A Conversation with Author, Professor & Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University & Obama Appointee, Vishakha Desai Ph.D.

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Author, Professor & Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the President of Columbia University & Obama Appointee, Vishakha Desai Ph.D.
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Transcript:

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and today we are so honored to be joined by Dr. Vishakha Desai. Vishakha Desai is a Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the president of Columbia University, Chair of the Committee on Global Thought, and Senior Research Scholar in Global Studies at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Dr. Desai served as president and CEO of the prestigious Asia Society, a global organization dedicated to strengthening partnerships among people of Asia and the US from 2004 through 2012.

Soniya Gokhale (01:25):
As president, she set the direction for the society’s diverse set of programs ranging from policy initiatives and national educational programs to groundbreaking exhibitions and performing arts programs. Dr. Desai holds a BA in Political Science from Bombay University and an MA and PhD in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan. In 2012, in recognition of her leadership in the museum field, President Barack Obama appointed her to serve on the National Museums and Library Services Board. In May of 2021, Dr. Desai’s, World As Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings, was released by Columbia University Press. In this critically acclaimed narrative, Dr. Desai uses her life experiences to explore the significance of living globally and its particularly urgency for our current moment. Dr. Desai, welcome to the show.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (02:31):
I am delighted to be here. Thank you.

Soniya Gokhale (02:34):
Well, it is such a distinct honor to have you here. When I reached out for this interview request, I truly hadn’t been aware that you had recently released a book and the book is, World As Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings. And of course, I proceeded to read the book in preparation for this interview. And I cannot possibly express adequately the impression that has been left upon me. I shared this with you before we started recording, but I will have the link to the book in the podcast notes. And it is a transformational book. And I think it will impact each and every South Asian woman who reads first, but any woman truly because it is absolutely remarkable about how candid you are about your life’s journey, which is just absolutely remarkable and inspiring for so many reasons. But I have to say as well that as we dive into question, there is … the question came to mind, did she have a crystal ball? Because it correlates so ingeniously and uncannily to what we are seeing with the global pandemic.

Soniya Gokhale (03:47):
So if you want to speak to that, because I do know that in reading the book at the end of it, you sort of elaborate upon the fact that COVID did present itself sort of as you were finishing this project up, and it ties in so inextricably perfectly to some of the motifs and themes that you cover. So any comments on that before we jump in?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (04:08):
First of all, Soniya, thank you for asking the question. And I have to say that when I started writing this book and even conceived of the book, it was as if it was a different lifetime ago. And it was at the time when Trump presidency was in high gear. It was at a time when everything global was under attack. As if you were globally minded, you had to be anti-national. And it was really with that idea that why are people so anti-global? What’s the problem? What’s the problem with the world, what’s the problem with how it’s perceived? And it’s also because I work with young people all the time. I teach at Columbia.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (04:55):
I work with younger people on various boards. And it was very clear to me that the younger people really had a very different impression. The world lived in their palm in their cell phone. They could connect to anybody anywhere either through an avatar or through connections, and what have you. So they were living in this local national global world at the same time. My own experience was that it was possible not to see global as antithetical to local or national. So the book was written. I said, “Okay. How did I get to feel this way? How did I actually get so passionate about the global consciousness that we all need to have?” So the book is really a memoir in a way to really try to excavate how and why did I become so passionate about my place in the world and the world in my life? The only way to do it was to actually tell my story. And so my story was really a way to recapture that.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (06:09):
The book is finished. I have come up with the title. The title is based on a Vedic phrase that’s literally 3,000 years old. And I said, “Gosh, maybe it’s too simple.” Some of my friends were saying it sounds too idealistic. The world is so polarized. “What do you mean the world is family? It sounds too simplistic.” Then COVID happens. And I said, “Oh, my God. This is exactly the title that I need to use.” That those philosophers, the Vedic thinkers 3,000 years ago, had it right. What they said in that phrase, was to say, “Only those of a limited mind think of their blood relatives as their family. Those of the magnanimous spirit or an expansive mind know that they must treat the whole world as family.” And I thought, “Wow, what does that really mean?” What it means is, what do we learn in a family?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (07:19):
We learned in the family that we are part of a unit and we are apart as an individual. So we are independent in relation to the interdependence of the unit called the family. We understand that. We also understand what does it mean for a family? For those of us of South Asian descent, we know what it means that you show up? Important event, you show up, difficult times, you show up. It also means that if in a functional family, at least, that you have to learn to give up something sometimes for the sake of the unity of the family. You can’t hold on to grudges because then you fall apart. And it occurred to me that our current problem, and COVID really exposed that, is that our global family is pretty dysfunctional. We haven’t figured out how to think of ourselves as part of this larger unit that is the whole universe.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (08:26):
When you look at climate crisis, you look at COVID crisis, all of that tell us that pathogens don’t know national borders. Rising ocean and heat waves don’t know any national borders. Only thing we have to think about is how to deal with it locally, and nationally, and globally. So then I realize this is a perfect metaphor and what I’m trying to do in the book. And that is to say let’s create stories by which we learn and think about how to be rooted and be expansive about our global belonging.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (09:08):
So the second part of the title, a journey of multi-rooted belongings is precisely to say, it isn’t really a story about coming from one place and becoming something else. It is about thinking of ourselves, especially for those of us who are immigrants, either by force, or by choice. There are more than 250 million people today in the world who live where they were not born. Just think about that. That’s a lot of people. And all of them have the capacity. And even if you’re not an immigrant, even if you’re interested in learning about your place in the world, it is important that you create different ways of belonging and bring those differences into your life. Hence, the idea of multi-rooted longing. And that’s really the way how the book is shaped to be.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (10:09):
I must say since it’s been out, younger people are reading it, parents are reading it, kids in colleges are reading it, but also lots of immigrants are reading it to say, “It speaks to me.” And what I’m saying is that it is your story, too. It’s not just my story. It’s a story that also has the potential to go beyond a story to really grasp this moment. What does it mean to be grounded in yourself and belong to the world?

Soniya Gokhale (10:48):
That’s so incredibly beautiful and timely. I’m going to quote your book. Quote, I have felt privileged to be part of two cultures that embody the possibility of being open to the world. At their best, both India and America, share the ideals of openness and respect for diversity. Two essential elements for building a global community. India claims the wonderful Vedic phrase, which you sort of referred to and you eliminated me on this, by the way. Beautiful. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (11:20):
Kutumbakam. Right.

