Briefs/ Six Win Guggenheim Fellowship/ The American Dream’s Dark Side/ Book Matters.
WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, & WHY
Sanjena Sathian won the 2023 AWC Townsend Prize for Fiction for Gold Diggers, her lauded debut novel. There were 10 finalists for this biannual award, now sponsored by the Atlanta Writers Club. Sathian, an Atlanta native and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the first South Asian to win this award. She teaches fiction at Emory, and is working with Mindy Kaling’s production company on a TV adaptation of her novel.
C.R. Rao, aged 102, is still receiving awards. Famous for his 1945 paper, he demonstrated three fundamental results that opened the way for the modern field of statistics and offered tools that are widely used in science. Rao, who earned his PhD and DSc from Cambridge, had a distinguished career in India, Britain, and the U.S. He won the 2023 International Prize in Statistics, widely seen as the Nobel Prize in the field.
Ajay Banga is expected to take over this year as the next president of the World Bank. For a decade, starting in 2010, he was the CEO of Mastercard, the world’s secondlargest payment processing corporation. The Indian-born Banga, an alumnus of St. Stephen’s College and IIM Ahmedabad, currently serves as vice chair at General Atlantic. President Biden nominated Banga, a U.S. citizen, for the World Bank position.
Junpeet Singh of MIT is one of the five Indian Americans who will be heading to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. The others are Veer Sangha of Yale, Shreyas Hallus of Duke, Amisha Kambath of Harvard, and Atharv Gupta of Georgetown. Like the others, Singh, who’s also a cadet Lt. Col. in the U.S. Air Force ROTC program, will pursue a master’s at Oxford. This year, 32 Rhodes Scholars were picked from a pool of 840 applicants.
Madhur Jaffrey received the James Beard Lifetime Achievement Award 2023, becoming the first person of South Asian descent to win this honor. The renowned cookbook author and actress, who turns 90 this year, is no stranger to awards, with India’s Padma Bhushan and Britain’s CBE being two other examples. Her An Invitation to Indian Cooking was inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s Cookbook Hall of Fame.
Adil Najam takes over as the new president of World Wildlife Fund International. A widely recognized policy expert and academician, he served as Boston University’s founding dean of Pardee School of Global Studies. The author of over 100 research papers and book chapters, he focuses on issues related to the environment and conservation, especially in the Global South. He has won Pakistan’s Sitara-i-Imitiaz (Star of Excellence).
Hari Balakrishnan, a professor of computer science and AI at MIT, won the 2023 Marconi Prize. Worth $100,000, it’s called the Nobel Prize for Communications. A winner of the Infosys Prize as well, he was honored for his contributions to wired and wireless networking, mobile sensing, and distributed systems. An alumnus of IIT Madras and UC Berkeley, where he earned his PhD, he founded Cambridge Mobile Telematics.
Amit Kshatriya, as the first head of NASA’s new Moon to Mars Program Office in Washington, D.C., is involved in planning and implementing missions that will take humans on groundbreaking space journeys. Educated at the California Institute of Technology and UT Austin, Kshatriya was previously NASA’s acting deputy associate administrator for the Common Exploration Systems Development Division.
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SIX WIN GUGGENHEIM FELLOWSHIP
There are actually 171 Guggenheim Fellows this year, picked from close to 2500 applicants. Representing a range of disciplines, the 2023 fellows include six Indian Americans, one of whom is from the Southeast. Leela Prasad is a professor at Duke, where she teaches religious studies, and gender, sexuality & feminist studies. The current VP of the American Academy of Religion, she’ll become its next president in 2024. She earned her PhD in folklore from the University of Pennsylvania. Prineha Narang, who won the Canadian Governor General’s Medal for academic achievements, studied physics at the University of Toronto before going on to earn her PhD in applied physics from Harvard. A professor of physical sciences at UCLA, Narang focuses on the dynamics of nonequilibrium states in nature. Venkatesan Guruswami, who earned his PhD from MIT, is a math professor at UC Berkeley and a computer scientist at the Simons Institute.
Anima Anandkumar, who teaches computer science at the California Institute of Technology, is a director of Machine Learning Research at NVIDIA. An alum of IIT Madras (like Guruswami), she earned her PhD from Cornell. Anandkumar focuses on large-scale machine learning, non-convex optimization, and high-dimensional statistics. Then there is Projit Bihari Mukharji, a history and sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in subaltern studies and issues of marginality and marginalization. After doing graduate studies at JNU in Delhi, he earned his PhD from the University of London. Finally, Abraham Verghese, an acclaimed author who won the National Humanities Medal and the Heinz Award, is a professor of medicine and a vice chair at Stanford University. He studied in Ethiopia, India, and the U.S.
