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AN INDIAN AMONG AMERICANS

As an Indian, I am, of course, disappointed that Bobby Jindal did not make it. And as a Bush-baiter, I am, of course, delighted that Bobby, the Republican, did not. Yet, all said and done, it would have been nice if he had become governor. It would have given us Indians something to puff our chests about…Or is that really so'

For Bobby Jindal may, in some genetic sense, be of Indian origin but he has done all he can to project himself as American as Momma’s apple-pie. The Indian community may not have bought that line — indeed, quite the contrary, for TV coverage found him surrounded by a Praetorian Guard of unsolicited Indians. But it is clear that while voting went on party lines in a Louisiana that has voted Democrat since the American Civil War, those on the fence — the uncommitted independents, black Democrats and other racial minorities — were not sufficiently persuaded of Bobby Jindal’s pigmentation or political credentials to tip him over the top. His Democrat opponent, the startlingly appropriately named Ms Blanco (which translates as “Ms White” or “Gori Memsahib”!), coasted to victory.

But what if Bobby had won' Would it have been an “Indian” victory' Well, yes, to the extent that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s victory was a goal for Austria or Spiro Agnew becoming vice-president was a hole in one for Greece or Franklin Delano Roosevelt getting thrice elected president was the most notable thing Luxembourg has ever done! For those were their countries of origin. But they won because they had sufficiently ceased being Austrian or Greek or Luxemburger to present themselves as Americans to win the trust of other Americans.

If Jindal wore a beard and turban, spoke with the rich accent of the Land of the Five Rivers, and chanted “Jai Shri Ram” or “Sat Naam Wahe Guru” as he mounted the stage, he would not have won even the primary. The American melting pot demands that you submerge your identity of origin in an acquired identity if you want to be a mainstream American. Nothing stops you from being a fringe American. But fringe Americans do not end up at age 32 as governor of Louisiana. To almost become that, Bhupinder Singh has to become Bobby. And it helps to be a Christian, if yet only a Roman Catholic, because even the Jews, let alone the Rastafarians, are yet to really secure acceptance at the higher reaches of American esteem.

This is difficult for an Indian to grasp because ours is not a “melting pot” civilization; it is a civilization of “unity in diversity”. Most Indians are foreigners to one another. So much so that I am amazed when people suggest that Indians will not vote for Sonia Gandhi because she was born Italian. I cannot speak for the whole country but certainly in Mayiladuturai, if you were to ask whether Sonia or Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the foreigner, most would unhesitatingly point to Vajpayee because he is evidently Aryan, not Dravidian; speaks the colonial language Hindi; and wears his dhoti not as a veshti should be draped but rather obscenely, tucked between his legs. In America, whether an American is from New York or California, he speaks roughly the same language, watches roughly the same movies, eats roughly the same food, goes through roughly the same education system and observes more or less the same festivals. Hyphenated Americans — at least those who have crossed the first generation barrier and are natural born Americans — fall into so similar a cultural, linguistic and social mould that the diversity lies more in the hyphen than in their respective ways of life.

In India, on the other hand, not only are regional accents different, languages themselves are different, religions are a myriad, the food is different, the clothes are different, movies and TV channels are different, the music is different, many of the games children play are different, usages and customs vary enormously. Our hyphens are for real. Each of us Indians is a “foreigner” to most other Indians. We are Indians because we accept, as no other people anywhere else in the world accepts, this variety as the natural order of things. Consider how most Indians think of Mother India — Bharat Mata — as one nation, but an amputated Bharat Mata because her right arm has been cut off to constitute Pakistan and her left arm to create Bangladesh. In contrast, within the same geographical area, Europe comprises 43 nations still dividing and subdividing like amoebae and hydras — witness the division of the Czech Republic from Slovakia and the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union. (Estonia, one can understand, distancing itself from Russia — but also Lithuania and Latvia distancing themselves from Estonia, not to mention the Ukraine distancing itself from all four!) In Europe, from the Urals to the Atlantic, ethnicity is equated with nationality. So, the white races either slice themselves up like salami or seamlessly merge into a dull uniformity as in the United States of A. And in China, if you are not a Han, you must be a Barbarian. They even built the Great Wall to prove it. In India and India alone, it does not matter whether you are black, brown or white, whether you sport a beard or lop it off, whether you turn east towards the rising sun or west towards Mecca to entreat your lord, whether, indeed, you know the national language or no — you are an Indian because you think you are an Indian. Period.

Hence, we Indians slip easily into the belief that sometime during this millennial century perhaps an “Indian” might get to the White House. Perhaps one will. He could easily be Bobby Jindal — for Bobby lost by a whisker and has so many more years in him that “Jindal for President” is more likely than not to be waved on placards not too many years down the line. But were he to win, it would be an American victory, for 150 million American voters are going to look for clones of themselves, not some exotic specimen from half the world away. And were he to indicate that because he is of Indian origin he is gong to tilt towards India, he will never make it to the White House because Americans want an American who will look to American interests, not some American Born Confused Desi who cannot tell a chapatti from a bagel.

There is an instructive lesson in this regard to be learned from the experience of Black Americans who have made it to the top. After Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated before he had quite turned 40, the most popular black leader of them all has been the Rev Jesse Jackson. He took a shy at the presidency and came a complete cropper. He was too black and not sufficiently an anonymous, conformist American for acceptance by any large swathe of American voters. The blacks who have made it are the Condoleezza Rices and Colin Powells, tinged on the epidermis, but all-American inside. So Indians who think the Americans will tilt to India when an Indian makes it big in American politics are storing for themselves a big disappointment. The Americans are not looking for blood-red Indians to champion the cause of their country of origin; they are in the market for brown Uncle Toms who will put America First. And to show that they are not Indians in disguise but genuine Americans, Indian-Americans who make it to the higher echelons of US politics will have to take the greatest care to demonstrate that they have no anti-Pak bias. So, perhaps we had better moderate our excitement over Jindal being an “Indian” who almost made it to governor. Jindal will make it to governor, and, who knows, even president, only when he carries conviction that he is as much from Louisiana as Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and plays the saxophone, not the sitar.

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