a 9 ounce, $39 set of spices, or a $13 dollar simmer sauce, but I appreciate that Le Creuset is selling a tava griddle, and that Cuisinart is uping the ante in the pressure cooker game. I must admit though, I am a bit confused by the Calphalon One Indian Wok (Wok, India?). My initial thought was that maybe it would be perfect for cooking tasty Indian-Chinese food like my favorite gobi manchurian, but the description in the catalog cleared it up:

“Based on the karahi, the traditional Indian wok commonly used for simmering curries and stews, stir-frying and deep-frying, this infused-anodized wok is ideal for recreating the favorite dishes you enjoy at Indian restaurants. Its interior sears and browns perfectly and develops the rich caramelized flavor essential for creating delicious pan sauces. Adapted from the karahi's customary round bottom, this wok's flat bottom makes it easy to use on Western stoves. Two beautifully shaped loop handles – inspired by graceful scrollwork on Indian architecture – allow you to carry the oven-safe pan to the table for serving in authentic Indian style.” (link)

Look at those loop handles, clearly inspired by the graceful scrollwork on Indian architecture. I can hardly control myself. And who among us knew that serving desi khana in a Calphalon-One branded Indian-Wok at the table was authentic Indian style? I for one had no idea. Sarcasm aside, I do think it is pretty cool that some of the high-end cookware companies are starting to make Indian items, although I doubt desi-America is the target audience. As appealing as the Williams-Sonoma catalog offerings are, I don’t know that I will be purchasing this cookware anytime soon, but I would love to know what those of you who have some of these products think of them. I do however plan on trying the samosa recipe soon and will definitely report back. If any of you happen to try any of the recipes, please relay your experiences in the comments section.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Burger Raja

While growing up my mom would do ravivar, which translates into Sunday in Gujarati. This was a tradition passed down to her from her mother, and basically every Sunday my mom would only eat once during the day. When I was a kid, it sucked for Sunday lunch because it meant eating a full-on Gujarati feast, when all I really want to eat was a grilled cheese and some bugles. Things looked up for dinner though, when my sister and I were allowed to choose our poisons. This often led to a visit to Burger King for a Veggie Whopper and onion rings. The Veggie Whopper, for those of you that haven’t had the pleasure of having it is different than the BK Veggie which was only recently added to the menu, and is essentially Burger King’s signature Whopper without the meat patty. As ridiculous as it may sound, it was one of my favorite foods order. I know that for most vegetarians, a fast food burger joint doesn’t quite fit the bill as an ideal place to grab a bite, but my sister and I loved Burger King. And that Burger King presented some semblance of a vegetarian option set it apart from its competition. While I was always on the fence about allying myself strictly to Burger King or McDonalds - you never know when you will crave a McFlurry - when the news came out a few year’s back that McDonalds had been deceiving its vegetarian customers by incorporating that unnecessary beef tallow ingredient into its french fries, I moved completely into the Burger King camp.

So I was glad when I saw the news that fast food eaters in India would soon be getting a choice in where they can hang out and munch on American style burgers and fries. From this story in the Economic Times, it seems Burger King will soon be joining the burger wars in India as it begins to scout out locations and business partners with which to start its joint burger venture in India. And with its opening,

Burger King is likely to shake McDonald’s monopoly in India by launching its own brand of burger restaurants. The company, best known for its price war with Big Mac in the US, has mandated Kotak Mahindra to scout for a partner in what is a growth market for global fast food companies. Industry sources feel that even though McDonald’s is firmly established in metros like Delhi and Mumbai, Burger King’s entry is likely to start a burger war of sorts. Innovation in product offerings and location of outlets would play a crucial role in drawing customers in the long run. In the short term, McDonald’s would lose some customers to Burger King out of the sheer curiosity factor. However, this would happen only if both are located in the same catchment area,” said an industry source.

