There was a time when Australia, a poor country cousin to both Britain and the United States, was never on the minds of Indians—except when it came to the subject of cricket. Australians have long had a reputation for being ferociously competitive in all sports and I recall from my childhood in the 1970s Indian commentators lamenting that their own sportsmen, unlike the Aussies, lacked ‘the killer instinct’. Defeating Australia on their home ground remained for Indian test cricket an objective that was only achieved thirty years after the two countries played their first test series in 1947-48. If the first test on Australian soil was won in 1977, it took a little more than seventy years for India to win a test series in Australia. But India’s most spectacular win might have been just months ago in January, when, much to the astonishment of Indians and Australians alike, indeed the entire cricketing world, India cast a spell at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, where Australia had been undefeated against any team in 32 years, and won the test—and the series—with three wickets to spare.Continue reading
Part II of The Trouble with Kamala: Identity and the Death of Politics
Those who do not recognize the manner in which identity politics dominates nearly all conversation in America understand little if anything of America. What the nomination of Kamala Devi Harris by the Democratic party to the Vice-Presidency of the US signifies is not so much the fact that women have finally arrived on the political scene, or are on the verge of breaking the glass ceiling that has held them back, an argument that was advanced when Hillary Clinton became the party’s nominee for the President, but rather the sheer impossibility of escaping the identity question in American public life. Let us consider her, in the first instance, as an African American as Harris has herself weighed in on these matters often, describing herself as a Black on most occasions and adverting to her pride in being African American. Her 2019 autobiography, The Truths We Hold: An American Journey is explicit on one particular detail that merits some consideration. Her parents separated when she was around five years old, and they divorced a few years later; but her mother, who had come from India as a graduate student, was not therefore bereft of a family. Kamala’s parents had a shared political life for some years: they participated in political demonstrations against racism, discrimination, and injustice, discussed decolonization in Africa, and declared their support for liberation movements in ‘the developing world’. These dissenters and rebels became, Harris writes, “my mother’s people. In a country where she had no family, they were her family—and she was theirs. From almost the moment she arrived from India, she chose and was welcomed to and enveloped in the black community. It was the foundation of her new American life.” In consequence, Shyamala Gopalan raised her daughters, Kamala and Maya, as black children: “She knew that her adopted homeland would see Maya and me as two black girls, and she was determined to make sure we would grow into confident, proud black women.”
The spectacle is over. Some 50,000 Indian Americans showed up a few days ago at the NRG Stadium in Houston to greet Narendra Modi, who was joined by his soulmate in narcissism and fellow sojourner in “rally politics”, Donald J. Trump. “Howdy, Modi,” as the event was billed, has been described in much of the Indian and Indian American media as hugely successful and as another feather in Modi’s cap as he attempts to showcase India to the world and present himself as a “world leader”. Prime Minister Modi, according to this narrative, had only one visibly uncomfortable moment when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer described India as a country that, like America, was “proud of its ancient traditions to secure a future according to Gandhi’s teaching and Nehru’s vision of India as a secular democracy where respect for pluralism and human rights safeguard every individual.”
Fourth of four parts of “Asian American Studies and Its Futures”
In the week following the September 11, 2001, bombings of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the non-profit advocacy group South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which aims for a “more just and inclusive society in the United States”, recorded 645 hate crimes against South Asians, Sikhs, and Muslims. The FBI in its annual survey of hate crimes recorded a lower number of “hate crimes” targeting “people of Middle Eastern descent, Muslims, and South Asians”, while conceding that the attacks had spiraled from “just 28” in 2000 to 481 in 2001. In all likelihood, many more such crimes went unreported. Not one of the nineteen hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks was of South Asian origin; indeed, fifteen of the hijackers were citizens of just one country, Saudi Arabia. On the morning of September 15th, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh man from Mesa, Arizona, was shot dead in front of his gas station. His killer, Frank Roque, had reportedly told his friends the previous day that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.” As he was being arrested the day following the shooting, Roque shouted, “I am a patriot! I stand for America all the way!” Roque saw only a bearded and turbaned man in front of him; he “mistook” him for a Middle Easterner, an Osama-look alike. In a lighter moment, had the outcome not been so tragic, I would have said that Roque reminded me of the man, made famous by the late Oliver Sacks, who mistook his wife for a hat. Sodhi would have the unfortunate distinction of being the first victim in the United States of a retaliatory hate crime after the September 11th bombings, but he would not be the last Sikh who would be at the receiving end of a hate-filled rampage. In August 2012, the white supremacist and former US army soldier Wade Michael Page would kill six Sikhs before turning the gun upon himself at the Sikh Gurdwara, or house of worship, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
Just weeks into the Presidency of Donald J. Trump, and shortly after an Executive Order popularly dubbed as the ‘Muslim Ban’ was issued, the Indian software engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who worked for a GPS navigation and communications device company, was shot dead at a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by a Navy veteran, Adam W. Purinton. His companion and fellow Indian, Alok Madasani, escaped with a slight bullet injury. Kuchibhotla would become the first victim in the country whose death might justly be described as having been precipitated by Trump’s Executive Order, which, among other things, barred the citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. The killer, the New York Times reported, was “tossing ethnic slurs at the two men and suggesting they did not belong in the United States”; more pointedly, according to Madasani, Purinton inquired, most unusually, into their visa status before returning a short time later to shoot at them directly. Witnesses stated that they heard Purinton shout, “Get out of my country”, before he opened fire on the two Indians. At an Applebee’s restaurant in nearby Clinton, Missouri, where Purinton would be apprehended some hours after the shooting, he told the bartender, according to a Washington Post article, that he had shot dead two “Middle Eastern” men. At the other end of the world, in India, the Hindustan Times did not hesitate to venture forth with the opinion that “Kuchibhotla is possibly the first casualty of the religious, racial and ethnic divisiveness that has swept the US following the election of President Donald Trump, with minorities such as Jews and Muslims reporting a surge in attacks on them and their institutions.”
