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Photographs by Christopher Revell

The Cultural Revolution Will Be Televised: Indo-Americans Manesh Judge (left) and Aditi Doshi co-host a lifestyle program called 'India Post TV,' aired locally on KTSF and internationally on the International Channel. Their families are proud of them, but working as a TV anchor challenges traditional notions of success in the Indo-American community.

Born in the USA

Like thousands of transplanted families before them, Indian immigrants struggle to raise their kids in their cultural tradition, even in the melting pot of America. And sometimes, it works.

By Najeeb Hasan

MANESH JUDGE, as he'll readily admit, has a bigger mouth than most. And when he speaks, it's with an excited purpose, with virgin amazement, as if the ideas in the many sentences he emits have never been voiced or pondered before.

Thirty-one years old, Manesh was born in San Mateo and raised in San Jose and Los Gatos; he is ethnically a Punjabi, which makes him an American-born desi. He holds two degrees in the molecular sciences (one in microbiology and another in biochemistry) and regularly travels on important business trips across the country for his job as a pharmaceutical representative.

He owns a cellular phone that rings without discrimination, at times of peace and at times of war. A classically trained musician, he turned professional when he was 13, and his Punjabi-pop band Vertigo's music video recently climbed to the Top 5 on the India MTV charts (unprecedented for an American-bred desi band), and the band's latest album has sold more than 250,000 copies worldwide. His composition for the film Maya was chosen best musical score at the Flanders Film Festival in Belgium.

A polyglot who can converse in five tongues, Manesh dresses neatly, almost slickly, and is disarmingly handsome, complete with boldly painted eyebrows, an earth-toned complexion and a broad, aquiline nose. Here in Silicon Valley, he's launched a music production company, Cold Fusion Productions, with partner Noor Lodhi (who also partnered with him on the Maya soundtrack), and they've just signed their first band, a rock-fusion group from Karachi. He's been known to organize disaster-relief fundraisers featuring Bill Clinton, Deepak Chopra and MC Hammer in his spare time.

A practicing Sikh who neither smokes nor drinks, he's unmarried, but he has the connections to socialize with Miss India-USA. He co-produces and hosts a weekly Indo-American television program from the South Bay that boasts more than 6 million viewers.

And yet, he still lives with his parents.

Who, by the way, love him dearly but frankly wish he would stop procrastinating and get his MBA. An undergraduate degree--even if you've got two of them--will only get you so far in life these days they try to explain to him, gently but consistently. But in the end, of course, it's his choice. Their job is only to dispense the advice.

Despite his parents' genuine concern about the progress of his graduate studies, it's all too tempting to pencil in Manesh as a shooting star in the otherwise predictable constellation of countless Indo-American physicians, engineers and financial officers.

Artistic, culturally conscious, energetic and popular, Manesh, if anybody, deserves to be labeled a success. But the term is a delicate one in the Indo-American vocabulary. Indeed, the physicians, engineers and financial officers are the success stories in the community.

As for Manesh? "Well, not everybody would call Manesh a success," cautions Dr. Prithipal Singh, himself a wealthy, highly successful entrepreneur and a family friend of the Judges, who has known Manesh since he was a toddler. "Look at Manesh's brother, Raj [Judge]; now, most people would call him a success."

Raj, senior to Manesh by four years, is a much-sought-after high-tech attorney and partner for Wilson Sonsini and the subject of a nationally broadcast MS-NBC profile; he was also a key member of a 1999 economic commission to India sent by former President Bill Clinton.

Perhaps it's easier to define Manesh within the context of an Indo-American community that is anything but monolithic by what he says he isn't. He is not, he says with indignation, in any fashion whatsoever, an ABCD--that is, an American-born, confused desi, the topic of a new wave of Indian films, the most popular probably being 2001's American Desi.

In recounting the film, Manesh's father, Manjeet Judge, recounts that one of the themes centers on a young woman living in the United States who thinks her parents, especially her traditional immigrant mother, are her worst enemies. Western-style, she moves out of her parents' home and makes coed living arrangements with a few American roommates. She falls for one of her male roommates, but the relationship quickly sours and turns quite violent.

By the end of the film, the daughter, badly bruised and battered, retreats back to her parents and relies on her mother, whom she once disparaged as a shameless lady (to do so much as roll your eyes at your parents is considered a cardinal sin in Indian culture, let alone calling them names) for protection. Manesh's father, born and raised in Punjab, nods with knowing satisfaction at the lesson gleaned through the film's ending.

