Google Plus / India Currents
Google Plus / India Currents

Whose currents?

Can an Indian American magazine speak for the larger Southasian diaspora?
Photo: Google Plus / India Currents
Photo: Google Plus / India Currents
(This article is part of our upcoming print quarterly 'Diaspora: Southasia Abroad' and is also featured in our web-exclusive series.)
In March 2012, eight years after its debut, Sepia Mutiny, the popular Southasian American blog, announced its retirement. The reason given was that the blog was simply no longer "able to keep up" in a changing sphere of corporatised (read better-funded) blogs as well as with the advent of privatised spaces for online debate, namely Facebook and Twitter. But the individual reflections of Sepia Mutiny's bloggers suggested that its closure was tied to a mounting sense of the inadequacy of Southasian identity as an organising category for the content of an American media outlet. Contributor Amardeep Singh wrote, "South Asian America is a big enough, and mainstream enough, world that it does seem a little forced to presume it all goes together anymore." Abhi, another contributor, offered this reflection: "I also truly feel that the mission of Sepia Mutiny is complete… Back in 2004 there was very little brown representation in the media and very little 'voice' representing us. There was not a single loud speaker for the South Asian American community. Now there is quite a bit more and brown is everywhere. There seems much less need for a 'Mutiny' given our strides."
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Despite its Subcontinental rubric, Sepia Mutiny was responding in part to the inauguration of country-focused blogs like the New York Times' 'India Ink', which debuted in September 2011 (the blog was folded into the Times' world section in June 2014), and the Wall Street Journal's 'India Real Time', which continues to take "the daily pulse of the world's largest democracy". These mainstream outlets had begun to encroach on Sepia Mutiny's territory: the role of curating and commenting on all things Southasian, or desi, in American politics and culture, from the election of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, to the need for bone marrow donors within the Southasian community, to the reductive representations of non-white Americans in the public sphere.
Of course, this was never just Sepia Mutiny's territory. A wide range of English-language, Southasian American print publications had been offering similar content since at least 1970, when New York-based immigrant Gopal Raju founded India Abroad. But these earlier print outlets – including India-West and Pakistan Link – had national frames of reference, a tendency repeated by the blogs in the Times and the Wall Street Journal. India Ink's content extended from "the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi to the boardrooms of Silicon Valley", but didn't officially reach across the border to Bangladesh or south to Sri Lanka, never mind their diasporas. The strides Sepia Mutiny had discerned in mainstream discourse – the "brown everywhere" that made their representation of Southasian American culture seem less urgent – might have just meant the appearance of more Indian faces, standing in for the Subcontinental norm.
Less than a year after the close of Sepia Mutiny, a group of former contributors launched another Southasia-focused blog, The Aerogram, as a corrective to what they called the continuing "boxed up" representation of desis that was not reflective of the "broader South Asian community". Their early posts discussed the work of a range of artists, from Pakistani British novelist Nadeem Aslam and Sikh American poet Preeti Kaur, to photographs of India by Nigerian American writer Teju Cole. I had two reactions to this blog when it debuted. First, a raised eyebrow: wasn't this just Sepia Mutiny by another name, with contributions from the same writers who had a year ago declared "mission complete"? And second, annoyance: didn't the magazine I regularly write for and once edited, India Currents, already cover this broad swath of Southasian subjects? Hadn't we been doing this for years? Why hadn't these bloggers taken note?
America's 'Indias'
Fifteen years ago, I had my first article published in India Currents magazine. I was fourteen years old, the California-born daughter of Indian immigrants to the United States, and already cultivating an oppositional sensibility. My article about ethnic politics in my suburban hometown had a decidedly strident title: "Why I Never Became a Girl Scout." I remember the feeling of first publication well: the thrill of an inked byline, the simultaneous fear of and hope for recognition, and an urge to say more.

India Currents was "where you found the Indian travel agent who could get good air fares to India. Or the dentist who already knew that the turmeric in Indian food stained your teeth."

That youthful desire to be heard tapped into a broader, communal aspiration that long predated my arrival (literal and writerly) on the scene of Indian American journalism. India Abroad was arguably the pioneer; over four decades, its mandate has expanded from disseminating news from India, to addressing the nuances of life in the United States, although its purchase by Mumbai-based Rediff.com in 2001 complicates its claim to diasporic location. Over the years, a number of other publications have also served the needs of a growing, bicoastal Indian American community, including India-West, a weekly newspaper founded in California in 1975, Little India, founded in 1991 on the East Coast, and Khabar, founded in 1992 in the southern United States.
India Currents was launched in 1987 by a prominent gay couple in San Francisco Bay Area's Southasian community, Arvind Kumar and Ashok Jethanandani. Their goal was a publication that could be at once international in scope and absolutely local; it would provincialise the nation from which it derived its name, demonstrating to American readers that, as Kumar recently told me, "India's not this foreign concept; India is in the neighborhood." Kumar envisioned a publication that would not simply deliver the news – as subscription-based newspapers like India Abroad were doing – but could also serve as a reliable collective resource. The magazine would be a repository of information to be shared and circulated, and a platform through which event organisers, spiritual groups and arts institutions could connect with and constitute potential audiences. He hoped that India Currents would make its way from mailbox to coffee table, table to couch, and end up in a living-room magazine rack, as opposed to the garbage bin.
When I was growing up, India Currents was a mainstay of desi homes in our area. You could have it delivered to your house for free, or pick up a copy at the Indian grocery store. In longtime contributor Sandip Roy's description, India Currents was "where you found the Indian travel agent who could get good air fares to India. Or the dentist who already knew that the turmeric in Indian food stained your teeth." Such pedestrian concerns would earn the magazine its place in, as literary scholar Sandhya Shukla has written, the ranks of the "middlebrow", but it also made it relevant to a broad range of readers, from grandparents visiting from India to the children of immigrants, like me. In the past three decades, it has gone from an eight-page newsletter to a 132-page magazine printed in three editions across the United States.
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