*A Diaspora Epic: Indians Abroad

 

The Indian diaspora is an ineluctable fact of contemporary global culture.  Its presence around the world is signified by Indian writers of renown settled in the Caribbean, Britain, the United States, South Africa, east Africa, and Fiji; the widespread availability of at least some generic, or allegedly ‘Mughlai’, form of Indian cuisine; the emergence of hybrid forms of music –– among them, desi hip-hop and chutney; the proliferation of software engineeers and doctors of Indian descent; a nearly ubiquitous fascination for Bollywood; the growing engagement of diasporic Indians with the political cultures of their adopted lands; and much else.

If India, in some fundamental respects, is not one country, the Indian diaspora similarly does not exist in the singular.  One can speak of the diasporas of the north and the south, though, in India, there is still little awareness of the complex histories of displacement, migration, and overseas settlement that have informed the Indian diasporic experience since the 1830s and 1840s when Indians first departed for Mauritius and the Caribbean.  Newspaper reports from the last few days mention the emotional visit of the Prime Minister of Mauritius to the village in Bihar from where his ancestors made their way to an island that was one of the more remote outposts of the former British empire.  More than a decade ago, something similar was reported about the homecoming of Basdeo Panday, then the Prime Minister of Trinidad, to his ancestral village.

In India’s metros, and increasingly in larger towns, a good number of people have some kin living abroad.  When the designation NRI first came about around three decades ago, it signified only those diasporic Indians who, in the middle class imagination, had done the country proud.  Indeed, it would no exaggeration to suggest that for many people, ‘NRI’ meant only Indians settled in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain; in recent years, Australia has made the cut.  It is said that more than 25% of the start-ups in Silicon Valley are run by Indians, and statistics are flaunted with evident glee to suggest that Indian scientists, engineers, and especially doctors occupy a hugely disproportionate place, considering that Indians are just marginally less than 1% of the American population, in the professions.  This is the diaspora that the Indian middle class holds up as an example to India itself.  Thus the observation, encountered at every turn in conversations at middle class homes, that the same Indians who are unable to make anything of themselves in their country flourish overseas.

However, even in the US the story of the Indian presence has more twists and turns than is commonly imagined. The Punjabi farmers, students, and later Ghadrites who made their way to the US in the late 1890s and in the subsequent decade saw their numbers dwindling when the entry of Indians and other Asiatics to the United States was prohibited by law in 1924.  Many Indian men married Mexican women, and thus we have Punjabi-Mexican Americans. The vast bulk of Indians arrived in the US following the immigration reforms of 1965:  notwithstanding the common impression that they are largely affluent and highly educated professionals, Indians also ply taxis in New York, dominate the Dunkin Donuts franchises around the country, and of course have a huge hand in the motel business.  In California’s Central Valley, which Indians have helped to turn into one of the country’s greatest agricultural hubs, 14% of the Indians according to a 2005 report lived below the poverty level and 35% had not even earned a high school diploma.

The origins of the other Indian diaspora lie elsewhere, in the political economy of colonialism that sent indentured laborers, mainly from the Gangetic heartland and the Tamil country, to forge the white man’s empire of sugar, rubber, and cash crops.  As one prominent scholar opined, indentured labor was simply a new form of slavery.  Nationalist opinion, and the efforts of English sympathizers such as C. F. Andrews, aided in shutting down the system of indenture in 1917, but not before 1.5 million Indians had sold themselves into debt-bondage.  They lived in appalling conditions, in the “lines” formerly inhabited by the slaves.  These Indians humanized the landscape, tilled the soil, and put the food on tables:  they are the great unsung heroes and heroines of our diaspora.

At the present moment, in the midst of the ‘NRI season’ and the celebration of the recnetly concluded Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, it is well to reflect on the future of the Indian diaspora.  Among the affluent Indians in Britain, Canada, and especially the United States, there is some desire to influence the course of events in India itself.  On the other hand, as the massive exodus of Indo-Fijians since the coups of 1987 and 2000 suggests, ‘mother India’ is frankly unable to do very much to enhance the rights of its dispersed children besides engaging in grand rhetorical exercises in impotent institutions such as the Commonwealth.

India’s policymakers are mainly interested in how the diaspora can feed the engine of growth in India.  But we need a less impoverished and more civilizational view that would make us aware not merely of the accumulated narratives of our Silicon Valley ‘miracles’ and the triumphant success, year after year, of Indian American children at the National Spelling Bee, but also of the histories of those Indians who, braving conditions of extreme adversity, nurtured new forms of music, literature, religious worship, and even conviviality.  It is a remarkable fact that, from within the depths of Ramacaritmanas country in Fiji, we have had the first novel ever written in Bhojpuri.  Our Indian diaspora, complex and variegated, needs a hefty Purana.

–First published in a slightly abridged version as “Diasporas of India: Shiny NRI success stories obscure older migrations from our colonial past”, Indian Express (18 January 2013), p. 12.

 Slightly amended Hindi version published as “Bharatiya Nagarikon ka Purana”, Prabhat Khabar (22 January 2013), p. 8.

*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”.