Bageshree Paradkar

Desi Life editor Bageshree Paradkar is shattering stereotypes with Torstar’s new magazine
(Photo courtesy of Bageshree Paradkar)

Pick up the October–November issue of Desi Life magazine and you’ll see the headline “Boy Wonder” and a smiling 13-year-old, who happens to be a golf champion, lying in a pool of golf balls. But a quick look inside the magazine reveals decidedly more provocative material: the experiences of five gay men in South Asia, and articles about gay icons in Bollywood movies, a sex bazaar and a porn star.

Nowadays most mainstream magazines can run this sort of risqué material without raising any eyebrows, but South Asian magazines have rarely explored culturally taboo topics for fear of offending readers. Then again, Desi Life, a bimonthly glossy owned by Torstar Corp., isn’t like most South Asian magazines. In fact, it is the first South Asian magazine associated with a mainstream newspaper in Canada. Launched in April 2007, the magazine is the latest addition to Torstar’s Star Media Group of ethnic publications. Others include Sway magazine, Canadian Immigrantmagazine and Sing Tao newspaper.

Although several popular South Asian fashion magazines, such as Anokhi (Unique) and Suhaag (Soulmate), exist in the Canadian market, there are only two successful Canadian South Asian lifestyle magazines besides Desi Life: Vancouver-based Mehfil (Gathering) with a circulation of more than 250,000 and Desi News, a Toronto-based publication with a circulation of 30,000. Both magazines are 11 years old.  Despite a population of around 1 million South Asians as of 2005, Canada lags behind the United States, which has a population of 1.9 million South Asians according to a 2000 US Census Bureau report, and 15 titles.

The inspiration for Desi Life came from Toronto Star reporter Prithi Yelaja, who suggested the idea to management in 2006. It only made sense. South Asians make up the largest ethnic group in Toronto, with about 600,000 in the Greater Toronto Area. According to the Solutions Research Group, they are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in Canada, and 70 per cent of that growth is happening in Toronto. South Asians are highly educated and heavy media consumers — an ideal target for a niche publication.

While Desi Life’s editorial covers the usual topics found in South Asian magazines, such as food, style, music and celebrity gossip, it also goes a step further by providing intelligent features on business, religion, culture and community issues­ — even when those issues might be controversial. But because the magazine targets diverse readers, its racier editorial content might not resonate with some and may alienate others. The magazine’s biggest challenge is producing an editorial mix that pleases its diverse South Asian audience.

Desi Life editor Bageshree Paradkar is shattering stereotypes with Torstar’s new magazine.

So far, editor Bageshree Paradkar says Desi Life has received an overwhelmingly warm response from readers for its style and content. It has already won first prize in an Inland Press Association and Newspapers Special Sections Network competition for the best North American stand-alone publication in its circulation category.

The magazine, which is distributed independently, started with a controlled circulation of 65,000. It has now increased to 70,000. Fifty-five thousand copies are delivered door-to-door in predominantly South Asian areas, chosen based on consumer data obtained from a marketing research company. The other 15,000 copies are distributed at South Asian events, libraries and retail outlets, such as DVD stores, grocery stores and restaurants in South Asian areas. The magazine aims to be as inclusive as possible, targeting readers in their early twenties to those in their sixties.

“Not only are people happy that we have this magazine, but the fact that it’s a Star publication, for many people it’s a recognition that they have arrived, that they are being recognized by the larger community,” says Paradkar. She adds that many readers express gratitude because there is finally a magazine that addresses their issues. Writers have been similarly enthusiastic — about 100 have contacted Paradkar since the first issue came out. One of them was Rhodes scholar Boria Majumdar, who thought the magazine stood out. “I found it extremely interesting. I have travelled pretty extensively around the world over the last few years, and of all the ethnic magazines that I have read … Desi Life is perhaps one that really traverses the intellectual and popular plain.” Desi Life currently has 17 freelance contributors, with about five writing regularly.

Some of the issues writers have tackled, such as homosexuality and sex, are ones that other South Asian magazines are hesitant to touch. Mehfil publisher Rana Vig says, “With certain South Asian audiences, it’s probably not the best way to go, especially if you’re trying to build a large audience.” He adds that with a controlled circulation model, magazines have to be even more careful about not alienating readers because they aren’t receiving it by choice.

In Desi Life’s June–August issue, a reader voiced his frustration to Paradkar about the South Asian community’s treatment of gays and lesbians; he expressed little hope that the magazine would represent them. “I do know, as it always happens, that people like me will be forgotten,” he wrote. What he didn’t know was that Paradkar already had a feature in the works. An article describing the largely positive experiences (including sexual ones) of five gay men who travelled around India and Pakistan was published in the October–November issue.

