Meet the 'masala' moms

The Globe and Mail

Anjum Choudhry Nayyar, a former television journalist who started a website masalamommas.com aimed at South Asian women, with her two children. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Ma)

For the launch of her new South Asian online magazine, Masalamommas.com , founder Anjum Choudhry Nayyar has chosen a seemingly unlikely venue: latin dance club Babaluu in Yorkville.

That’s right. While there will be a sari-tying contest, and Punjabi beats and Desi hip hop, there will be no curry or paneer. And there will be salsa lessons after 9.

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“It’s a masala,” says Ms. Nayyar, waving her slender hands during a run-through of next week’s event. “All mixed up!”

Masala, of course, usually refers to an Indian spice mixture. Here, it’s a clever shorthand for the kind of cultural mash-up Ms. Nayyar and her peers experience every day, and one which she hopes will speak to busy working South Asian moms who may not see their experience fully reflected elsewhere.

Like Ms. Nayyar, her target audience tends to be first-generation Canadians. Their immigrant parents’ backgrounds span Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Christian religions and myriad cultural and linguistic traditions. They find themselves navigating between the demands of work, modern parenting and adhering to traditions they may not know first-hand.

Ms. Nayyar, 38, grew up in Toronto, the daughter of Hindu-Punjabi immigrants, her mom a psychologist and her dad a businessman. A journalist by training, Ms. Nayyar now works in communications at the University of Toronto. She’s married, with two young children, and lives within five minutes of her parents and in-laws in Thornhill, Ont.

The idea of a South Asian mom site occurred to her after the birth of her first child in 2006. None of her friends were married yet and her husband’s friends were older and out of the new-baby phase. She hoped to balance the advice of her parents and in-laws with information from others going through similar life changes.

“I was trying to reeducate myself about many of the traditions of my culture,” says Ms. Nayyar.

Case in point: In Punjabi culture, there’s a tradition of having a big, blowout first-birthday party for a new baby, complete with particular gifts to and from various family members. She wondered if she could have a smaller party, and looked for other young moms for ideas on how to compromise.

“I would go online to try and address the cultural part of it, but I couldn’t find a community specifically aimed at women or mothers,” she says.

Over the past few months, Ms. Nayyar has wooed South Asian bloggers from North America, South Asia and the United Kingdom into her orbit, profiling them and posting their work. A tour through the site reveals everything from recipes for chicken tikka to a discussion of taboo issues such as divorce and mental-health issues.

She’s posted conversation-starters about the recent moves by Canadian health officials to limit female feticide in South Asian communities, as well as the case of Jassi Sidhu, a Vancouver woman whose family has been accused of killing her in India over her choice of husband.

“Those stories should not be hands-off,” she says.

Markham, Ont., blogger Sheba Siddiqui agrees. On her blog at Sheba’s World, she’s tackled miscarriage, infidelity and domestic violence. Ms. Siddiqui, “met” Ms. Nayyar on Twitter and she shares posts with Ms. Nayyar. In a recent piece, she wrote about a provocative talk her new favourite imam gave on sure-fire ways to ruin a marriage. (A sample, for a man: “Monitor her modesty in conduct and attire while you enjoy ‘mature’ TV and movies that are ‘bad’ for the kids.”)

Ms. Siddiqui says having a hub like Masalamommas is empowering for her and her readers.

“As far as I know, it’s the first of its kind,” says Ms. Siddiqui. “It’s a great place to come together with other South Asian women and exchange ideas, experiences raising our children. And assimilate our Indian traditions within our Canadian families.”

Masalamommas may also be part of a larger cultural moment, one poised to appeal to an audience both inside and outside the South Asian community.

A new Rogers cable show, The Housewives of Lorne Park, an independent, South-Asian-flavoured take on the splashy U.S. reality franchise, launched this month. (And several cast members of the show are slated to attend the Masalamommas launch party.)

While the show has already attracted some negative comments about the bling factor of its stars and their wealthy lifestyles, one of the creators, cast member Alka Dhir, says she hopes it also expands the often narrow image of South Asians.

“South Asians are smart, fun and know how to have fun; we’re not stuffy traditionalists.”

And they’re also a booming demographic. By 2031, Statistics Canada predicts that South Asians will be the largest visible minority group in Canada, with a population of 3.2 to 4.1 million, compared with 1.3 million in 2006. In the Toronto area, South Asians will see their numbers almost triple in that time, to represent nearly a quarter of residents. The reasons: immigration and higher fertility rates.

So, a website catering to South Asian moms is also a smart business plan, says Ayalla Ruvio, a business professor at Temple University, in Philadelphia, who studies the relationship between ethnic identity and marketing.

“Marketers are actively looking for those communities,” says Prof. Ruvio. It’s no wonder that in addition to established South Asian businesses such as the high-end clothing shop Indiva and site Saricloset.com, who are supporting the launch, Ms. Nayyar has attracted the attention of Chevrolet as a site sponsor.

But back at the party run-through, there are a few planning issues to attend to before Ms. Nayyar’s empire takes off. And they’re not unlike some of the challenges Ms. Nayyar and her fellow bloggers regularly address – and laugh at – online.

Event planner Lina Dhingra says Babaluu’s doors will open at 5:30; if she could, she’d e-mail guests a reminder to be on time. “It’s not Indian Standard Time!” she cracks, referring to her circle’s tendency to be late.

Then there’s the menu. In addition to the now-common gluten- and dairy-free requirements, there are a number of other dietary restrictions to accommodate.

“Those empanadas are beef,” says Ms. Nayyar, pointing to the menu.

“Hindus,” says event planner Lina Dhingra.

“Maybe we should do chicken,” says Ms. Nayyar.

It took a few extra minutes to hash out the details, but now Ms. Nayyar is certain everyone will find a canape to their liking; it’s precisely the kind of grown-up, modern compromise she hopes her readers will find on her web site.

“I’m trying to be modern while still embracing my culture.”

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