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Tamraparni Dasu Provides a Breathtaking Breadth of Perspective

2 months ago / by Ahad Sanwari
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Tamraparni Dasu finds many ways to tell a story. It just doesn’t happen to always be in the traditional way.

Dasu wears many hats. Along with her father, Dasu Krishnamoorty, in 2006, she founded the literary non-profit organization IndiaWrites Publishers Inc., a non-profit that supports translation and dissemination of contemporary fiction in Indian languages. Dasu also has written many books of fiction. In addition, she is also a computational statistician who specializes in machine learning, data quality, and stream analytics.

While those seem like vastly different worlds, those were Dasu’s ways of fleshing out narratives.

Dasu grew up in a literary family. Her father is a journalist and writer, and her mother was a published short story writer in Telugu. For generations members of both sides of her family had taken to the creative arts, counting in their numbers poets, composers, journalists and writers.

“My father’s family had one of the first printing presses in India called Vani Press, which along with newspapers and magazines, published a patriotic newsletter, “Jagruthi,” during India’s independence movement,” Dasu said. “My maternal side has an Andhra Pradesh poet laureate, Kanuparthi Varalakshmamma, and the best-selling historical fiction writer Sri Prasad.”

So Dasu’s decision to study mathematical statistics in college was a shock for her family.

“I became the black sheep in a family that prized the creative arts,” she said. “I found math, logic puzzles, physics and astronomy fascinating, and kept a scrapbook of [the achievements of] India’s nuclear and space programs during my school years in Delhi.” That was long before the concept of “big data” existed. The work sparked her interest in computational statistics.

She said: “Bell Labs was a place of wonder at that time, where the best brains in math, stats and computer science roamed the corridors in a freewheeling fashion, juggling balls while riding unicycles or playing chess, and I got to collaborate with and learn from the top researchers in all these fields… “The problems were difficult due to the scale, heterogeneity and complex nature of the data, and it required multidisciplinary solutions forged from all these different fields.” Dasu said that helped her become one of the world’s experts in fast moving data streams (data generated by thousands of sources).

When she moved to New Jersey in 1989, it was a very different time. The Dotbusters were targeting South Asians in the area, the “dot” in their name alluding to the bindi Hindu women wear. Between 1975 and 1993 many South Asians were harassed, assaulted and killed to get them to leave the area.

Dasu recalls, “I remember a couple of not very pleasant encounters in grocery stores and malls. However, the last two decades have seen South Asians … dominate professional and commercial circles in the U.S.” She’s also glad to see South Asians becoming visible in the performing arts and politics.

In 2001, after Dasu’s mother died, her father, who came to live with her in the U.S., needed something to keep his mind occupied. Because Dasu wanted to introduce Telugu literature to her son, they started translating Telugu short fiction into English. This led to IndiaWrites Publishers Inc., which introduces contemporary Telugu literature to a wider audience.

They also started publishing a free online monthly magazine, “Literary Voices of India,” featuring translated short fiction from across that country.

“We realized that a lot of writers in Indian languages lead very challenging lives and get little visibility outside their region,” Dasu said. “We wanted to support them and pay them for their stories. As we read their stories, we realized how different they were from Indian writers who write in English, whose world view is very urban, oriented toward Western-educated audiences. Their stories are raw, intense, and so different from what I’ve read.”

This labor of love led to the publication of their first volume of short stories in 2010, “1947 Santoshabad Passenger and Other Stories.” This year, the second volume, “The Greatest Telugu Stories Ever Told (TGTSET),” was published by the Aleph Book Company. TGTSET is an anthology of 21 stories chosen by Dasu and her father. Every story is about the loves of those who live on the margins of society, and speaks about the need for change, and addresses oppressive social norms, and the abuse of power and authority.

Dasu has written two books in a series called “Spy, Interrupted.” She’s currently working on her third novel. Asked if switching from technical to literary writing was challenging, she replied, “Interestingly, my technical writing, where brevity and clarity of thought is important, has helped immensely with my fiction writing, helping me remove clutter and make the narrative seamless.”

But Dasu, being the data scientist, sees an interesting connection between her scientific and artistic careers,

“Both data and literature are about telling stories; one using numbers and the other using words,” she said. “You have to marshal your data or words with clarity and honesty, to tell interesting and engaging stories that people care about. Data science is now all about telling stories based on data: How did COVID spread, do fireworks cause the greenhouse effect, are women postponing having children… And so on. Both data and literature are like swimming in an unrelenting stream of information, and having to identify a pattern or idea and weave it into a story that fascinates and provokes thought. The best writers and data scientists have the ability to tell the most complex and intricate stories with a simplicity that can captivate a child.”

As a South Asian woman in a field dominated by men, Dasu often found herself in meetings where she was the only woman.

She said, “It has been an interesting journey. There are stereotypes. South Asian women are not assertive, they are not leaders, and so on. These stereotypes were tough to fight earlier on, especially without a mentor or advocate. It was hard to get visibility, mostly because when opportunities for a visible role emerged, the decisions were made behind closed doors by mostly white men, who would turn to those they were culturally comfortable with.”

Dasu said she is glad to see this has changed in the last 15 years, with more women entering STEM fields and being more vocal about fairness, equitable roles and representation.

Speaking of other South Asian women who are forging their own paths is “I am happy to see that they are defying centuries of societal expectations and forging their own future. They should not be afraid of taking a different path and should hang out with people who are open-minded, well-informed, optimistic and generous with their time, knowledge and praise. Finally, they should explore and enjoy the incredible natural beauty and cultural opportunities that the world has to offer. It stimulates your brain in different ways and gives you the ability to connect dots in unexpected and thrilling ways by giving you a breadth of perspective.”