Iran, India, Iraq: they’re all the same anyhow. Their names sound alike. The assassin sees no difference. Three countries that lie east of the Suez Canal, some would be so bold to say east of civilization, and they just seem to elide into each other. Sunni, Shia, Hindu, Jain, Vaishnava, Shaivite, Buddhist, Nichiren, Parsi, Sufi, Alawite, Sikh: in the vast archipelago of ignorance, differences are easily smothered. Some South Asian Americans, in the wake of both the September 11th attacks and the short-lived inception of the “Muslim Ban”, might have been tempted into taking comfort from their identity and assumed that they would not be the targets of white rage. Perhaps many thought that they could be mere bystanders, if unwilling ones, to the slug-fest between Islam and the West. But they have, time and again, been rudely awoken to the fact that their identity will not be their salvation. Every brown-skinned person is perforce a Muslim—at least for now. It is not only American Muslims, of course, who have historically had to confront racial discrimination and xenophobic outrage, but Islam perhaps generates anxieties in the Christian West, and in Anglo-Saxon America, that are distinct. Christianity and Islam are uniquely the two proselytizing religions; they are in competition with each other from the eschatological standpoint, trying to save souls and winning converts.
The Christian West’s anxieties over Islam have now become everyone’s anxieties. South Asian Americans and Arab Americans; Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs: they are all subjects of a surveillance regime. That may be one reason why Muslim Americans should perhaps be welcomed under the ambit of ‘Asian Americans’. “Within National Security Studies,” Moustafa Bayoumi explains, “we can see the U.S. government is already establishing an infrastructure to study Muslims and Muslim Americans, and I don’t want to be studied solely by the government. The study of Asian Americans, Muslim Americans, and Arab Americans must be critical work that is decoupled from an exclusive National Security lens, and which ought to be performed primarily by people who have connections to the grassroots and with also a social justice agenda attached.”[vi] I understand the spirit in which Bayoumi asserts that he “doesn’t want to be studied solely by the government”: he knows for a fact that the likes of him and me will be studied, and if that is to happen, the state and its functionaries should not monopolize the narrative by which both of us are defined. Of course, as the editor of the Edward Said Reader, Bayoumi cannot but know that the parties that have been complicit in Orientalism—and now there is “National Security Studies”—extend well beyond the state to the academy, experts, policy institutes, the corporatized media, and a great many more people who represent the sinews of power. Does one want to be studied at all?
Whatever the bizarrely-worded “War on Terror” means, it has necessitated a fundamental reassessment of the assumptions about identity, security, and the state. Bayoumi’s plea that the imperatives of the National Security State should not be permitted to influence the study of Muslim Americans can be justifiably extended to other areas of scholarly inquiry and academic research. That, however, is the subject for a much longer deliberation; but perhaps what can be said is that the implications of his plea and critique need to be pursued in at least one further respect. Much has been written by scholars about the origins of Asian American Studies and ethnic studies more broadly. It would not be untrue to say that, fifty years after these initiatives were launched, most students and even many mature scholars still derive their politics from their identity. The election of Donald J. Trump to the White House has shown that is unequivocally the case for most white Americans as well, not only for hyphenated-Americans. The American university, unfortunately, has done very little if anything that would enable us to look forward to the day when most students and scholars will derive their identity from their politics.
In his recently concluded visit to the United States, where he addressed a jubilant crowd of around 19,000 people, Narendra Modi all but dedicated his government to the Non-resident Indians gathered to celebrate his triumph. “You have given me a lot of love”, he told his admirers: “This kind of love has never been given to any Indian leader, ever. I’m very grateful to you. And I will repay that loan by forming the India of your dreams.” This was music to the ears of his devoted listeners, whose achievements Modi has promised to teach his countrymen and women to emulate: “I want to duplicate your success. What do we do to duplicate that success?”
The members of the Indian Civil Service who governed India after it became a Crown Colony were described as, and believed themselves to be, “heaven-born”. Many Indian Americans similarly believe themselves to be not merely fortunate and hard-working but as the vanguard of what may be described as a post-industrial Vedic civilization. To understand what it is that enables Indian Americans, and mainly the Hindus among them, to think of themselves both as immensely spiritually gifted, as the true inheritors of a Vedic civilization, and as the ideal representatives of the world’s most advanced material culture, certain aspects of the history of Indian Americans must be revisited. Though they are today the most educated and affluent of any ethnic group in the United States, they have long bemoaned their fate as an ‘invisible minority’. Five decades ago, the Punjabi American farmer Dilip Singh Saund served three terms (1957-63) in the House of Representatives. Until very recently, however, Indian Americans have scarcely made any other dent in politics. But it is other forms of invisibility that touch a raw nerve: as the savvy and yet aggressive young professionals who form part of the comparatively new Hindu American Foundation often point out, Hinduism is barely understood in the US and is, from their standpoint, unjustly maligned as a bizarre religion of false gods, demi-gods, demons, and such strange figures as Hanuman and Kali.
