The soft red pall the Firehouse Lounge neon casts on Sheel Mohnot underscores his recollection of a torrent of finger-wagging -- his mother's reaction to Masti Magazine, the new men's humor and lifestyle Web site he runs with some longtime friends.
"Well, my mom was looking at the site," says the 22-year-old Murrysville native, grinning sheepishly, "and she had some very harsh words, especially about the sex column. We actually ended up taking off one of the columns, and toning down some of the pictures."
Such shotgun editorializing is a definite break from publishing form, but not for Masti, which is written entirely from the perspective of the young Indian-American male. Nor for someone who grew up desi -- Hindi for a person of Indian extraction -- and living with that "wedged-between-two-cultures" feeling the magazine so celebrates. "Life is very different for us, just growing up under a stricter household," says Mohnot, a first-generation Indian-American who weekly commutes to Chicago for his job as a corporate strategy consultant.
With his gelled hair, stylish dark-rimmed glasses and friendly demeanor, Mohnot comes off as a typical hip kid from the eastern suburbs, only he's Indian-American and a practicing Jain. "You almost have to live two lives. So, we wanted to focus very much on our own demographic: Indian people who like to have fun, but at the same time are studious and want to do well at our jobs."
He pauses to glance at the Firehouse's steadily growing roomful of guests, mainly Pittsburghers of Indian extraction. Before long, the scene at the Strip District bar looks like it could have been lifted from a Mumbai nightspot, provided James Brown's "Tighten Up" were swapped for a bhangra remix. Tonight's party is one of four events (the others are in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and New York City) celebrating the site's Feb. 1 launch.
"Masti is Hindi for 'mischief,'" says Mohnot, "or 'an intoxication with life.' It means having a really good time, but in a mischievous way. When we were in New York recently, we were doing the touristy stuff, walking around Times Square all day, going through all the shops, and we see this Naked Cowboy guy -- he's very famous. So, we're like, 'You know, what he needs is some Indians.' So, we took off our clothes and got next to him for a picture. That's masti."
That picture is on the magazine's front page, at www.mastimagazine.com. It's indicative of the good-natured wiseass m.o.'s of Mohnot and his Pittsburgh-born crew: brothers Neil (26, a medical student at Pitt and part-time stand-up comedian/actor) and Shawn Badlani (22, an investment banker living in New York City), and Rajiv Ahuja (a law student, currently in Washington, D.C.). The four handle the writing, photography and Web tasks for Masti's sex, humor, culture and lifestyle sections.
Updates of the site will remain sporadic until a monthly publication schedule is set. Meanwhile, browsers can view articles including Neil Badlani's lamentation on dating Indian girls, a piece on fitness and a scathing "Top-Ten Ways to Know You're a FOB" ("fresh off the boat"). A sample of the latter: "You love to request the newest Michael Jackson song at the club."
It's not all about tarring and feathering the "FOB." Mohnot hopes to mine cross-cultural laughs. "While we enjoy poking fun at the FOB, we want them to enjoy the magazine as well," he says. "We're actually looking for writers from the other side of the picture to make fun of us."
With those frequent jabs at custom and stereotype, peppered with "Hinglish" and cultural minutiae that Western-raised readers might not grasp, it's safe to assume no non-desi could get away with Masti's humor. Nonetheless, since going live the site has logged between 500 and 700 new visitors daily, from as far away as the United Kingdom and Singapore. Growing up desi abroad, evidently, is a phenomenon readers worldwide relate to.
And of course there are the "Masti Girls." Currently, Masti features a series of photos of a pair of nubile Carnegie Mellon University students, although Mohnot says he continues to receive inquiries from prospective models. Catholic guilt may have found its Eastern equivalent -- few of the shots are more provocative than the raciest of J. Crew catalogs. Again, based on that prior parental commentary, that's OK by the staff.
"We didn't want to do anything that their Indian parents would disapprove of," says Mohnot. "But at the same time I think that they're very sexy; they leave a little to the imagination."
Variations on men's mags such as Details, Stuff or FHM crop up at newsstands seemingly every few months. But if nothing else, the Masti staff hopes to fully reach its niche readership. "According to our research, there's nothing like it out there -- even in India, which really kind of shocked me," says Mohnot. "We wanted to make a magazine about what [desis] here are really like."
"Indian parents raise their kids to be complete nerds, you know? No Indian kid is raised to be a football player or an actor; they're raised to be a doctor or an engineer," says med student Neil Badlani. "A lot of that comes out in the magazine. It's that common background that we can always make fun of."