Home > Magazine > Desi World > Briefs/ When Dalits Embrace Their Identity/ Is an Ivy-Plus Degree Worth the Fuss?/ Book Matters.


Briefs/ When Dalits Embrace Their Identity/ Is an Ivy-Plus Degree Worth the Fuss?/ Book Matters.

Compiled/ Written by Murali Kamma Email Compiled/ Written by Murali Kamma
April 2024
Briefs/ When Dalits Embrace Their Identity/ Is an Ivy-Plus Degree Worth the Fuss?/ Book Matters.


Achyuta Rajaram, aged 17, won first place in this year’s Regeneron Science Talent Search. The high schooler from New Hampshire gets $250,000 for devising a method to discover which parts of a computer model that analyzes images are involved in decision-making. This could yield more effective algorithms. Other honorees included Aditi Avinash, who won the Seaborg Award, and Arnav Chakravarthy (ninth place).



Megan Suri is one of “Seven Rising Stars of Teen Vogue’s New Hollywood Class of 2024.” Known for her role as Aneesa in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, she also gained attention for landing a lead role in a horror movie. Titled It Lives Inside, the film directed by Bishal Dutta was released last year. Suri made her acting debut in the Hollywood romcom Valentine’s Day when she was 13. She also appeared in ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat.


Uma Amuluru is Boeing’s new chief human resources officer. Also an executive VP, she handles talent acquisition and planning, learning and development, compensation and benefits, labor and employee relations, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. A former top attorney in the Obama White House, Amuluru was the chief counsel at Boeing, an embattled aircraft manufacturing company that’s dealing with safety issues.




Ritu Narayan, a CNBC Changemaker, founded Zum, an AI-backed electric school bus service in California. Now valued at $1.3 billion, it’s spreading to other states as an app-based privatized transportation service that is, in some places, more reliable than traditional school bus service. A graduate of Stanford Business School and the Delhi Institute of Technology, Narayan previously worked at eBay and other companies.


Rumman Chowdhury is among four distinguished scientists who were chosen as U.S. Science Envoys in 2024. A data as well as social scientist, Chowdhury is the CEO of Humane Intelligence, a tech nonprofit involved in building and evaluating AI models. Also a Responsible AI Fellow at Harvard University, Chowdhury, who is Bangladeshi American, has been included in Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in AI.”



Amitav Ghosh, whose nonfiction work starting with The Great Derangement has highlighted the challenges of climate change—and is a clarion call to action—won this year’s Erasmus Prize. Worth 150,000 euros, it was awarded by the Netherlands-based Praemium Erasmiamum Foundation. Ghosh has, according to them, “delved deeply into the question of how to do justice to this existential threat that defies our imagination.”


Sridhar Ramaswamy takes over as the CEO of Snowflake, a cloud-based datawarehousing company. Based in Montana, it has over 6000 employees. Neeva, the AI-powered and ad-free search engine he cofounded, was acquired by Snowflake. Ramaswamy, who was at Google for 15 years, also worked at Bell Labs. Before doing his PhD in computer science at Brown, he earned his bachelor’s degree from IIT Madras.



Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, doesn’t see AI as a threat to his nonprofit tutoring service, and he’s not worried about cheating. In fact, he launched Khanmigo, a wide-ranging AI tutor. Besides spotting errors in the work of students, this AI teaching assistant highlights misconceptions in their comprehension and offers productive feedback. Khan Academy has over 160 million registered users in over 190 nations.


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DesiWorld_6_04_24.jpgPassing is a phenomenon that can help disadvantaged groups like Dalits avoid job and housing discrimination, not to mention social prejudice. But these days, the phenomenon that’s gaining attention is the embrace of Dalit identity. One example is Yashica Dutt, whose debut book is titled Coming Out As Dalit: A Memoir of Surviving India’s Caste System. It was published to acclaim in India a few years ago, and now Beacon Press has brought out an expanded edition in this country. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, Dutt has written on caste issues for leading publications. Other U.S.-based Dalit writers who have attracted interest in recent years include Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sujatha Gidla, a conductor on the New York Subway.

Then there is Isabel Wilkerson, the American journalist and author who drew parallels between the experiences of African Americans and Dalits in her bestselling Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Ava DuVernay’s film adaptation of the book is called Origin.

For the new edition, Dutt made no changes in her text, seeing it as a Dalit document rather than topical writing. However, she did add two chapters that talk about anti-caste progress in the U.S., especially California, a bellwether state. In 2022, California State University became the first American university system to ban caste discrimination. Dutt wasn’t planning to write this book, but that changed when she read a shocking, tragic news report from India. In 2016, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at Hyderabad University, committed suicide because of, as he noted in his letter, persistent caste-based persecution at the university. Dutt dedicates the book to her mother and to Rohith, “who lit a flame that made my silence impossible.”

