Nimrata 'Nikki' Randhawa Haley, who in 2010 conquered the odds to be elected South Carolina's first woman and first Indian-American governor, was on Friday conferred the India Abroad Person of the Year Award 2010, at a glittering presentation ceremony in New York City.
The event saw about 400 of the biggest names in the Indian-American community come together at a venue that celebrates the Indian-American journey The Pierre, a Taj Hotel. The historic hotel -- which stands on Fifth Avenue, overlooking Central Park, and has been featured in films, books and television shows provided the ideal stage to celebrate the community's stars.
Haley's story is impossible to resist.
When she first appeared on the South Carolina political scene in 2004, the odds were stacked against her. She was an Indian American in a largely conservative state. She was a woman taking on the old boy network. She was the daughter of immigrants who had arrived in the United States in the 1960s, fighting an incumbent who had been in power for 30 years and belonged to a family that had lived in the country since the 1600s. She was, to most people, 'Nikki who?'
Undeterred, undaunted and armed only with support from family and friends, grit, determination to change the old order and a smile, Haley campaigned the old-fashioned way. She knocked on doors, introduced herself and her goals; she fought off a rival campaign with racial undertones and sleazy political tactics with dignity. And then the dark horse galloped ahead.
Haley defeated an opponent no one imagined could have lost to a rookie and entered the South Carolina House of Representatives. While others considered it the finishing line, Haley knew she had just begun.
Last year, aged just 38, she took on the odds once again. And won once again, becoming America's youngest governor, taking the mantle away from fellow Indian-American Bobby Jindal of Louisiana.
Governor Haley was chosen The India Abroad Person of the Year 2010 for making history thus, for becoming the face of the New South and second-generation Indian Americans.
Since its inception in 2002, the awards presented by India Abroad -- the oldest and most widely-circulated Indian-American weekly newspaper, published from five locations in North America, and owned by Rediff.com have become the most coveted community honor in the country. Celebrating achievements across a wide spectrum, this year, 14 awards were presented in seven categories.
After a pre-event cocktail hour in the Cotillion Ballroom the setting for Al Pacino's memorable tango scene from Scent Of A Woman -- the event kicked off in the grand ballroom with India Abroad Publisher and Rediff.com Founder, Chairman and CEO Ajit Balakrishnan addressing how things had changed for the Indian-American community in the four decades of India Abroad's existence, and how the IAPOY Awards had grown from one awardee in 2002 to 14 this year to reflect the community's evolution and success.
The awards ceremony hosted by the witty and charming Sreenath Sreenivasan, professor, Columbia University Journalism School, for the seventh time in eight years -- began with an eye on the future the rising stars of the community.
The first award, the India Abroad Special Award for Achievement 2010, was presented to Vijay Balse, who won the American television quiz show Jeopardy's Tournament of Champions and $250,000; Aadith Moorthy, winner of the National Geography Bee 2010; and Anamika Veeramani, winner of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee 2010.
Though masters of widely different fields, the three awardees are bound by their determination. All of them knew failure; all of them refused to be defeated by it. Balse won the Jeopardy Tournament of Champions after six auditions and over 16 years of trying. Aadith and Anamika scooped up their trophies only on their second attempt.
Next came the man who is beginning to redefine social networking. Foursquare Co-founder Naveen Selvadurai won the India Abroad Face of the Future Award 2010, an award that recognises young achievers with immense promise.
With 10 million users and counting, Fourquare looks like it is in for the long run as does Naveen. The 28-year-old, who is worth an estimated $80 million, received his award from earlier winners of the India Abroad Face of the Future Award, mathematician Dr Manjul Bhargava, the second youngest full professor at Princeton University, and Dr Priyamvada Natarajan, professor of astronomy and physics at Yale University.
The India Abroad Publisher's Special Award for Excellence 2010 -- expanded last year to include more than one winner, to do justice to the growing list of achievers from the community -- followed. With this category having seen winners like astronaut Sunita Williams (2006), who memorably greeted the awards ceremony from space, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jhumpa Lahiri (2008), the anticipation was palpable.
