Monika’s Musings: Desis to the fore…

Clockwise from top-left: Priyamvada Natarajan, Tanni Mukhopadhyay, Hesh Sarmalkar and Aseem Chhabra

As I get further entrenched into my life here, it is inevitable I will meet other desis. Each time I meet a desi who has done well for himself or herself, I feel a surge of pride. It is not easy moving to a strange land and starting life anew. People with talent and ambition are sure to leave their mark so regardless of location that gaining name and fame is an achievement. America is the land of opportunities with endless possibilities from the get go. Given all this, Indian Americans doing well still makes me proud.

In the course of a New York week, I just happened to meet a few of these desis. Given my arty leanings, Brooklyn’s Secret Science Club was an unlikely venue for one of these meetings. Science is farthest from my mind and I would not normally be found lurking in the vicinity of a club dedicated to science nerds. However, a desi friend of mine was giving the talk so I went out of curiosity and loyalty. Curiosity because the friend is an astrophysicist and the origin of the world has always fascinated me. Loyalty because I did not expect too many people to attend and wanted to show my support. The scheduled time was 7.30 so true to the German influence in me, I reached promptly at 7.30, only to find two long lines. One for people with bands that stretched out for a mile and the other for the likes of me, non-band holders, that hugged the side of the building and disappeared. Positive this was not The Secret Science Club, I checked and was shocked to discover this indeed was the line to hear Priyamvada Natarajan’s discourse on black holes and dark matter. I was stunned and quite sure I would miss her talk given the static condition of the line. My misgivings were thankfully put to rest and I did manage to get in and despite the packed room, also found a perch to rest my aching back. It pays to be single at times because I always manage to get that one lonely seat be it in a movie theatre or a lecture like this one. And what a talk it was. Priyamvada is articulate, witty, has a great sense of humour, holds audience attention and certainly is passionate about her field. I was gobsmacked. The packed room, the applause, I do not know how I expected the evening to go but this was a revelation. I can just imagine the popularity with her students at Yale. She has recently published a book on her work and there was a long line of people eager to get her to sign their copies. Pure desi thrill moment. Through her I met a few other interesting Indians who have risen in their chosen careers and now hold enviable positions. Shampa Chanda as commissioner in the NYC city planning department is an authority on zoning. I also met Tani Mukhopadhyay who is using her skills in the field of social development as an Asia-Pacific specialist for the UN.

Another desi, Aseem Chhabra, released a book he has written on Bollywood’s popular star, Shashi Kapoor. I could not attend the event but have met Aseem a few times. As director of the New York India Film Festival, he has done much to popularise Indian cinema in New York. His freelance columns are well-received by the diaspora and he is a well-known commentator on social and cultural issues.

The week rounded up with meeting Hesh Sarmalkar, director of events and visitor services at The Asia Society. Oddly enough he was introduced to me by Pune 365 columnist, Nidhi Taparia’s husband Ashutosh. Apart from his day job, Hesh is an actor and producer. Not surprising given that he comes from the illustrious V Shantaram family. In fact, Hesh first came to the US to study and is a trained medical professional. But his inherent talent could not be held back and eventually he found his calling, immersing himself in the creative field.
There are so many other stories of desis who have excelled in the US such as Nisha Desai Biswal who has an important role in the Obama administration and Desh Deshpande who made his millions with his company. Sycamore Networks and now gives back to India through his Deshpande foundation.

But not far behind there is another dialogue starting up: desis who decided to leave the shores of the US and venture into unexplored territory in India. There are many well-known stories of not-for-profits giving back to India such as Akshay Patra. But two couples decided to go one step further and moved back lock stock and barrel. Deval Sanghvi and Neera Nundy uprooted their successful corporate careers and their young children to take forward the mantle of bringing about social change by ensuring efficient social impact investing. Their organisation, Dasra, meaning enlightened giving, has gained a reputation of transparency, competence and efficiency. Another couple, Raj Gilda and his wife Sunanda Mane, gave up their US careers to start Lend a Hand India. This organisation works to provide skills, education and vocational training to the underprivileged. Their efforts gave two young girls from remote villages, the chance to come to the US and study at a university. Both these not-for-profits are based in India but maintain a US focus for fund generation and awareness creation.

I am simply scratching the tip of the iceberg, there are many more in their ilk. Stay posted for more such folks.

Monique Patel Monika PatelMonika Patel – Monique to her friends – is now a permanent resident of New York City, but her heart is permanently in Pune, her home for 28 years. Monika’s Musings appears every Friday on Pune365.

Monique Patel

Monique Patel

Monika Patel – Monique to her friends – is now a permanent resident of New York City, but her heart is permanently in Pune, her home for 28 years.
Monique Patel

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