*Asian American Studies and Its Futures

(First of several parts; scroll down to the bottom for a note to readers on this series of articles)

Part One: “Asian American” and “Indians”:  Some Vignettes of an Uncertain History

Just a little over a decade ago, the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, perhaps the first center of its kind in the United States, published my book, The Other Indians:  A Cultural and Political History of South Asians in America.  (A separate hardcover Indian edition was published months later by HarperCollins.)  The main title of the book alluded, in part, to the difficulties inherent in speaking of South Asian “Indians” in the US:  growing up in India, the only Indians that I knew of in “the land of the free and home of the brave” were those who had been mowed down by the white man.  We called them “Red Indians”, if only because they were so described in the American comics that were to be found in lending libraries. I recall that my late father, though he was a highly educated man (especially for his times, and considering the circumstances under which he had grown up in Multan in undivided India), persisted in calling them Red Indians even if I tried many times to steer him towards a different vocabulary.  However, his usage of “Red Indians” did not at all appear to me to be inspired by racist usage, unlike the deployment of this term in dominant white narratives of the ‘settling’ and ‘taming’ of America.  If anything, my father might even have looked at somewhat sympathetically at Red Indians as somehow related to his own kinsmen.

Much later, I was brought to the awareness that those whom we knew as Indians are variously described as indigenous people, Native Americans, American Indians, and Amerindians, although as something of a student of their histories I have come to recognize that scholars generally just describe them as “Indians” and that many of the Indians themselves are not averse to being described as such.  It was, as we know, an accident of history, one of many such ill-fated accidents in European adventurism that shaped the world, that would lead to the characterization of the indigenous people of the Americas as “Indians”.  There remains a considerable amount of uncertainty about how best the indigenous people of America might be characterized.

What, then, of the ‘other’ Indians?  Transitioning to the category of “Asian American” was no easy matter either for what the US census now recognizes as “Asian Indians”.  In Britain, the term “Asian” indexes most often Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis—among them Indians who sometimes knew nothing of India and had only arrived in Britain in the wake of their expulsion from East Africa.  Rozina Visram commences her study, Ayahs, Lascars and Princes: Indians in Britain 1700-1947 (London:  Pluto Press, 1986), thus: “This book traces the history of Asian settlement in Britain from 1700 to 1947. . . .  The term ‘Asian’ as used here refers to the people from the Indian subcontinent.  I have used the terms ‘Asian’ and ‘Indian’ interchangeably; I use ‘black’ in a political sense to refer to peoples of Afro-Caribbean and Asian origin” (vii).  The Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, and Koreans in Britain are something of an afterthought; the “Asians”, on the other hand, were instantiations of what postcolonial scholars and anti-colonial activists wistfully characterized as “the Empire striking back”.

We’re here because you were there, the Asians told the whites. The Asian in England had become so ubiquitous by the early 1980s, as the inheritor of the proverbial corner shop, that “Mr Patel” could even find a place in Godfrey Smith’s admittedly “idiosyncratic” companion to England and Englishness [see The English Companion: An Idiosyncratic A-Z of England and Englishness, 1984).  A joke that I heard recently resonates marvelously in this connection:  the reason why the British Gujarati can never excel at soccer or make it to the English soccer team is that, no sooner is he awarded a corner, he sets up a corner shop.  The corner shop is the quintessential space in the English imagination; the Gujarati has cornered that.  In the US, contrariwise, Indians had seemed for a long time to have no place in that umbrella grouping known as “Asian American”, and this not only because at least the Chinese and Japanese had a foothold in the US many years before Indians first made their presence known on the west coast around 1890.  The ‘Orient’ may have signified mainly India to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the chief progenitors of American Transcendentalism in the 19th century, but to the other literati and in the common imagination it brought to mind the Far East, or China and Japan.  Then there was the matter that Indians had tried, though not with any success, to pass as Caucasian and thus white. The impulse to grant Indians a place within the family of “Asian Americans” was not altogether palpable.