Hindus everywhere are inclined to believe that their religion, characterized by the notion of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (‘the earth is one family’), uniquely fosters tolerance, but Hindus in the United States see themselves as especially blessed and charged with the dual mission of rejuvenating India and helping America fulfill its destiny as the mecca of multicultural democracy. The formal dedication of many Hindu temples in the US, such as the Rama Shrine of the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago, has taken place on July 4th, which marks the anniversary of American independence. Hindus thus signify their acceptance of the idea that they share in the blessings of American “freedom”, while at the same time conveying to Americans that Hinduism permits a richer and more spiritual conception of freedom centered on the notion of self-realization. The secular American formula, E Pluribus Unum, ‘From Many, One’, is countered by, and complemented with, the Vedic affirmation of idea that ‘Truth is One; Sages Name It Variously’ (‘Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti’; Rig Veda 1.164.46).
Indian American Hindus are exceedingly astute in their understanding of how discourses of multiculturalism might be deployed in the US to their advantage. Several years ago, a number of Hindu organizations rallied together in a concerted attempt to force alterations in history textbooks used in California schools. They objected, for example, to the fact that such textbooks characterized Hinduism as a polytheistic rather than monotheistic faith, or that women in ancient India were described as having fewer rights than men. American Hindus Against Defamation (AHAD) almost serves as a vigilante group, observing a hawk-like look-out for those who offend against Hindu sentiments. However, their support of “multiculturalism” in India, where the religious, linguistic, and cultural diversity dwarfs anything seen in the US, is remarkably muted. Apparently, on their world view, multiculturalism is much to be admired in the US even as it may safely be ignored in India. Indeed, many Hindus in the US adhere to the view that the practice of their faith is not hobbled by the constraints that a pseudo-secular Indian state has imposed upon Hindus in their homeland.
There is a remarkable convergence in the worldview of the NRI—and the model of the successful NRI is the Indian American—and Narendra Modi. The political ascendancy of a former tea vendor reminds Indian Americans of the opportunities made available to them in the supposed land of milk and honey, though such a narrative obscures the fact that many of the immigrant Indians who have done exceedingly well in the US already came from advantaged backgrounds. NRIs and Modi alike crave to see a new, resplendent India that can take its place as a great power, but India in its present state is an embarrassment to them. Its faults—the appalling poverty, the ramshackle appearance of every town, the indescribable filth in public spaces, widespread evidence of malnutrition and open defecation, and much else—need not be rehearsed at length, and Modi has signaled his attempt to meet such objections by launching the Swachch Bharat Mission. But there are more compelling parts of the story and the anxiety of influence extends much further. The Indian middle classes and the non-resident Indians have long agonized over the fact that India, as a friend once remarked to me, is ‘the largest most unimportant country in the world’, and that the same Indians who flounder in their homeland yet make something significant of themselves outside India.
It is under these circumstances that Modi has appeared, to the Indian middle classes and to NRIs, as the appointed one. The well-to-do physicians, software engineers, scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and other professionals in the Indian American community have long hankered for an Indian leader who would be imposing and decisive, and they are convinced that India requires a strong dose of authoritarian leadership if it is to prosper. They are much more hospitable to the idea of a prosperous authoritarian state than they are to the idea of an India that is flaunted as a democracy but registers poor growth and continues to be an insignificant player in world politics. Modi’s concentration of power is calculated to furnish, from their standpoint, some of the advantages found in the Presidential system of government. Yet Modi also stands for what they view as ‘spiritual India’, a land synonymous with great yogis, teachers of spiritual renown, and sacred rivers that are personified as goddesses. Thus, in the figure of Narendra Modi, Indian Americans see the possibilities of a prosperous yet spiritual India which they believe is already embodied in their own life histories.
(First published in OUTLOOK [Print and Web editions], 20 October 2014, as ‘The Prophet of Boom Times’].
The history of Sikhs in America, it may appear to some, is bookended by violence directed at them. News of the shooting on August 5th at a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where a white gunman with pronounced neo-Nazi views shot dead six Sikhs as morning services were about to commence, reverberated throughout the United States and beyond. It is reported that the gunman, Wade Michael Page, was an army veteran, had a tattoo commemorating 9/11, and played with the white supremacist heavy metal bands End Apathy and Definite Hate. His motives remain unclear: some argue that ‘hate crimes’ need no motive as such, as they feed upon a visceral fear of the Other, though many have speculated that Page mistook Sikhs for Muslims. Mainstream American media organizations, such as CNN and Fox News, wasted little time in characterizing Page as an anomaly to ‘peaceful, mainstream America’, and deplored the shooting as a ‘tragic mistake’ perpetrated ‘against the peaceful Sikh community’.
‘What we call the beginning, T S Eliot wrote in ‘Little Gidding’, ‘is often the end / And to make and end is to make a beginning.’ The end, not unexpectedly, ‘is where we start from’, but the end so often seems prefigured in the beginning. Indians first started appearing in some numbers on the west coast of the United States and Canada around 1900: though the majority of them were Sikhs, all Indians were commonly described as ‘Hindoos’. I suppose we should call this a ‘tragic mistake’ as well. Indeed, the US Immigration Commission of 1911 stated that, for purposes of immigration, Indians were to be labeled as ‘Hindus’. If, in the old American adage about American Indians, the only good Indian is a dead one, the few hundred (Asian) Indians who had made their way to the US by around 1905 were seen as a menace to American society. ‘Hindu Invasion’ was the phrase used by one Fred Lockley in the Pacific Monthly in May 1907 to describe the presence of turbaned Indians; a year later, the Overland Monthly would similarly speak about ‘The West and the Hindu Invasion’. Eerily, the 9/11 –– in 1907, not 2001 –– edition of the Bellingham Herald carried a headline more than an inch thick, ‘British Columbia Threatens to Secede; Horde of Hindus Landing at Vancouver.’