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Not everybody is impressed by Ivy League colleges. Law professor Evan Mandery, who dubbed them “Poison Ivy,” points out how they perpetuate income inequality and promote social segregation. Economists Raj Chetty, David J. Deming, and John N. Friedman have shown that students from high-income families are more than twice as likely to get into the elite Ivy-Plus universities (which include, in addition to the eight Ivies, Stanford, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Duke). Their “big data” analysis highlights how factors like legacy admissions, extracurriculars, and athletic recruitment give high-income applicants an undue advantage. Not to forget, the end of affirmative has an adverse impact on disadvantaged groups. And a report in Nature journal says that the odds of attending an Ivy-Plus college are lower for South Asian American applicants than white applicants by 49%. Legacy admissions could be a major cause.

Journalism professor Frank Bruni, a contributing columnist for The New York Times, offers “an antidote.” He argues that the college students enroll in often matters far less than how they do there—and crucially, what they do afterwards. Brand names can only do so much. A Fortune 500 list from last year revealed that only 11.8% of Fortune 100 CEOs got their undergraduate degree from the Ivies. Bruni shares a story about a student who didn’t get into even one of the “prestigious” colleges he preferred. Initially disappointed, he got motivated after gaining confidence at a lower-tier college. Feeling like “the big fish in a small pond,” he thrived there and went on to excel in his chosen profession. “They’re prodded to be scrappier, and that can turn into its own advantage,” Bruni writes.

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The Djinn Waits a Hundred Years (Viking), by Shubnum Khan. Sweeping and sensuous. Along with those words, this novel brings to mind the poet Rumi and the novel Rebecca, which in turn was inspired by Jane Eyre. Khan’s saga involving Indian migrants takes readers to a grand but crumbling mansion in coastal South Africa (the author lives in Durban)—and it also takes them back in time. The present-day story focuses on the 100-year-old mansion’s tenants. They include Sana, a teenager who along with her father is coping with a family tragedy. But the more intriguing tale, which is touched with magic realism, involves the mansion’s history and its previous residents, including a djinn who could still be among them. Julia Fine calls the novel “a gorgeous gothic mystery, a fascinating meditation on the nature of forgiveness and time.” Khan, as some readers will recall, has her own intriguing story, which she shared in a nonfiction book titled How I Accidentally Became a Stock Photo.


The Partition Project (Quill Tree Books), by Saadia Faruqi. The subject won’t go away, because Partition has defined the nations of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh like nothing else. In this middle grade novel, Maha, a Pakistani American girl in Houston, is 12 years old. So was Dadi, her grandmother, when she had to flee to Pakistan with her family during Partition in 1947. Now she’s visiting her family in Houston. But Maha, who’s been told to move out of her room to make room for Dadi, isn’t exactly pleased to see her. There’s a cultural disconnect, and besides, she’s anxious about a pending school project. That is until Maha, a budding journalist, realizes that Dadi’s extraordinary Partition saga is the perfect topic for her documentary film. “Readers are rewarded with a deeply immersive and moving story as Maha experiences a shift in understanding of her hyphenated identities and connects her family’s history to other immigrant experiences,” notes Horn Book Magazine. Faruqi is also an interfaith activist.



For Now, It Is Night: Stories (Archipelago), by Hari Krishna Kaul. These eighteen short stories by Kaul, who died in 2009, were written in Kashmiri over a three-decade span. Kaul, also a radio dramatist, initially wrote in Hindi and Urdu, but it was his switch to Kashmiri that tied him closely to his troubled state, which he had to flee in 1990 along with other Kashmiri Pandits. Homesickness surfaces even in the early section, as when a character in “Sunshine” decamps to Delhi, only to realize that it’s not home. Beautiful Kashmir, despite the harsh winters and turbulent politics, remains home no matter where its natives reside. Later on, when divisions grow between the communities, nostalgia becomes inseparable from sorrow. As Muhammad Nadeem says in Kashmir Life, “these stories transport readers into the cultural essence of Kashmir while exploring timeless themes of love, morality, death, and the paradoxes underlying human relationships.” The tales have four translators.


East & West: Stories of India (Pippa Rann Books), by Catherine Ann Jones. This collection may remind some readers of the late Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. Jones’s stories, like Jhabvala’s fiction, have a strong connection to India—and they both had Indian husbands. Jones (also a TV, film, and stage actress) was married to the well-known novelist Raja Rao, who died in 2006. These 15 tales, of which only one (“Rukmini’s God”) was previously published, were inspired by India, a spiritual home whose sublime mythology, according to Jones, “so permeates the personal that myth often becomes reality—and reality, myth.” Characters include an orphan girl, a plantation worker and her exploiter, an American seeker, Hindu and Tibetan monks, and a dancer. In “A Fulbright Folly,” a naïve young woman’s journey mirrors the author’s life (Jones was 19 when she married Rao). The journey is reversed in the title story, where a young Indian who comes to the U.S. discovers what matters most to him only after leaving India.


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