Soniya Gokhale (11:21):
Treat the world as family. How profound and timely for these difficult and challenging times that we have right now? And this is enshrined at the entrance of the country’s parliament hall. And as you point out, America has long cherished its national motto, E Pluribus Unum, from many one. And you draw these parallels which I had never heard before, yet they’re so correlated to who you are and your story. And what is front and center to this narrative is you bring in your deeply inspiring parents who I feel like I know them. And their background and your upbringing is so integral to understanding who you are as a renowned scholar and thought leader because your parents were not what one might consider “traditional” or conventional in some ways. They were immersed in Gandhism, in the fight for freedom. And so I wonder if you could speak to that a bit. And a little bit about your father who dedicated his life really to energizing young people to join the freedom struggle and rebel against outmoded social conventions through institution he built and books he wrote. So you had him as a male role model. And we will certainly get into your mother as well.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (12:43):
Well, there’s lots of different things to say about what you’ve just said. So the first part is the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and E Pluribus Unum idea at our best these two countries really enshrine the idea of out of diversity creating a new nation. And at the same time, it’s fair to say that in both of our countries, these ideas are fragile. They are contested, they are fought, they are at risk. So we have to double down and said, “Let’s not give up on those ideals that our founders really thought were important.” And we have to fight very hard to actually keep that alive. And at the same time, I think that both of these ideas don’t just spring from nowhere. So I quote in the book, in fact, the phrase that [inaudible 00:13:45] often use and that was to say that keep the floor of our house strong, but keep the windows and doors open. So we may get wind’s coming from everywhere, but our ground is not shaken. And that has something to do with in fact how I grew up.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (14:09):
I don’t want to romanticize because I know there are other issues too, but I would say that what was important right after India got its independence … And I was born two years after independence. So I consider myself as a child of independent India. In the first decade to 20 years, what had happened was that there was still the spirit of this idea of creating a new nation out of many adversities and diversities. And we must not forget that India was not even … India never been a nation state until that moment. Even British had not managed to get all the kingdoms under its umbrella. So for the first time, this ancient civilization 6,000 plus years old, was now a modern nation. And it came from multiple languages, multiple cultures, we know all that. The reality is that we then have to say, “How do you create respect for that diversity and differences?” And I happen to grow up in a family in Ahmedabad, not my traditional definition, a cosmopolitan family. We did not go to English medium schools by choice. We were part of this intellectual group and activist group that many of the people in Ahmedabad at that time were Gandhi aides, were scholars, were intellectuals, but also even business people who were imbued with that spirit of national spirit, and to cultivate pride in one’s own culture without giving up the idea of curiosity about the world.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (16:02):
One of the things that I think my father especially took to heart, is to say that learning about the rest of the world is not something you do at the expense of learning about your own. Those two pieces have to come together. And my mother who came much more from a traditional religious family in some ways, but was Mother. My grandmother was so strong that … In fact, my mother was one of the few first women to go to college in a city outside of her hometown for various complicated reasons that we can get into, but the truth is that from Surat she goes to Ahmedabad, lives in a hostel, gets involved in the independence movement, meets my father in the movement from two different castes, they’re together for almost seven years, do not get married until my mother was 31, my father is 33. Pretty [inaudible 00:17:00] by Indian standard. And then they proceed to have seven children and my mother makes a commitment, but she always reminded us that marriage was not a foregone conclusion for women, it was a choice. And that meant you also had a choice not to get married, if that’s not what you wanted, and it was okay.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (17:24):
So the spirit they had both of them, and especially I would say my father, was to really not make judgments about other people, have curiosity about the world, read things from all parts of the world. When I was 10 years old, we were going to Bengali Movies in Ahmedabad that had no English medium subtitles, it just was in Bengali, but we went because my father said it was important that we see that. So I saw [inaudible 00:17:57] when I was 10 years old. It’s that kind of a spirit that we grew up in. So it wasn’t just mean cosmopolitan in a shallow sense, but it was to be conscious about the world and to be curious about people who were different from you. And that’s what I got from my family growing up, very early. Even while they both wore [inaudible 00:18:22] and [inaudible 00:18:23], we went to a Gujarati Medium School and I’m very proud of that.

Soniya Gokhale (18:29):
That’s a very important distinction that you make in the book that educated me that though the British were long gone from India, the language they left behind continues to elicit an air of superiority among Indian elites at the time. And as you pointed out, upper class families often sent their children to English language schools, and with English as a medium of instruction and with British curricula generally run by Christian missionaries. And that is so fascinating because your parents said, “No.” And many others perhaps in Ahmedabad as you prefer, as you reference rather indicated that, “No. We are going to send our children rather to schools that whereby Gujarati is spoken.

Soniya Gokhale (19:17):
And I think that this is a very important message being delivered to you and and others during that time period, a self-esteem and preserving your heritage. And your parents that, “No. We’re not going to follow what this “elite group of individuals” perhaps was doing in Mumbai, or Chennai-

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (19:35):
or Delhi.

Soniya Gokhale (19:36):
… or New Delhi. Yes. And so I wonder did that also instill upon you a sort of a pride for where you come from?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (19:45):
Absolutely. And I think not just pride in a jingoistic kind of way because I think pride by itself can be very shallow. And you say, “Oh, well. I’m holding on to my tradition.” Without knowing anything about it. So what was important to us was that we also read great Gujarati poets. We read Gujarati translations of Bengali poets, we read as long with also learning English. So it was not that you didn’t learn English, you learn Hindi. From fifth grade on you learned English. And it was expected that as you go to college, you might do English medium, but there was real pride in learning Sanskrit, for example. I learned Sanskrit from fifth grade on all the way to high school. And I did all those exams that allowed me when I was doing my PhD at University of Michigan to do pre-classical Vedic Sanskrit where the professor taught the entire class in Sanskrit. That was possible because of what I was trained in. So the point I’m making is that with the sense of pride, it must come from certain sense of knowledge and critical thinking that you can also apply.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (21:04):
So I don’t look at past and pride in culture in a kind of uncritical way. I think it also requires work. And it is not at the expense of throwing out learning about other languages. So I’ve always said that, “Why can’t we be more like Dutch?” They learn English, German, Dutch, and French. So what’s wrong with that? We should do that. Rather than what’s happening right now in school. I was just talking to my 13-year-old grand niece who was sort of like my adopted granddaughter going to a very fine school in Ahmedabad. And she said, “I can’t tell you how people think that if you speak to Gujarati or you speak Hindi …” They’re forbidden to speak that in class and they don’t learn that. So if you speak that way, it’s almost thought that you kind of being unsophisticated and that you will never learn English. And I said, “This is the problem.” It’s just the mentality that we have to break out. So I think, for me, at least, and I can’t speak for other people, that I’m very blessed and I feel privileged that I did learn not just about Gujarati, but Sanskrit, Hindi, and then I majored obviously as a PhD student in Indian art, which was then get me a deeper into Indian history. And that was not at the expense of not learning about the world.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (22:41):
So you have to continue to layer your thinking and your understanding by adding rather than always saying it’s an either or an array kind of a dialectical position between local and the global.