Though the Sikhs who marked their presence in America dressed mainly in Western clothes, they were distinguished by their flowing beards and turbans: the local press took to calling them ‘rag-heads’. In the town of Bellingham in Washington, many were employed as lumbermen, much to the chagrin of white labor leaders who alleged that Indians had stolen their jobs and driven down wages. On September 4, 1907, a large crowd of white men instigated large-scale violence against the Indians. The Indians were driven out of the city; many were herded into the city jail, ostensibly for their own protection. Three days later, the Bellingham Herald, in an article entitled ‘Bellingham Sees Last of the Hindus’, announced with evident pride: ‘Entire Colony is Wiped Off City Map’. The Asiatic Exclusion League would continue to agitate vigorously for keeping America empty of ‘undesirable Asiatics’, achieving this outcome with the Immigration Act of 1924 that barred nearly all Asians from the US.
It is of course Muslims, not Sikhs, who are today viewed as the undesirable hordes who have invaded America. There is something grotesque in the argument that the shooting of the Sikhs at the Oak Creek Gurdwara was a ‘tragic mistake’: if it was a ‘mistake’, a deviation from the right path, how could it have been any better to have killed Muslims? Would Page have stood exonerated if his victims had been adherents of Islam? The Oak Creek shooting raises so many profound questions, beyond those that have been raised about America’s endless fascination with guns, the nearly unfathomable influence that the National Rifle Association exercises in American society and politics, and the country’s subcultures of white supremacy. Since Page turned the gun on himself in bringing the killing rampage to an end, should we not characterize him as akin to a suicide bomber? Might that not be one way to ensure that we do not think of countries where suicide bombings have been taking place as strangely barbaric? Had Page been a Muslim, is it not certain that he would have been immediately branded as a ‘terrorist’ and the country would have been deluged with calls to eradicate Muslim fanatics?
Less than two weeks after the Oak Creek massacre, SALDEF (Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund) reported the murder of shopkeeper Dalbir Singh, a member of the Oak Creek Sangat who was not present at the Gurdwara on August 5th. However well Sikhs have done for themselves, they occupy a liminal position in American society, indeed the world over. At the turn of the century in America, around 1900, they were mistaken for Hindus, and in India itself Sikh secessionism has had much to do, from the 1920s until the movement for Khalistan that peaked in the late 1980s, with disputes over the precise nature of Sikh identity. In the American imagination, one hundred years later, Sikhs have been conflated with Muslims. Many Sikhs are bound to feel anxious, troubled, and perhaps even resentful, and will insist upon their distinct identity; some, doubtless, will hold on to the hope that an appreciation of their true identity will alleviate their distress.
The Sikhs have, throughout their history, been wonderfully energetic and marvelously receptive to new cultures. They are, as well, an eminently diasporic people. But what is most distinctive about them is precisely their liminality, even if they should wish to insist upon their distinctiveness. The question, ‘Just who is a Sikh?’, is always lurking on the horizon; even their scriptures have an intricate relationship to both Islam and Hinduism. Even as this liminality makes them vulnerable, it is the source of their greatest strength and wisdom. As the world shows increasingly little ability to live with ambiguity and difference, the Sikhs must remain a beacon of hope to those who wish to resist the painful infliction of certitudes upon an ever greater number of people.
(First published in Times of India, Crest Edition, 25 August 2012).
Early June in the United States, and it’s that time of the year when a peculiarly American institution comes into the national news – and, on listening to the news, the feeling of déjà vu is absolutely inescapable. Some years ago, the particular phenomenon of the national spelling bee, over which Indian Americans have come to exercise something of a monopoly, captivated a documentary filmmaker who attempted to leave his viewers “spellbound” with a film of the same title. Many viewers may not find “Spellbound” (2002) as mesmerizing as Hitchcock’s thriller (1945) with which the documentary, barring its name, cannot otherwise be confused, but its director, Jeffrey Blitz, succeeded remarkably well in conveying the palpable tension that participants, their parents, and viewers experience each year as the national spelling bee comes to a nail-biting finish. Who will falter over words such as consuetude, phillumenist, foggara, osteomyelitis, mirin, epiphysis, mirin, ochidore, and juvia? What evidently also struck Blitz is the lightning war – blitzkrieg – with which Indian Americans have staged their recent dominion over this 85-year old competition. For eight of the last twelve years, Indian Americans have been the national champions; and when Animika Veeramani triumphed this year with the word “stromuhr”, which does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary but is defined by Merriam-Webster’s Medical Dictionary as a “rheometer designed to measure the amount and speed of blood blow through an artery”, she became the third Indian American to triumph in as many years.