It is thus that Indians in the US for a long time complained of their ‘invisibility’. India is a very large country, and Indian Americans are frequently heard to say with evident if misplaced pride that the US and India are the world’s two largest democracies; and yet among them the feeling persists that India is generally ignored, generally making it to the news as the site of religious killings, endemic poverty, severely malnutritioned children, and more recently, such phenomena as uncontrollable pollution and the gang rape of women.  Indian Americans are not the only ethnic group, and certainly not the only community among Asian Americans, who have complained of their invisibility, or of whom it can be said, in the words of Alex Wagner’s 2016 article in the Atlantic, that they “remain mostly invisible in the American political debate” (September 12). But, from the perspective of Indian Americans, their invisibility reflects India’s marginality to global geopolitics; and such invisibility is also the more glaring and indeed alarming when placed alongside the indisputable fact that Indian Americans are disproportionately well-educated and, on that very questionable view, should be deserving of more attention. The matter is still more complex:  the preponderant number of Indian Americans are Hindus; but Hinduism, argue the young professionals behind the advocacy group, Hindu American Foundation, remains shrouded in mystery to the vast majority of Americans—when, that is, it is not simply caricatured as the religion of monkey gods, (fraudulent) holy men, or, as in Reza Aslan’s recent story, cannibalistic yogis.

There is, then, a pervasive anxiety of influence among Indian Americans. I have addressed this issue at considerable length in some of my published work, including The Other Indians, and therefore my remarks at this juncture shall be brief.  As in India, where the most militant adherents of Hinduism secretly admire Islam as a rational, monotheistic, muscular, simple and highly organized faith while they publicly berate it as an intolerant, puritan, and terrorist-driven religion, so in the United States Indian Americans are envious of the extraordinary media coverage that Islam has been receiving over the last two decades.  I know that many Indian Americans and nationalist Indians will chafe at this characterization, but the nationalist Hindu has long been a secret admirer of Islam—not, let me be clear, for its doctrines, but rather because these Hindus pine for a Hindu Mecca, a Hindu Koran, a Hindu Allah, a Hindu Haj.  Instead of all this, what one (thankfully) has in Hinduism is a bewildering variety, a mosaic of untold number of gods and goddesses, a revealed text (the Rig Veda) that no one reads, multiple sources of doctrinal authority, a God who frolics on the green—endless confusion, really, to those whose idea of a religion has been shaped by Protestant Christianity, though of course they scarcely realize it.

So, back to Islam:  it may be largely bad press, especially these days, but it is press nevertheless: as T. S. Eliot had written admiringly of Dante, recognition in hell is better than being consigned to limbo, to that state of in-betweenness where one is deserving of neither praise nor blame. Indian Americans have long craved for recognition, a goal that, if the hate crimes to which they have been subjected since the September 11 attacks are any guide, remains not merely elusive but is intertwined with the necessary ‘misrecognition’ that marks their very presence in the US.  Similarly, though the practitioners of Asian American Studies may have become more accommodating in the last decade, many in the Indian community have asked me whether Asian American Studies is really any more ecumenical than it was in the past.  Is it any less dominated today than it has been since its inception by Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans?  Whose ‘Asia’ is being invoked, to what end, and what are the parameters and contours of the Asia embedded in ‘Asian American Studies’?

The somewhat more astute members of the Indian-American community—and to speak of it in the singular is to deliberately ignore, since it is less pertinent to my present, everything that divides one Indian from another—have other objections, not always transparent to those outside the academy or even to Asian American scholars whose interests seldom if ever touch upon the history of South Asia.  What, they ask, is the politics of deploying the term ‘South Asian’?  What are termed “progressive” scholars and activists have insisted that the political and socio-cultural realities of the Indian sub-continent are best captured by speaking of “South Asia” as a single entity; better still, to signify the possibilities of solidarity among Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians, their shared histories, and their common subjection to racism and discrimination in the United States, they deploy the term ‘desis’ (from ‘desh’, country, or, more tellingly, ‘mother country’).  But most Indian Americans from the community are not in the least keen on having India lumped, and thus confused, with Pakistan.  They point to the fact that Pakistan has often been described, by the United States and commentators around the world, as a “failed state”; but if this may appear to characterize a good many countries, they call attention to the common branding of Pakistan as the breeding ground for Muslim extremists.  The point here is not to call into question the authenticity of such claims, which is easily done, but rather to suggest that forging a South Asian American identity is fraught with numerous perils.

