Roshan Nebhrajani, Jill Shah, and Raj Panchal could not find any digital platforms that spoke to millennials and the diverse culture of the desi diaspora, so they decided to curate their own.
Tiffin, their weekly newsletter made by and for people of the desi diaspora, is named after a box, typically filled with a few thoughtfully prepared dishes and packaged with love.
Likewise, that’s exactly what their aim has been – to instill connections, create a voice, and craft together news for a population of folks who are often under and misrepresented throughout the American landscape. Most especially during times of political upheaval like now, Tiffin could not arrive at a more crucial time amid fake news and alternative facts.
Roshan and Jill spoke with Her Agenda on why and how they decided to change the course of receiving news for people of the desi diaspora just like themselves. Read below to find out more on Tiffin’s agenda!
Her Agenda: Why did you start Tiffin?
Roshan Nebhrajani: When we graduated college, I remembered trying to desperately keep in touch with old friends. At the time, Jill was living in India and would share news with me in a way that was uniquely contextualized in that it connected with me both as an Indian and an American — something only she was positioned to do for me at the time. I realized I was incredibly disconnected from the place I came from, and there was no easy way to get that analysis and curation of news relevant to me, a member of the South Asian diaspora, one that strongly identifies both with India and America as “the place I come from.” So we came up with the idea to take our phone calls and start writing them down. When I met Raj, I asked him if he was interested in helping us get it off the ground. His excitement and energy were critical in making the thought experiment a tangible thing.
Jill Shah: There’s a whole host of small reasons, but it doesn’t get more complicated than: we built the thing we wanted and needed and didn’t see already being done. After college, I spent a year and some months living in Mumbai, India where I’m originally from. The experience was really important to my life and my identity and my being in this world. After I got back (I moved from Bombay to Boston in the dead of American winter if you can believe it), I was honestly depressed for many months. I missed Bombay, I missed India, I missed being rooted and connected to the place I came from. I spent hours doing work: reading and catching up on news, culture, and life back there. That’s when I knew that there was an opportunity to make this less difficult.
Often, if you’re of South Asian descent but were born in the United States, or came here when you were really young, your relationship to the region is mitigated largely through your family or short trips that you may have taken as a kid. This lends a pretty narrow lens from which to understand and build your relationship to your homeland. We’re trying to broaden that lens for the desi diaspora in this country, to make it current, and informed, and critical. The critical bit is important: I certainly curate with an eye towards social justice and equity issues both in South Asia and the States.
Finally, I should say that I come to this with a tremendous amount of love for my community. I just love brown desi people. I love our culture and incredibly rich history, and I think there’s a lot of power in awakening and building that pride. Many of us grew up in the States being made to feel ashamed about our identity, or our food, or the way we spoke. Part of this project is to say: Yo, we are so, so dope.
Her Agenda: What is both great and unique about Tiffin is that it is exclusively by and for people of the desi diaspora. Was this an intentional choice and why do you feel not more digital platforms/newsletters take this route?
Roshan Nebhrajani: I consider myself a curious person, but I hardly ever scroll through South Asian publications to catch up on regional news — it feels foreign and unfamiliar, I feel like I don’t have enough context to keep up, and most importantly, it often sounds nothing like the way I think or speak. Part of what’s special about the tone of Tiffin is that it sounds like your friends are helping clue you in on the things you may already care about, in a way that doesn’t make you feel excluded in some way or another. Some publications like Remezcla or Very Smart Brothas do this incredibly well for their respective audiences. It’s a hard thing to do, and many outlets can’t do it because they just don’t have that shared experience, that nuanced view with which to write. But when it’s done well, it’s a gateway for building connection and sparking curiosity.
Jill Shah: I don’t know the latest stats, but there’s a lot of desi people in America, man. And we’re generally pretty good at takin’ over. This is an audience that deserves to be recognized and deserves good and smart and targeted content. And of course, that’s happening more and more these days with things like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None.