As Indian Americans continue their winning spree at the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee, which annually brings to Washington the winners of the regional bees, this somewhat strange competition is understandably garnering increased attention in India. Writing for the Hindu (6 June 2010) on this year’s competition and its winner Anamika Veeeramani, a 14-year old from the state of Ohio, Narayan Lakshman commenced the article thus: “Is it because of Indian colonial history with Britain or is it something at the level of genetic programming? Whatever the explanation, there is no denying that Indians have a penchant for the English language, a transgenerational, linguistic love affair that gets transmitted even to [the] far-flung diaspora.” That characterization of Indians as having “a penchant for the English language” is seemingly endorsed by a recent article in the New York Times, which reports that American law firms have now begun to outsource legal documents to India not only for legal assistance at a fraction of the cost in the US but also to ensure that correct and indeed elegant English is used in such documents. That penchant will also be self-evident to those who have observed the rise of the English novel in India, from the time of R. K. Narayana, Mulk Raj Anand, and Rajo Rao to G. V. Desani, Anita Desai, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and Kiran Desai. Nevertheless, anyone with a modicum of knowledge about the manner in which English is relentlessly butchered in Indian newspapers or the shocking errors of grammar and syntax found in most English-language books published in India would have reason to pause over this wildly generous reading of the alleged mastery over English exercised by Indians.
Lakshman’s speculations on the “mystery of the enduring Indian passion for all things English” conclude, however, on a different note. Anamika’s father, on being pressed to explain the success of his daughter, who has set her eyes on Harvard and a career as a cardiovascular surgeon, praised her for dreaming big and attributed her triumph to the family’s “emphasis on education”. This is, of course, very much in keeping with the general perception of Indian Americans as an ambitious, hard-working, and law-abiding ethnic group, and Lakshman all too easily moves to the triumphalist conclusion that “Indians are simply people who believe that hard work, a rigorous education and familial support are the keys to their dreams.” But is it the Indians alone who believe in hard work and the virtues of family life? And, by implication, are we not to believe that other ethnic groups in the US are much less appreciative of education? There is no reason to believe that other immigrant communities are less invested in “the American dream” than Indian Americans; similarly, whatever their facility with the English language, it is far from being demonstrably true that Indians in the US have a greater command over it than those from other immigrant communities.
In a relatively recent book, The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (Los Angeles: UCLA; Delhi: HarperCollins, 2008), I ventured to provide a different reading of the phenomenal success of Indian Americans in the national spelling bee. As I wrote, we must first ponder on how a minority comes to view itself as a ‘model minority’. Here, then, are the relevant passages: “A somewhat more sociological explanation [of the Indian success at the national spelling bee] would perhaps stress the fact that Indian students to a disproportionately high degree come from highly educated families and that knowledge of English, which is almost a native tongue to many Indians in the United States, confers advantages on Indians denied to other ethnic groups. Yet the evidence from the Census Bureau’s latest reports on this question is somewhat ambiguous. The Asian Community Survey of February 2007, based on data collected in 2004, shows that Japanese and even Filipinos far outstrip Indian Americans in describing English as the language that is spoken at home; however, among people who claimed that English was not spoken at their home, or was not at any rate the predominant language of everyday conversation, Indians easily outnumbered all other Asians in describing themselves as speaking English ‘very well’. One might also take the view that all immigrant communities attempt to create particular niches for themselves, and that Indians excel in spelling bees just as Dominicans dominate American baseball and Kenyans and Ethiopians appear to have monopolized long-distance running.
“The difference here is that baseball has a huge following in the Dominican Republic, just as the longer races, extending from 5,000 meters to the marathon, have been part of the repertoire of Kenyans and Ethiopians in their own country for some time; however, by contrast, the ‘Spelling Bee’ is a cultural artifact of American society that has no resonance in India itself. It may well be the case that the present generation of affluent middle-class Indians settled in Bangalore and Mumbai who are plotting futures in the United States may already be preparing their very young children in India for the near future when the family will be comfortably settled in an American suburb and the children will be memorizing the spelling of arcane words, but there is no evidence yet that the institution of the Spelling Bee has winged its way to India. (British rather than American spellings prevail in India, though with Britain’s diminishing influence in Indian life this legacy of the Raj may soon show signs of fracture — and perhaps the American institution of the spelling bee will add its own color to the demise of the world of colour.) When a particular community is viewed as having a stranglehold over some profession, trade, or cultural phenomenon, other communities might be inclined to direct their resources elsewhere. Thus success breeds more success.
“It can well be argued, however, that all these interpretations fall quite short in their explanatory power, and that many Indians themselves might not have an adequate understanding of the manner in which they are able to call upon certain cultural resources. Indian intellectual traditions persist in continuing to emphasize memorization, and various mnemonic devices are still deployed in various Indian traditions for the retention of texts. Thus ‘Indian culture’ may well be a potent factor in understanding why Indian Americans have nearly monopolized the spelling bee, though this is not the Indian culture that students and their parents have in mind when they are probed by outsiders.”
It is unlikely that we will ever know what exactly accounts for the resounding success of Indian Americans at the National Spelling Bee. The 8-year old sister of Kavya Shivashankar, the winner of the 2009 competition, already made it to the pre-semifinal round this year, and two of the three contestants vying for the second position were Indian Americans. To speak only of the near future, the ‘invisible minority’ of which I spoke in my blog yesterday is clearly endeavoring, not without success, to render itself visible as equally the partaker and shaper of “the American dream”.
