Briefs/ Religious Unfreedom in India/ Trains that Cross Borders/ Book Matters.
WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, & WHY
Meherwan Irani, the owner of two Chai Pani restaurants (in Decatur, GA, and Asheville, NC), is no stranger to Khabar readers. Impressively, his Indian street foodthemed restaurant in Asheville has won the 2022 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant. Previously, Irani received five James Beard nominations. Also: Chintan Pandya, chef at Dhamaka in Manhattan, was named Best Chef in New York state.
Radha Iyengar Plumb, a security expert who is currently chief of staff to the deputy secretary of defense, has been nominated as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. Plumb, who has worked at Google and Facebook, was a health policy scholar at Harvard and an assistant professor at London School of Economics. A graduate of MIT, she earned her PhD in economics from Princeton.
Harini Logan, 14, beat Vikram Raju in the Scripps National Spelling Bee’s first-ever lightning-round tiebreaker to become the 2022 champion. Harini managed to spell 22 words correctly in 90 seconds to edge out Vikram and win the $50,000 prize. She and Vihan Sibal, who came in third, are from Texas, while runner-up Vikram, who gets $25,000, is from Colorado. There were 234 participants at the start of this year’s contest.
Sowmyanarayan Sampath is the new CEO of the business arm of Verizon. Sampath, who joined the U.S. telecom company in 2014, also takes over as executive VP and CEO of Verizon Business. Having served as chief product officer for the Consumer and Enterprise businesses, he was chief revenue officer of Verizon Business most recently. With over 120 million subscribers, Verizon is the nation’s largest wireless carrier.
Shaunak Sen is the director of All That Breathes, which was honored with the 2022 L’Oeil d’Or (Golden Eye Award) for the best documentary at the 75th Cannes Film Festival. The film, recently acquired by HBO, is set in India’s sprawling capital, where brothers Nadeem and Saud take on the challenge of protecting threatened migratory black kites against a backdrop of worsening air pollution and rising communal tensions.
Sayantani DasGupta is another physician who has turned to writing, and she’s also another author who has found inspiration in Jane Austen’s ever-popular Pride and Prejudice. In Debating Darcy (Scholastic), her YA debut novel, ace debater Leela Bose can’t wait to take on the preppy Firoze Darcy, who seems insufferable. The setting is a battlefield, also known as high school, and they both seem ready for combat.
Arati Prabhakar, who had been chosen by Obama to lead DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), is now President Biden’s pick as his science adviser. He has also nominated her as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which requires Senate confirmation. Born in India and raised in Texas, she earned an MS in engineering and a PhD in applied physics from Caltech.
Sudeep Reddy, who was a reporter and editor for a decade at The Wall Street Journal, is now senior managing editor at Politico, where he oversees policy coverage and E & E News, now owned by Politico. Previously, he served as the news outlet’s managing editor and Playbook editor. A graduate of Brown University, Reddy got his start in journalism in Texas, where he was a correspondent for The Dallas Morning News.
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RELIGIOUS UNFREEDOM IN INDIA
For the second year in a row, India has joined a list of nations where religious freedom is of “particular concern,” according to a report released by the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). India’s government disputed the findings, unsurprisingly, but several Indian religious minority groups welcomed the report, which paints a damning picture of Hindu majoritarianism under the BJP. Muslims were the most adversely affected community. “The government continued to systemize its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities,” the report notes. India’s external ministry spokesperson responded, “In our discussions with the U.S., we have regularly highlighted issues of concern there, including racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence.”
So, which other nations are on this unenviable list? They’re Pakistan, Afghanistan, Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan,and Vietnam. The rise of Hindu nationalism may prompt curiosity about India’s demographic breakdown by religion. The 2021 census got postponed because of the pandemic, but there are some projections from the Pew Research Center. By 2050, Hindus are expected to be about 77 percent of the population, with Muslims forming the largest minority at 18 percent. Other religious groups, which are much smaller, are projected to shrink as a share of the population. What about now? According to the 2011 census, Hindus form 79.8 percent of the population, followed by Muslims (14.2 percent), Christians (2.3 percent), Sikhs (1.7 percent), Buddhists (0.7 percent), and Jains (0.4 percent).
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TRAINS THAT CROSS BORDERS
India transports the most long-distance passengers by rail, with a few trains even crossing national borders. On June 1, 2022, a fully air-conditioned train called Mitali Express began its biweekly run between New Jalpaiguri in India and Dhaka in Bangladesh. This is the third train between the two nations, the others being Bandhan Express and Maitree Express. Mitali takes under 10 hours to cover 413 miles, spending the majority of time in Bangladesh, where it travels 370 miles. While the India-Bangladesh rail service has resumed, following a hiatus during the pandemic, there’s been no such luck for train travel between India and Pakistan. Samjhauta Express made its inaugural trip between Old Delhi and Lahore in 1976. But in 2019, after India revoked Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan suspended the train service indefinitely.
