Briefs/ Winners of India's Diaspora Awards/ Heads of State with Indian Roots/ Book Matters.
WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHEN, & WHY
Nirav D. Shah has joined the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta as the CDC’s principal deputy director. He reports to director Rochelle Walensky. Previously, he oversaw Maine’s pandemic response as the state’s CDC chief. The son of Indian immigrants, he grew up in Wisconsin and studied economics at Oxford before going on to earn his medical and law degrees from the University of Chicago.
Harpreet Kaur Chandi, a British Army captain and physiotherapist, broke the world record for the longest, solo, unaided polar expedition by a woman. Polar Preet, as she’s been dubbed, traveled 868 miles in Antarctica, often skiing for 13 hours or more each day. The 33-year-old captain, who was appointed MBE (Britain’s third-highest ranking order, not including the knighthood), took 67 days to reach this milestone.
Anahita Dua, a vascular surgeon and associate professor at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School in Newton, MA, is among the 60 Presidential Leadership Scholars this year. The other two Indian-American scholars are Neil Vora, a physician with New York-based Conservation International, and Sonia Singh, the global head of culture, inclusion, and diversity at Boston-based Alexion Pharmaceuticals.
Shree Nayar, a professor of computer science at Columbia University, is the latest recipient of Japan’s Okawa Prize, which includes a gold medal and a cash award of 10 million yen. Nayar, who heads the Columbia Vision Laboratory (CAVE), was recognized for his pathbreaking work in computational imaging and computer vision. Two other Indian-Americans—Raj Reddy (2004) and J.K. Aggarwal (2007)—have won this prize.
A.C. Charania, who is NASA’s new chief technologist, will report to administrator Bill Nelson on technology policy and programs. Bhavya Lal served as the acting chief technologist. Charania received an economics degree from Emory before he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in aerospace engineering from Georgia Tech. He also worked at Virgin Galactic (now Virgin Orbit), SpaceWorks, and Reliable Robotics.
Ravi Kumar is taking over as CEO of New Jersey-based Cognizant, a Fortune 500 multinational IT company that was founded in Chennai in 1994. It grew from 50 to 341, 000 employees. His interests include digital transformation, traditional technology and engineering services, data and analytics, cloud and infrastructure, and consulting. Kumar, who was president of Infosys, also worked at Oracle and Sapient.
Deepa Fernandes, a host of NPR’s nationally broadcast Here and Now program, started out as a radio correspondent in Sydney, Australia, where she mostly grew up. Born in Bombay to parents of Goan heritage, the award-winning journalist, with a master’s degree from Columbia University, reported from Latin America before coming to the U.S. She also worked for the BBC, Australia’s ABC, and Radio Havana Cuba.
Varsha Bajaj, who wrote Thirst and Count Me In, among other picture books, helped to create Kavi Sharma, an Indian-American doll released by Mattel. Conceived as a New Jersey girl who loves Broadway and Bollywood, Kavi is an 18-inch doll with brown eyes and a half-ponytail. Kavi, who also likes to perform, is American Girl’s 2023 “Girl of the Year” doll. A book titled It’s Showtime, Kavi will be released later this year.
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WINNERS OF INDIA’S DIASPORA AWARDS
In January, India marked the 20th anniversary of PBD (Pravasi Bharatiya Divas), which honors the contributions of the Indian diaspora. The 2023 PBD awardees listed here reflect the diversity of the Indian diaspora, which stands at 32 million (over 13 NRIs + over 18 million PIOs). Jagdish Chennupati is a physicist in Australia and the first Indian president of the Australian Academy of Science. Sanjeev Mehta is a notable economist at Royal Thimpu College in Bhutan. Dilip Loundo is a well-known Indologist in Brazil. Alexander Maliakel John, a physician, won Brunei’s highest award. V. I. Lakshmanan, an Officer to the Order of Canada, won recognition for his medical and philanthropic initiatives. Archana Singh, a high energy physicist at CERN in Switzerland, was involved in the discovery of the Higgs boson particle. Ramjee Prasad is a prominent scientist at Aarhus University in Denmark. Kannan Ambalam, known for community welfare projects, teaches at Wollega University in Ethiopia. Amal Kumar Mukhopadhyay of Hamburg has made seminal contributions to Indo-German ties.
Reena Vinod Pushkarna, known as the Curry Queen in Israel, created greater awareness of Indian food and culture. Maqsooda Sarfi Shiotani promoted Indo-Japanese business and cultural relations. Professor Rajagopal strengthened Indo-Mexican ties in education and business. Other awardees: Amit Kailash Lath (Poland); Mohamed Irfaan Ali (Guyana); P.S. Daswani (Republic of Congo); Piyush Gupta (Singapore); Mohanlal Hira (South Africa); Sanjaykumar Patel (South Sudan); Sivakumar Nadesan (Sri Lanka); D. C. Sharman (Suriname); Ashok Kumar Tiwary (Uzbekistan); C.B. Patel (East Africa); Siddharth Balachandran (U.A.E.); Justice Seepersad (Trinidad & Tobago); Joginder Singh Nijjar (Croatia). Finally, Darshan S. Dhaliwal (founder of Bulk Petroleum Corp.) and Rajesh Subramaniam (FedEx CEO) promoted business and community ties between the U.S. and India.
