Migrant Pains

Joel Stein’s comments in Time magazine raised howls of protest among the Indians in the US.
V. Gangadhar discusses why we are hypersensitive about our ethnicity

The agraharams (Brahmin colonies) in my native Palakadu village have changed. Today there are non-Brahmin residents. The change, though accepted, has been commented upon occasionally in the media, but no one made an issue of it. Look at the population changes in Bombay, and now Mumbai, from the 1950s when the fledgling Shiv Sena, started by cartoonist Bal Thackeray, vigorously tried to get rid of, in stages, South Indians, Gujaratis, Marwaris, and more recently, natives of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

These were widely commented in the media from political pundits to cartoonists and satirists but no one demanded an apology from the media. If the Sena objected to the coverage of its activities in a publication, it simply sent its thugs to beat up the staff and inflict damage on the premises.

Change is inevitable, and is taking place everywhere. That is why I did not understand the anger of some of the Indian residents in the US over the comments made by satirist Joel Stein in Time magazine over the changes, which had come over his home town Edison in New Jersey following a flood of Indian migrants. He regretted that the very nature and culture of the town had changed beyond recognition.

Yet there was nothing offensive in the column, My Own Private India, which had some humorous references about the flood of Indian population. Wrote Stein, "My town is totally unfamiliar to me. The Pizza Hut, where my friends stole pies, is now an Indian sweet shop. The A&P, where I shoplifted from, is now an Indian grocery. The multiplex, where we snuck into R-rated movies, shows only Bollywood movies and serves samosas. There is an entire generation of white children in Edison, who have nowhere to learn crime."

In the Queen’s land

The Indian population in London is not much different. It could do with more interaction with the local population. While the working-class of Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis lived in their own ghettos, even the affluent, educated Indians are happy with their own lot. At the expensive London wedding of the daughter of one of our friends, where guests, sang, danced and drank champagne at an Indian-owned posh hotel, I spotted less than a dozen English guests though my host had worked for 32 years at the British branch of a big American firm. Indians of this class often referred to their British colleagues as gore, while the West Indian labour class was derisively dismissed as kale. Talk of racial discrimination by the Whites! Mind you, this Indian population had lived in the UK for decades, made their fortunes yet could not get over its traditional prejudices. — VG

The ever-growing Indian migrant population demands construction of temples, celebrating noisy festivals and holding midnight bhajan sessions

Was there anything offensive in these sentiments? Perhaps there was some sting in the following lines. "When I was a kid, a few engineers and doctors from Gujarat moved to Edison. For a while we assumed that all Indians were geniuses. Then in the 1980s, the doctors and engineers brought over their merchant cousins and we were no longer so sure about the genius thing. In the 1990s the not-so-brilliant merchants brought their even-less-bright-cousins, and we started to understand why India was so damn poor."

Perhaps Americans preferred a particular kind of Indian migrants over others. But there is some truth in his comments on the ‘not-so-bright’ cousins. Ask any member of Air India cabin crew, who fly these maama-maami-kaka-kaki brigade to US destinations, particularly Chicago. "They can’t speak any other language except kucha Gujarati and do not even know how to use western-type toilets. It is a job cleaning the toilets after they have used it" Perhaps these habits continued even after landing in the US, with large sections of the ever-growing Indian migrant population, demanding construction of temples, celebrating noisy festivals and holding midnight bhajan sessions.

But a large number of Indian Americans protested against the column and Time chose to apologise, pointing out that it was not the magazine’s or the author’s intentions to malign the Indians settled in the US.

Both the outrage and apology were not needed. Even the most liberal person would not like the conventions, culture and typical characteristics of his village, town or city to change completely. In the case of Edison, it was a foreign culture with which the town people were totally unfamiliar. The Indian (Gujarati) exodus had overwhelmed cities like Chicago, and while they could absorb large flood of migrants, small towns like Edison were different. And Joel Stein had every right to mention this in his column. In the same manner a flood of Punjabis had taken over areas like Leicester, Southall, and there are more Indians in certain parts of North London than the British.

If Maharashtrians, particularly followers of the Shiv Sena, resented the flood of ‘outsiders’ from other states, which was approved by the Constitution, how can we object to comments of American and British columnists on the same issue? Unlike Sena mouthpiece Saamna, Stein’s column did not advocate that the immigrants should be kicked back to their native lands. A columnist had every right to feel nostalgic about his past roots even while accepting inevitable changes.

Near my alma mater Government Victoria College in Palakadu, there used to be a small coffee shop run by a Krishna Iyer, where we ate idli, dosa and vada. Today, that place has been replaced by a posh shopping centre. The change was all for the good but the fragrance of Krishna Iyer’s coffee still lingered in my nostrils!

The Gujarati exodus had overwhelmed even cities like Chicago, which could absorb large flood of migrants, but small towns like Edison are different

In Mumbai, Matunga lost its majority South Indian population, which had migrated to more distant suburbs. Today, while traditional landmarks like South Indian temples, cultural centres and a few restaurants remain, it has more Gujaratis, Sindhis and other communities. It is more of ‘Matunga’ rather than ‘Matungam’ as it was fondly called.

We should look at Joel Stein’s comments from another point of view. Today, despite Indian Americans holding top jobs and Indian students excelling in academic activities (look at our domination of the well-known Spelling Bee contests), there is very little cultural and social integration with local Americans. The immigrant Indians, both in the US and the UK, strongly believed in the ‘herd’ mentality making little efforts to make friends with their American neighbours.

During one of our several visits to the US, we spent a happy Divali at the Purdue University campus doing puja, lighting crackers and gobbling lots of Indian delicacies brought by a group of 20 odd guests, all Indian academicians. There was not a single American among them. "We do get along well with our American colleagues at work," explained my host. "But somehow, the social and cultural interaction is not there."

Thanks to this ‘herd’ mentality, Indian Americans tended to be more ‘Indian’ than needed. Aptitude or no aptitude, daughters were packed off to dance schools to learn Indian classical dances, which pushed them into short-cut mass arangetram’. I was also astonished at the ignorance of the Indian American community about the American theatre, with very few patrons attracted to Broadway or off Broadway shows. But the demand for tickets for shows hosted by Indian film stars was amazing. Perhaps that was the reason why films featuring Shah Rukh Khan or Aamir Khan often had simultaneous releases abroad, along with Indian premieres.

The Indian migrant, the world over, had acquired the reputation of being law abiding, hard working and team worker, richly contributing to the economy of his adopted home. He could be happier if he shed part of the traditional ‘herd’ mentality and opted for more interaction with the local eople. That would, in no way, reduce his ‘Indianness’ but earn the appreciation of men like Joel Stein. Indians, both in the US and the UK, are contesting elections and entering public life. That is all for the good, but more important is a lot more cultural and social integration.