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?

South Asians in North America 
Most people think the first South Asian migrations to the United States were in the 1960s. Not so. From the early 1900s on, men from the Punjab came to Canada and the United States. Many settled in California’s Imperial Valley and married women of Mexican descent.  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).  And a writer from India’s Bengal province, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, won the coveted Newbery Medal for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children in 1928. Recently, the untold saga of people from the Indian subcontinent, who enlisted and served in the US Civil War of the 1860s, has been uncovered through the National Archives and the newly established database, Civil War Soldiers System (CWSS) in Washington, D.C. See Indolink for a fascinating article by Francis Assisi and Elizabeth Pothen. And who knew that the Virginia Gazette, in August 1768, published a notice about a runaway slave, an “East-India Indian”?
SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archive, works to document the rich history of South Asians in the United States.

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 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 how benign the writer’s intentions.  It’s the way the world was.

Today English has taken root in the subcontinent, flowering into a dazzling variety of accents, idioms, and expressions of regional genius.  India now boasts a  growing children’s publishing industry.  Picture books, first published in the 60s, draw from rich visual and story elements of the past, and the realities of the present.  And slowly, all over the world, voices of the South Asian diaspora are finally being expressed. Anjali Banerjee, Sheela Chari, Narinder Dhami, Jamila Gavin, Rachna Gilmore, Rukhsana Khan, Pooja Makhijani, Kashmira Sheth, Padma Venkatraman–what an amazing community of writers! Others well known in the adult literary market, like Chitra Divakaruni and Shyam Selvadurai, have also turned their hands to writing for young readers. I can’t wait for a time when the immigrant story is not about arrival and adaptation but something else altogether. Or when genre fiction–mystery, humor, sci-fi–just happens to have a hero of South Asian descent.

What of children’s publishing in India? From the editors at Tulika Books, a reflection on what diversity means.

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.