When podcasters Nina Bhattacharya and Sheela Lal get their feminist wonk on, Almirah Radio Hour listeners can expect to be drawn into conversations about the census, insurance, interpolitical dating, Tanzania health stats, and Missouri birth control legislation. But that’s not all. They also discuss film, art, food, and culture. Each episode also shares music from a few of their favorite artists (past selections have included Anik Khan, Ashni Dave, Bi Kidude, and Mini Dresses).
Focusing on politics, art, and culture, the Almirah Radio Hour serves up an eclectic mix of topics in each episode. The hosts are two self-described “Midwestern South Asian American bookworms” who dedicate themselves to finding microstories to put under the magnifying glass for their series. Government enthusiast Sheela has degrees in statistics and international studies and co-host Nina is in an M.S. program for global health and population at Harvard. Get to know a little more about the hosts in their interview with The Aerogram.
In the first episode, you both talk about using the word “almirah” in the podcast name, as well as the visuals and associations it brings. How does the name tie into what your podcast series is about?
Nina Bhattacharya: For anyone who might be unfamiliar, an almirah is a giant cupboard or wardrobe that is ubiquitous in a lot of households in South Asia. It’s a memory closet of sorts, stacks of clothes, important papers, old photographs. With the Almirah Radio Hour, we hope to metaphorically dust off important topics from the memory closet, uncovering them from different angles.
Sheela Lal: We had been talking about starting the podcast for about a year before making the plunge. While toying around with names, it was important to me that we don’t immediately tether ourselves to just talking about South Asia or identity. Almirah is a word that has roots in migration and imagery of discovery.
Listeners can get more details about how you both met in Episode 4: Origin Stories. For those who don’t know, and without giving away too many spoilers from that episode, can you tell us about how you first connected?
SL: The Internet is a blessing for all of those who wish to believe.
NB: Accurate. Many people are surprised to find out that we have only met in person three times. When we first connected in 2012, the desi feminist presence on Twitter was much smaller. It wasn’t every day that I encountered brown women my age who not only wanted to talk about politics and organizing, but also wanted to discuss film and pop culture with depth. We started bonding over these shared interests before realizing that we were both on the same international fellowship, except in different countries. Sheela invited me to visit her in Sri Lanka before I returned to the United States, after living in Indonesia. The rest is history, thanks to WhatsApp. The Internet has enabled both of us to nurture some incredible female friendships.
What’s the song played near the start of each episode, who is the singer and how did this become the podcast’s theme song?
SL: The opening song is Nucleya’s “Laung Gawacha” ft. Avneet Khurmi. It was a song we both really vibe with, and represents the best of new desi culture.
NB: Sheela and I love music. (Sheela used to run a radio show in college.) We have been intentional about seeking voices we love and featuring them in each episode. These sounds are what give the show its feel.
Among other commonalities, you’re both Fulbright alumnae. What do you think that experience brings to the show in terms of its content and/or outlook?
SL: It’s been four years since our Fulbrights. It’s odd to reflect on those years and understand how Fulbright has underpinned our subsequent personal and professional development.
“We pride ourselves on delving into nuance through our conversations.”
We pride ourselves on delving into nuance through our conversations. I’ve had to learn the patience and humility to put this into practice, especially for the podcast. But for me, that attention to nuance, context, and listening all started with moving to Colombo. Those nine months were challenging and enabled my maturity.
I wouldn’t have given myself the time to understand Sri Lankan history and politics if it wasn’t for Fulbright. Nina and I wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for Fulbright. I wouldn’t have moved to Kolkata and worked at an awesome social enterprise if it wasn’t for Fulbright. I wouldn’t have reevaluated my interest and passion for local government without Sri Lanka and India.
NB: My Fulbright experience in Indonesia pushed me to think critically about what it meant to be an American woman of color working in global health and education. There was this very specific interaction of race, class, and citizenship status. And I became acutely aware of the ways how homogeneity of these U.S. fellowship programs affirmed certain stereotypes of what “real” Americans look like or even act like. This is a sensibility that Sheela and I both bring to the podcast. We pull at the threads where topics intersect to unravel the complexity. We also enjoy discussing events or issues that appear simple on the surface and complicating the analysis.
“We pull at the threads where topics intersect to unravel the complexity.”
I was also lucky to work with some deeply imaginative and thoughtful Indonesian youth on a daily basis, and learned from them how to amplify their voices in the classroom. This has been so helpful in my own growth as an educator and researcher focusing on mental health and adolescent health. In terms of the show — and maybe this goes without saying — there is also immense value in learning from communities outside of the U.S. and using those lessons to examine domestic issues through a different lens.
In the series’ first special episode, All of Our Liberation is Tied to One Another, the podcast talks about anti-blackness in the South Asian community with Purvi Patel. Why did you do a special focused episode? Will there be any future special episodes, and what topics might they explore?
SL: Purvi is a friend of both mine and Nina’s. She works in higher education, and every conversation I have with her is both grounded in accessibility and pushes me to think more critically. Between Nina summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro, the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and Netroots Nation taking place in St. Louis, it just seemed like the right time to try a special episode.
I think a lot of the conversations around anti-blackness are insular. There are few entry points for a lot of the South Asian community. Messaging around social inequity is tricky, and having a conversation around breaking down bias, and anti-blackness specifically, reduces the shame and stigma for those who are new to the process. So while our podcast is still nascent, I wanted to use it as a medium to bring more people into the fold and highlight Purvi’s leadership. I hope it can be used as an introductory resource for folks.
Down the line, we are excited to put together a roundtable of South Asian male friends to discuss masculinities. We’re interested to start exploring the intersection of race, class, and gender from their perspective — enable them to discuss their own complexities.
When is the next episode out? What will you be discussing?
NB: The next episode will be out Monday, November 7 — just in time for Election Day! We’ll be chatting about who has the privilege of mediocrity (hint: not women of color), substance abuse in Punjab and the United States, and the recent strikes at Harvard. These topics have been weighing on us for quite sometime, and we’re looking forward to digging deeper.
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