What’s great, too, is that while everyone’s desi experience in America is obviously unique, there’s so, so many parallels, especially between different country origins. Whether you’re Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, etc., I bet we can bond over things like quirks about our families or the pressure to get married or to become a doctor or engineer or whatever. And even if not exactly that, we’re definitely drawing from a common cultural language. So we want to celebrate that without trying generalize about all of our experiences.
Her Agenda: How do you decide what content to share?
Jill Shah: To be honest, a lot of it is instinctive for us: things that we personally find interesting, cool, or important. We try to cover the region appropriately – what’s happening or is big news in Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh. We keep tabs on famous South Asian Americans and their projects. We try to highlight minority South Asian communities and their experiences. We try to highlight social injustice and serious topics, with a healthy dose of joy and comedy, too. We highlight music. I want to get us to focus on food a lot more, too, since it’s such an important part of the culture. Obviously, a lot of this process is subjective because of our positionality and identities. Soon, we’re hoping to have a solid community of diverse contributors to help make this much more of a community-based approach.
Her Agenda: How have your personal beliefs and experiences played a role in curating Tiffin?
Roshan Nebhrajani: Well, Tiffin is incredibly personal. That’s really the only reason it works. All of those intersections inevitably inform what I’m interested in, how I understand the world I live in, and therefore what I think is newsworthy enough to include.
Jill Shah: Oh, entirely. I mean, I come at everything in the world as a straight brown, desi immigrant woman, right? I came to America at the age of nine. Like I still remember the day in the middle of December and being amazed at the snow. I’d never seen snow before! My immigration experience – all the times I was bullied or felt ashamed or confused or yelled at my parents for not understanding me or the racist things that happened to me – formed me. Thankfully, there was plenty along the way that was joyful and made me accept and love who I am and still love America, but that’s the lens that I bring to this project. I’m interested in those stories, and the texture and richness and pain and beauty of the immigration experience. It’s the only way I can make sense of my life.
Her Agenda: What are your personal goals within creating Tiffin?
Roshan Nebhrajani: To help myself and others like me, curious and engaged, but disconnected, develop context for the countries they come from by making news easy to keep up with, and in some ways, fun to consume.
Jill Shah: I mean, it sounds cheesy, but this is just what makes me happy. Like there’s a lot of despair in the world right now, and it makes me happy to read about where I come from, and connect to one of my homes, and to celebrate myself. I want to build something that does the same for the desi community.
Her Agenda: Being for those of the desi diaspora – what are your goals in representing (or if not) gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, and other identities in Tiffin?
Roshan Nebhrajani: That’s been something we’re still figuring out. While Jill, Raj, and I are all of Indian descent, we want this to be a resource not just for Indians but for all people from the desi diaspora — as our histories are so intertwined and our cultures so similar. Our goal with tiffin is to be an inclusive space for connection, community, and conversations and that’s a conscious thought with every edition — across gender, race, sexual orientations, religions, etc. But still, we recognize our own news consumption habits are limited so we try to source stories from different places to find stuff we wouldn’t otherwise encounter. And we’re hoping to add contributors this year to also help us achieve more inclusivity.
Jill Shah: We recognize that right now we’re a group of three, straight Hindu Indians putting together something for a community that’s extremely diverse. Right now, we’re trying to rectify that by trying our best to find stories that speak to a range of desi experiences. In starting Tiffin, we had a bit of a bias to action, to get something up and running, but now we’re turning our attention to diversifying the contributors. So if you’re someone who’s interested in contributing to this project, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org!
Her Agenda: What else do you want the world to know about Tiffin or yourself personally?
Roshan Nebhrajani: This is mostly a passion project between three friends. We’re not sure where it’s headed but we’re excited about what we’ve made until now. And with the next four years being such an uncertain and threatening time for women and people of color in some ways, it’s a means of helping our community connect with and find strength in each other.