Soniya Gokhale (22:58):
Well, I think one of the things that struck me in reading this book is, you appear to have lived many lives in one lifetime. And as many of us do and certainly those of us that are immigrants to this country, but experientially your parents and their progressive mindset established a foundation for education whereby you came to this country through the AFS program. And it expanded your horizons exponentially as one might expect. As a young person, you made a transcontinental flight to this country and came here in the 1960s during Vietnam war immersed in the, as you call it, the hippie culture in California. I want to hear more about that because it’s such a juxtaposition coming from India and that background and education, though your parents obviously weren’t of “traditional mindset” and yet then to be thrust into this country and that time period, what was that like?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (24:08):
Well, first of all, I have to say that it’s hard to remember that 1966 India was also the time where none of us had television in homes. Only television that was just beginning to come in was in the villages for people to learn about the wheat prices or something. So you didn’t see much of the rest of the world. You could read about it in the paper. So we knew something about America, but it was also just as the immigration law had changed in America. So there were very, very few Indians in America. In Santa Barbara, in that whole community, there were maybe two families at the time. And it was usually family. You never saw any young person just like myself as a 17-year-old and living with an American family. So the key thing about this was that … There were other Indian students everywhere in America, but to have our parents send us to America when none of us … Most of us had never flown before. So that was the other thing because, who had the money? Unless you had some scholarship to go to America for graduate school, usually men, usually people who were in engineering or something like that, sciences, it was never liberal arts for sure.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (25:40):
Most people thought I was Spanish. So there were all kinds of crazy things where Chicano students actually were one time gathered all around me and they were so upset that I did not speak Spanish. And they started yelling at me saying, “You’re forgetting your culture.” And this and that. And I finally said, “Gee, how am I going to deal with this?” And I just started talking to them in Gujarati. And that finally kind of stopped them. So it was a unique moment at the same time in May 1967 already the Beatles were singing Indian songs. They had gone through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, they had invited Ravi Shankar. So there was kind of this sense of exoticism about India where the first time I was in my study hall at Santa Barbara High and a kid from behind me said … and wrote to me and said, “Is it true that ganja … No. He said hashish is legal in India or something. I didn’t know what he was talking about. And I finally said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Oh, ganja.” And I said, “I think villagers smoke it, but I don’t know what it is.” That was the best I can think of that.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (26:58):
So there was certain level for some group of people excitement. Other people thought they wonder how I went to school. So people would ask me, “Gee, how did you get to school? Did you have pets?” I said, “What do you think? Do you think I went to an elephant?” I said, “No. I had a bicycle just like everybody else.” But people didn’t know that at the time. So it was a moment that was unusual. Then I get thrown into Vietnam War because I’m getting involved with the anti-war movement. And that really was an important moment for me as a 17-year-old to recognize that here we were fighting in a war far away and we didn’t know anything about that culture.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (27:46):
So my big awareness in a big public role that I had to play at Santa Barbara High, was to say, “We keep calling Vietnam War. We don’t think of Vietnam as a country, as a place, as a culture that may have 3,000 years history.” God forbid if US should go to war with India. You will take the same. We didn’t even know we use his names, [inaudible 00:28:16]. We had no idea of the depth of culture. And for me that awareness was that you go to war with countries when you have no idea about the culture, not only are you bound to fail, but also shame on us. And then what? Afghanistan just happened. And one thing everybody is talking about is that how could we not have understood that culture better?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (28:42):
So many wars in the world get actually taken partly a maybe people don’t know enough about cultures because we don’t think of them as human beings. That’s when you kill people. When you take the humanity out of other individuals. And that’s why we have to come back to that. So that was for me, the awakening that started me on a path that professionally I ended up doing, which was to always have this intersection of art and culture coming together.

Soniya Gokhale (29:17):
What a beautiful and timely parallel that it draws? Afghanistan did come to my mind as you were speaking about Vietnam. And yes, the similarities are just incredible, but your perspective as a global citizen, I won’t even call you a citizen of one country after I’ve read this book, is so insightful and so needed right now. I quote in the book you stated, “I wanted to blend in to an American setting embracing it as much as I could, but I also wanted to hold on to my Indian self. This was not an easy task in 1966.” And it’s a predicament that you describe James Baldwin [inaudible 00:29:54]. You don’t have a home until you leave it. And then when you have left it, you can never go back. And you do return to India. And what’s fascinating is that after education, it certainly was challenging to go back and acclimate after you had perhaps been in the US and become “Americanized” and trying to reconcile those two aspects of yourself. If you could tell me about that.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (30:23):
Yeah. I think this is the bicultural predicament that so many of us go through. But especially in the early days, I have begun to realize even since the book came out, because I’ve talked about this a lot, is to recognize that part of it was that when you leave your own home and go someplace else, you change in a big way. It’s not that you get Americanized or not, but you change because your perception of yourself and your perception of where you come from you will have a chance to reflect on that because you get outside of yourself. Then you go back. Other people have not had that experience. So there’s no way for them to actually see you in a different way. Externally, you look the same, but internally what’s going on is not always apparent, especially in the early days when people’s awareness of what is America is very different too.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (31:27):
So I think part of it is that I do blame people for not understanding what I was going through because they didn’t see me in that new context except for my father, who actually happened to come as a State Department guest. I saw him for a couple of days, three days or so. But the point I’m making is that I think that once you start on this path of multi-routed belonging or bicultural predicament, you don’t any longer have the option of just belonging to one. And the best of times, you belong to both and more places. In the worst of times, you belong nowhere. And it is that predicament. What I quoted Baldwin is that you don’t know what home is until you leave it and then you come back, you actually can’t go back home again because your notion of home has fundamentally changed. It’s hard to hold on to the home as you thought of it at the beginning. I think that the challenge, but also the acceleration is that yes, in the worst of times, you belong nowhere, but by belonging to multiple places, you also make your life a lot richer, as long as you can own it, and then move on that path to really begin to be at home no matter where you are.

Soniya Gokhale (33:05):
Oh, that’s beautifully worded. I do want to offer for listeners that one of the themes that really struck me is that as a woman who came to this country from India, the reason I say this is a feminist manifesto is because some of the things that you face are issues that women today face and there’s a universality to it.

Soniya Gokhale (33:29):
You faced a pregnancy that you contemplated ending, you represented yourself in divorce court as an immigrant to this country without representation. You stood up for yourself when the judge indicated, “No. There’s some red tape here.” You went back and found out you were actually correct. You can proceed as you had thought. And these are decisions that are still facing many women today and potentially even some domestic violence issues or alcoholism and being with a partner that you know is not the right one. And ironically, he was American, and that he said to your parents, “She’s become too Americanized.” I had to laugh because we just can’t win. We’ll hear it from our Indian husband that, “You’re too American.” You’re an American and he was complaining to your parents. It just empowered me reading this and feeling for you a such a courageous figure. Going back to when you faced all this I presume on your own without really a support system in place. And yet here we are in 2021 and many women are facing the exact same issue and we know what’s happening in Texas and many of these rights are at risk. So what are your thoughts on that?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (34:55):
When you remind me of that, just the whole scene comes right back to me very vivid. I sometimes wonder, “Where the hell did I get that audacity?” And I initially just that I didn’t have any money. I’m just going to do that. Legally, people told me I could do it and I said, “Okay. I’ll do it, whatever.” I think what I learned from my parents both of them is courage and fearlessness so that you don’t get cowered by anything, and they didn’t. And my for my father to be a 17-year-old, start a youth organization, then in and out of jail, solitary, this, that. My mother had broke the engagement, went to undergrad. So I think having grown up with those stories, part of it was that you just do what you have to do.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (35:54):
At the same time, in retrospect I realized that actually how much easier it would have been if one had a community of people. How to be supportive to one another. And so in retrospect, I don’t want people to have to go through all this stuff by themselves. That not so much that you need professional help, but I think the other one that I’m sure you probably would mention in the book is that when I ended up having an abortion even while I was married and then my husband, not wanting to go with me and whatnot. And I realized that these are moments nobody should have to go through alone. And it’s important if you don’t have a family, immediate family, create a community of friends, be supportive. And so I work very hard now to really help out my friends and help my family to see who needs help, and how can we share that, so that we don’t have to bear all that burden alone, to create some group of people that can be your bedrock, your community of support.