(To be continued)

 

A Note to Readers:  A shorter version of this piece (taken together with the two or three parts that will follow) was written as a consequence of an invitation to respond to, or reflect on, an article by Moustafa Bayoumi published as “Asian American Studies, the War on Terror, and the Changing University:  A Call to Respond”, CUNY Forum 5, no. 1 (2017).  My article only adverts to Bayoumi’s piece now and then, and for the most part can essentially be read independent of it.  Bayoumi’s piece, my own reflection, and contributions from some 25 other scholars and writers have been collected together in a recently published book, Asian American Matters:  A New York Anthology, edited by Russell C. Leong (November 2017).

For Part II:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/islam-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part III:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/indian-muslims-what-place-for-them-in-political-discourse-and-asian-american-studies/

For Part IV:  see https://vinaylal.wordpress.com/2017/12/26/south-asians-muslim-americans-and-the-politics-of-identity/

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*Be What You Can: Indian Americans Triumphant at the National Spelling Bee, Again!

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 IndiansA 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”.

*Joel Stein’s Edison and the Rage of Indian Americans

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.

*The Difficult Return to the Womb: The Travails of the Non-Resident Indian in the Motherland

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.”

*My Man Mohan: Dons of Democracies at Dinner Together

Here is the text of President Bush’s Speech at the State Dinner in his honor at Rashtrapati Bhavan, New Delhi, 3 March 2006 (reprinted with slight modifications from OUTLOOK, Web edition, 28 February-6 March 2006 issue, where it appeared as ‘I Believe in Big Dreams’):
———————————-
Your Excellency, the President of the Republic of Pakistan; Mr. Man Mohan Singh, Prime Minister; and all other Indians

(Whispers from an aide:   Republic of India, Mr. President, not Pakistan.)

I beg your pardon, ladies and gentlemen, I did mean to say the Islamic Republic of India.  I just couldn’t remember where Air Force One was first supposed to land.  I am mighty pleased to be in this great country of yours and I thank My Man Mohan for his kind invitation from the bottom of my heart.   That great state of Texas where I come from is really heart county, we’ve got very big hearts, and I believe that some of your country’s great politicians have come down there to get their hearts fixed.  Would you believe it, but surgery may also be linking our great countries together.

Now my predecessor Bill Clinton — God bless him, his family and ours are getting cosier and cosier by the day, though I do wonder if I’ll ever be able to hold Hilary to my bosom — so my predecessor, on coming to your great country some years ago, said that it had always been his childhood dream to visit India.  Now I have to admit that I never had any such childhood dream.  It’s not that I didn’t have a childhood, indeed I know that some people think I never ceased being a child.   And I do dream — that great American, King’s his name, said you should dream from the mountain-top.  And like King, I believe in big dreams.  I never had the kind of dream that Bill Clinton did because, and I’m not ashamed to admit it, I never heard of India when I was a child.  You know they say that old habits die hard, and I never did leave behind the habit of not reading books.   You all know that I don’t read much of newspapers or reports, my advisers do that.  That’s why I’m President, you see, I don’t get to read anything.  But let me again thank Man Mohan Singh.  I knew about the political dynasties you’ve had, the father-daughter, daughter-son, husband-wife, father-grandson, great great grandfather-boy teams, the Gandhis, Nehrus, and even people I’d never heard of before, the Lallus and Yadavs, but I had hadn’t heard of the Mohan dynasty.  I guess I should have thought of it, given that both Mohan Das Gandhi and Man Mohan Singh had some kind of turban on their head.   I might not like to read much, but I sure do like picture books, and I’ve seen pictures of Gandhi when he wore a turban.