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THE AMERICAN DREAM’S DARK SIDE
A Guggenheim or MacArthur fellowship is a marker of the American dream. But there’s another side—call it the American nightmare—which can often be the result of greed, criminality, hubris, immorality, even stupidity. Outcome Health, a technology company based in Chicago, is a recent example. It could now be called Outcome Fraud. The U.S. Justice Department accused cofounders Rishi Shah and Shraddha Agarwal of obtaining a billion dollars by duping clients, investors, and lenders. Along with Brad Purdy, the former chief operating officer, they faced multiple counts of wire, bank, and mail fraud. Following a trial, Shah was convicted on 19 criminal counts, Agarwal on 15 counts, and Purdy on 13 counts. They could end up spending years, if not decades, in prison. Then there’s Nikesh Ajay Patel, who pleaded guilty to committing $20 million in fraud while on federal pre-trial release for another crime. The earlier charge involved a $179 million fraud scheme. There are many other examples.
Take Kumar Arun Neppalli, a transportation engineer in North Carolina. He defrauded the Indian community in a real estate Ponzi scheme. Accused of 17 counts of wire fraud and six counts of conducting transactions in criminally derived property, he could face up to two decades in prison. Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a young Indian American was sentenced to 51 months in prison for conspiring to commit mail and wire fraud by targeting the elderly through a call center. There’s also the case involving an Indian American reality TV star, Jennifer Shah, who was sentenced to 78 months in prison for wire fraud. Indian Americans have made an impression in this country—but their story of success is far from the whole story.
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The Covenant of Water (Grove Press), by Abraham Verghese. Widely praised for his two nonfiction books and a bestselling novel, Cutting for Stone, which is being adapted for film, Verghese is back with a hefty new novel that’s already garnering accolades. As before, medical history and procedures are woven into the tale, which is set in Kerala and covers the first eight decades of the 20th century. Just as Tagore did in Bengal, Verghese has found inspiration in his native state’s riverine life. He’s a professor and vice chair at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. In this saga, three generations of a Christian family have to deal with a recurring tragedy—at least one individual in each generation drowns. Described as Dickensian in scope (over 700 pages), the novel “illuminates colonial history, challenges castes and classism, and exposes injustices,” notes Terry Hong in a starred review.
My Father’s Brain (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), by Sandeep Jauhar. In his latest book, Dr. Jauhar writes not only as a physician trying to comprehend a shattering disease—Alzheimer’s—but also as a concerned son who sees his father succumb to it. Once again, Jauhar, whose other books include Intern, Doctored, and Heart, undertakes a medical exploration through the lens of a deeply personal story. His father, a renowned scientist and geneticist, began his descent into dementia in his 70s. A fifth of the adult population in the U.S. will experience cognitive difficulties as they age, and a tenth of those over 65—about six million—have Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia. This number is expected to double in three decades. Readers will read about the physical, financial, and emotional toll, and they’ll learn about changes in caregiving, which includes a willingness to “accept” the patient’s beliefs. The book is about “how dementia complicates our understanding of what it means to be a person,” he notes.
The Vibrant Years (Mindy’s Book Studio), by Sonali Dev. Having already written a few well-received novels inspired by Bollywood and Jane Austen, Dev was looking for greater commercial success. That explains her attraction to Mindy’s Book Studio, an Amazon imprint launched last year to showcase stories by women of color. Dev’s novel is one of the two inaugural titles released by the imprint, and it’s been optioned by Amazon Studios. It centers on Bindu, her former daughter-in-law, and Bindu’s granddaughter, a tech entrepreneur who’s trying to revive her fortunes. The 65-year-old Bindu has inherited a million dollars in a tale about “vibrant women navigating relationships, friendships, mishaps, and ambitions,” according to Ms. magazine. When Bindu buys a condo in Florida, her son’s ex-wife has to find a way to move on. But the two women find a common purpose as they set out to help Bindu’s granddaughter in her faltering professional and personal life.
Darkness: Stories (Nonpareil Books), by Bharati Mukherjee. The late author, who died in 2017, won the National Book Critics Circle Award 35 years ago, becoming perhaps the first Indian American fiction writer to gain prominence. But Mukherjee, who saw herself as an American author, would have bristled at the “Indian American” label. The award was for a collection titled The Middleman and Other Stories. Darkness, reissued this year for a new generation, is an earlier collection of a dozen stories that probe the lives of immigrants as they reconcile their newly formed American identities with their inherited Indian identities. In a 1992 introduction, Mukherjee makes a startling confession: “Most of these stories were written in a three-month burst of energy in the spring of 1984, in Atlanta, Georgia, while I was writer-in-residence at Emory University.” Only four stories from this collection, called “a study in excellence” by New York Journal of Books, had been written in Canada.
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