Soniya Gokhale (37:17):
That’s beautiful. Yes. And you did go through that alone and emerge from it. And that’s why I, again, I recommend everybody to read this. Every woman certainly, but everybody will gain something from this because it’s sad that here we are today in 2021 and as you stated, still facing some of these issues. But there is no need to go through this alone, as you’ve indicated. The other thing I found so empowering is you paved the way for citizenship for many of your siblings to come to this country. And again, we don’t hear about women, South Asian women, sponsoring their siblings. I know my dad did for his siblings and my parents did, but wow, so empowering. And as we fast forward to you’re prolific and amazing career in the art world which intersects with politics, Governor Dukakis nominated you to the board of the Massachusetts Humanities Foundation. And as you indicate, it was your first experience with a political appointment.

Soniya Gokhale (38:18):
As I read this book, I just did an interview with the executive director of the Yale, The Campaign School, Yale University, and I have to say, all of your attributes and who you are, are indicative of someone that should run for office. I am certainly not proposing that you do so. I know you’re a global citizen and probably enjoying your life very much, but my goodness, you have all of those traits that are so needed and that especially women candidates need to embody. And so as you indicate much you’re surprised, you really enjoyed the experience. And it often involve going around the state reviewing proposals from local historical societies and community cultural organization and you learned about early American history while you were doing that. You were the daughter of freedom fighters and then you had this parallel training then in the US. So what did that mean for you at that time?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (39:15):
Well, I think that there were two things that happened in the ’80s after I became citizen and when I was appointed by Governor Dukakis. Because of some early Indian American supporters off Dukakis, they put my name out there. And I began to realize that while I had agitated and really wondered about this giving up an Indian citizenship, which was very emotional for me, because we couldn’t … We didn’t have OCI or any of those kinds of options then. And then realizing that if I’m going to carry an American passport, I better learn also about it America. It is not enough to just be an Indian in America. And so I kind of recognized that these Indians who were getting involved in American politics were really sticking in ground … put a stake in the ground that this is our country to and we have to get involved. So that was the first awareness.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (40:23):
The second thing with the Massachusetts Humanities Foundation was because ultimately Massachusetts is the cradle of American history. And to learn there, as to what was going on in the 17th and the 18th century, and where you were, and when people would tell me, “Gee, what kind of Indian are you? Are you a dot Indian or a feather Indian?” So that kind of thing. And that made me realize that, if you’re going to be in this country, you really have to learn also about its past, and that’s important. The second generation Indian Americans is, of course, learned, but if you’re an immigrant and you didn’t go to school here, I had learned some of that in the American high school when I was in high school. So this was a really a useful way for me to engage.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (41:14):
I’m proud to say, talking about political appointment, that my last political appointment was President Obama appointing me to the National Museum and Library Board. So it kind of continues. The last thing I’ll say is that you’re not the first one who said I’d run for a political office. And I say, if you my friend, you don’t wish that on me. So there you are. Although I’m very interested and I’ve supported other people, but it’s also … There’s a time and place for everything. And I think that the younger people who are running now are fabulous. And it’s great that we have such a great representation now of Indian Americans in the political arena.

Soniya Gokhale (41:58):
Absolutely. Yes. You’re right. It’s a brutal, brutal world. You’ve gone through a lot. I wouldn’t wish that upon you. And yet, for the sake of our country, I think you would be spectacular. I’ll leave that there. I completely understand. I do want to offer, as we are coming to the end of our time together, that you have really transformed the world of art and thought leadership, because as you pointed out in your book, it was through the writings of anthropologists such as James Clapper that you began to understand the preference for pre-modern art and exclusion of 20th century Asian art from the Western or historical canon were tied to the colonial history of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Soniya Gokhale (42:48):
And as you were being presented with a leadership role at a very prominent museums and on the leadership of other institutions in New York City, you are presented with this. You state this in the book that you know that Blanchette Rockefeller, a wife of a founder, John D. Rockefeller III, doesn’t like modern Asian art. She thinks it’s basically derivative of Western modern art and will not be received will by New York audiences. And fast forward to when the exhibition really is revealed and Dr. Manmohan Singh is presenting the introductory comments at the first Asia Society Speech in 1991. And he said, “We’re very proud of the fact that Dr. Vishakha Desai, a daughter of India, is now at the home of this distinguished institution.” And so I want to have your comments on all of that because it does demonstrate the carryovers of colonialism and how you have single-handedly, through your war, paved the way for new forms of art to be embraced by audiences everywhere.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (44:04):
Well, I wouldn’t say single-handedly, but I am very proud that at the Asia Society, we were among the very first institutions to take on a systemic program of 20th century Asian. At that point, 20th century, this was in the early ’90s. And then 25 years later, by 2006, it was already beginning to be in various auction houses and museum, other museums a little bit. But for me, what was really important was that part of it was to dispel the notion that when it came to Asia, that economically everybody was aware by the 1990s that China was taking off, Southeast Asia was taking off, India was even beginning to take off after the 1991 liberation of economy. And yet when it came to culture, that somehow it was only Asia. That there was no innovative quality to Asia at all.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (45:13):
And for me, it was kind of a philosophical question. And that is that, why do we say that? As if there’s no creativity in India or in other parts of Asia. And that we have to therefore begin to look at it, examine it carefully, get the right curators, the right scholars, and begin to present it. And it was from that idea that I’m very proud that we had a role to play. I don’t want to say single-handedly. I’ve had wonderful colleagues and curators many of them based in Asia who I was able to work with and to develop major exhibitions that then traveled all over America, all over the world. So it’s kind of something I feel that I had an opportunity and I feel blessed to have had that opportunity to make a difference in that arena.

Soniya Gokhale (46:14):
There is no doubt about that. And as we close out, your book aptly points out that we have 7.7 billion humans on this planet, and the novel coronavirus is a perfect metaphor for the necessity and challenges that face us as a planet at global vaccine equity. It’s something we have to accomplish. We have to in order to survive as a planet. And like I said, you did not have a crystal ball and yet your book is so timely. As we close out, what would you like to leave for our listeners to think about?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (46:52):
Well, I think that the bottom line is that we better think about our place on this planet in relation to the 7.7 billion people who inhabit this planet. So we have to think about our sense of interdependence without losing our sense of independence. We have to think about ourselves in the global arena without losing our local rootedness. This means what old President Johnson used to say that you have to chew gum and walk at the same time. And it’s not an easy thing, but remind yourself whatever you do in your life, how does it affect other people? How does it affect people who are not part of your [inaudible 00:47:52]? How can we make a difference in our local way that would affect the planet in a global way?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (48:00):
So all other world religions in the world has this idea that the world is one, but we have completely forgotten that idea. And it’s not it’s just an idealistic dream. You have to live it every day.

Soniya Gokhale (48:20):
Just beautiful words to leave for our listeners. And we really cannot thank you enough for joining us today. Dr. Vishakha Desai, author of World as Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings. And as I stated, I will have the link in the podcast notes. And be prepared to be changed and transformed. This book has earned its place on my nightstand and it’s really a source of just great strength and inspiration. So thank you so much.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (48:48):
Thank you, Soniya, and thank you all for listening. And enjoy the book.

Soniya Gokhale (48:53):
Thank you.