So, while Bob Dylan may have been longing for a beauty that walked on a razor's edge, don't fault modern Manesh if he replaces Dylan's "beauty" with "culture." After all, what does Dylan know about desis? Because, Manesh, a first-generation Indo-American born in this country, in many ways is doing just that, longing for an intangible that balances only too precariously on the edge of a razor.

Is he an Indian kernel encased in an American shell, or the other way around? Or something completely different? His television show, which he describes as his commitment to the community, is externally Indian. Both he and his co-anchor, Aditi Doshi, are Indo-Americans. On the show, they discuss Indo-American and Indian affairs; they interview Indo-Americans or visiting Indian celebrities (megastar actor Amitabh Bachan is Manesh's most valued coup); but at the same time, it appears there's nothing essentially Indian about the show's philosophy or format. It's MTV and MTV-India all over again--same deal, only, this time, with brown faces.

Manesh's Sikhism, meanwhile, follows an inverted pattern: externally, his appearance is not much different from an average thirtysomething young professional. He discarded, with both regret and relief, the obligatory uncut hair and turban some time ago; though, under his sleeves, his kara, or bracelet, can still be glimpsed.

Internally, however, he makes efforts to hold on to the rope of his faith. Without anything but his instilled values prodding him, he quietly pays visits every year to the mother of a childhood friend who was killed years ago in a drunk-driving accident. Sorrow and compassion, for Manesh and his parents, are still enduring, not ephemeral. They are tradition, not reaction.

Desi With Success

When Dr. Prithipal Singh, after earning his Ph.D. in Canada, arrived in the South Bay in the 1970s, he recognized early on the importance of establishing, at least externally, the then almost nonexistent Indo-American culture. To create a gathering place for the community, he involved himself in building the gurudwara, or Sikh temple, in Fremont and also became a founding member of the now expansive Indus Entrepreneur Group (TIE).

An entrepreneur who has started and sold two companies, and a scientist who has 20-odd patents to his name, Dr. Singh lives comfortably with his wife in a spacious six-bedroom home in Los Altos Hills. Two Lexuses are parked in his driveway. Basking in his material success, he reflects with characteristic candor about the challenges and psychology of that early community and the results on the community's children.

"You have to understand this thing carefully," he says. "We came here as immigrants with a desire to succeed. By definition, we were outsiders. We were fighting very hard, which left us very little time for our children. And why do immigrants want to succeed? Well, nobody wants to leave their own home. This doesn't mean you have to be poor over there, but when you left the country, by definition, you had goals in your mind, expectations of yourself. Sometimes they were right; sometimes they were disproportionately high.

"I don't think the goal of any Indian immigrant was to come here and enjoy life. We saved money to buy a house, then a car. The Mercedes was considered a symbol, so you see a lot of us buying the Mercedes and Lexus as status symbols.

"With our children, I think there was a polarization between the Indus culture and Western culture. Like any other immigrant, we came here with the idea that it would be a short stay, and then we'd go back; we never embraced the American culture. When our children who were born here were out of the home, they were totally independent; but when they came home, we imposed upon them our culture.

"In these circumstances, we tended to confuse our children," he adds. "We should have understood American culture more and adapted ourselves so our children would become comfortable."

Now, he acknowledges, to the accepting dismay of the elders, the younger generation is taking it on itself to understand and adapt to the American culture, but after jettisoning the older generation's traditional wisdom.

"When your children are confused," Dr. Singh continues, "you have to fight to keep your identity, but the children don't understand what the environment of the parents was, of their struggles to succeed. Children can't understand this problem. A lot of them are revolting; they don't know whether they're Americans or not.

"And now, we don't understand them. For example, talk about social values--a boy with a girl. That's not common in our part of the world. We always prohibited our children from dating. And the combined family--we still want to be a combined family system; it's difficult to accept that at 18, children have grown up. How many parents wish that their children lived with them? Both my sons have different homes. Why can't they live in my house?"

Indeed, as Manesh's American-born partner on India Post TV, Aditi Doshi, relates, her elders tease her for having her own room growing up and tell her stories from India of three or four families sharing single rooms in loving harmony.

In the United States, the homes have grown drastically bigger but also, just as drastically, emptier. And while Dr. Singh, in his six-bedroom mansion with no grandchildren running around, bravely accepts it as a result of a misunderstanding between two cultures and two generations, there's something to be said for the traditional argument: that these values have decayed only by the immigrant's leap into the secular space of the West (and, of course, the secularization of the East), even though they held sacred status in India for hundreds, even thousands of years.

