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November 15, 2015

An Indian in America

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Hemant Sapre

Yesterday’s ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) are today’s at-home-everywhere Indians, says Madhu Jain who recalls her own teenage days as a student, in the USA

It was more decades ago than I care to remember. I was a junior in a women’s college in New England, a predominantly white and Waspish college, well-known at the time for its tough curriculum and professors. And yes, I was the only Indian; there might have been one before me. Certainly there were many after. But I am getting ahead of my story. One late autumn, I went to my first ‘mixer’. This ingenious American invention was at full tide when many of the Ivy League colleges were not co-ed. So, a mixer (the word is quite literal) brought busloads of young men to women’s colleges — letting them loose like raging bulls into an arena full of waiting women.

I only wore saris then, what now seems to me as an archaically quixotic sartorial habit. Perhaps, I wanted to flag-post my Indianness. I mistakenly thought that being exotic (at least in the midst of the Boston Brahmins and the New Englanders) was a good calling card. It is more likely that I did not want to blend in, in a territory so alien to the comfort zone of being a diplomat’s child in Washington DC. Protective armour, you could say.

Meanwhile, back at the mixer, where I was beginning to feel like a wilting wallflower, a towering American from Dartmouth College came up to me and said, “Hi, there. Where are you from?” A bit taken aback by the question, I replied, “I am an Indian.” Without a blink, the American with freckles said, “How!” (or howgh, I presume), and raised his hand in the Red Indian form of greeting. Actually, it is more PC to refer to them as Native Americans, these days. My face fell; what kind of ignoramus was this man! I turned away, but fortunately not before I had countered with “Ugh!”, raising my hand just as he had.

Closed horizons
It felt good. Just for that evening, though. This was the late ’60s and Indians and India were just not on the radar. The majority of Americans may not even have possessed passports; their horizons were quite close to them — not much beyond their noses, in many cases. The few, who were aware of the fact that there was a country called India across a couple of oceans, did not get beyond the clichés: Indian rope trick, maharajas, snakes and elephants. There used to be a tall, impressive-looking Sikh guard who stood at the entrance of the Indian Embassy in Washington DC and often let people believe that he was a maharaja. An American acquaintance of my parents was more than impressed by him. She once told my mother than she believed that Indians were wiser than other nationalities because the turbans they wore kept their brains inside their heads! No kidding, she actually said this.

Most Indians, who had come to the United States in search of a better life at the time, lived in their self-prescribed ghettos. Their social circles were limited to other Indian families. They usually met over the weekends, shared chicken curry and rice or idlis and dosas. Indian film songs were always playing in the background. The older generation recreated the world they had left behind in India — and preserved it in aspic. Years passed and nothing changed. They still moved in their own orbit, and tried to keep their children tethered to their ways of being. The girls had to learn Bharatanatyam, even though they might not have done so had they been living in India. The boys had more freedom, but not that much more. Ironically, much of Indian society in the homeland had moved on, evolved with the times. And, the gap between the two increased.

Comfortable desis
Generation Next (I suppose you could call them the in-betweeners) had a difficult time juggling the two very different worlds of Home and Not-Home. Leading schizophrenic lives, they left the world outside their homes at the threshold. This generation of what some clever Indian christened as ABCDs (American Born Confused Desis) did not have it easy — misfits in both the new world and back home in India. Perhaps, they can be compared with villagers. Or, even those from really-small-town India who moved to metropolitan cities like Delhi and Bombay: both ended up living a neither-here-nor-there kind of existence. First-generation Indians never stopped talking about their eventual return to India. But few actually did so.

Old habits no longer die hard. Confused identities seem to be a thing of the past. Today, a large number of the desis who live in the States, London, Paris, Australia, Dubai and Singapore are increasingly comfortable wherever they are. The notion of home itself is becoming more nebulous: it is where your job and your pursuit of pleasure take you. You can belong to more than one nation, or continent. Identity is no longer such a big issue. Increasingly at ease in a sari or a dress, or in a kurta-pyjama or a suit, the desi can straddle different worlds. And now, from being on the sidelines, Indians are rapidly moving centre stage in the United States — whether it means zooming to the top rungs of the corporate ladder, or making their presence felt in the world of prime-time television or in the movies.

Making it easy for global desis to live overseas and yet feel like they are part of India is social media: Facebook itself becomes a kind of nation to which everybody belongs.

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