“In each country I’ve been to, I’ve encountered a desi community, and while I often hear stories from the men in the communities, rarely did I get to hear from the women,” says Kumar. Her experiences inspired her to highlight the many and often untold stories of South Asian diaspora communities around the world, with a focus on women. Kumar also says that one of her original goals for the podcast was “to highlight the variety of experiences, yet find parallels in how South Asian women are viewed and treated around the world in an attempt to break down negative stereotypes and bring a stronger sense of community to South Asian women globally.”
Desi Women Diaspora has released episodes of interviews with four women who grew up around the world — journalist Aarti Virani, who was born and raised in Japan; food blogger and international development practitioner Noor Shams, who grew up in five countries; political activist Kamini Mamdani, who grew up during apartheid in South Africa; and university professor Gayatri Sethi, who grew up in Tanzania and Botswana. The next four guests have been announced on the podcast’s website and they include an astrophysicist, an entrepreneur, a STEM education expert, and a global volunteering leader. Kumar encourages anyone who identifies as a woman of South Asian descent to reach out via the contact information on her website to participate.
The podcast’s latest episode is the two-part, heart-to-heart, mind-to-mind conversation with Gayatri Sethi. Part 1 of 2 is available now for listening.
Based in the Atlanta area, Sethi is an educator focusing on empowering young women of color. She is also an aspiring poet whose work includes “verses inspired by and dedicated to Serena Williams and all the Serenas in my life,” shared on The Aerogram. According to Kumar, who has written a novel titled The Paths of Marriage and also contributed writing to The Aerogram, she and Sethi “actually connected because my mother saw her piece on The Aerogram.” (The Aerogram connections don’t stop there — the podcast’s first episode features arts and culture writer Aarti Virani, who has also contributed writing to the site.)
East African Roots
Sethi was born in Tanzania to Punjabi parents who were born in what is now Pakistan, in Lahore and Rawalpindi, and they relocated to India during Partition. In his 20s, her father moved to a rural part of Tanzania to become a schoolteacher, a profession that received much respect there, “on the same level as doctors” as Sethi describes it. After going back to India to marry her mother, he returned to Tanzania, where Sethi grew up until about age 10.
At that time, in the 1960s and 1970s, “there was a huge anti-Asian, anti-Indian sentiment sweeping through East Africa,” says Sethi. There was “fear in the air.” With other South Asians fleeing to Canada, Pakistan, India, the UK, and the US, and despite the family carrying Indian passports, her father had always insisted, “I’m going to be buried in Africa.” For his children’s safety, he decided to move the family to Botswana in Southern Africa, where Sethi’s mother, brother and nephews still reside today. In the podcast interview, she shares some insight into what made her father want to stay in Africa when other South Asians fled to other parts of the world.
Notions of Belonging & Not Belonging
Though their family’s Bahá’í faith community welcomed them when they moved to Botswana, Sethi had a hard time feeling like she belonged anywhere, something she says she has struggled with most of her life. Attitudes from extended family in India were less than accepting of her, and also imbued with anti-black racism and colorism.
“When I went to visit relatives in India, I always felt out of place, and in Africa we were receiving messages that Africa was for black Africans, and we kind of understood that message. Then when we moved to Botswana we…felt confused. Our passports didn’t match the way we looked like, didn’t match the way we sounded, didn’t match the way we felt on the inside.”
Reinventing & Shifting Identity
Later, Sethi moved to the US for higher education and eventually to settle. She found herself reinventing and shifting her identity. In the podcast episode, she discusses the ways in which her East African roots played an important part in building her community of interracial family and friends. Growing up brown in black Africa, she learned “this notion of cultural humility…that’s not my space, but I’m a resident there so I better show respect.” This knowledge was “transferable” to her experience in the US, and she was grateful to have that “because many immigrants to America do not have that.”
Sethi also says, “I learned very quickly the black and white version of America, and I was invited into the black America, and I feel very honored and humbled by that…That was where my identity began to shift.”
Tune in to Part 1 of the Desi Women Diaspora episode with Dr. Gayatri Sethi to hear the fascinating conversation about her formative experiences growing up in East Africa and as an Indo-African in the US. Keep an ear open for Part 2 as well, to be released soon. All episodes from this podcast are available free of charge on SoundCloud, iTunes, the Apple Podcast app, Google Play, and Stitcher. Visit malakumar.com/podcast for more details about Desi Women Diaspora.