Briefs/ Who is Vivek Ramaswamy?/ Indian Railways: Steaming Ahead/ Book Matters.
WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, & WHY
Neeli Bendapudi, who became the 19th president of Pennsylvania State University last year, received the American Immigration Council’s 2023 Immigrant Achievement Award. Bendapudi studied at Andhra University, India, before earning her PhD in marketing from the University of Kansas. She has served as the president of the University of Louisville. Penn State or PSU enrolls close to 90,000 students.
Rajindhar Singh Dhatt, 101, was honored with a Points of Light award by the U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. The Points of Light organization, a nonprofit that’s nonpartisan, was founded in Atlanta in 1990. The U.K. program was launched in partnership with the U.S. program in 2014. Dhatt, a British veteran who became Sgt. Mgr. during the Second World War, headed the Undivided Indian Ex-Servicemen’s Association.
Shiv Bhakta, along with his team, won the 2023 MIT $100,000 Entrepreneurship Competition. Active Surfaces, cofounded by MIT students Bhakta and Richard Swartwout, pitched an idea for ultra-thin solar technology mats that can be installed on roofs quickly and at a low cost. They’re working on the commercial possibilities of these lightweight, durable solar panels that can be rolled out anywhere like paper mats.
Tanishka Dhariwal, 16, started a GoFundMe page after a massive, high-casualty accident involving a freight and two express trains in Odisha’s Balasore district. The Indian American, who is involved with RANA (Rajasthan Association of North America), raised over $10,000, exceeding her goal. She aims to continue helping the victims of this tragedy. The funds were presented to the Consul General of India in New York.
Arushi Garg, a Houston resident who’s originally from Jaipur, won $50,000 in cash and a customized Nissan Skyline (GT-R) on NBC’s Hot Wheels: Ultimate Challenge. Her Jaipur Jewel, a revamped Maruti van from the 1980s, brought her to the final stage of the contest and won a cash award of $25,000. For the winning entry in this year’s season one, Garg transformed a 1996 Nissan Skyline sports car into a snazzy Rally Resilience.
Raj Chetty, whose pathbreaking work shattered myths about economic mobility in the U.S., has won Harvard University’s Geroge Ledlie Prize. With the help of big data analysis, he showed how inequality persists because of barriers that shut out certain groups. He is the William A. Ackman Professor of Economics at Harvard and director of Opportunity Insights, a group of economists at the university who study inequality.
Jaskirat Singh, now an infantryman, became the first soldier to graduate from the U.S. Marine Corps recruit training while wearing articles of faith that are important for observant Sikhs, particularly a beard and turban. Private First Class (PFC) Singh’s three months of training were preceded by a two-year legal tussle, which ended in victory. The ruling allows other Sikhs to secure military accommodations for religious wear.
Kalpana Kotagal is joining the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) as a commissioner for a five-year term. After winning Senate confirmation on a 49-47 vote, Kotagal is another Democrat on a five-member EEOC panel that now has a Democratic majority. An alum of Stanford and Penn Law, Kotagal has represented women and marginalized groups in civil rights and employment cases as a law partner.
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WHO IS VIVEK RAMASWAMY?
The anti-woke Vivek Ramaswamy’s rise in the Republican primary polls has surprised observers, though it’s still a long shot for this presidential contender. Among the Indian Americans in the race, only Nikki Haley has political experience, which could help her become a VP candidate. What, then, motivates the others? Publicity? Ramaswamy, with undeniable strengths that include an ability to charm his audience, has intrigued many people.
But a close look at this Harvard and Yale educated entrepreneur—a multimillionaire who largely self-finances his campaign—shows why he excites the MAGA crowd. Displaying a king-like hubris, and going beyond the usual culture wars, he supports an expansion of executive power and says he’d abolish the IRS, Department of Education, FBI, and CDC. Besides saying he’d fire 75% of federal employees, he has made it clear that he doesn’t want to be number two or three in the federal government. No wonder he’s been dubbed a junior Trump or a wannabe Trump. A more charitable view is that he likes to be provocative. Again, like Trump.
Although both Ramaswamy and his Indian American wife belong to a racial and religious minority, it’s not white Christian nationalism that worries him. And that’s despite the attacks on his ethnicity and faith. Instead, what is he troubled by? “Ramaswamy rattled off a slew of these ‘modern cults,’ including ‘woke-ism, transgender-ism, climate-ism, [and] Covid-ism,’” Rolling Stone magazine points out.
Most tellingly, he has found a new tactic for voter suppression. He proposes a constitutional amendment to raise the voting age (from 18 to 25) for those who don’t perform six months of military or first responder service—or pass the naturalization test given to immigrants. It’s hardly a secret that young voters support the Democrats more than the GOP! And he can be a flip-flopper. Contradicting his earlier embrace of Juneteenth, he now says it’s a “useless” holiday that should be cancelled.
