Why the Diaspora has so much love to give

Last Updated: Fri, Sep 27, 2019 15:28 hrs
Indian Diaspora

There are some things we all know about the first-generation Indian Diaspora, particularly in the US.

No one loves the classical arts like they do, for instance – their children are trained in Indian music or dance, sometimes both, just to keep all options open.

Typically, the parents hope their offspring will become famous artists – ideally, while also being successful doctors or engineers – and invest heavily in the pursuit of such fame.

If they’re not good enough to become famous, there is a decent chance that a long list of extracurricular activities will look good on a resume and help them get into an overpriced school.

And if they’re not good enough to impress the overpriced school, they can perform at the Hindu festivals celebrated diligently in Indian households in the Bay Area and beyond, and prove that even if their families have left India, India has not left their families.

We also know they tend to be disconnected from the realities of India, which to them is the home of aging parents and socialism. That is why, nearly thirty years after India opened its doors to foreign products, people with Indian faces and American passports continue to bring giant bags of supermarket-bought chocolates for the relatives who didn’t migrate.

We also know that the easiest way to find the India of the 1980s twenty years into the new millennium is to travel to Indian-dominated neighbourhoods in the US. True story: I’ve seen Cibaca toothpaste, Cuticura powder, and Gopal toothpowder at a family-owned store in Queens. I don’t remember when I last saw those in India.

We also know that the Diaspora excels at importing all things Indian and supersizing them to American taste – religion, food, and heads of state.

So it is that some of the largest temples and gurdwaras may be found in San Francisco. So it is that masalas abound in New Jersey stores. So it is that 50,000 people gathered inside a stadium to fawn over a man who symbolises all that they hold dear.

The regressive thinking, deep insecurity, and tendency to make sweeping generalisations that are characteristic of someone who belongs neither in the country he has left behind nor in the one whose passport he carries finds an echo in the Eliza Doolittle-like story of a man who once worked in a tea shop and now makes the law.

The denial of logic, reason, and reality that is characteristic of diasporic Indian families who ban their children from dating white or black people finds an echo in those qualities of a man who can say that his government’s decision to remove all autonomy from a state using a backdoor route, bifurcate it, and demote the pieces to union territories, all while keeping the state’s leaders under house arrest and its residents under a communication blackout, will bring progress to and guarantee human rights in the state.

The hypocrisy of immigrants who will give a standing ovation to a man who wants to build a wall to keep immigrants out finds an echo in the claim of a man that he is against terrorism, months after his party has fielded convicted terrorists as candidates in the elections.

People – especially people who think of themselves as “self-made” – love a success story, and the notion of “humble origins” is crucial to the narrative. Of course, it is best for the humility to be restricted to one’s economic circumstances and not extend to one’s caste. The difference is that one’s economic circumstances can change through various routes – one could work hard, or one could make the right friends, or one could embrace the right prejudices – until hand-me-downs are replaced by customised jackets. But, even Ghar Wapsi does not come with a caste upgrade.

One of the salient features of the Indian immigrant is his keenness to adopt the ways of the country where he lives, while also being paranoid that he might assimilate too well, so well that he forgets his own prejudices.

The Indian Diaspora which filled an enormous stadium has proven that its constituent immigrants can tread this fine line.

America loves a school dropout as long as he is successful at what he does. Universities often invite Silicon Valley successes to whom they once denied degrees as chief guests to address students who did manage to get their degrees.

Indians don’t love a dropout. They like people to study for as long as possible, while their parents slog away, because every degree adds to the Success Story, irrespective of whether the degree-holder has earned anything other than his degree or not.

And for as long as someone refuses to make his educational qualifications public, the Diaspora can afford to love him.

He is, after all, being modest.

More Columns by Nandini Krishnan:

Hindi debate: We are all obsessed with homogeneity

We are choking the earth

When Kamal Haasan endorsed harassment

The Dalai Lama and the death of humour

The delusionary Indian intellectual

India's culture of worship has to end




Nandini is the author of Invisible Men: Inside India's Transmasculine Networks (2018) and Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013). She tweets @k_nandini. Her website is: www.nandinikrishnan.com