Indian Americans, the so-called model minority, have recently been up in arms. The object of their rage is an American columnist by the name of Joel Stein, who had the audacity, Indian Americans bitterly object, to write a piece called ‘My Own Private India’ [after ‘My Own Private Idaho’] which begins thus: “I am very much in favor of immigration everywhere in the U.S. except Edison, N.J. The mostly white suburban town I left when I graduated from high school in 1989 – the town that was called Menlo Park when Thomas Ava Edison set up shop there and was later renamed in his honor – has become home to one of the biggest Indian communities in the U.S. . . .” When Joel writes that he is “very much in favor of immigration”, he seems to want to signal his distance from those bigots, in Arizona and elsewhere in the US, who have declared their determination to keep the US as much free of immigrants as is possible; but the qualifier, “except Edison, NJ”, was not bound to go down well with Indian Americans who feel outraged that Time’s columnist should have marked Indian Americans as the undesirable immigrant community.
What follows in Joel’s piece is not surprising. The sparkling town where Joel grew up is unrecognizable though, if anyone knows America, it is doubtful in the extreme that it was recognizable in the first instance. The Pizza hut outlet – one of hundreds of thousands in the country, which along with Burger King, McDonald’s, KFC, Jack in the Box, and Dunkin’ Donuts have succeeded remarkably well in making every American town look like any other – has been replaced by an Indian sweets shop; the local A & P – never mind that this chain was anyhow destined for obscurity – has given way to an Indian grocery store; the Italian restaurant “is now Moghul” (by which our enlightened writer means not that it has become a movie palace or an icon of a movie Moghul but rather that it serves ‘Mughlai’ food); and the local multiplex, where Joel and boys of his ilk once gyrated their loins to the music of R-rated films, now screens Bollywood films with their buxom belles and serves samosas during ‘intermission’. Joel and his friends, modern-day Huckleberry Finns, shoplifted, raided the cash drawers, and sneaked into places where they did not belong. But those days belonged to the past: “There is an entire generation of white children in Edison”, Joel bemoans, “who have nowhere to learn crime.” The place of those delightful pranksters was taken by nerds from India, who all seemed adept at computers and to the white boys appeared nothing short of “geniuses”. At this point, one almost expects to read a comment pointing to the winning streak of Indians in the national spelling bee over the last decade and more, but Joel departs from that script only to adopt another predictable point of view. Over time, he says, that first generation of educated and professional Indians gave way to a more motley crowd of relatives who would run Dunkin’ Donut shops, 7-11 franchises, and gas stations. Some years later, the not so dazzling “merchant cousins brought [over] their even-less-bright cousins, and we started to understand why India is so damn poor.” And, luckily for the white man, he could once again begin to feel like he was on the top of the world.
Joel’s attempt at humour, for that is evidently what he had in mind, appears not to have succeeded. Following the publication of his column, there have been loud and insistent calls by Indian Americans to have his column removed, and to have Joel censured for his ‘racist’ comments. Some in the Indian American community have been outraged that as prestigious a journal as Time, for that is how this long-standing conduit of mediocrity is imagined, should have allowed the expression of the most tiresome stereotypes: perhaps all that is missing from Joel’s piece is a comment about the smell of curry taking over the town. As I have previously argued on numerous occasions, ours is a culture of ‘apologies’, and it is not surprising that the Indian American community should immediately have striven to exact an apology from Time and Joel Stein. “We sincerely regret”, responded Time, “that any of our readers were upset by this humor column of Joel Stein’s. It was in no way intended to cause offense.” Poor Joel followed suit, though his apology deviates from the standard form: “I truly feel stomach-sick that I hurt so many people. I was trying to explain how, as someone who believes that immigration has enriched American life and my hometown in particular, I was shocked that I could feel a tiny bit uncomfortable with my changing town when I went to visit it.” One of the least commonly explored facets of Americanization is how immigrant communities embrace the dominant idiom of literal-mindedness that pervades American society, and the irony and ambivalence of Joel’s remarks was certainly lost on Indian Americans. A place that he associated with his childhood had irretrievably changed, and Joel found himself outside, so to speak, his ‘comfort zone’. The small town seems remote, perhaps even an ungainly sight, after the dizzy pace of life in the metropolis; in Joel’s case, the sense of alienation he may have experienced upon his return to Edison was compounded by the fact that even the intimacy and familiarity promised by the town had disappeared.
In the exchange that has followed the publication of Joel Stein’s essay, neither Joel nor Indian Americans have across as impressive figures. Some commentators have deplored the absence of humour among Indian Americans, to which of course they have responded with the observation that they have for long been the target of insults and jokes and have had enough of “humour”. In India, some writers and media broadcasters have not fully understood the emotions that are understandably aroused when Joel, adverting to the fact that townsfolk started referring to the Indians as “dot heads”, adds by way of trying to be ironical: “In retrospect, I question just how good our schools were if ‘dot heads’ was the best racist insult we could come up with for a group of people whose gods have multiple arms and an elephant nose.” Caricatures of a religion never go down too well with its adherents; moreover, there is a lasting memory, especially in New Jersey, of a previous chapter of racial history when the “dot busters” went around assaulting Indians and even killing a couple of them.