Now while I refuse to eat at McDonalds in the States, one of my favorite ways to check out local color when I travel is to visit McDonalds and similar style fast food joints to see what they sell often unique to each individual country. I actually like the food items at the McDonalds in India since they offer vegetarian items are usually pretty good. When I was in Delhi in September, I became somewhat addicted to the Veg McCurry Pan, which at that time consisted of a pretty tasty shahi paneer dish on a pan-pizza like crust, which apparently has been replaced by a broccoli and mushroom dish (you can see the McDonalds India menu here). I am really curious to see what Burger King will come up with in India to comptete with that. In addition to a chili version of the Veggie Whopper (maybe with a splash of Haldi?), I would love to see a six pack of paneer tikka nuggets with various chutney dipping sauces on the menu.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Like many desis, I love me some deals. I know I am playing into stereotypes here, especially because I am Gujarati, but come on EVERYONE likes good deals. The enjoyment for me isn’t just finding a good deal, but the whole process: it is the hunt, the chase, and the glory in opening the mail and finding that rebate check that you thought might not ever come. Suffice it to say, I spend a good percentage of my time on the internets perusing some favorite deal sites.

But while I like finding good deals, one of my pet peeves is really poor customer service and the feeling that I have been taken advantage of. So when I was visiting one of my new favorite deal/consumer rights blogs, The Consumerist, (part of the Gawker family of blogs) I was a bit dismayed to hear the tale of our desi brethren, Manesh, who reported on his parent’s really poor experience on United Airlines.

Manesh's parents flew from Omaha, Nebraska to Colombo,Sri Lanka, but at LAX, United Airlines (UAL) refused to honor their tickets, saying that they had not "been approved, authorized and authenticated." The family ended having to pay $2860 extra to complete their journey. Apparently, Sri Lankan Air Lines, a United code-share partner, could not find the reservation Manesh's parents made. Manesh wrote three letters of complaint to UAL and so far his parents have only received two $300 coupons in return. When Manesh scoffed at the sum, United wrote, "our policy does not permit us to respond with the generosity you had anticipated. (link)

It seems that instead of writing letters, which I am a big fan of, now when desis are wronged, we blog. So as a good South Asian, Manesh has started his own blog detailing his battle with United Airlines’ Customer service at His story is really messed up and I hope the airlines eventually do the right thing and refund the extra three grand his recently operated-on parents had to hand over to get home.

Big Brother Watches Bollywood

If anyone in Bollywood needs a big brother to watch over her, one of my first guesses would be item-number girl extraordinaire, Shilpa Shetty. And lucky for her (and for us too), Big Brother will be watching her, and by Big Brother, I am referring to the UK television show's ongoing celebrity version (thanks Jai).

The BBC reports yesterday that Ms. Shetty (31) was the sixth of eleven stars to enter the Big Brother house, wearing a pink sari. Because Shetty, who has appeared in over 30 Bollywood films, is an unmarried Indian female, attractive, and over the age of 30, it appears that they are going to focus on her love-life (you know, being single, desi, and over 30, the horror, the horror).

The film icon will reportedly have a dinner date with another housemate, in which she will be encouraged to flirt and reports say Ms Shetty - often the subject of marriage speculation - will dine at a later stage in the show with the housemate she finds the most attractive. Inevitably, Indian coverage of the show will focus on romance in Shilpa Shetty's life."

But it isn’t likely that any shaadi will result from the show. When responding to a love-life related query from one newspaper in the run-up to the show, Shetty kept it fashionably coy saying, "I shall marry but after three years. There is no-one in my life as of today. And, I am very happy living single, at present." (link)

Correspondents, like always, are saying that Shetty’s appearance on Big Brother is bound to be hugely controversial in India where many would question its standards of morality. Maybe so, but these correspondents must then have missed some of her more risque-scantily clad-and-in-the-rain dance numbers that Shilpa has participated. Morality, Shmorality, it is Big Brother, and by the look of things already, this season sounds like it is going to be interesting. I know I will be watching, and with Shilpa on, I bet many of the two million plus British Asians will be too. You can see videos of the show here, Shilpa's page here, and Shilpa big brother news here.