India is messy. The nation is waging wars against western influence, religious strife, and freedom of speech. The term “Indian” itself has moved beyond the definition of “love of Bollywood and cricket.” And in America, Indians are no longer just doctors, spelling bee champions, and the model minority, but the finest white-collar criminals, too.
This was the consensus at the first annual Newsweek & The Daily Beast-Open Hands Prize for Commentary in South Asia hosted by Newsweek & The Daily Beast and Tina Brown, with co-hosts Jay Snyder and the Open Hands Initiative, Lawrence Schiller and The Norman Mailer Center, Spas and Diliana Roussev, and Editor of Newsweek International, Tunku Varadarajan.
The event was aflutter with an eclectic group of subcontinental natives mixed with notable New Yorkers and writers from the U.S. and beyond. Everyone from journalist Suketu Mehta to NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly glided past statues of the Hindu god Ganesha at the Asia Society on Park Avenue. Between bites of samosas and the naan, guests discussed immigration, linguistics, and the London Olympics.
This year’s winner was Dilip D’Souza, a journalist based in Mumbai, who’s written for The Times of India, The Washington Post, and Salon.com (to name a few), has authored three books incuding Roadrunner: An Indian Quest in America, and runs the blog “Death Ends Fun.”
Brown, editor in chief of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, introduced D’Souza as a brilliant writer whose vivid, vibrant human narratives “draw you in."
“He’s a writer who makes us think in a new way,” Schiller told the audience.
“In a deserted public garden, just below a bust of the revolutionary martyr Chandrashekhar Azad, I picked up one forlorn sheet, soggy with morning dew and streaked with mud,” D’Souza writes in “Get to the Top,” a story about Kota, the student-coaching capital of India, where tens of thousands compete for a few choice spots at technical and engineering universities.
Clad in a golden kurta and white pants, with peppered hair and red-framed glasses, D’Souza thanked the audience and joked that—in the reverse of Sally Field’s famous Oscar speech—he can truly say, “I like you, I like you.”
In a panel discussion lead by Newsweek International editor Tunku Varadarajan, D’Souza said that while there’s an exhilarating sense of energy in Indian fields like the telecom industry, as a writer that angle is boring. Instead, he’d rather write about the “frustration and perversity” that’s rampant in his country. Poverty, to him, is a more pressing issue.
In fact, on a scale of zero to 10 (zero being dysfunctional and 10 Scandinavian perfection), D’Souza said he would rate India’s democracy as a 2.5. This isn’t as bad as it sounds since constant flux leads to the ability for anyone to succeed—and better stories, he said.
Documentary filmmaker Nisha Pahuja, a self-described optimist, disagreed. Despite the ills plaguing the nation, there haven’t been any civil wars and the future is bright—provided women breakthrough. “Women are torn,” she said. “They’re trapped between tradition and modernity.”
But India’s ongoing struggles with democracy may be overshadowed but her awkward relationship with a nuclear neighbor. This worrisome reality is sometimes airbrushed by the U.S. media. “New coverage is determined by foreign policy,” said Madhulika Sikka, executive producer of NPR’s Morning Edition, who was also a judge for the award.
Bruce Riedel, a former longtime CIA officer, and a senior fellow in the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, stressed that Pakistan harbors terrorists, has a fast growing nuke arsenal, and will only move towards reform if he entrepreneurial class is empowered. “As an American, it’s scary. As an Indian, you live next door,” Riedel said.
D’Souza said that if the fragile bond between Pakistan and India fizzles, we’re in for a disaster. And while diplomatic frustration is a great source for inspiration for journalists and writers, even D’Souza doesn’t want to be there for the Armageddon.