 

Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale, and today we are so honored to be joined by Dr. Vishakha Desai. Vishakha Desai is a Senior Advisor for Global Affairs to the president of Columbia University, Chair of the Committee on Global Thought, and Senior Research Scholar in Global Studies at the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs. Dr. Desai served as president and CEO of the prestigious Asia Society, a global organization dedicated to strengthening partnerships among people of Asia and the US from 2004 through 2012.

Soniya Gokhale (01:25):
As president, she set the direction for the society’s diverse set of programs ranging from policy initiatives and national educational programs to groundbreaking exhibitions and performing arts programs. Dr. Desai holds a BA in Political Science from Bombay University and an MA and PhD in Asian Art History from the University of Michigan. In 2012, in recognition of her leadership in the museum field, President Barack Obama appointed her to serve on the National Museums and Library Services Board. In May of 2021, Dr. Desai’s, World As Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings, was released by Columbia University Press. In this critically acclaimed narrative, Dr. Desai uses her life experiences to explore the significance of living globally and its particularly urgency for our current moment. Dr. Desai, welcome to the show.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (02:31):
I am delighted to be here. Thank you.

Soniya Gokhale (02:34):
Well, it is such a distinct honor to have you here. When I reached out for this interview request, I truly hadn’t been aware that you had recently released a book and the book is, World As Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings. And of course, I proceeded to read the book in preparation for this interview. And I cannot possibly express adequately the impression that has been left upon me. I shared this with you before we started recording, but I will have the link to the book in the podcast notes. And it is a transformational book. And I think it will impact each and every South Asian woman who reads first, but any woman truly because it is absolutely remarkable about how candid you are about your life’s journey, which is just absolutely remarkable and inspiring for so many reasons. But I have to say as well that as we dive into question, there is … the question came to mind, did she have a crystal ball? Because it correlates so ingeniously and uncannily to what we are seeing with the global pandemic.

Soniya Gokhale (03:47):
So if you want to speak to that, because I do know that in reading the book at the end of it, you sort of elaborate upon the fact that COVID did present itself sort of as you were finishing this project up, and it ties in so inextricably perfectly to some of the motifs and themes that you cover. So any comments on that before we jump in?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (04:08):
First of all, Soniya, thank you for asking the question. And I have to say that when I started writing this book and even conceived of the book, it was as if it was a different lifetime ago. And it was at the time when Trump presidency was in high gear. It was at a time when everything global was under attack. As if you were globally minded, you had to be anti-national. And it was really with that idea that why are people so anti-global? What’s the problem? What’s the problem with the world, what’s the problem with how it’s perceived? And it’s also because I work with young people all the time. I teach at Columbia.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (04:55):
I work with younger people on various boards. And it was very clear to me that the younger people really had a very different impression. The world lived in their palm in their cell phone. They could connect to anybody anywhere either through an avatar or through connections, and what have you. So they were living in this local national global world at the same time. My own experience was that it was possible not to see global as antithetical to local or national. So the book was written. I said, “Okay. How did I get to feel this way? How did I actually get so passionate about the global consciousness that we all need to have?” So the book is really a memoir in a way to really try to excavate how and why did I become so passionate about my place in the world and the world in my life? The only way to do it was to actually tell my story. And so my story was really a way to recapture that.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (06:09):
The book is finished. I have come up with the title. The title is based on a Vedic phrase that’s literally 3,000 years old. And I said, “Gosh, maybe it’s too simple.” Some of my friends were saying it sounds too idealistic. The world is so polarized. “What do you mean the world is family? It sounds too simplistic.” Then COVID happens. And I said, “Oh, my God. This is exactly the title that I need to use.” That those philosophers, the Vedic thinkers 3,000 years ago, had it right. What they said in that phrase, was to say, “Only those of a limited mind think of their blood relatives as their family. Those of the magnanimous spirit or an expansive mind know that they must treat the whole world as family.” And I thought, “Wow, what does that really mean?” What it means is, what do we learn in a family?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (07:19):
We learned in the family that we are part of a unit and we are apart as an individual. So we are independent in relation to the interdependence of the unit called the family. We understand that. We also understand what does it mean for a family? For those of us of South Asian descent, we know what it means that you show up? Important event, you show up, difficult times, you show up. It also means that if in a functional family, at least, that you have to learn to give up something sometimes for the sake of the unity of the family. You can’t hold on to grudges because then you fall apart. And it occurred to me that our current problem, and COVID really exposed that, is that our global family is pretty dysfunctional. We haven’t figured out how to think of ourselves as part of this larger unit that is the whole universe.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (08:26):
When you look at climate crisis, you look at COVID crisis, all of that tell us that pathogens don’t know national borders. Rising ocean and heat waves don’t know any national borders. Only thing we have to think about is how to deal with it locally, and nationally, and globally. So then I realize this is a perfect metaphor and what I’m trying to do in the book. And that is to say let’s create stories by which we learn and think about how to be rooted and be expansive about our global belonging.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (09:08):
So the second part of the title, a journey of multi-rooted belongings is precisely to say, it isn’t really a story about coming from one place and becoming something else. It is about thinking of ourselves, especially for those of us who are immigrants, either by force, or by choice. There are more than 250 million people today in the world who live where they were not born. Just think about that. That’s a lot of people. And all of them have the capacity. And even if you’re not an immigrant, even if you’re interested in learning about your place in the world, it is important that you create different ways of belonging and bring those differences into your life. Hence, the idea of multi-rooted longing. And that’s really the way how the book is shaped to be.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (10:09):
I must say since it’s been out, younger people are reading it, parents are reading it, kids in colleges are reading it, but also lots of immigrants are reading it to say, “It speaks to me.” And what I’m saying is that it is your story, too. It’s not just my story. It’s a story that also has the potential to go beyond a story to really grasp this moment. What does it mean to be grounded in yourself and belong to the world?

Soniya Gokhale (10:48):
That’s so incredibly beautiful and timely. I’m going to quote your book. Quote, I have felt privileged to be part of two cultures that embody the possibility of being open to the world. At their best, both India and America, share the ideals of openness and respect for diversity. Two essential elements for building a global community. India claims the wonderful Vedic phrase, which you sort of referred to and you eliminated me on this, by the way. Beautiful. Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (11:20):
Kutumbakam. Right.

