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May 9, 2000

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Fighting and protesting to be happy

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Sonia Chopra

In Vijay Prashad's image of a perfect world, people control their destiny. They have dignity, they are respected, they are well paid and they are happy.

"It's a little cheesy," admitts Prashad, 32, author of The Karma of Brown Folk, a new book which has received rave reviews and accolades for being a brutally honest "love/hate letter" to "his fellow desis."

The book explores the complexities of a model minority community that has become 'a solution' for America against the anti-Black racism. It also focuses on the history of South Asian immigration and the fight for social justice.

Prashad's book elaborates upon Web Du Bois's book, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903, in which the author asked Black Americans, "How does it feel to be a problem?"

Prashad asks the South Asian community, "How does it feel to be a solution?"

He is delighted at the response his book has received.

"I'm thrilled. I wanted to cry at the feedback. It has been fantastic, a very moving experience. Writing a book can be lonely because no one is there to read it while you are doing it," he says.

"But the reactions have changed my life in a huge way. It is both, humbling and exciting."

He has another book coming out later this month called Untouchable Freedom: A social History of a Dalit Community.

A professor at Trinity College, Prashad teaches classes like the Anthropology of Poverty and is involved in a progressive organization called the Center For Third World Organizing (, which trains young organizers of color.

He pours his life experiences, his thoughts and his passions out in the classroom.

"I want to make my students think. I want them to understand that they come from a relatively poor country like India where there are deep divisions between the classes," Prashad says.

"It's not a class on the study of policies. We try to make policy."

Prashad is also a Left Wing community activist who believes in the dignity of labor and the importance of social justice.

"Tomorrow if the hospitals decide to go on strike and call me to come there, I will. And it's not because I know anything about the health care industry. I will be there because I know the workers are badly paid and poorly treated," he says.

He is a monthly columnist for Little India, a free magazine circulated in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. He also writes for, a new Internet magazine and other publications like Frontline, Colorlines and Himal South Asia.

Prashad immigrated to the United States in the mid 80's and soon realized that his schooling in India had given him a solid foundation putting him ahead with "almost an unfair advantage" at Pomona College in Southern California.

He was in college during the Reagan years and protested against some of the policies of the administration. For instance at Pomona, students struggled to make their college divest its money from apartheid South Africa and express solidarity with South African and El Salvadoran fighters.

He remembers "thousands of illegal students from El Salvador who sought refuge in a church basement. I was happy to be there during the time, joining in the protests."

After he finished his master's degree, he went on to do a Ph.D in history at the University of Chicago because "it was the easiest thing to do" and it put him "in a safe world."

His thesis was on Balmiki community, a Dalit community in Delhi, condemned to sanitation work by a combination of British colonialism, Brahmin overlords and unimaginative Delhi elite.

In Providence, Rhode Island, he worked at DARE (Direct Action Rights and Equality) where he helped win some major battles.

One was persuading tobacco companies to take off their billboards out of the poor neighborhoods. The other was fighting alongside home daycare providers to create a daycare co-operative for women. He also assisted in protesting police brutality.

At this job, he won the admiration of many young Indians from Brown University, who often dropped by to chat, intrigued by the notion of an Indian who makes small money in a difficult job but is happy with himself.

"It is these conversations with young people that introduced me to their fears, their frustrations, their thoughts and their awareness on social justice and also influenced my book. I want to acknowledge that," Prashad said. "It was a moving experience, communicating with them."

After a few years at this job, he was drawn back to the academic world. He taught history at Syracuse University and Cornell University, before accepting a teaching position at Trinity College in 1996, where he is also the incoming director of the International Studies Program.

"Teaching is an easy way for me to make a gives me the flexibility to do the things I want to do," says Prashad.

He is equally blunt in his assessment of the Indian community in the US.

It hurts him to see that many Indians settled in the US concentrate on making money, turning a blind eye to social causes.

He wakes up very morning "tormented by his deep moral values" and wonders "where is their doubt? Their pain? Their suffering? Where does it lie?"

Prashad, who has been married for eight years to another teacher and community activist Lisa Armstrong, 33, can understand the need for money.

"There are mortgages and children. I live in a beautiful house and I love my house...but I find obsession with money vulgar."

He also has distaste for people who are pretentiously pious.

"A few years ago in New Delhi I saw a man, a Jain, who was sitting naked on top of an elephant, plucking out each hair from his head. It was all about appearance, about showing off," says Prashad adding that he is more serious about being "an atheist than people are about being religious."

"I answer to my soul, my morality and my conscience," he says.

Prashad deplores the hypocrisy of the Indian community.

"We are racists. We look down on the black Americans, but forget that it is because of their struggle and their victory in civil rights movement that made our comfortable lives here possible," he says..

Prashad was born in Calcutta, India but lived in several cities, so has "little allegiance" and no "fierce loyalty" to any city in particular.

"I feel like my parents were in the army because we traveled so much," says Prashad, whose father dabbled in several different things - ranging from business to politics.

"My Dad was a Renaissance man and he taught me most things I know. He was brilliant."

His father, a largely self-educated man, had a unique way of teaching his son.

"He would start to tell me something about a subject and stop when he found me interested and then made me find out about it by myself. He had bought me a set of encyclopaedias and every time I asked him a question, he would say: "Where do you look it up?"

"It was a great childhood and it has nothing to do with my disenchantment of the world," he adds.

His father, who died last November, told him something that Prashad keeps close to his heart.

"My father told me 'You can fight against social injustice but please don't believe that change will happen in your lifetime,' and I agree."

"It may be fiction but it's my fiction. I struggle and I protest because it is the right thing to do. The fiction is necessary for me," Prashad says.

"And I believe that change will come one day."

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