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INDIAN RAILWAYS: STEAMING AHEAD
India’s railway system, without exaggeration, is the nation’s circulatory system. More than 13,000 trains carry over 13 million passengers every day, covering a track length of almost 80,000 miles. Freight trains are just as important for the functioning of the country.
A horrific triple train disaster in Odisha, involving both express and freight trains, highlighted the lack of adequate investment in safety measures. Indian trains, it’s worth noting, are actually safer now, “with the number of serious train accidents dropping steadily: to 22 in the 2020 fiscal year from more than 300 annually two decades ago,” according to The New York Times. Nonetheless, “show horses, not work horses,” as the same paper notes, seem to be getting more money and attention. The biggest show horses, which elevate the image and efficiency of Indian Railways, are the sleek Vande Bharat Express trains, now capable of hitting a speed of 100 miles/hour. Given the current infrastructure, they usually run at lower speeds. But these locally made trains—there are 18 in operation, with more on the way—are comfortable and the service is much improved.
Speaking of indigenous manufacturing, an automatic train protection (ATP) system called Kavach improves safety. Kavach’s multiple features include a more sophisticated signaling method, automatic braking when the driver fails to act, smoother coordination between passing trains, and an easier way to send emergency messages. Trains equipped with Kavach avoid collision. Other measures that can make Indian trains safer are track fencing and more bridges at railroad crossings. High density routes have Kavach, but it only covers a small percentage of the rail system. For Indian Railways, the wide implementation of Kavach is a top priority.
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Your Driver Is Waiting (Doubleday), by Priya Guns. It’s been six months since Damani’s father died, and her life seems to be in a downward spiral. Although Taxi Driver, a notable film from the mid-1970s, has been mentioned as an inspiration, this story’s contemporary slant is unmistakable. The character at the center, a driver of Sri Lankan descent in an unnamed city, is not a heterosexual male. And Damani drives for a ride sharing service, not a cab company. The uncertainty of the gig economy—and Damani’s life (she’s the sole breadwinner)—draws her to social justice struggles. Jolene, a rich white customer, is also drawn to these causes. The driver and rider become allies, not to mention lovers. But will it end well for this unlikely couple? “It’s rare for a writer to marry such deep social consciousness with a comic, sultry romance, rarer still to pull that off in a way that satisfies and provokes the reader,” according to Los Angeles Times.
Almost Brown: A Memoir (Crown), by Charlotte Gill. The author of Eating Dirt, a bestselling tree-planting memoir, Gill teaches creative nonfiction in British Columbia and is chair of literary journalism at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. In this new memoir, she writes honestly about her biracial identity—her Indian father and British mother met in 1960s London—and wonders why, through an exploration of the past and her psyche, being “white” mattered more to her than being “brown.” Unlike her brother, she could pass for white, making it easier for Gill to distance herself from her father. While her parents split up, her split identity didn’t change. Was it her father’s race that made Gill prefer her mother—or was it more about his personality? It was a painful question. Gill didn’t talk to him for two decades, but now she is his “chauffeur, housekeeper, and dining companion” when she visits him in the U.S. The book is dedicated to her dad. This memoir is “a gorgeous telling of a complicated family history and an essential exploration of race and belonging,” notes Lindsay Wong.
Boomtown Girl (Black Lawrence Press), by Shubha Sunder. In the 1990s, the changes unleashed by the twin forces of neoliberalism and the IT revolution transformed Bangalore—which had been a Garden City—into a Concrete City and an Indian Silicon Valley. Now even the city’s name is different. Sunder, a Bangalore native who lives in Boston, chronicles this shift through the perspectives of young and old characters in her debut short story collection, which won the St. Lawrence Book Award. In “The Western Tailor,” Ramesh gets a chance to relive the old “British” days when he finds a new American client. The other eight stories—including “Dragon Girl,” “A Very Full Day,” “Jungleman,” and the title story—feature teenagers, lovers, tech workers, parents, and dreamers. “With writing that sparkles and flares, we become privy to individuals’ deepest striving and disappointment, their utterly relatable yearnings to burst beyond restrictions and to belong,” says Jennifer Acker. Sunder teaches creative writing at Massachusetts College of Art and Design and at GrubStreet.
The Night of the Storm (Dutton), by Nishita Parekh. Call this debut novel a Hurricane Mystery or perhaps an Extended Family Mystery. It’s also a No Escape Mystery in the style of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, a classic involving ten strangers stranded on an island during a storm. While Christie’s characters are British and she takes us back to 1939, Parekh’s characters—nine rather than ten—are Indian American and she takes us to Houston during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. They’re not strangers but members of an extended family that includes Jia, a single mom who, along with her son Ishaan, reluctantly takes shelter at her sister Seema’s house. She’s wary of Seema’s husband, and there’s also the husband’s family. Moreover, Jia’s ex-husband is keeping tabs on her. And, yes, there’s a murder. To prove her innocence and prevent more murders, Jia must act quickly and solve the crime. Parekh, who grew up in Mumbai, is a software programmer as well in Texas.
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