India Abroad Publisher Ajit Balakrishnan presented this year's awards to Columbia Business School professor and author Dr Sheena Iyengar, Grammy-nominated jazz musician Dr Vijay Iyer and Pulitzer winner Dr Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Dr Iyengar, who is blind, redefined the concept of choice with her book The Art of Choosing. The book was among the most well reviewed non-fiction books last year.
On the non-fiction shelf with her was another newcomer: Dr Mukherjee with his first book The Emperor of All Maladies A Biography of Cancer. An oncologist and assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, he won the Pulitzer Prize in the general non-fiction category this year.
Dr Iyer was recognized for conquering a musical genre where possibly no Indian American had gone before jazz. His incredible virtuosity earned him a Grammy nomination; his album Historicity was named by several critics as the Jazz Album of the Year.
Sreenivasan then steered the guests towards the next award: The inaugural India Abroad Friend of India Award. With India-US relations having reached new highs, marked by President Barack Obama's landmark visit to India last November, it is only right that India Abroad introduce an award to recognize those who had made it possible, Sreenivasan said.
The winner was the man who set the tone for the present-day relationship between the two countries: Dr Strobe Talbott. Now the president of the Brookings Institution, the well-known Washington think-tank, President Bill Clinton assigned Dr Talbott the responsibility of engaging India in the wake of the nuclear blasts in 1998. His negotiations with then external affairs minister Jaswant Singh were catalytic.
Just how important a role Dr Talbott played was highlighted by his friend of 43 years, former US President Bill Clinton, via a video address recorded specially for the India Abroad Person of the Year Awards ceremony, moments after India's Ambassador to the US Meera Shankar presented Dr Talbott his award.
Last year too, President Clinton had recorded a video message for the event to congratulate Publisher Sonny Mehta, winner of the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Achievement 2009. Mehta has edited and published Clinton's memoirs.
These awards marked the end of the first half of the ceremony, making way for an elaborate dinner that was highlighted by a special Madhur Jaffrey dish -- an indication, for those who could spot it, of bigger things to come.
Over the courses ranged conversations featuring Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, the India Abroad Person of the Year 2009 who flew in from the University of Cambridge especially for the event, Ambassador Meera Shankar, Minister for Heavy Industries Praful Patel, India's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, celebrity chef Floyd Cardoz who won the TopChef Masters contest last fortnight, author Suketu Mehta among others.
In another first, the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Service to the Community 2010 were given not to a person but to four organisations for their outstanding work in support of South Asian women who are victims of domestic violence: Manavi, Sakhi, Apna Ghar and Maitri.
The penultimate award of the evening was the India Abroad Award for Lifetime Achievement 2010, presented to the legendary Madhur Jaffrey, whose contribution to dinner her signature dish Achari Baingan -- was still on people's minds. Jaffrey has packed more into a lifetime than most people would manage to pack into several. An extraordinary chef (credited with introducing the world to real Indian cooking), a bestselling author and an exquisite actress, she received the award from filmmaker James Ivory, a friend of over 50 years.
It was now time for the most-anticipated moment of the evening -- The India Abroad Person of the Year Award 2010. Since Haley was away at the Paris Air Show to build South Carolina's brand as an aerospace hub, she accepted her speech via video.
"I want to thank everyone there tonight and everyone with India Abroad that gave me this tremendous honor," she said. "I am so very sorry that I can't be there with you. I am at an aeronautic show in Europe and couldn't be there, but I could not be more proud that the two people representing me are my parents. They are the ones that got me through this election. They are the ones that taught me what it meant to run with strength and grace. They are the ones who reminded me every day how blessed you were to live in this country. The Indian community has been supportive to me in so many ways and I want you to know that I will NOT stop until I make you proud."
Her parents Professor Ajit Randhawa and Raj Randhawa accepted the award on her behalf from Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan.
Haley now joins the distinguished roster of earlier India Abroad Persons of the Year: Former Iowa state legislator and now state Senator Swati Dandekar (2002); IndiCorps co-founder Sonal Shah (2003); captain of the silver medal-winning US gymnastic team at the Athens Olympics Mohini Bhardwaj (2004); then US Congressman and current Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (2005); PepsiCo Chairperson and CEO Indra Nooyi (2006); acclaimed filmmaker Mira Nair (2007); author and journalist Fareed Zakaria (2008), and Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (2009).
Image: Nikki Haley | Photograph: Paresh Gandhi