Indian Americans, on the other hand, give every appearance of being a trifle too sensitive. They have accepted the designation of ‘model minority’ with gratitude, scarcely realizing that the term was less a recognition of their achievements and more an admonition to African Americans and Hispanic Americans to shape up; consequently, they feel all the more slighted by Joel’s apparent characterization of them as undesirable. If an ‘over-achieving’ community could be so easily slighted, what hope is there for immigrant communities or ethnic groups that are less affluent or less characterized by high educational achievements? This is a reasonable enough claim, except that Indian Americans have never been keen on expressing their solidarity with less affluent or otherwise stigmatized communities. Moreover, much of the anxiety stemming from Joel Stein’s unimaginative attempt at humour owes its origins to the widespread perception that Indian Americans are an ‘invisible minority’, whose decency and relative distance from the mainstream of American politics has rendered them susceptible to onslaughts and humiliations that would never otherwise be imposed on a community otherwise distinguished by its affluence, attainments, and general reputation. All this, I would submit, is germane to an understanding of why Joel Stein’s column, ‘My Own Private India’, has been so unsettling for Indian Americans.
A number of my friends, acquaintances, and students have emailed me an article that appeared in the New York Times business pages on November 28, entitled ‘Some Indians Find It Tough to Go Home Again’. The article, which chronicles the difficulties that some well-intentioned Indians have encountered in their efforts to relocate to India, has evidently created something of a buzz. No one even a decade ago would have expected that Indian Americans, in significant numbers, would choose to return to India. The call of the ‘motherland’ may have always been there in the abstract, but even among those who thought of their stay in the US as a brief sojourn in their lives, and who seemed determined to render service to the motherland, the return to India was always deferred. Inertia and laziness have a way of taking over one’s life; but, for many others, the moment when the gains of a professional career, built painstakingly through dint of hard work and a relentless commitment to ‘achievement’, could be abandoned seemed not yet to have arrived.
There was a time when ‘brain drain’ could mean only one thing. Indians educated at the expense of the Indian state flocked to the US, and by the late 1980s there were enough graduates of the Indian Institutes of Technology settled in the US that one could speak of the American IIT fraternity. Ten years after ‘the economic reforms’, the benign phrase used to characterize the jettisoning of the planned economy and all pretensions to some measure of social equality, first commenced in the early 1990s, there was some mention of the trickle of Indians who had finally elected to test the waters of the ‘new India’. No one is characterizing that trickle as a stream, much less a raging river, but increasingly in India one hears these days not only of those who left for the US but of those who have abandoned the predictable comforts of American life for the uncertainties of life in India. And, now, to come to the subject of the New York Times’ article, some of the returnees to India are making their way back to the US. The motherland, apparently, has not done enough to woo the discerning or ethical-minded Non-Resident Indian.
Shiva Ayyadurai, the New York Times tells us, left India when he was but “seven years” old, and he then took a vow that he would return home to “help his country”. Why is it that, upon reading this, I am curiously reminded of contestants in Miss World or Miss Universal pageants, who have all been dying to save the world, whose every waking moment has been filled with the thought of helping the poor beautiful children of this world? My eight-year old has certainly never taken a vow that even remotely seems so noble-minded, but then who am I to judge the ethical precociousness of a seven-year old who, perhaps putting aside his toys, had resolved to “help his country”. The young Bhagat Singh, let us recall, was no less a patriot. Almost forty years later, Mr Ayyadurai, now an “entrepreneur and lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology”, returned to India, in fulfillment of his vow, at the behest of the Government of India which had devised a program “to lure talented scientists of the so-called desi diaspora back to their homeland”. Mr Ayyadurai left with great expectations; he seemed to have lasted in India only a few months. “As Mr Ayyadurai sees it now,” writes our correspondent, “his Western business education met India’s notoriously inefficient, opaque government, and things went downhill from there.” Within months, Mr Ayyadurai and his Indian boss were practically at each other’s throats: the job offer was withdrawn, and Mr Ayyadurai once again found himself returning ‘home’ – this time to the US.
One cannot doubt that the culture of work in the US and India is strikingly different, even if the cult of ‘management’ has introduced a cult of homogeneity that would have been all but unthinkable a decade ago. The account of the difficulties that Indian Americans encounter upon their attempt to relocate to India sometimes reads like the nineteenth-century British colonial’s narrative about the heat and dust of the tropics, the intractability of the ‘native’, and the grinding poverty – to which today one might add the traffic jams, pollution, electricity breakdowns, water shortages, and a heartless bureaucracy. The “feudal culture” of India, Mr Ayyadurai is quoted as saying, will hold India back. How effortlessly Mr Ayyadurai falls into those oppositions that for two centuries or more have characterized European (and now American) representations of India: feudal vs. modern, habitual vs. innovative, chaotic vs. organized, inefficient vs. efficient, and so on. Nearly every aspect of this narrative has been touted endlessly. The only difficulty is that by the time India catches up with the United States, with the West more broadly, the US will have moved on to a different plane.
In all this discussion about home, the mother country, and the diaspora, almost nothing is allowed to disturb the received understanding of what, for example, constitutes corruption, pollution, or inefficiency. There is no dispute in these circles of enlightened beings that Laloo Yadav is corrupt, but the scandalous conduct of most of the millionaires who inhabit the corridors of power in Washington passes, if at all it is noticed, for ‘indiscretions’ committed by a few ‘misguided’ politicians. I wonder, moreover, if Laloo’s corrupt politics kept the state of Bihar free of communal killings – a huge contrast from the ‘clean’ and ‘developed’ state of Gujarat, where a state-sponsored pogrom in 2002 left over 2,000 Muslims dead. Gujarat is the favorite state of the NRIs and foreign investors, though the sheer dubiousness of that distinction has done nothing to humble either party. Or take this example: the US has done much (if not enough) to tackle pollution at home, but its shipment of hazardous wastes to developing countries is evidently a minor detail. And one could go in this vein, ad infinitum, but to little effect. The more substantive consideration, perhaps, is that there is little recognition on the part of many NRIs that there is a sensibility which still resists the idea that the conception of a home is merely synonymous with material gains, bodily comforts, or a notion of well being that is defined as an algorithm of numbers. William Blake, when asked where he lived, answered with a simple phrase: ‘in the imagination’.
