You've heard of India shining on the global arena. Locally born immigrants, NRIs and persons of Indian origin have held top jobs in business, medicine, science, technology, writing, even politics. They've all made the headlines. And deservedly so.
This story is not about them.
It's about India's other tales of success abroad. Of those who've followed their heart to avenues less explored by the desi diaspora. Of those who've met with parental disapproval despite wider opportunities available to them. Of those who didn't let their roots, their modest upbringing or their skin colour stop them from thinking they're just as good as anyone else. Of those who stuck it out and struck it big.
Some of our global Indians speak no Hindi; others are die-hard Bollywood fans. Some have no fixed address; others visit India at every opportunity. Most of them have little in common with the other; a few of them even believe their success transcends their ancestry. But all of them have, in the words of jazz musician Rudresh Mahanthappa, "blazed some trails and made it easier for those coming behind us".
Leena Gade, 37,
Race Engineer, Germany
So you thought the engineers masterminding pit stops, tyre changes and racing strategy in a 90-minute Formula One race were brilliant? Think of the people who manage a six-hour, 12-hour or a 24-hour race. It will give you a measure of Leena Gade's genius. In 2010, at age 33, Gade made history by becoming the first female engineer to win the Le Mans 24 Hours. She led engineers, drivers, mechanics and an R18 TDi car in a prestigious race in which cars have to run for 24 hours without sustaining mechanical damage and managing their fuel, tyres and brakes. In 2011 she won it again, with a diesel hybrid car version.
In a world dominated by males, the four-foot-nine-feet Gade calls the shots on strategy, driver management, tyres and fuel and keeps a hawk eye on every technical detail. The qualified aerospace engineer (her mother is from Pune) studied how to design planes but ending up working with Audi Sport Team Joest, which runs endurance racing cars. She is one of the few women at the helm of motor racing around the globe - a genius despite her gender.
Can we safely call you the first lady of endurance racing?
It's slightly embarrassing, because guys doing the same job don't get the same attention. But at the same time, I have slowly come to realise that I should be proud of what I have achieved because it doesn't happen to everyone; and I guess I've shown people that with determination you can achieve your goals. Until this year, I didn't realise just how big a deal it is to people who look up to me and aspire to be race engineers, both male and female.
What's the hardest part about being a race engineer?
Irrespective of gender, winning Le Mans is not easy. It involves so much preparation that can start up to a year before the race. Our cars have exponentially increased in complexity with technical innovations, which means you have to be fully involved in what is going on to understand the systems, how to use them and how to get the best performance from the driver who is using them. Add to that, a crew of mechanics, engineers and drivers that look to you for guidance and decisions, so that they can competently do their job and already it is complicated. With the multi-million euro budgets, the pressure can be immense, and you really have to be very tough. There are times when it is hard. But if it was easy, everyone would do it.
You've spent very little time in India. Does Bollywood mean anything to you?
Ever since I was a kid, I watched Amitabh Bachchan because my parents watched him, and to this day I really respect him as an actor. He works incredibly hard and is close to the age of my father so I am massively impressed at how he is still so active. My mum used to watch a lot of movies from her childhood so I knew about Nargis, Leena Chandavarkar (who I am named after) and the Kapoor brothers. But from modern-day Bollywood, I think Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan are great actors, a real breath of fresh air with their humanitarian and charitable work. I do enjoy some of the recent independent movies that put India on the map as a country that can make serious films about everyday issues.
What's the best thing about being brown?
Being brown makes me different to everyone I live around and work with - I have a better tan than them (that lasts all year) and I have a foreign culture running through my blood that is always fascinating to anyone I meet. I think it makes me even more individual in the countries I live and work in and actually a lot more memorable to others. I was called a coconut (brown outside, white inside) by my Indian friends at school in the UK - something I wasn't best pleased with. I may not speak Marathi or Hindi as my first language but I do love my heritage. It makes me who I am.
