Being South Asian

South Asia is the name given to the region of the Indian subcontinent. It includes the countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, the Maldive Islands, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Culturally, if not geographically, Tibet is sometimes also considered part of South Asia.

What does “desi” mean? In Hindi the word “desh” means “country.”  “Desi” means “of or from my country.”  It can be either an affectionate term or a mild put-down, depending on who’s using it!

Amma? Appa? Mom? Dad? What do Indian-American kids call their parents?

A small sampler of South Asian narratives in North America
Turns out we’ve been here for a while. The first Asian writer to win the Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American children’s literaure was Dhan Gopal Mukerji, in 1928. Pooja Makhijani examines his legacy in this article in The Atlantic.
The first Asian American elected to congress, Dalip Singh Saund, was from India.
Fazlur Rahman Khan, the architect who designed the Sears Tower in Chicago, was born in Dhaka (now in Bangladesh).
The Barbour Scholarships for Oriental Women, endowed in 1917, brought young women from India to the University of Michigan beginning in 1929.
SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive, works to document the rich history of South Asians in the United States. Why does this matter? Just compare today’s anti-immigrant sentiments with the Asiatic Barred Zone of 1917.
The Archive of the South Asian Diaspora at UC Berkeley contains publications printed and distributed by the Gadar Party, a nationalist organization founded in 1913 by South Asian immigrants on the Pacific West coast of the United States and Canada.

Ancient literature

Stories for children were being told and written in the Indian subcontinent  in very ancient times.  The Panchatantra (loosely, five frames or five texts) was a collection of fables meant to wheedle two doltish princes into more kingly behavior.  Some people think its structure of story-within-story, with multiple narrators, influenced the Arabian Nights, and indirectly, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.  The Jataka Stories, tales of the Buddha’s lives, form another famous story collection.  Over time they have passed from religious teaching into popular literature.  We don’t know the authors of these early works.  In ancient times, painters, sculptors, and writers were supposed to serve their art (and their patrons) in humility, and so such work was often not signed.

Through the centuries, a strong tradition of visual art and oral story continued to grow in the region.  Under Muslim rule, it acquired influences from Persia and the Arabian world.  During Akbar’s time, in particular, something began to flourish that we today would term “multiculturalism.” The Hindu epic, the Ramayana, was translated into Persian, and illustrated (by imperial decree) by both Muslim and Hindu artists working together. A subimperial version of this kind of manuscript is in the collection of the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. With the emergence of new religions (e.g., Sikhism) and the arrival of successive immigrant groups (Parsis from Persia, Syrian Christians), and finally the coming of the colonial powers (the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the English) art and story acquired new elements while struggling to maintain old traditions.

During the colonial years under the British, while the histories of the two countries clashed and intertwined, new technologies changed the face of Europe, and children’s books began to acquire a place in publishing in England.  Naturally, characters and images from the subcontinent started to appear in stories for English children.  And so we have Kipling’s Jungle Book and Kim, and Helen Bannerman’s Little Black Sambo, books that are still being rehashed in endless versions.  Such stories were told from the outside in.  They were written by white people about brown people, and they were meant to be read by other white people.  The races were different and unequal, no matter if the writer’s intentions were benign.  It’s the way the world was.

And Now, in the 21st Century?

Today English has taken root in the subcontinent, flowering into a dazzling variety of accents, idioms, and expressions of regional genius. And now, after that really long gap since Dhan Gopal Mukerji’s Newbery, voices of the South Asian diaspora are now being expressed in literature for young readers around the world. Anjali Banerjee, Nidhi Chanani, Sheela Chari, Sayantani DasGuptaNarinder Dhami, Chitra DivakaruniJamila Gavin, Ronojoy Ghosh, Tanuja Desai HidierRukhsana Khan, Pooja Makhijani, Mitali PerkinsKashmira Sheth, Bali Rai, Padma Venkatraman: and that’s a growing list! There are enough of us doing this work now that it doesn’t feel lonely any more.

What of children’s publishing in India? A range of homegrown publishing houses are pushing the limits and experimenting with form and content.

Are American publishers up on all this? They’re getting there, although I’m still not ready to retire my common errors list. Not yet.