Jul 24, 2005

Little India and ABC(J)D's

Just received the latest edition of Little India, the free magazine that litters the shelves of restaurants, groceries, and other desi joints up and down the East Coast, although I'm certain that they are shipping boxes of their publication across the nation. The cover story is called "Bar None" and features a triptych of L.A. Law shots of three desi attorneys, in action, with microphones filling the frame of one of them, and a woman with clenched fist and armful of legal briefs in another.

In the pages that follow (8 to be exact) Lavina Melwani, a reporter who has been with Little India for quite some time, and even won a few second place mentions in the Ippies (Independent Press Association - NY Awards) for her ethnic/immigrant journalism in 2004, proceeds to explore the exciting story of how desi attorneys are ripping it up across the United States.

Of course, she takes the boastful auntie angle, parading the best and the brightest as per a very specific set of criteria, and unfortunately, fully missing the opportunity to write about some of the many outstanding attorneys that have been and continue to do really amazing work in the public interest and specifically for desi communities in the United States.

For example, she writes about wunder-barrister Neal Katyal, the Georgetown Professor and lead attorney in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, the federal challenge to the military tribunals set up by Bush at Gitmo, but she neglects to mention the tremendous work of desi and other attorneys on the front lines of the detention and deportation work, such as attorneys working with CAIR, Families for Freedom, and Desis Rising Up and Moving, who spent years working with clients directly, spending time with the families, fighting each case that they could even though the odds were against the families that they were representing, and taking the fight to the very last moments before the deportee had to fly back to Asia or the Middle East, and then with the broken families that were left behind.

Melwani mentions the NASABA conference in DC, which was reported on and dissected on Sepia Mutiny, and speaks with Vijay Bondada, outgoing president of NASABA (who presided over the decision to name their public interest award after Congressman Saund, as mentioned previously). Bondada (whose name is mangled multiple times in this article, as Little India seems to do with almost every desi name - perhaps hoping to play with the big boys in corporate media by showing "hey - we can screw up these names too!", or perhaps just refusing to shell over any dough for a decent copy-editor), states smartly:

What really is the question is not just the numbers in the big firms - because we have the numbers - at NASABA about 60-70 percent of the lawyers there are at private firms, some of them at the nation's leading firms. the question becomes how many of them are at the top of their game, on top of the food chain?
Brilliant. You have truly captured the essence of the challenge for young and mid-career South Asian attorneys trying to find their place on the food chain of the marketplace. Considering that a decent percentage of the attorneys are themselves vegetarians, it may be tough for them to achieve this goal - aza! is this another instance of institutional racism, keeping the veggies out of the running for top carnivore in the firm?!

I'll drop the sarcasm - but there's no mention of the need for more attorneys who want to work for the public interest, the growing and diverse South Asian communities, or other issues of social justice, and little to no interest from Melwani to push the issue further. She continues with a who's who of government employees as a list of "other Indians involved in public service." Where are the public interest attorneys?

To her credit, Melwani mentions Vanita Gupta, who has shot up in the ranks of desi stardom through her tireless work in Texas through the NAACP-Legal Defense Fund, but fails to mention attorneys in the midst of great social justice work for South Asian and other immigrant communities. Gupta, the recipient of the NASABA Dalip Singh Saund award (who was up against Neal Katyal and Suhag Shukla from the Hindu American Foundation), will also have her role in the landmark case that she litigated dramatized (and changed sufficiently around) with Halle Berry stepping in to add some star power. But nowhere in the article are other public interest attorneys who are doing amazing work, like Amardeep Singh with Sikh Coalition, Saru Jayaraman with ROC-NY, Deepa Iyer with SAALT, or even Mallika Dutt with Breakthrough, or hell, what about Urvashi Vaid? And there are so many folks who have been leaders in this work in the past as well, like Tito Sinha and Chaumtoli Huq, both formerly with AALDEF, the latter also working with New York Taxi Workers Alliance for at least a year. Where are these names, and the countless others who are changing the face of work concerning immigrant communities, and taking a stand to make certain that our community's voices are no longer marginalized in the courtrooms, or in the laws set out for so long to marginalize, exclude, or unfairly single out our communities? What about their contributions?

Don't get me wrong, she mentions some great folks with great accomplishments, but many are the obvious choices for this article (and some have large enough egos without the overexposure). Someone like Melwani, who has spoken with many people working in the desi communities of New York City for one story or another, and written some great pieces about the community over the past decade+, should have reviewed her own articles from the past to come up with other folks to highlight and to balance out the story.

Instead, she missed the boat, and repeated the same tired "model minority" story that is tiring, and not at all inspirational for someone about the begin a legal education. And most infuriating for someone who has actually seen and been inspired by the work of so many community-based lawyers who aren't mentioned in the article at all.


someone else said...

Presumably you'd agree that this is part of a broader problem of glorification of particular professions and activities and not others?

Anyway, I really liked the one issue of Little India I read; it had a really interesting take on the Modi controversy and a healthy helping of random desi editing errors and/or made up quotes :) Every person interviewed in the article had the same way of speaking, and I know Aishwarya has better command of English than how she was quoted :) I 'll assume the best of them and attribute it to the writer taking notes of the actual quotes and then reprinting them (it is quite hard to get a quote actually right).

Rage said...

I would agree, and it's in line with other articles in other papers.

I think that Little India is a good magazine to have around - it's free, so it's hard to argue with the price bracket. I think that I was just really annoyed at this particular article.

Anonymous said...

I think you're being hard on the magazine.

And - a lot of this sounds like you're feeling guilty about the line of work you yourself are going into. You're going to be part of this system too; so instead of knocking it - and people who actually went through law school and are trying to do what they can in their professions - why not focus on institutional problems within the system, or within the South Asian community's own over-emphasis on what's considered to be prestigious in the legal profession?

Rage said...

I don't feel guilty about the work that I hope to do - I feel invisible in the work that I hope to do when a long article in a South Asian-specific magazine ignores the many folks doing the work that I'm interested in this profession.

I'm not knocking people who went through law school - I'm saying that it perpetuates an extremely narrow view of the practice and study of law only to focus on the "superstars" when even that perspective is ripe with assumptions about the value of different kinds of work.

I feel that this article is focusing on "what's considered to be prestigious in the legal profession." That's my point: why be so limited in perspective? Why project this image of South Asian lawyers to the 50,000+ readers, many of whom could actually be supporting the work of social justice and other advocates, activists, and organizers who are closer to the communities that they care about?

I believe that they should not ghettoize community-based work that doesn't garner national news headlines, and I'm not even advocating just for my favorite groups - there are a lot of others doing very good work than just the Hindu American Foundation, don't you think?

someone else said...

You're going to be part of this system too; so instead of knocking it - and people who actually went through law school and are trying to do what they can in their professions - why not focus on institutional problems within the system

Can you clarify this?

Anonymous said...

I stumbled across this page in searching for a past article of mine and found your comments interesting. It is also possible that some of us community lawyers are not so interested in perpetuating the image of the sole lawyer dashing down the court steps and eradicating poverty with each step - and see media to raise issues not personalities. Also, hint to Little India - not everyone is Indian. Just a thought, humbly, yours Chaumtoli

Rage said...

I definitely hear that - and it's a good point, but sometimes it just burns me up that some folks get coverage for their work, and it turns into a popularity contest, when it would be so much more useful to have a focus on folks working on issues that could use more attention.

But how can I argue with the point about cult of personality that some people easily create around themselves and their work? At the end of the day, maybe our longevity should be measured in how long you're there to keep fighting than the number of times you come up in a google search. But maybe that's just age speaking...

Thanks for writing in!