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Fareed Zakaria is India Abroad Person of the Year 2008

Last updated on: March 21, 2009 11:21 IST
Fareed ZakariaFareed Zakaria has an established reputation as one of the most thoughtful, articulate, nuanced voices on American television -– a rare voice, what is more, that can take America out of its self-absorption and focus its attention on what is going on in the rest of the world.

In 2008, Dr Zakaria raised the bar even higher with a double whammy. First up, he published his best-selling book The Post American World, which argued an end to the rule of the United States as global hegemon and postulated that the rest of the world was catching up. Close on its heels, he became the first Indian American to host his own show on a major network, when CNN launched the hour-long Fareed Zakaria GPS Sunday prime time.

Even in a banner year marked by achievements of the highest order across a wide variety of fields, it was therefore inevitable that Dr Zakaria would be named India Abroad Person of the Year 2008. Filmmaker Mira Nair, who won the award last year, was on hand to honour her successor with the award that, over the seven years of its existence, has become one of the most sought after accolades in the community space.

The annual India Abroad Person of the Year awards gala was held on March 20 at the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian -- an imposing 102-year-old building located within a pebble's throw of the famed Bull of Wall Street.

The rotunda, lit by a combination of six Roman pillar-style torches and hundreds of overhead lights, was the perfect showcase to a glittering array of dignitaries culled from the fields of politics, public service, business and the arts.

Given that the Indian-American community is renowned for the care and nurture it provides its children, it was perhaps appropriate that the award ceremony kicked off with young faces. Sameer Mishra, who won the iconic Scripps National Spelling Bee; Akshay Rajagopal, the  11-year-old from Nebraska who at his very first attempt won the National Geographic Bee, and Shivani Sud, winner of the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search that recognises the most outstanding young talents, were named joint winners of the Young Achievers Award.

Hardly had the audience settled back after saluting the three precocious talents, than it rose again to salute a prodigy. As a child, Manjul Bhargava was devising a personalised accounting system his mother, a math professor, couldn't fathom. While working on his doctoral thesis, he cracked a crucial math problem that has outwitted the best minds over a span of 200 years.

So prodigious is his talent, so immense his potential that Harvard and Princeton, two of the best research institutions on the planet, competed fiercely for his services. Princeton won -- and at age 28, Bhargava became one of the youngest full professors in the institution's history.

Awards, typically, salute quantifiable achievements. There are, however, some achievers whose promise for the future exceeds even their remarkable achievements of the present. To honour such, India Abroad created this year the Face of the Future award -- and Manjul Bhargava walked away with the inaugural honour.

A theme that emerged during the calendar year was the paradigm shift in the community's political activity: In 2008, leadership both in activism and fundraising, clearly passed on to the younger generation. At a point in its history when the Indian-American community clearly seeks to integrate more closely with the mainstream, it is impossible to overstate the importance of this development.

To mark it, and to honour those at the vanguard of this change, the India Abroad Gopal Raju Award for Community Service was shared by Preeta Bansal, now General Counsel and Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of Management and Budget in the Obama administration; Hrishi Karthikeyan and Dave Kumar, co-founders of South Asians for Obama; Democratic party strategist and Communications Director for Campaign for America's Future Toby Choudhuri; founder of the Indian American Leadership Initiative Varun Nikore; newly-installed chair of the Indian American Republican Council Dino Teppara; SAFO's National Outreach Director and Director of the Office of Inter-Governmental Affairs in the Obama White House Nick Rathod.

Three awards thus showcased the best of the community's present, and its future -- and we were only at the half-way mark of an event that began with India Abroad Publisher and Founder and Chairman Ajit Balakrishnan walking the audience through the many different avatars the newspaper has seen in its nearly four-decade history, and setting out the agenda for the future.

Columbia University Professor Sree Srinivasan, who has emceed five of the six annual awards galas in his characteristic style, turned the collective attention towards a plated dinner catered by the award-winning Mint restaurant.

Conversation and food merged as a stellar guest list comprising, to name just a few in no particular order, Infosys CEO Nandan Nilekani; author Saman Rushdie; actress-author Madhur Jaffrey; economists extraordinaire Professor Jagdish Bhagwati and Professor Padma Desai; envoys past and present including T P Sreenivasan and India's Consul General in New York Prabhu Dayal; Mayor of Edison, New Jersey, Jun Choi; celebrity chef Floyd Cardoz; darling of the emerging indie movement in Bollywood actor Abhay Deol...

Emcee Sreenivasan segued into the post-dinner part of the evening by cueing up an emotive video tribute to the spirit of Mumbai -- a segment that connected the audience with one of the most seminal events of last year.

And so to the next award: There are those who achieve within pre-defined, even stereotypical fields, and then there are those who rewrite the geography of achievement by blazing new trails, opening up new vistas.

Zubin Mehta is a rare example of the latter. At a time when India and Western classical music were rarely if ever spoken of in the same sentence, maestro Mehta set out to master the most difficult job in the field: that of the conductor who can take a hundred different talents across a couple of dozen different instruments and, through the magic of his interpretative baton, fuse them all into music that soars, that takes you on a sensuous magic carpet ride into the realm of the divine.

A recitation of the number of 'firsts' Mehta has totted up against his name in course of a storied five-decade long career across over a dozen of the greatest symphonic orchestras in the world would be superfluous -- you admire him, you do not parse accomplishments that, in their collective sweep and scope, seem superhuman.

Symbolising that collective admiration, India Abroad honoured Zubin Mehta with its Lifetime Achievement Award -- presented to the maestro by previous winners Salman Rushdie, Professor Jagdish Bhagwati and Professor Padma Desai.

Zubin Mehta is an impossible act to follow, yet a quiet achiever followed him with grace, poise and elan. Jhumpa Lahiri's evocative writing is no secret to the literate ever since her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2000.

Lahiri raised her own bar with her follow up, the 2003 saga The Namesake that became an instant bestseller, and was transformed by filmmaker Mira Nair into a critically acclaimed film.

Just when you thought the bar had been raised as high as humanly possible, Jhumpa Lahiri went one better. In 2008, she published her second short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, a book that dramatically demonstrated how well the author combined literary excellence with commercial clout, when in unprecedented fashion it debuted at the number one position on The New York Times Bestseller List.

For the rare skill she harnesses to distill the hyphenated life of the immigrant and render it in crystal prose, India Abroad honoured Jhumpa Lahiri -- born Nilanjana Sudeshna -- with the Publisher's Special Award for Excellence.

And finally, to put a final seal of excellence on a vintage year for community achievement, Fareed Zakaria strode on stage to accept the 2008 India Abroad Person of the Year Award with a speech of characteristic eloquence.

Image: An elated Fareed Zakaria with the award.

Photograph: Paresh Gandhi

Team India Abroad