The existence of homosexuality is largely denied by South Asian communities; even when it is acknowledged, gays are often shunned by their families and communities due to religious and cultural reasons. “It’s a sensitive topic but that’s no reason not to write about it,” says Paradkar. She says mainstream media discuss tough issues, so she doesn’t see why Desi Life shouldn’t. “Yes, some people will not be comfortable, but that’s just too bad.” Paradkar says she didn’t receive any complaints, except from one reader who said the article was too rosy and didn’t reflect the reality of homophobic attitudes. Mostly, though, the story received a positive response, especially from the gay community. One reader told her the article was inspirational and that he loved how it was written from a humane perspective, with tolerance and acceptance.

One story published in the same issue did generate backlash — a profile of Sunny Leone, a South Asian Canadian porn star based in the U.S. Sonia Kandathil wrote about Leone’s upbringing, her journey into adult films, reactions from family and the South Asian community, and the role being South Asian has played in her career. Paradkar received four or five angry responses. Somebody said the magazine was promoting Leone’s lifestyle; somebody else complained the article was objectifying women. Another reader said there were much more important issues to cover. In response, Paradkar says they do cover more important issues, and Kandathil doesn’t suggest that Leone is a positive role model.  She argues that Kandathil writes objectively by telling readers what Leone does and lets readers decide what they think.

“[Paradkar] told me people went up to her and were like, ‘Oh my God, how could you run a story about a South Asian porn star?’” says Kandathil. “At least she engaged in something controversial.”

“We’re so used to this ridiculous Bollywood perception of life,” Kandathil continues. She believes stories like Leone’s provide a broader perspective about the South Asian community. “We’re a lot of things — we’re taxi drivers, we’re 7-11 owners, we’re hotel owners, we’re porn stars.”

In particular, older readers often find these topics irksome, Kandathil says, because they don’t consider them appropriate. “The older generation thinks it’s better not to know, because if you know about it, then you have to address it at some level.”

It’s not just the differences between age groups that pose a challenge for the magazine. South Asians make up the largest minority group in the GTA, but within that population there are Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Afghanis and others. Despite sharing many cultural similarities, these groups are diverse in their religious beliefs, traditions and languages. In addition, the values held by older immigrants are different from those of newer immigrants.

“By far, my biggest challenge is diversity,” says Paradkar. She says it’s a constant balancing act to represent all the groups fairly. Previous issues have covered the Muslim celebration of Eid and the Hindu festival, Diwali.  Next month’s issue will feature Christmas. Paradkar makes sure the writers are aware of being balanced, too. “She’ll call me and say, ‘Raheel, you’ve done this [story], but you haven’t spoken to anyone from South India or Sri Lanka,’” says Desi Life writer Raheel Raza, who writes for several publications and is also an interfaith advocate and media consultant.

Writers also have to be aware of the diverse relationships between South Asian countries, as well as sensitive religious and political issues. Even when writing a cricket story about Pakistan and India, Desi Lifesports writer Boria Majumdar says he has to be very cautious about the national and political rivalry between the two countries.

Objectivity is key, he adds. Writers must shed their national, cultural and religious identities. In addition, neutral language and terminology have to be used, says Raza. For example, she would never use the word “terrorist.”

When interviewing, writers also have to keep in mind South Asian values. Majumdar remembers doing a story about Little India store owners and finding that most people weren’t willing to go on record. He says people didn’t want to discuss certain issues, such as immigration or their stay in Canada. Similarly, when Kandathil tried to interview South Asian strippers and prostitutes, they refused because they were embarrassed and wanted to keep their job private. Even Leone didn’t want her family or fiancé to be interviewed.

Although there are challenges, writing for Desi Life has many upsides. The magazine provides a vehicle for stories that usually don’t get told by the mainstream media. Rakshande Italia, a business writer for Desi Lifewho also writes for the Metroland group of newspapers, says when it comes to South Asian stories, she has to work extra hard to sell them, as mainstream editors don’t find them interesting or relevant to their readers. She says it’s also difficult to write about topics specific to ethnicity for mainstream papers because editors are wary of stereotyping or being politically incorrect. Desi Life, on the other hand, allows more freedom. “If a mainstream paper used a quote saying South Asians are thrifty, it would be misconstrued,” she says, “but if it was in a South Asian magazine, readers would relate to it and laugh at themselves.”

Italia says it’s also refreshing not having to explain things, such as the importance of cricket, or define terms like Bollywood for South Asian readers because they understand the culture. It’s easier for writers to understand readers, too, because they are a part of the community.

Paradkar says she wants South Asians, whether they’re teenagers, adults or senior citizens, to think of Desi Life as their magazine. In keeping with its risqué editorial stance, the December issue will contain an article about young South Asians’ relationship with sex. The story will likely be applauded and create some controversy at the same time — precisely the response Paradkar is looking for.