The winds of change blew through
the South Asian Journalists Association last month
when Jyoti Thottam became its first elected president.
Thottam replaced SAJA co-founder Sreenath Sreenivasan,
who convened the group’s first meeting at a
small Indian restaurant in midtown Manhattan nearly
seven years ago.
From a barely a roomful of people,
the professional networking group now boasts more than
700 members in North America, with strong satellite
chapters in the Bay Area, Washington, D.C., and the
Midwest. For many, SAJA has become an indispensable
resource for accurate and fair coverage of South Asia.
Its activities include an e-mail discussion list and a
daily compendium of South Asia-related articles. In
addition to its monthly meetings and frequent speaker
panels, the organization holds an annual conference and
awards ceremony recognizing excellent reporting on South
“I’m very proud of what we
have achieved and the connections and friends I have
made along the way,” Sreenivasan, an associate
professor at Columbia University’s graduate
school of journalism, said. “But it’s
every parent’s hope to see their child grow
and do better than they did. That’s my hope
Thottam, 30, is a reporter at
On magazine, a new technology publication owned
by Time Inc. She has had a distinguished career as a
journalist, traveling and writing as a freelancer in
India, Thailand and Nepal. Her work has appeared in
The Wall Street Journal, The Village
Voice, The Christian Science Monitor, Fort
Worth Star-Telegram, The San Francisco
Chronicle, Voice of America radio, City
Limits and Himal Magazine.
Sreenivasan said the mark of a good
leader was one who knew when to step aside and hand over
the reigns to “someone will keep the organization alive
and kicking.” He’s sure that SAJA is in good hands.
“Jyoti is enthusiastic, articulate, smart. She is
exactly the kind of person we want to be the face of
Shaheen Pasha chatted with the
group’s newly elected president recently.
Rediff: How did you get into
JT: When I was in college, I
worked for the Yale Herald, my college newspaper.
I really loved it and I realized that it was what I
wanted to do. I haven’t found anything more enjoyable
Rediff: What drew you to
JT: I was in graduate school
at Columbia and there were a lot of events that I liked
going to. I got to know Sree and got more and more
involved with SAJA. I liked that SAJA had a very
straightforward mission and it’s not too bureaucratic. A
lot of organizations become just about holding meetings.
SAJA was different. It wasn’t an organization with
meetings and too much structure, not your typical
organization. I don’t like going to meetings.
Rediff: How have you seen SAJA
change since you first became involved?
JT: SAJA, obviously, has
gotten a lot bigger. People seem to recognize it more
than they initially did. I continue to be amazed at just
how many people SAJA reaches through the e-mail
Rediff: What has been your
most satisfying experience with SAJA? Your most
JT: Personally, I’ve always
enjoyed the fact that SAJA hosts a lot of fiction
writers, in addition to journalists, which may seem a
little unusual. That’s something that I have a real
passion for and since I’ve read most of the authors,
it’s something I’ve enjoyed. I don’t think there really
is anything that I’ve found frustrating about SAJA. As I
said before, SAJA hasn’t had much of an organizational
structure except for the last two years so no, nothing
Rediff: What are your plans
for SAJA as president?
JT: One thing that I’m hoping
to do as president is expand SAJA’s official membership.
It’s been a pretty informal organization over the last
few years. Anyone can be on the list, come to meetings
and that’s for free. We have started a paid membership
and we do have more and more people coming to our
meetings and getting on the e-mail list. The
organization is going to thrive on that.
Rediff: How do you plan on
increasing paid membership in SAJA?
JT: So far we have gotten all
our paid members without any advertising push. We have a
link to the membership form on the front of the Web
site. We also have membership forms available at various
events and offer discounts to some of these events with
paid SAJA membership. Once we start to make it a
priority, I think the paid membership will increase even
Rediff: Being SAJA’s
first-ever elected president, do you feel you will be
examined more critically?
JT: I really hope they will.
Sree has done such a great job over the last two years
and I think the organization was lulled in a sense of
complacency knowing he’d be there doing a great job. I
hope the shock and surprise of having someone new will
make people sit and take notice and look critically. I
hope they have ideas of how SAJA should be better. The
president’s role is changing. It’s now going to be about
running the organization and being the public face of
SAJA. Sree was doing the job of 3 or 4 people and it's
my hope that 3 or 4 people will actually do those
Sree continues to do a lot without
being president. He runs the e-mail list. He will do
those extras, for example, like when he put together
reporting tips for covering the earthquake in Gujarat.
It was an invaluable resource for journalists everywhere
and we received many e-mails afterwards thanking us for
the service we provided. That’s the perfect example of
what SAJA can do.
Rediff: As a journalist, what
are your most interesting accomplishments, and why?
JT: Being a reporter in Queens
[for the Times/Ledger newspapers] was such a
great experience. From the age of 4 to 10, I lived in
Queens and I remember places that I grew up seeing. It
was great to be able to go back and report from places I
had seen as a kid. I covered a lot of crime and New York
City politics, which is really interesting. But then I
wound up going to tech reporting. I wanted to move to a
larger news organization and Time Inc. is a great
Rediff: Have you ever run
across difficulties as a South Asian female reporter,
particularly through your travels through the
JT: I don’t think I ran into
difficulties being a South Asian. I think there are
things that you have to think about as female traveling.
It makes you become more aware of what’s around you and
that can be an advantage. Being a reporter is about
observing details so that can help. I think journalists
in India do an amazing job and they have a lot more
competition than we do in the United States. They work
really hard under difficult conditions and hold
themselves to a high standard. My goal was to live up to
what they can do and try to write something that could
contribute to the understanding of the region.
Rediff: As a South Asian in
the mainstream, how does your cultural identity affect
or influence the type of reporting you do?
JT: It’s natural that when you
come from someplace outside of the U.S., if something
comes up that has to do with South Asia you must be the
expert. They wouldn’t assume that someone not South
Asian would know about arranged marriage. Sometimes I
write about things that have to do with South Asia but
most of the time I don’t. I follow my own instincts.
I really enjoy being able to do both.
I like to write for an audience that isn’t familiar with
it and that’s our job as reporters to explain things to
people. I’ve done all different kinds of reporting, but
I’ve always written things about South Asian immigrants,
in particular. I guess that’s something I keep coming
Rediff: Who are your idols in
the media? Desis, or not? Why? What have you learned
JT: Joan Didion is someone I
really admire. She has a really strong voice as a writer
and is an impeccable reporter. As far as fiction writers
go, I admire V.S. Naipaul. He has really strong opinions
about things that I don’t necessarily agree with. But
his conclusion are based on really strong reporting. I
would be really flattered if someone saw similarities in
my work that reminded them of Joan Didion or V.S.
Rediff: Journalism is a
different career path for many South Asians. Were you
ever influenced to do anything else?
JT: After high school, I
didn’t have a strong desire to be a doctor or engineer
and my parents didn’t really pressure me. They had their
doubts about journalism because they didn’t really know
anyone in the field. It was a bit unknown. But now
they’re excited to see what I’m