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HEADS OF STATE WITH INDIAN ROOTS
Rishi Sunak drew attention last year when he became the first nonwhite occupant of 10 Downing Street in London. To put things is perspective, Britain had 56 prime ministers before Sunak—the son of Indian immigrants—got the job. While we don’t know how long he’ll be able to keep it, given the ongoing turmoil in British politics, Sunak has already made history. And he’s not the only head of state outside India with at least part-Indian roots. Leo Varadkar, a physician-turned-politician who already had a stint as Ireland’s Taoiseach (head of state), is back in the saddle. According to the terms of the coalition government, Varadkar stepped down after a three-year term (2017-2020) as Taoiseach. In December last year, he took over for a second term. Varadkar, born to an Irish nurse and an Indian doctor who had immigrated from Bombay, also made history as Ireland’s first gay head of government.
Antonio Costa has already served as Portugal’s prime minister for seven years. Costa’s father, a writer, was born in Mozambique to a couple of Goan and Portuguese heritage. Pravind Kumar Jugnauth, the prime minster of Mauritius, has served for five years so far. Seychelles—also in the Indian Ocean, though the country is an archipelago rather than an island nation like Mauritius—has a president, Wavel Ramkalawan, who took over more than two years ago. In South America, Irfaan Ali has been the president of Guyana for over two years, and Chan Santokhi has served as Suriname’s president for more than two years. Halimah Yacob, who’s been Singapore’s president for over five years, was born to an Indian father and a Malay mother.
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The Bandit Queens (Ballantine Books), by Parini Shroff. A dark comedy, an adventure story, a feminist fable, a mystery tale, a crime novel. Shroff’s debut fits all these labels, and it’s also about patriarchy in rural India. The title will remind some of Phoolan Devi, the late Bandit Queen of India. But here, inevitably, there’s a twist. It’s been five years since Geeta’s no-good husband has walked out on her. When there are persistent rumors that she did away with him, Geeta realizes the false accusation works to her advantage. Seen as a fierce Bandit Queen rather than a helpless widow, nobody messes with her. Other oppressed village women—Priya, Saloni, Priety, Kushna—make her a role model, giving us a novel that’s “a hilarious romp about serious things—as serious as a novel gets, and as funny, too, with characters who are dear and maddening and indelible and gorgeously drawn,” notes the writer Elizabeth McCracken. Shroff, a practicing attorney in California, earned her MFA from UT Austin.
The Dream Builders (Tin House Books), by Oindrila Mukherjee. Stories told by immigrants have overlapping themes, whether they’re writing about their adoptive country or their native land. If they sound similar sometimes, it’s because the subject matter is familiar. The way a story is told can make all the difference, as seen in this debut novel, which is also a collection of stories. It unfolds over one summer when Maneka Roy, a professor, returns to India after many years in the U.S. There are no fewer than ten perspectives, showing a nation—specifically Hrishipur—that’s been affected by class divisions, Westernization, and gender roles. The reason for Roy’s return is her mother’s death, which leaves her father alone in his apartment building. A maid, Roy’s wealthy childhood friend, a masseuse, and a photographer are some of the other characters in “a soulful novel that’ll break your heart with its truth,” according to the author Samrat Upadhyay.
The Blue Bar (Thomas & Mercer), by Damyanti Biswas. Some may recall Beautiful Thing, Sonia Faleiro’s nonfiction account of Mumbai’s dance bars. Biswas takes us there in her fast-paced crime novel, which is Book 1 of her two-part Blue Mumbai Thriller. Meet Tara Mondal, a dancer who’s trying to move on from her life in Mumbai’s notorious bars. When a client makes an irresistible offer, she sees it as her ticket to freedom. But then Tara vanishes, baffling her lover, inspector Arnav Singh Rajput, who finds neither clues nor closure for 13 long years. Only when he turns his attention to a serial killer of women does the inspector find the past catching up, giving him leads that may finally help him solve the mystery of Tara’s disappearance. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly notes, “This searing portrait of marginalized people struggling for survival is unforgettable.” Biswas, who lives in Singapore and works with Delhi’s underprivileged children as part of Project Why, also wrote You Beneath Your Skin.
Roses, in the Mouth of a Lion (Flatiron Books), by Bushra Rehman. The borough of Queens, New York, has long been one of the world’s most diverse places. Successive waves of migrants made it their first home in the U.S.—and in recent decades, immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean, and Latin America have increasingly replaced the descendants of European migrants. In this coming-of-age novel set in the 1980s, Rehman, whose parents are Pakistani immigrants, follows in the footsteps of similar writers as she plumbs the working class and multicultural ethos of Queens. Razia Mirza leads a circumscribed life in her ethnic enclave, though she and her friends manage to have innocent adventures. But when she gets into the elite Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, her conservative parents—while supportive of this opportunity—have a hard time accepting the greater personal freedom it brings. It’s a Padma Lakshmi Book Club Pick.
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