Soniya Gokhale (11:21):
Treat the world as family. How profound and timely for these difficult and challenging times that we have right now? And this is enshrined at the entrance of the country’s parliament hall. And as you point out, America has long cherished its national motto, E Pluribus Unum, from many one. And you draw these parallels which I had never heard before, yet they’re so correlated to who you are and your story. And what is front and center to this narrative is you bring in your deeply inspiring parents who I feel like I know them. And their background and your upbringing is so integral to understanding who you are as a renowned scholar and thought leader because your parents were not what one might consider “traditional” or conventional in some ways. They were immersed in Gandhism, in the fight for freedom. And so I wonder if you could speak to that a bit. And a little bit about your father who dedicated his life really to energizing young people to join the freedom struggle and rebel against outmoded social conventions through institution he built and books he wrote. So you had him as a male role model. And we will certainly get into your mother as well.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (12:43):
Well, there’s lots of different things to say about what you’ve just said. So the first part is the Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and E Pluribus Unum idea at our best these two countries really enshrine the idea of out of diversity creating a new nation. And at the same time, it’s fair to say that in both of our countries, these ideas are fragile. They are contested, they are fought, they are at risk. So we have to double down and said, “Let’s not give up on those ideals that our founders really thought were important.” And we have to fight very hard to actually keep that alive. And at the same time, I think that both of these ideas don’t just spring from nowhere. So I quote in the book, in fact, the phrase that [inaudible 00:13:45] often use and that was to say that keep the floor of our house strong, but keep the windows and doors open. So we may get wind’s coming from everywhere, but our ground is not shaken. And that has something to do with in fact how I grew up.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (14:09):
I don’t want to romanticize because I know there are other issues too, but I would say that what was important right after India got its independence … And I was born two years after independence. So I consider myself as a child of independent India. In the first decade to 20 years, what had happened was that there was still the spirit of this idea of creating a new nation out of many adversities and diversities. And we must not forget that India was not even … India never been a nation state until that moment. Even British had not managed to get all the kingdoms under its umbrella. So for the first time, this ancient civilization 6,000 plus years old, was now a modern nation. And it came from multiple languages, multiple cultures, we know all that. The reality is that we then have to say, “How do you create respect for that diversity and differences?” And I happen to grow up in a family in Ahmedabad, not my traditional definition, a cosmopolitan family. We did not go to English medium schools by choice. We were part of this intellectual group and activist group that many of the people in Ahmedabad at that time were Gandhi aides, were scholars, were intellectuals, but also even business people who were imbued with that spirit of national spirit, and to cultivate pride in one’s own culture without giving up the idea of curiosity about the world.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (16:02):
One of the things that I think my father especially took to heart, is to say that learning about the rest of the world is not something you do at the expense of learning about your own. Those two pieces have to come together. And my mother who came much more from a traditional religious family in some ways, but was Mother. My grandmother was so strong that … In fact, my mother was one of the few first women to go to college in a city outside of her hometown for various complicated reasons that we can get into, but the truth is that from Surat she goes to Ahmedabad, lives in a hostel, gets involved in the independence movement, meets my father in the movement from two different castes, they’re together for almost seven years, do not get married until my mother was 31, my father is 33. Pretty [inaudible 00:17:00] by Indian standard. And then they proceed to have seven children and my mother makes a commitment, but she always reminded us that marriage was not a foregone conclusion for women, it was a choice. And that meant you also had a choice not to get married, if that’s not what you wanted, and it was okay.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (17:24):
So the spirit they had both of them, and especially I would say my father, was to really not make judgments about other people, have curiosity about the world, read things from all parts of the world. When I was 10 years old, we were going to Bengali Movies in Ahmedabad that had no English medium subtitles, it just was in Bengali, but we went because my father said it was important that we see that. So I saw [inaudible 00:17:57] when I was 10 years old. It’s that kind of a spirit that we grew up in. So it wasn’t just mean cosmopolitan in a shallow sense, but it was to be conscious about the world and to be curious about people who were different from you. And that’s what I got from my family growing up, very early. Even while they both wore [inaudible 00:18:22] and [inaudible 00:18:23], we went to a Gujarati Medium School and I’m very proud of that.

Soniya Gokhale (18:29):
That’s a very important distinction that you make in the book that educated me that though the British were long gone from India, the language they left behind continues to elicit an air of superiority among Indian elites at the time. And as you pointed out, upper class families often sent their children to English language schools, and with English as a medium of instruction and with British curricula generally run by Christian missionaries. And that is so fascinating because your parents said, “No.” And many others perhaps in Ahmedabad as you prefer, as you reference rather indicated that, “No. We are going to send our children rather to schools that whereby Gujarati is spoken.

Soniya Gokhale (19:17):
And I think that this is a very important message being delivered to you and and others during that time period, a self-esteem and preserving your heritage. And your parents that, “No. We’re not going to follow what this “elite group of individuals” perhaps was doing in Mumbai, or Chennai-

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (19:35):
or Delhi.

Soniya Gokhale (19:36):
… or New Delhi. Yes. And so I wonder did that also instill upon you a sort of a pride for where you come from?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (19:45):
Absolutely. And I think not just pride in a jingoistic kind of way because I think pride by itself can be very shallow. And you say, “Oh, well. I’m holding on to my tradition.” Without knowing anything about it. So what was important to us was that we also read great Gujarati poets. We read Gujarati translations of Bengali poets, we read as long with also learning English. So it was not that you didn’t learn English, you learn Hindi. From fifth grade on you learned English. And it was expected that as you go to college, you might do English medium, but there was real pride in learning Sanskrit, for example. I learned Sanskrit from fifth grade on all the way to high school. And I did all those exams that allowed me when I was doing my PhD at University of Michigan to do pre-classical Vedic Sanskrit where the professor taught the entire class in Sanskrit. That was possible because of what I was trained in. So the point I’m making is that with the sense of pride, it must come from certain sense of knowledge and critical thinking that you can also apply.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (21:04):
So I don’t look at past and pride in culture in a kind of uncritical way. I think it also requires work. And it is not at the expense of throwing out learning about other languages. So I’ve always said that, “Why can’t we be more like Dutch?” They learn English, German, Dutch, and French. So what’s wrong with that? We should do that. Rather than what’s happening right now in school. I was just talking to my 13-year-old grand niece who was sort of like my adopted granddaughter going to a very fine school in Ahmedabad. And she said, “I can’t tell you how people think that if you speak to Gujarati or you speak Hindi …” They’re forbidden to speak that in class and they don’t learn that. So if you speak that way, it’s almost thought that you kind of being unsophisticated and that you will never learn English. And I said, “This is the problem.” It’s just the mentality that we have to break out. So I think, for me, at least, and I can’t speak for other people, that I’m very blessed and I feel privileged that I did learn not just about Gujarati, but Sanskrit, Hindi, and then I majored obviously as a PhD student in Indian art, which was then get me a deeper into Indian history. And that was not at the expense of not learning about the world.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (22:41):
So you have to continue to layer your thinking and your understanding by adding rather than always saying it’s an either or an array kind of a dialectical position between local and the global.