Though not to Dr. Singh, not anymore.

"God?" he questions. "I'm a scientist. That's the least-important issue. I believe religion is a tradition that teaches you how to pray. That's such an artificial question. What used to be God, science is doing in the laboratory."


Look to the West: Manesh Judge (right) relinquished his long hair and the symbolic Sikh turban halfway through high school, because living in dual worlds was difficult. 'I had to be an American kid five days a week, an Indian kid two days a week,' he recalls. 'Peer pressure was what made me do it.'

Big Screen

It was his big mouth, Manesh says with a wide grin, which landed him his television gig. His mouth was big enough that it was heard by Dr. Romesh Japra, the Fremont-based cardiologist whose achievements include being the publisher of India Post, one of a handful of nationally circulating Indo-American newspapers. But to most Indo-Americans in the South Bay, he is best known as the convener of Fremont's annual Festival of India.

The program, a spinoff of the newspaper, is called India Post TV and airs locally on KTSF and nationally and internationally on the International Channel. It's what Manesh describes as a lifestyles show with five separate segments--technology and business, health and science, immigration, community, and arts and entertainment--in a light, newsy format.

Sit down with Manesh, and he'll earnestly rattle off fact after fact about the Indo-American presence and the reasons why those facts are responsible for India Post TV's success. He'll tell you that Indo-Americans are the second-wealthiest ethnic group in the United States, that they rank first in average household education, that 40 percent of the CEOs who started up companies during Silicon Valley's technology boom were Indo-American, that the father of fiber-optics is a Sikh Indian, that almost 30 percent of the physicians in the United States are Indo-American and that Indo-Americans have generally, well, excelled.

"They're brilliant; they worked hard; they've done very well; and that's translated into good television for us," he says.

India Post TV, Manesh continues, was able to exponentially broaden its range by riding Silicon Valley's technology wave. Company big shots who weren't seen publicly anywhere else granted interview after interview to India Post TV's technology and business segment.

"If the CEO of the company wasn't Indian, then the No. 2 or No. 3 man was," Manesh says. "We're all very network-oriented."

And so, for an American-born desi who hasn't exactly followed the beaten path to Indo-American success, things have been looking up for Manesh lately.

"Yeah, it's been an interesting ride the last few years or so, balancing our television show and everything," he reflects. "On one hand, I've had this TV show, [and] all of a sudden my music panned out. MTV in India is very hot, and our three-album deal with a major American company is big."

Turn-Tabla

Manesh, before anything else, is an artist. A musician. His parents have always both been informally involved in music. They still prefer Indo-American-dominated parties than American ones because they get to trade songs in the former and only conversation in the latter.

Early on, they had recognized their son's talent and arranged for a 10-year-old Manesh, who would much rather have been on the sidewalk playing football with his friends, to be trained in playing the tabla, a classical Indian hand drum.

The lessons have paid off.

Manesh is steeped in India's raag and taal tradition; he can recite dozens of Urdu ghazals on demand or a whim--both accomplishments are no small feat for an American-born desi. Now, with his Pakistani partner Noor Lodhi, he's trying to introduce the Indian musical tradition to the mainstream, using their production company, Cold Fusion, as a conduit.

"We're taking Western music and Indian instruments and fusing them ... just cold fusing them," explains Manesh, lapsing into hip-hop lingo. "[Pop] Western music on its own has no depth or substance. Raag is very deep; it evokes emotion and mood. Each raag evokes an emotion. If I want to make you sad, I'll play a raag that makes you sad. And you will be sad."

But, if the raag is the component that has depth and substance, why sully it with shallow Western pop music?

"It makes it viable for the average listener," Manesh justifies without skipping a beat. "It allows us to explore pop culture to a deeper form of music. The purist might tell us you're doing injustice to the tradition. They'll say we're poisoning the pool of purity in the music. But record sales prove otherwise. We believe we're bridging the cultural gap. We're actually creating a platform for people for the next generation. ... We're putting it in the context of a world they can understand as opposed to a world that's much deeper than they can possibly understand."

Noor, meanwhile, takes Manesh's point a step further, postulating that by drifting away from their tradition, or by liberally mixing what some might consider impurities with their tradition, the two musicians are actually creating a portal that will allow fully assimilated Indo-Americans eventually to enter back into tradition.

