This Saturday, five transformative Asian American men representing six transformative community organizations will compete for the coveted crown of Mr. Hyphen 2014. I recently spoke with one of them — high school teacher and Gandhi Community Camp Counselor Sanjay Makhijani.
Let’s get this out of the way — do you identify as a hipster?
Yes, I am a hipster. Therefore, I couldn’t be a hipster, because hipsters can never admit to being hipsters! However, after living in San Francisco’s Mission Dolores neighborhood for four years, I must admit that my clothing choices have crept into the “undeniably hipster” zone. However, since I ride an 18 speed bike, rather than a fixie, I guess I’m not authentic enough to be a hipster.
Your platform as a Mr. Hyphen candidate? In 10 words or less.
To amplify the proud South Asian, LGBT, public educator voice.
Fill in the blank — if I am named Mr. Hyphen I will ___________.
Examine and write about the marginalization of Asian women (specifically, South Asian, South East Asian, and Pacific Islander women) in the larger feminist movement, while recruiting Asian males to examine their role in the oppression and abuse of our sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, and friends. I hope to bring in more South Asians and South Asian organizations to cross-publicize with Hyphen and to engage in the magazine’s publicity and fundraising efforts. I hope to have South Asian men and women shine light on the domestic violence and abuse that occurs all too often in our community.
The perfect date?
The perfect date is less about the scenario and more about the takeaway. I want to feel relaxed, warm (from sun, cuddling, or a good workout), to forget about the work I’m not doing, to have my abs ache from laughter, to fall asleep with a smile on my face and to feel a deeper sense of calm then when the date started. Friend-dates are great for this, too.
I’m going to assume from your candidate video submission that you’re not unfamiliar with Bollywood movies. What do you think is the worst Bollywood movie someone could watch on a first date? Best?
The irony is that I am largely unfamiliar with Bollywood! Those who know me well know that my video was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as I have no clue about the latest or best Bollywood movies. I wanted my video to be silly and memorable, so I tried to find a song that sounded reminiscently “American,” with a danceable electronic intro, yet that was unmistakably Indian. In fact, the choreography to my video was done by the one white guy in the dance, Aaron Jorgensen.
In my defense, each time I visit Mumbai, I make it a point to see a Hindi movie with my family. Growing up, my parents barred us from watching anything but PBS — the ban included Hindi movies. Since my dad is a professional-level ghazal singer, tabla player, and harmonium player, our Indian cultural connections center around the classical and traditional arts of India. My sister and dad both study tabla under Zakir Hussain and my sister studied Bharata Natyam from the age of 5 (she’s in her 30s now). So, I default to these artistic forms when I enjoy Indian performances. From childhood, I remember only Amar, Akbar, Anthony! The worst Bollywood movie anyone could watch on a date is one over two hours. The best would be any Bollywood movie under two hours. With subtitles. Mujhe Hindi nahi aati hai, though, oddly enough I can read and write Devanagari.
Why should I send my future children to your Gandhi Camp?
So they can be hipsters just like me! (PS, I love your tweet about sending your future hipster kids to G-Camp.) My mother attended Gandhi Camp when she was in college, under the same leader, Dr. S. N. Subba Rao, who runs the camp today.
Camp fundamentally changed my siblings and me. When we first attended the camp, my sister was twelve, my brother ten, and I was eight. When we returned home my parents were shocked — we prayed before dinner, insisted on being vegetarian (my sister is still vegetarian today) and did our own dishes. We came back with an appreciation and love for community service, with the ability to meditate for more than five minutes, and with a repertoire of prayers from each of the Humanity’s major religions. This summer camp is unlike any other. Gandhi Camp builds a community of learners and activists. Alumni have become teachers, social workers, community organizers, and of course doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Most of all, returning campers want to lead and make a difference. They have a deeper sense of what it means to be Indian (most campers are Indian-American, Hindu, and financially privileged), and have closer ties with the larger community.
They begin to see that Indian culture is richer than just pop culture. Because of the confidence and expression that they gain, they are better equipped to navigate the confusing world of their predominantly white schools. They develop confidence, cultural pride, self-discipline, personally responsibility, and the ability to engage in leadership opportunities in their schools. Most of all, they have a greater understanding of social justice, the greater good, and humanization.
If you could have chai or samosas with any person — living or dead — who would it be? AND YOU CAN’T SAY GANDHI!
Ha! I would definitely not pick Gandhiji — too much pressure. When I was nine years old, I was riding on a double-decker bus in Mumbai, India (then Bombay), with Arjan Bulchand Chandiramani (ABC), my maternal grandfather. I was nursing the stitches on my head that I received as a result of rough-housing with my older cousin. My grandfather was going on-and-on about this landmark and that memory. I only had another week left in my visit to India, yet I was terribly homesick. “I wish he would stop talking for just ONE minute!” I though, as I examined the feel of the stitches on my scalp.
That visit was the last time I ever saw my grandfather. To this day, I regret my dismissiveness of my Nana. Consequently, I made it a point to visit my maternal grandmother every summer from 2004 to 2010, after I had enough income to do so, so I would not regret missing time with her.
I wish to have chai and samosas with my grandfather. He was an educator, too. I wear his ties to work, regularly. I have his monogrammed bowler cap. And I miss him.
My grandfather was a diplomat for the Indian government. In World War II, he designed airplane engines for Rolls Royce. He lived in London, New Delhi, and Washington D.C. He was born in Karachi, now part of Pakistan. He witnessed the gruesome murders that occurred when India and Pakistan split in 1947, displacing all of my relatives, and forcing them out of their ancestral home of Sindh.
He is a wealth of knowledge that I wish to know more about. He is my hero and my blood. I wish I had listened to him that day in 1991.
Your secret vanity.
I used to pray to Lord Krishna to make me as handsome as one of my Gandhi Camp counselors. I’m happy with the result.
Your pet peeve.
People who litter.
What’s the cutest thing a student has done for you?
How can I pick one? That’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is (but we all know they have favorites.) A former student, Andrew Crilly, “South-Parked” me! This student is amazing and will run America one day. In his junior year, he actually made a South Park version of me using construction paper and computer graphics. I have the original 8”x10” on my desk at home. I’ve posted it on my Facebook page, too. It’s a must see. In fact, all cartoon work on my Facebook page is from students. At the end of the day, it’s not about the Biology that my students learn, but about the people they become, and the compassion and care that they take of other people. I am blessed to have taught over 1500 students over the past 10 years and to have been part of their development.
Mr. Hyphen 2014 will be declared at the 8th Annual Mr. Hyphen Community Fundraiser on Saturday in San Francisco. You can buy tickets here.
Kishwer Vikaas is a co-founder of and editor at The Aerogram. Follow her on Twitter at @phillygrrl or email her at email@example.com.