Soniya Gokhale (22:58):
Well, I think one of the things that struck me in reading this book is, you appear to have lived many lives in one lifetime. And as many of us do and certainly those of us that are immigrants to this country, but experientially your parents and their progressive mindset established a foundation for education whereby you came to this country through the AFS program. And it expanded your horizons exponentially as one might expect. As a young person, you made a transcontinental flight to this country and came here in the 1960s during Vietnam war immersed in the, as you call it, the hippie culture in California. I want to hear more about that because it’s such a juxtaposition coming from India and that background and education, though your parents obviously weren’t of “traditional mindset” and yet then to be thrust into this country and that time period, what was that like?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (24:08):
Well, first of all, I have to say that it’s hard to remember that 1966 India was also the time where none of us had television in homes. Only television that was just beginning to come in was in the villages for people to learn about the wheat prices or something. So you didn’t see much of the rest of the world. You could read about it in the paper. So we knew something about America, but it was also just as the immigration law had changed in America. So there were very, very few Indians in America. In Santa Barbara, in that whole community, there were maybe two families at the time. And it was usually family. You never saw any young person just like myself as a 17-year-old and living with an American family. So the key thing about this was that … There were other Indian students everywhere in America, but to have our parents send us to America when none of us … Most of us had never flown before. So that was the other thing because, who had the money? Unless you had some scholarship to go to America for graduate school, usually men, usually people who were in engineering or something like that, sciences, it was never liberal arts for sure.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (25:40):
Most people thought I was Spanish. So there were all kinds of crazy things where Chicano students actually were one time gathered all around me and they were so upset that I did not speak Spanish. And they started yelling at me saying, “You’re forgetting your culture.” And this and that. And I finally said, “Gee, how am I going to deal with this?” And I just started talking to them in Gujarati. And that finally kind of stopped them. So it was a unique moment at the same time in May 1967 already the Beatles were singing Indian songs. They had gone through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, they had invited Ravi Shankar. So there was kind of this sense of exoticism about India where the first time I was in my study hall at Santa Barbara High and a kid from behind me said … and wrote to me and said, “Is it true that ganja … No. He said hashish is legal in India or something. I didn’t know what he was talking about. And I finally said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “Oh, ganja.” And I said, “I think villagers smoke it, but I don’t know what it is.” That was the best I can think of that.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (26:58):
So there was certain level for some group of people excitement. Other people thought they wonder how I went to school. So people would ask me, “Gee, how did you get to school? Did you have pets?” I said, “What do you think? Do you think I went to an elephant?” I said, “No. I had a bicycle just like everybody else.” But people didn’t know that at the time. So it was a moment that was unusual. Then I get thrown into Vietnam War because I’m getting involved with the anti-war movement. And that really was an important moment for me as a 17-year-old to recognize that here we were fighting in a war far away and we didn’t know anything about that culture.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (27:46):
So my big awareness in a big public role that I had to play at Santa Barbara High, was to say, “We keep calling Vietnam War. We don’t think of Vietnam as a country, as a place, as a culture that may have 3,000 years history.” God forbid if US should go to war with India. You will take the same. We didn’t even know we use his names, [inaudible 00:28:16]. We had no idea of the depth of culture. And for me that awareness was that you go to war with countries when you have no idea about the culture, not only are you bound to fail, but also shame on us. And then what? Afghanistan just happened. And one thing everybody is talking about is that how could we not have understood that culture better?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (28:42):
So many wars in the world get actually taken partly a maybe people don’t know enough about cultures because we don’t think of them as human beings. That’s when you kill people. When you take the humanity out of other individuals. And that’s why we have to come back to that. So that was for me, the awakening that started me on a path that professionally I ended up doing, which was to always have this intersection of art and culture coming together.

Soniya Gokhale (29:17):
What a beautiful and timely parallel that it draws? Afghanistan did come to my mind as you were speaking about Vietnam. And yes, the similarities are just incredible, but your perspective as a global citizen, I won’t even call you a citizen of one country after I’ve read this book, is so insightful and so needed right now. I quote in the book you stated, “I wanted to blend in to an American setting embracing it as much as I could, but I also wanted to hold on to my Indian self. This was not an easy task in 1966.” And it’s a predicament that you describe James Baldwin [inaudible 00:29:54]. You don’t have a home until you leave it. And then when you have left it, you can never go back. And you do return to India. And what’s fascinating is that after education, it certainly was challenging to go back and acclimate after you had perhaps been in the US and become “Americanized” and trying to reconcile those two aspects of yourself. If you could tell me about that.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (30:23):
Yeah. I think this is the bicultural predicament that so many of us go through. But especially in the early days, I have begun to realize even since the book came out, because I’ve talked about this a lot, is to recognize that part of it was that when you leave your own home and go someplace else, you change in a big way. It’s not that you get Americanized or not, but you change because your perception of yourself and your perception of where you come from you will have a chance to reflect on that because you get outside of yourself. Then you go back. Other people have not had that experience. So there’s no way for them to actually see you in a different way. Externally, you look the same, but internally what’s going on is not always apparent, especially in the early days when people’s awareness of what is America is very different too.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (31:27):
So I think part of it is that I do blame people for not understanding what I was going through because they didn’t see me in that new context except for my father, who actually happened to come as a State Department guest. I saw him for a couple of days, three days or so. But the point I’m making is that I think that once you start on this path of multi-routed belonging or bicultural predicament, you don’t any longer have the option of just belonging to one. And the best of times, you belong to both and more places. In the worst of times, you belong nowhere. And it is that predicament. What I quoted Baldwin is that you don’t know what home is until you leave it and then you come back, you actually can’t go back home again because your notion of home has fundamentally changed. It’s hard to hold on to the home as you thought of it at the beginning. I think that the challenge, but also the acceleration is that yes, in the worst of times, you belong nowhere, but by belonging to multiple places, you also make your life a lot richer, as long as you can own it, and then move on that path to really begin to be at home no matter where you are.

Soniya Gokhale (33:05):
Oh, that’s beautifully worded. I do want to offer for listeners that one of the themes that really struck me is that as a woman who came to this country from India, the reason I say this is a feminist manifesto is because some of the things that you face are issues that women today face and there’s a universality to it.

Soniya Gokhale (33:29):
You faced a pregnancy that you contemplated ending, you represented yourself in divorce court as an immigrant to this country without representation. You stood up for yourself when the judge indicated, “No. There’s some red tape here.” You went back and found out you were actually correct. You can proceed as you had thought. And these are decisions that are still facing many women today and potentially even some domestic violence issues or alcoholism and being with a partner that you know is not the right one. And ironically, he was American, and that he said to your parents, “She’s become too Americanized.” I had to laugh because we just can’t win. We’ll hear it from our Indian husband that, “You’re too American.” You’re an American and he was complaining to your parents. It just empowered me reading this and feeling for you a such a courageous figure. Going back to when you faced all this I presume on your own without really a support system in place. And yet here we are in 2021 and many women are facing the exact same issue and we know what’s happening in Texas and many of these rights are at risk. So what are your thoughts on that?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (34:55):
When you remind me of that, just the whole scene comes right back to me very vivid. I sometimes wonder, “Where the hell did I get that audacity?” And I initially just that I didn’t have any money. I’m just going to do that. Legally, people told me I could do it and I said, “Okay. I’ll do it, whatever.” I think what I learned from my parents both of them is courage and fearlessness so that you don’t get cowered by anything, and they didn’t. And my for my father to be a 17-year-old, start a youth organization, then in and out of jail, solitary, this, that. My mother had broke the engagement, went to undergrad. So I think having grown up with those stories, part of it was that you just do what you have to do.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (35:54):
At the same time, in retrospect I realized that actually how much easier it would have been if one had a community of people. How to be supportive to one another. And so in retrospect, I don’t want people to have to go through all this stuff by themselves. That not so much that you need professional help, but I think the other one that I’m sure you probably would mention in the book is that when I ended up having an abortion even while I was married and then my husband, not wanting to go with me and whatnot. And I realized that these are moments nobody should have to go through alone. And it’s important if you don’t have a family, immediate family, create a community of friends, be supportive. And so I work very hard now to really help out my friends and help my family to see who needs help, and how can we share that, so that we don’t have to bear all that burden alone, to create some group of people that can be your bedrock, your community of support.

