SAN JOSE, Calif. – Abundant accolades, a touch of nostalgia and a very young cow marked the 25th anniversary celebrations of India Currents, a magazine that, as its publisher, Vandana Kumar, said, “showcases the Indian American experience.”
Despite a number of ethnic and mainstream publications going under in recent years because of the recession, the glossy monthly has not only survived but “remains a viable business after 25 years,” noted Kumar proudly in her welcome address on the second day of the 3-day celebrations here at the Theater at San Pedro Square.
From an 8-page newsletter that was written, printed and all 5,000 copies of it hand-delivered by its publishers – Arvind Kumar, Ashok Jethanandani and Vandana Kumar – to restaurants and other businesses across the Bay Area in August 1987, the magazine today has a combined print run of 32,000 in its northern and southern California issues. Supported by advertisers, it continues to remain a free publication.
It fulfilled a “hunger to discover our roots,” observed Arvind Kumar who, like Jethanandani, had at the time only cut his teeth on publishing with the Trikone newsletter, a new publication for the South Asian gay and lesbian communities in the Bay Area. Both men were graduates of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in India, and recent immigrants to the United States. India-born and raised Vandana Kumar was a new mom of twin boys, who was trying to cut her teeth on motherhood.
Initially, the magazine focused on South Asian culture, and it was cover-to-cover reports and listings about dance, music and food, with an occasional feature thrown in.
“If an event was not listed in it, it was not going to happen,” said India’s Consul General in San Francisco N. Parthasarathi, the guest of honor on day 2 of the bash.
But before long, stories few Indian American publications would dare talk about – divorce, LGBT issues, domestic violence – began to grace its pages.
Under the former editorship of 20-something Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan, the magazine was infused with voices of the new generation.
To date, stories that have drawn the most reader engagement are “Don’t Call me Aunty,” “Shaadi.com,” “Desi by Marriage,” according to Vandana Kumar.
Former New America Media (NAM) editor Sandip Roy, as well as Bay Area commentator Sarita Sarvate, got their start as writers at the magazine, which raked in two awards at NAM’s first national awards in 2006 honoring ethnic media, noted NAM executive director Sandy Close, who was honored at the celebrations. Since then, the magazine has gone on to win more awards.
The highlight of the three-day celebrations was a play each day presented by the popular South Bay-based theater company, Naatak.
Titled “Death in San Francisco,” the satire centers around a Pacific Heights Indian American family whose patriarch suddenly dies at the age of 55, leaving behind a will requesting that he be cremated on the shore “with proper rites and ceremonies” exactly like he cremated his father in India 30 years ago.
As the body lies putrifying in the living room of their Pacific Heights home with a broken air conditioner, the family, joined by close friends, agonizes over how to fulfill his wishes, while at the same time complying with the city’s public health laws. And how, they wonder, would they get water from the sacred Ganga River to pour into the dead man’s mouth?
The bereaved wife adds yet another layer to an already complicated situation: If he’s going to be cremated in an open space, she says, then the family should ensure that a sacred cow is brought in before the body is taken out of the house so that it can help the soul’s peaceful transmigration.
True to his all-or-nothing style, Naatak director Surjit Saraf has a young cow brought on to the stage just moments before the body is carted away on a bier by four male family members.
The play, which was written by Saraf, with some input from India Currents, was a reflection of the magazine’s own mission: holding up a mirror to the rapidly changing Indian American diaspora that still struggles to maintain its cultural roots even as it tries to assimilate.
The magazine’s popularity and credibility have traveled far. The Washington, D.C.-based Smithsonian has invited India Currents to help launch the museum’s Indian American Heritage Project next year, an initiative to create an exhibition chronicling the story of immigrants from India and their descendants in America.
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