- Aasheesh Sharma
Manny Malhotra, 33
Ice Hockey Player, USA
Manny Malhotra picked up a hockey stick at age seven and seems to have inherited his Punjabi father's love for scoops and hits, and his French-Canadian mother's passion for gliding on the ice. As the biggest non-Caucasian face of ice hockey in America, the only player of Indian origin in the National Hockey League, played in the United States and Canada, Malhotra is a Tiger Woods-like role model for many.
Malhotra recently made a spectacular comeback to the rink for the Carolina Hurricanes after a serious eye injury that kept him out of action for a couple of years. The Canada-born son of a multiple-patent holding research chemist father and homemaker mom, Malhotra credits his cosmopolitan upbringing and multi-cultural background with this success.
As the only player of Indian origin in the NHL, you've broken new ground…
Not really. There have been many other players who have been trailblazers and genuine pioneers. Growing up in the Toronto area that was really multi-cultural, I was just another ice hockey player. In sport, it does not matter who is the best Caucasian player, or the best South Asian player or who has broken the colour barrier... what matters is who is good.
Your father was born in pre-Partition India and you've played in New York, Dallas, and San Jose, apart from Canada? Where does your heart lie?
I spent my growing up years in Toronto, my siblings are still there and my family has settled in Vancouver, so that is what we perceive as home. But we speak many languages at home with proficiency. My mother is a French-Canadian from Quebec so we speak French and English. I wish my father had taught me a little bit more Hindi or Punjabi. Basically, I have picked up just this line:
Mainu Punjabi bolni nai oundi
(I don't know how to speak in Punjabi).
What's the best thing about being brown in the NHL?
The connection that it creates with the South Asian community, particularly in Vancouver. To be able to inspire those kids to take up the game is something special and something I cherish. I guess, one of the life lessons that I would like to give to these kids is this, 'Whether you think you can or you think you can't, just look at me and learn from my example and where I have reached today.' I dared to believe in myself and so should these kids.
Apart from genes, what connects you to India?
I have never been to India. But I would like to make that trip. I definitely enjoy Indian food: it is one of my favourite cuisines! My father loves watching Bollywood movies. His cable TV package is full of them. I enjoy the song and dance and how festive everything is in Hindi movies. My favourite? Aishwarya Rai. I quite like her.
- Aasheesh Sharma
Sunita Viswanath, 45,
Social worker, USA
What have you been doing since 2001? Sunita Viswanath has been changing the world. Born in Chennai and a New Yorker since her 20s, she co-founded the non-profit Women for Afghan Women (WAW) 13 years ago and now has a staff of 500 to run shelters and programmes for women affected by violence in 10 provinces across Afghanistan. She's also someone who hasn't quite let go of India. Viswanath considers no meal complete without green chillies, or some kind of hot sauce (or it "simply doesn't hit the spot"). And the award-winning feminist also wholeheartedly accepts the suspension of disbelief in farfetched Bollywood films!
How would you define feminism?
As the belief that we should have the same opportunities, the same rights, whether we are born male or female.
How has WAW changed your life?
It's changed my life in innumerable ways. I'm witness daily to women and girls who've suffered unspeakable abuse and torture, but who assert their rights, heal from their trauma, and often, become empowered to advocate for the human rights of others. This gives me the faith, hope and optimism that I need to be able to live in this world and raise my children. Working with devout Muslim women and men, for whom there is no separation between their faith and their work for human rights, has been inspiring and immensely humbling. It is this inspiration that led me to co-create Sadhana, a group of Hindus for whom being Hindu means doing seva and standing up for social justice and truth.
What brings out your connection to the subcontinent?
When I hear the voice of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing Allah Mohammad Chaar Yaar and Saanu Ik Pal Chaine Na Aave, or MS Subbulakshmi singing the Suprabhatam, I feel elated, as if my heart is literally flying. Bollywood songs that similarly speak to me include Dheemi Dheemi and Ishwar Allah from 1947 Earth.
- Shreya Sethuraman
From HT Brunch, January 26
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