Soniya Gokhale (37:17):
That’s beautiful. Yes. And you did go through that alone and emerge from it. And that’s why I, again, I recommend everybody to read this. Every woman certainly, but everybody will gain something from this because it’s sad that here we are today in 2021 and as you stated, still facing some of these issues. But there is no need to go through this alone, as you’ve indicated. The other thing I found so empowering is you paved the way for citizenship for many of your siblings to come to this country. And again, we don’t hear about women, South Asian women, sponsoring their siblings. I know my dad did for his siblings and my parents did, but wow, so empowering. And as we fast forward to you’re prolific and amazing career in the art world which intersects with politics, Governor Dukakis nominated you to the board of the Massachusetts Humanities Foundation. And as you indicate, it was your first experience with a political appointment.

Soniya Gokhale (38:18):
As I read this book, I just did an interview with the executive director of the Yale, The Campaign School, Yale University, and I have to say, all of your attributes and who you are, are indicative of someone that should run for office. I am certainly not proposing that you do so. I know you’re a global citizen and probably enjoying your life very much, but my goodness, you have all of those traits that are so needed and that especially women candidates need to embody. And so as you indicate much you’re surprised, you really enjoyed the experience. And it often involve going around the state reviewing proposals from local historical societies and community cultural organization and you learned about early American history while you were doing that. You were the daughter of freedom fighters and then you had this parallel training then in the US. So what did that mean for you at that time?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (39:15):
Well, I think that there were two things that happened in the ’80s after I became citizen and when I was appointed by Governor Dukakis. Because of some early Indian American supporters off Dukakis, they put my name out there. And I began to realize that while I had agitated and really wondered about this giving up an Indian citizenship, which was very emotional for me, because we couldn’t … We didn’t have OCI or any of those kinds of options then. And then realizing that if I’m going to carry an American passport, I better learn also about it America. It is not enough to just be an Indian in America. And so I kind of recognized that these Indians who were getting involved in American politics were really sticking in ground … put a stake in the ground that this is our country to and we have to get involved. So that was the first awareness.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (40:23):
The second thing with the Massachusetts Humanities Foundation was because ultimately Massachusetts is the cradle of American history. And to learn there, as to what was going on in the 17th and the 18th century, and where you were, and when people would tell me, “Gee, what kind of Indian are you? Are you a dot Indian or a feather Indian?” So that kind of thing. And that made me realize that, if you’re going to be in this country, you really have to learn also about its past, and that’s important. The second generation Indian Americans is, of course, learned, but if you’re an immigrant and you didn’t go to school here, I had learned some of that in the American high school when I was in high school. So this was a really a useful way for me to engage.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (41:14):
I’m proud to say, talking about political appointment, that my last political appointment was President Obama appointing me to the National Museum and Library Board. So it kind of continues. The last thing I’ll say is that you’re not the first one who said I’d run for a political office. And I say, if you my friend, you don’t wish that on me. So there you are. Although I’m very interested and I’ve supported other people, but it’s also … There’s a time and place for everything. And I think that the younger people who are running now are fabulous. And it’s great that we have such a great representation now of Indian Americans in the political arena.

Soniya Gokhale (41:58):
Absolutely. Yes. You’re right. It’s a brutal, brutal world. You’ve gone through a lot. I wouldn’t wish that upon you. And yet, for the sake of our country, I think you would be spectacular. I’ll leave that there. I completely understand. I do want to offer, as we are coming to the end of our time together, that you have really transformed the world of art and thought leadership, because as you pointed out in your book, it was through the writings of anthropologists such as James Clapper that you began to understand the preference for pre-modern art and exclusion of 20th century Asian art from the Western or historical canon were tied to the colonial history of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Soniya Gokhale (42:48):
And as you were being presented with a leadership role at a very prominent museums and on the leadership of other institutions in New York City, you are presented with this. You state this in the book that you know that Blanchette Rockefeller, a wife of a founder, John D. Rockefeller III, doesn’t like modern Asian art. She thinks it’s basically derivative of Western modern art and will not be received will by New York audiences. And fast forward to when the exhibition really is revealed and Dr. Manmohan Singh is presenting the introductory comments at the first Asia Society Speech in 1991. And he said, “We’re very proud of the fact that Dr. Vishakha Desai, a daughter of India, is now at the home of this distinguished institution.” And so I want to have your comments on all of that because it does demonstrate the carryovers of colonialism and how you have single-handedly, through your war, paved the way for new forms of art to be embraced by audiences everywhere.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (44:04):
Well, I wouldn’t say single-handedly, but I am very proud that at the Asia Society, we were among the very first institutions to take on a systemic program of 20th century Asian. At that point, 20th century, this was in the early ’90s. And then 25 years later, by 2006, it was already beginning to be in various auction houses and museum, other museums a little bit. But for me, what was really important was that part of it was to dispel the notion that when it came to Asia, that economically everybody was aware by the 1990s that China was taking off, Southeast Asia was taking off, India was even beginning to take off after the 1991 liberation of economy. And yet when it came to culture, that somehow it was only Asia. That there was no innovative quality to Asia at all.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (45:13):
And for me, it was kind of a philosophical question. And that is that, why do we say that? As if there’s no creativity in India or in other parts of Asia. And that we have to therefore begin to look at it, examine it carefully, get the right curators, the right scholars, and begin to present it. And it was from that idea that I’m very proud that we had a role to play. I don’t want to say single-handedly. I’ve had wonderful colleagues and curators many of them based in Asia who I was able to work with and to develop major exhibitions that then traveled all over America, all over the world. So it’s kind of something I feel that I had an opportunity and I feel blessed to have had that opportunity to make a difference in that arena.

Soniya Gokhale (46:14):
There is no doubt about that. And as we close out, your book aptly points out that we have 7.7 billion humans on this planet, and the novel coronavirus is a perfect metaphor for the necessity and challenges that face us as a planet at global vaccine equity. It’s something we have to accomplish. We have to in order to survive as a planet. And like I said, you did not have a crystal ball and yet your book is so timely. As we close out, what would you like to leave for our listeners to think about?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (46:52):
Well, I think that the bottom line is that we better think about our place on this planet in relation to the 7.7 billion people who inhabit this planet. So we have to think about our sense of interdependence without losing our sense of independence. We have to think about ourselves in the global arena without losing our local rootedness. This means what old President Johnson used to say that you have to chew gum and walk at the same time. And it’s not an easy thing, but remind yourself whatever you do in your life, how does it affect other people? How does it affect people who are not part of your [inaudible 00:47:52]? How can we make a difference in our local way that would affect the planet in a global way?

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (48:00):
So all other world religions in the world has this idea that the world is one, but we have completely forgotten that idea. And it’s not it’s just an idealistic dream. You have to live it every day.

Soniya Gokhale (48:20):
Just beautiful words to leave for our listeners. And we really cannot thank you enough for joining us today. Dr. Vishakha Desai, author of World as Family: A Journey of Multi-Rooted Belongings. And as I stated, I will have the link in the podcast notes. And be prepared to be changed and transformed. This book has earned its place on my nightstand and it’s really a source of just great strength and inspiration. So thank you so much.

Vishakha Desai Ph.D. (48:48):
Thank you, Soniya, and thank you all for listening. And enjoy the book.

Soniya Gokhale (48:53):
Thank you.

 

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