"If you go and talk to some 10-year-olds, what kind of music do they love?" asks Noor before he answers his question. "They are into mainstream, American music. But there will be a time in all kids' lives ... when birds fly off, they often come back. Everyone gets pulled back to their roots; something keeps pulling them back to their homeland."

Manesh nods in agreement: "When I was 10, it wasn't cool to capture your roots in music. You go to parties now, and they have desi parties, with desi music. When I was 10, people wouldn't be caught dead doing that."

The latest fusion project Manesh and Noor are working on, like so many things Manesh finds himself involved in, is virtually unprecedented, and also an example of culture balancing on that razor's edge. The two are also collaborating with a mainstream rap artist (who insists on secrecy until the release) to produce between two and four tracks on an upcoming album.

While mainstream rappers have sampled classical Indian sounds in their music before, never before have they worked with desis, or even true Indians, to produce fresh beats. The well-known rapper has already recorded most of his tracks in a multimillion-dollar studio and has traveled with his entourage to the Bay Area to record the final tracks at the pair's tiny studio in Noor's Danville home. The experience, it seems, is culturally interesting for both parties.

Manesh, for one, is taken aback at how soft the rapper and his crew are on the inside, under their tough exteriors. "And they always take care of their mama; they never talk about their father, but they love their mama," he observes with admiration. "And now I'm close enough with them that they call me 'nigga.'"

"What they're rapping about is probably very meaningful to them," Manesh diplomatically explains before some of the recent work begins piping through the speakers. Still, rhymes laced with profanities, run-ins with rival gangs and descriptions of rolling Philly blunts (hint: the rap artist is no Mos Def) thrown over venerable, raag- and taal-based beats appear a bit incongruous at first blush.

Incongruous, not in aesthetics or merit (on those levels the effect is as desired), but in essence, like mixing the profane with the sacred or, in Jerry Mander's terms, the television with an oral, tribal society. Meaning that Manesh's father and mother, who so tenderly nurtured their son's gift, probably won't be bumping this one in their Humvee (even though Manesh's mother did participate in the project; separately, she recorded raag background vocals for one of the tracks) ... and not just because of a generation gap.

The track raises an uncomfortable, judgmental question: What's the point of providing traditional music if the tradition's values, those profound emotions inspired by raag sounds, don't come with it?

"Music is a medium," Noor says. "You can take a piece of music and turn it into trash. But if you present a meaningful vibe together that makes sense to those other than you, then it'll make sense to you as well.

"If you see our own album, every song is meaningfully written or composed. There are references to God. There are references to our souls. To humility. To purity of music. It's jihad for us. We're struggling against people who compose other types of music. So, yeah, there's a bit of hypocrisy going on, but we're trying to break into the market ... and in the end, just look at Manesh. His parents did their job. He could have been a longhaired, pot-smoking drummer somewhere, but they put him in the company of valuable people [through whom] he learned to play and master the tabla. His tradition."

Unkindest Cut

In a sense, tradition and Western influence had already collided in Manesh's ancestry, and the impact, for better or worse, has touched him more or less permanently. Somewhere along Manesh's family tree, during British rule of the subcontinent, there was a judge in the Raj courts. The British, avowedly to combat class conflict, began reassessing last names according to profession. Hence the family name Judge.

"I've always had a duality to my life," he explains. "Before, when I was growing up, I had to segment my life. I had to be an American kid five days a week, an Indian kid two days a week."

He had what he calls a core group of friends, but outside that group he was largely ostracized. The reason? He kept his hair long and wore the pagadi, the symbolic Sikh turban. Though his father, a pragmatic individual, had removed his as he settled into life in the United States, Manesh's grandmother on his mother's side had a dying wish the both Manesh and his brother, Raj, don the turban.

After he graduated from high school, the older Raj did away with his, and Manesh, at 15, quickly followed suit. One afternoon, he biked over to Creative Cuts with a group of friends and "snip, there goes my hair," he remembers ruefully.

"And when I got my haircut, people would talk to me, but I wouldn't talk to them. I was the same person. Peer pressure was what made me do it. It was still part of me, and it's definitely still part of me. The amount of pressure and pain you go through to believe what you want to in this country. They call this country open-minded"--Manesh shakes his head sarcastically--"They call it the World Series, not the North American Series; they're World Champions, not Superbowl Champions. But, of course, it's much more lenient and tolerant than other places."

