Finger on the Pulse of Indian Americans
Finger on the Pulse of Indian Americans, Limca Book of Records, Newspaper in a Foreign country. The first steps she took towards achieving her dream began by bringing out some local community publications. This gave her a feel of the work, the people and the place.
She landed in the US a decade ago as a journalist who did not know what to do with her writing career in an alien country. Today she is listed in the Limca Book of Records as the only Indian woman to publish a newspaper in a foreign country. Veena Rao’s ‘NRI Pulse’, true to its name, reflects the pulse of Indian Americans.
Atlanta, where Rao has been living for the last 12 years, did not offer much by way of work for a journalist from India. With no US college degree – she has a masters’ diploma in journalism and communication from Pune’s Symbiosis International University besides a post graduate degree in Economics – or even a local driving licence, her prospects were not looking too bright anyway. She saw an opportunity in the fact that her city had no news platform for its small expat Indian community and, desperate to do something meaningful, she took the plunge.
The first steps she took towards achieving her dream began by bringing out some local community publications. This gave her a feel of the work, the people and the place. The experience also gave her the courage to finally start her very own publication for the Indian and South Asian community, armed only with an ability to work hard and the determination to succeed.
Remarks Rao, “I realise that it’s only in a country like the United States that one can think of setting up a business with no prior experience, capital or academic backing. I could not have launched and then run a newspaper like this in India or any other county in the world.”
For the first edition of ‘NRI Pulse’, which came out in 2006, Rao did all the writing, taking on the additional roles of an editor and publisher as well. That was not all. She was even required to physically deliver the printed copies to at least 70 centres that were spread across a distance of 100 square miles. Left with no choice but to drive herself, she bought a beat up car for US$650, loaded the racks with the paper and set out on the road. Her fear of driving at high speeds on the highway made her stick to longer, more time consuming country routes, but slowly and steadily the paper reached its target audience. Rao recalls an amusing incident during one of her deliveries, “I was once mistaken for a delivery woman by a reader who asked me for the contact details of the publisher. He was stunned when I told him that I was the publisher as well as the editor!”
While most Indian publications abroad generally focus on showcasing the happenings “back home” in India, to its readers, ‘NRI Pulse’ set itself apart in the sense that it called for building a stronger Indian community in Atlanta and south east USA. People slowly began to rely on the publication to keep abreast of what was happening in their neighbourhood and the challenges their peers were facing. “Reading about themselves and others from similar backgrounds and with similar issues, bonds people together. The paper al so provides them a platform to come together, building a sense of community,” she adds.
Besides the monthly printed edition, accessing the snazzy online version gives a feel of what is on offer. Conventional news is covered under sections like “breaking news”, NRI, city and business. For the serious readers, the ‘perspective’ page has a rich fare of opinion pieces, while the ‘features’ page has interviews with prominent local citizens. Need some info on the local job market or the schooling system? The ‘NRI Pulse’ certainly does not disappoint here, too. And how can any Indian live without their fix of Bollywood or traditional food and festivities? Clicking on ‘What’s Cooking?’ reveals recipes for everything from ‘moong dal halwa’ to celeb expat Aziz Ansari’s favourite dish. Rao also adds to the masala in the paper by reviewing the latest Hindi movies and including gossip about the stars. There is even a very popular ‘baby of the week’ contest besides a spiritual column by Shri Shri Ravi Shankar.
The content may be rich, varied and engaging but that’s not all it takes to run a fledgling newspaper. Finances have been tight and on more than one occasions, when it seemed that the paper would not be able to meet its deadline, almost miraculously it carried on, hitting the stands right on time. Although it is free for the subscribers, Rao’s team keeps it going with the advertising revenue it gets by selling ad space. This, however, is her least favourite activity, she admits. “My sales team and I do not go hammer and tongs after small businesses that cannot pay. Many start-ups pay as and when they can afford to,” she adds.Of course, for all the struggles, there have been payoffs as well – like the opportunity to interact with childhood idols, top rung politicians and celebrities. Rao’s meeting with renowned singer S.P. Balasubramaniam, whom she had only heard on the radio in India, is among her most cherished memories. Nervous about the interview, Rao recalls how the legend put her at ease instantly. Another ‘wow’ moment was when she met with Asha Bhonsle, her favourite Hindi singer of yesteryear. But she felt the proudest while writing a piece on how Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue had acknowledged the significant contribution of the Indian-American community in the state.
The journey, Rao feels, has been exciting but not easy. For a self-confessed introvert, who was “afraid of walking into a room full of people”, running a newspaper was not something she ever imagined doing. But through the years she admits that the experience has changed her. Her busy schedule often has her working till way past midnight and looming deadlines ensure that she puts in regular hours.
Besides registering her name in the record books, other awards and accolades have also come her way these past few years, notably the Bharat Gaurav (Pride of India) Award by the New Delhi-based India International Friendship Society. But record holders rarely rest on their laurels and Rao may soon add ‘author’ to her considerable talents, writing about her experiences as a newspaper editor and publisher. For now, when she goes through some of the feedback letters readers send in – some lauding a film review, others expressing their opinion on a political debate, still others sharing a unique holiday experience – Rao feels on top of the world. After all, her newspaper has achieved what it set out to do: being the voice of the Indian American community.