Condi told me all about the great country of India on the long journey on board.  I mean, there’s only so much sleeping that even a President can do.  We in America, and especially in Texas, know a thing or two about Indians.  Condi did tell me that that I shouldn’t be talking of teepees, face paint, feathers, squaws, bows and arrows, Geronimo, and Sitting Bull.  Some of that Indian culture has definitely left its mark on the youth of America today:  I do know that the paint is no longer applied to the face, but to the hands.  So I guess that’s why Condi didn’t want me to talk about face paint.  You in India have a great civilization, but it all really began in America.  Somewhere in the history book that was read to me it says that the Indians crossed over some body of water, I think it’s called the Berring Curve, and that was some 10,000 years ago.  That was a long time ago, and I really don’t know why many people continue to say that we in America have a very short history.  I now, and yes its’s true, and I have to admit, that there aren’t many Indians left in America, but most of them, you all know, died of diseases.  I guess it must be genetics, since I hear that you Indians are still dying of many diseases. But, truth be told, it’s not at all a bad thing that there aren’t many Indians in America.  There are over a billion of you in India, and my population experts told me that every sixth person in the world is an Indian.  That’s awesome.  Now if nature hadn’t done her work in America — God bless nature, always giving us global warmth and comfort — the Indians in America would have multiplied as fast as you have, and every fourth person in the world would be an Indian.  If you all believe in multiculturalism and diversity as much as I do, you have to agree that it’s a good thing that we don’t have so many Indians in America.  And the ones that are here, well they are in places that we call reservations where they can’t be seen.  It took me some time to understand why the Indians were called an invisible minority and why they seemed kinda upset.  So you see you just reserve special spots for minorities, but we being an older and more experienced democracy, we actually have a special place for them that we call reservations.  Isn’t that something?

As I said, it’s a great honor for me to be in India, another great home of multiculturalism.  This beautiful lady to my right — well, not quite, since no one is really to my right, except perhaps Pat Robertson, Tom De Lay (and he’s not part of my delegation, being on a delayed schedule) and that other Bill, Frist —  well, this elegant lady who’s from Italy and I’m told is something like an invisible hand running this country (why, it seems whenever we speak of India, we run into invisible people and invisible hands) – well, she’s Roman Catholic.  Man Mohan Singh is Sikh, which I’m told is said the same way we say sick, though why they call him that I sure don’t know, since he seems to be in really good shape, even without going biking, fishing, golfing, clearing the brush, and hunting.  What a life one has as President!  There’s no end of outdoor activity, I tell you.  And the President of your Republic, well, I was sort of shocked to know that he’s a Muslim, though Runny and Condi told me he’s a Hindu kind of Muslim, which really does sound so wonderful.  He reads a sacred text called the Bhagavad Gita, does yoga, doesn’t eat meat, and doesn’t like violence very much.  I mean, either you’re a Hindu, or a Muslim; either you’re with the Hindus, or with the Muslims.  Since we’re on the subject of Muslims, let me say what is one of the main things that brings me to this great country of yours.  Somehow, you’ll pardon me for saying so, when we get to talk about Muslims, we can’t seem to get away from killings, and passion, and violence, and all that stuff.   Now let me be very clear.  I know, though I don’t have any close Moslem friends, that Islam is a religion of peace, and most Moslems, like all Americans, are peace-loving people.  Now I might not read, but I sure do look at the funnies every morning.  Some days ago I heard about this huge fuss — people call it a ruckus, but I believe in plain language — over these Danish cartoons.  These Danish cartoons of Muhammad have got them Muslims stirring again.  In the war room at the White House, we have a large wall map of the world and all those strategic places that are of great interest to us from the standpoint of American national security are clearly marked.  I don’t know much about Denmark, but the White House geographer showed me this country and I couldn’t really figure out how Muhammad got to Denmark.  Now our Librarian of Congress who was present said something about not all being well in the state of Denmark, and when I asked him what he meant, he said it was a literary allusion to some play about a King of Denmark by that great Brit, Shakespeare.  He sure did shake up the world, and that too without a spear.  He only used a pen.  I finally realize, while I’m talking to you, why we always got this question in school, whether the pen was mightier than the sword.  I thought it was a rather daft thing to think that the pen could be mightier than the sword, but both Shakespeare and this Danish cartoons mess makes me think that I should rethink my position.  I hope you do realize what this means:  some people allege that thinking is not my strong suit, but I’m actually a man of very firm opinions.  I’d rather think than re-think.  We Americans are greater inventors, always coming up with new stuff.  Why rehash what’s around?  I’m not known for re-thinking anything, but God’s ways are mysterious.