Still, it's this intolerant tolerance, this particular brand of open-mindedness, a narrow open-mindedness that demands homogeneity instead of one that easily allows for heterogeneity (the melting pot, by definition, is made to melt all the metals within it to a uniform consistency), that the Indo-American culture, like other immigrant cultures before it, seems to be succumbing to. Because culture is not defined by the tangible remnants of a culture still hanging on: by the Irish pub, the Japanese tatami, by the desi music blaring at a desi party.

Find Me a Wife

Manesh's father knows a thing or two about enduring values. The testimony: he's raised two sons in the United States who are both clearly conscious of their Indian heritage, a consciousness that's not provoked merely by glimpsing their brown faces in the mirror every morning.

Manesh's brother, Raj, in fact, is so conscious that, in spite of being a highly confident, nationally acclaimed attorney, when he desired to marry he asked that his parents find him a suitable mate, which they did--an educated Sikh from a good family in India. Volunteering himself for an arranged marriage was certainly not a method of courtship Raj picked up from his college buddies at UCLA.

The pair's father, Manjeet Judge, came to California as an immigrant engineering student, traveling with friends to work the Indian-owned farms out West to save money during the summers. For 80 cents an hour minus a dollar a day for lodging, he would spend his summers picking parasite weeds from in between asparagus plants, climbing rickety ladders to pick plums and traveling to Yuba City to harvest peaches.

He remembers when he first sent Raj to UCLA. He would call Raj every single day. He likes to say his phone bills were higher than what he paid for tuition. He would constantly ask his son if he had enough money, enough to eat and a suitable place to stay; he would ask about his grades, about how to speak with the dean.

On one occasion, Raj had decided he wanted to join a fraternity. "I told him those people are not for you; they are people who want to party all the time, but he insisted," Manjeet Judge recounts. "I said, 'Fine, it's your life.' He lasted a month and a half and said, 'Dad, my grades are going down; you've got to help me.'"

Raj, sometimes feeling pressured, would resort to asking his father if he trusted him. "I said, I do trust you," Manjeet Judge recalls. "It's that you need to be reminded every day why you're there. You're away from home; we're missing you; you're there for a reason."

Now, instead of Manjeet Judge having to work to nurture Raj, Raj comes to him naturally for nourishment. Naturally, Manjeet Judge doesn't fear the nightmares (of the Indo-American variety) that he sees good friends going through with their offspring.

Shuddering, he tells a story about an Indo-American friend who suffered a fatal heart attack. One son had married an American girl; the other son was dating an American girl. Both moved out, leaving his friend's widow to live in a huge house by herself. She is permitted by her son's American wife to see her grandchildren, but with rules and regulations set by her daughter-in-law while her sons are too busy to care. No, Manjeet Judge made sure that wouldn't happen to him--not by heavy-handed rules or coercion but by protective nurturing.

"Raj has a daughter who turned six months on Jan. 4," he shares. "His wife wanted to go back to work. But marriage is like a scale; if one side is heavier than the other, then life will go astray. My wife [herself a director of nursing at a hospital], and I sincerely told her that God had been very merciful, that He had given her everything in life. Your little kid needs you more than your job. Your husband is earning a good amount of money; you have your own house. Give your love to the little one. Why do you need to go back to work? A little later they came back and said, 'We took your advice. She's not going back to work."


Cultural Mix: Noor Lodhi has partnered with Manesh Judge to form Cold Fusion studios in Danville, where the pair is collaborating with a major-label rapper by providing Indian raag- and taal-based beats.

Flip-Flop

Back in their studio in Noor Lodhi's home, Manesh and Noor can only shake their heads sadly about the horror stories Manesh's father tells and about Dr. Prithipal Singh's situation. "The problem that Dr. Singh is talking about," says Manesh, "his son's a dentist, another son lives somewhere else in Los Altos. The need for independence outweighs family values. It's definitely veering that way. Maybe eight out of 10 people will move in that direction. It's very self-oriented, very selfish culture." He repeats in a hushed voice, as if disclosing a secret--"a selfish, selfish culture."

Dr. Singh, he says, created an empire, and his sons benefited from it, and now he's got an empty house to show for it.

Manesh looks up, his eyes flash. "You know, that's why I do all this, that's why I do the TV show, the music," he exhales through his teeth. "One of the reasons why I do all this is to show them that we're not a bunch of backward, rag-head, camel-riding idiots."

Noor looks up equally as sharply and interjects, correcting Manesh. "No, no, that's not what we're doing. We should be showing the people that we are 'backward, rag-head and camel-riding,' that it's OK to be that--and that just because we are, we're not idiots. We've got to change the whole perception."


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From the January 16-22, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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