Also this year, the first broad gauge rail link was introduced between India and Nepal. Earlier, there had been a meter gauge rail service between Jayanagar (Bihar, India) and Janakpur (Nepal), but it was discontinued in 2014. Initially introduced by the British in 1932, the meter gauge train had traveled between Jayanagar and Bijalpura in Nepal for many years. Now there are plans to extend the broad gauge link to Bijalpura, which is still a long way from Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital. Given the rough terrain, building the rail link isn’t easy. The completed line will have 15 large and 127 small bridges, though the distance is only about 25 miles. What about traveling to Myanmar? Only air and road links are available at present, but this year, Indian Railways approved the construction of a 70-mile rail link between Imphal and Moreh.
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Future Library: Contemporary Indian Writing (Red Hen Press), edited by Anjum Hasan and Sampurna Chattarji. While big publishers get much of the attention, small presses deserve a lot of credit for highlighting the work of authors whose roots lie outside the West. Here’s an example. Eunice de Souza, Manohar Shetty, Meena Kandaswamy, Tabish Khair, Nabina Das, Tsering Dhompa, Tishani Doshi, Usha Akella, Amit Majmudar, Ranjit Hoskote, Allan Sealy, Aruni Kashyap, Jeet Thayil, Palash Krishna Mehrotra, Srikanth Reddy, Pramila Venkateswaran, Rajiv Mohabir, and Sejal Shah are among the 100 writers included in this wonderful anthology. The bulk of the writing—poetry, flash fiction, poetic vignette, prose—is in English, but there are also translations from several Indian languages. “Realism, in different registers and put to varied uses, is the preferred mode for most Indian writers of fiction, while the poetry ranges from a quietly observational lyric style to the epic mode as well as an adventurous turning back on the elements underlying itself—language, location, self, consciousness,” writes Hasan.
The 86th Village (Agora Books), by Sena Desai Gopal. In India, a government-built dam across the Krishna river poses a threat to Nilgi’s residents. Fearing displacement as a result flooding and mining, the villagers—led by Raj Nayak—demand compensation for the loss of property and livelihood. An orphan girl named Reshma adds mystery to a complicated tale involving corruption, betrayal, and the struggle for justice. In the 1960s, when the Arjuna dam was built across the Krishna river to irrigate an arid region, the backwater reservoir submerged dozens of villages. “The only opposition, which was quickly silenced, came from the residents of the 86 villages who knew the government would not compensate them fairly for their houses and lands that would submerge,” notes Gopal, a Boston-based journalist who has family links to the region.
TJ Powar Has Something to Prove (Viking), by Jesmeen Kaur Deo. Getting ostracized is an unfortunate but not uncommon experience in school. And being different, or having different beliefs, can have consequences for adolescents. In her debut novel for young readers, Kaur Deo explores body image and body shaming. While TJ Powar is smart and popular, her cousin Simran does the opposite of what’s expected of her as a teen. Refusing to conform to idealized standards of beauty, she lets hair grow—even in the wrong places, as some point out. The fuzz on Simran’s face doesn’t bother her, but the mockery bothers Powar. An accomplished debater who doesn’t neglect her speech or her looks, Powar finds a new cause as she cancels her styling and waxing appointments to stand in solidarity with Simran. “Filled with heart, humor, and a swoon-worthy academic rivals-to-lovers romance of my dreams, Jesmeen Kaur Deo proves self-worth isn’t up for debate,” notes author Jessica Parra.
At Least You Have Your Health (Berkley), by Madi Sinha. A practicing doctor who moonlights as a novelist, Sinha also wrote The White Coat Diaries. In the new novel, Maya Rao, a gynecologist with three kids, is successful but unsatisfied with her job. Feeling constricted by the hospital culture, she’s frustrated that she cannot educate her patients to make better decisions about their health. An opportunity comes in the form of Amelia, a wealthy woman she meets at the snooty private school their daughters attend. Maya joins Eunoia, Amelia’s concierge medical clinic, and thinks she has found a new way to help women. But she’s in for a rude shock. The moneyed folk who flock to the clinic in search of alternative therapies makes Maya realize that the task of educating patients on medical issues is bigger than she anticipated. It’s “a cautionary tale about the Goop-ification of women’s healthcare and education,” according to SheReads.
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