Everyone knows me as a very focused person, but I’ve been really distracted today.  It must have something to do with being in India.  Our Librarian of Congress, and we have a mighty fine library in Congress, not that I’ve ever been to it, had been speaking of literary allusions.  Now I mean most of us have illusions, and in that special briefing I got on India they said that Hindus believe that the whole word is an illusion, that nothing’s real.  They even have a special word for it, they call it MAYA, although I always thought that was a Russian woman’s name.  Let me reassure Laura that I never knew any Maya.  We in America, and that must be our Indian heritage, know a thing or two about illusions too.  We never did find those weapons of mass destruction, but believe me, they’re not an illusion.  They’re there.  I’d compare these weapons of mass destruction with an onion.  You notice how many layers there are to an Indian?  I meant an onion.  You keep on peeling off layer after layer, but as you get closer to the truth, to the onion’s center, your eyes start to water.  I haven’t peeled an onion in years, but I know that for  a fact.  Yes, Sir, there are ugly facts in this world, and it’s a fact that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but our inspectors’ eyes started to water when they got close to discovering the truth.  We never found the weapons because we threw out the baby with the bath water.

So let me return to the subject of Muslims and say some words about why I’m here today.  I was told by Condi that some Muhammad fellow came to India some 1000 years ago, tore apart a Som-nose temple, and that you’ve been smarting ever since.  Your neighboring country, the one you all don’t get along with too well, even named one of its missiles after that place from where he came, Gas-ni or something.  Mean thing to do, I’d say.  You can see how Eye-raq and Afghanistan are both linked:  weapons of mass destruction and gas-ni (which must be really another way of saying gas-nose) are part of their common history.  So whether Mohamed is on cartoons or on missiles, I guess the trouble never ends.  I know that your leaders were telling us that you had plenty of experience with Moslems, but we weren’t inclined to listen to you.  We’ve got to continue to cooperate to hunt down those terrorists of al-Qaeda.  Many of them, I hear, are holed up in Pakistan.  That worst snake of all — he’s a coward, won’t come out in the open, bin Laden, well he just disappeared on us and has become invisible.  There we go again, I hope you all now understand what I meant when I said that there’s something about India and the word invisible that makes them go together.  The whole point of my trip is to change that, to put India on the map.  Wasn’t India where they had the disappearing rope trick?  I seem to remember something of that sort from the magic show I saw at the White House the day the Twin Towers slowly disappeared from the TV screen.  I am convinced that the power of illusion is truly great.   The War on Terror must go on, and I know that the partnership of our two great countries will be a model for the rest of the world.  Think of all the ways in which we complement each other:  you greet us with folded hands, we stretch out our hands in a firm (well, mostly firm, except for the kind of guys you see in “Heartbreak Mountain”) handshake; you venerate the cow, we love to eat it; your guys are up while we’re asleep; you think with your brain, we think with our bodies.

Our two great countries are on the verge of a special relationship.  Thanks to the Brits, we speak the same language.  Funny thing, that special report I got on your country had a little history lesson, and it said that a general called Cornwallis from Cornwall who was defeated soundly by our General Washington then went on to India.  They wanted a man of experience to spread democracy around the world.  Well, we’re both democracies now.  You have a President, and so do we — that’s me.  People who’ve been studying this kind of thing, you know democracies around the world — and they’re increasing, just look at Iraq, look at those turbaned Afghan women so eager to vote, and freedom’s on the march — say that the big difference is that your President is actually a figurehead.  Many of my critics have said that I’m a figurehead as well and for once my critics are right.  They were wrong about WMD, they were wrong about whether those Arabs would take to democracy like fish to oil, and they’ve been wrong about doggone everything else, except for one thing.  It really is Dickhead Cheney who’s running my government, and he did a very good job of it largely cause we kept him in hiding, just like Bill Laden.  My Dick is really good at nearly everything — he gets the contracts to the right people, wears a pacemaker — you know, I’m a great believer in going at the pace that our Maker set for me, in bed by nine o’clock sharp — and even knows how to fire a gun.  I’m sure you’ve all heard of this expression, Lame Duck President, but it goes to show that our reporters do not always adhere to the high standards that we expect of them.   Dick’s always had a preference for quail, not ducks.  And he’s too manly to shoot at lame ones.  I never did think of it before, but I wonder what happened to that other Quail, you know the guy who was Dick’s earlier incarnation under Ronnie?

Well, your excellencies and friends, I think I’ve gone on long enough.   We’ve got lot of important issues to talk about over the next two days of my visit, and that’s why I brought along my entire team.  God bless you all.