On the subject of home, let me allow the 12th century monk of Saxony, Hugo of St. Victor, the final words: “It is, therefore, a source of great virtue for the practiced mind to learn, bit by bit, first to change about invisible and transitory things, so that afterwards it may be able to leave them behind altogether. The man who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign land. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong man has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.”
On 30 October 1884, two police firings in San Fernando, Trinidad, wounded over one hundred Indians and took the lives of perhaps as many as 20 people. As the 125th anniversary of the infamous ‘Muharram Massacre’ is upon us, it is perhaps well to consider the circumstances that led to the killings and what they might suggest about racial and working-class politics down to the present day.
The circumstances under which Indians began to arrive in Trinidad in 1845 are now widely known. The price of black labor had risen after the emancipation of slaves in 1838, and indentured labor from India, a British colony, was viewed by plantation owners and government officials in Trinidad (and the Caribbean) as the most expeditious way of undermining free black labor and keeping the sugar plantations running at a profit. As the Port of Spain Gazette noted with optimism in its issue of 30 May 1845, “when the labourers (Negroes) are informed that there are countless thousands of these people inured to tropical labour, and the heat of a tropical climate, starving in their own country, and most willing to immigrate to this, it may be the means of opening their eyes a little to the necessity of working more steadily and giving greater satisfaction to their employers.”
The story of the Indo-Trinidadian and Afro-Trinidadian divide is, happily, not the subject of my present ruminations. As a number of scholars have argued, Muharram [or Hosay, from Hussein or Husayn, as it came to be known in the British Caribbean] was well established in Trinidad from the outset of Indian indentured immigration as a religious and cultural festival that bridged what might otherwise have been marked differences within the growing Indian community. Though Muharram is a re-enactment of the events that led to the death of Hassan and Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed’s grandsons, during the struggles over the succession to the Prophet, Hindu participation in the Muharram rites has been widely documented. If in India Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh, had no compunction in having the raslila, the eternal play of Krishna, performed at his court, it should not be surprising that Hindus should have thought nothing of their involvement in the Muharram rites.
In Trinidad, however, matters had gone much further, as black people were also reasonably well invested in Muharram celebrations. Kelvin Singh, author of Bloodstained Tombs: The Muharram Massacre 1884 (1988), argues that “Negro involvement in the celebrations” has been well documented from the 1850s onwards. To some European observers, black people were inclined to gravitate towards a ‘fete’, whenever and wherever it might be held; others took the view that the ancestral drumming of Negroes drew them to the tassa drumming that is so characteristic a feature of the Muharram celebrations.
In 1884, the colonial government took the decision to ban Muharram processions from the principal urban areas. Kelvin Singh is among those scholars who has argued that the ban had little to do with Muharram celebrations themselves, and was rather impelled by other considerations, for instance by concern over industrial unrest. Such unrest had been prominent in the previous year, and the falling price of sugar had heightened the misery of workers. Displays of solidarity among workers were never welcome. One cannot doubt, however, that colonial authorities also feared that the Negro, typecast as a lazy and undisciplined person, might come to exercise a nefarious influence over the “effeminate Hindu” and “fanatic Muslim”; moreover, in standing together in a common cause, Hindus and Muslims threatened to overturn another article of faith ever present in colonial thought, namely the idea that adherents of these two religions were bound together in a struggle to death that only a transcendent and rational force such as represented by the Englishman could avert, diverting that volatile energy into less hostile channels.
Sookhooo and 31 others petitioned the governor when the ban was put into effect. The Government response, in part, was to argue that non-Indians had no place in an Indian festival; and that Hindus, similarly, could claim no entitlements with respect to a Muslim religious rite. At Cipero Street, Mr. Child, the Magistrate, read the Riot Act in English to a large crowd comprised largely of illiterate people. Even Major Bowles, who headed a contingent of soldiers, could not hear the Act being read out; but the volleys unleashed at the orders of Mr. Child mowed down many of the men gathered in defiance of the ban. At the Mon Repos junction, the ‘Riot Act’ was again ‘read out’, whatever that might mean, and amidst the chanting and the tassa drumming the firing commenced and took its deadly toll. The British could congratulate themselves that ‘law and order’ had been restored: as the Port of Spain Gazette cheerfully editorialized about the firings on 8 November 1884, “this lesson may have a salutary effect not only on coolies but also on the heterogeneous collections of loafers, prostitutes, roughs, rogues and vagabonds which infest our two towns.”
As the Muharram massacre of 1884 in Trinidad suggests, the idea that such supposedly disparate groups as Hindus, Muslims, and Negroes could find common cause was nothing less than anathema to the state. The Muharram celebrations never recovered ground as the preeminent festival rite of Trinidad, and diminished in importance over the years; nevertheless, the sheer survival of Hosay suggests that, notwithstanding the state’s quest to deploy the discourse of ‘law and order’, the voice of workers can never be entirely suppressed.