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In shock zone, a slice of India

- Towns around American school shooting site teem with signs of subcontinent life

Washington, Dec. 15: The second worst shooting in America’s history is unlikely to stop an influx of Indians to towns near the scene of Friday’s gun violence.

New England towns such as Newtown, where 27 people were killed by a lone gunman, have been a magnet for Indians, especially H1-B visa holders in recent years.

The gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, and his mother Nancy, Lanza’s first victim, lived in House No. 36 on Yogananda Street, named after Paramahansa Yogananda, who was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh and graduated from Calcutta University in 1915.

He later travelled to the US, speaking from coast to coast and died in Los Angeles shortly after making a speech honouring another Bengali, India’s then ambassador here, B.R. Sen.

Newtown in Connecticut has just 27,000 residents. Its nearest big town is Danbury, where the gunman’s victims have been taken to mortuaries or hospitals.

Danbury, too, has a long connection, albeit painful, with India. It was the headquarters of Union Carbide when the Bhopal gas tragedy, which is still a scar on India’s industrial history, occurred in 1984.

Warren Anderson, Union Carbide’s chairman at the time of the Bhopal gas tragedy and who continues to stir political emotions in India from time to time, has a home in Greenwich, Connecticut, although at the age of 92, he and his wife now spend more of their time in New York’s Long Island.

But Connecticut in more recent years has been a pleasant haven for Indians, who have transformed towns like Danbury, Hartford, Newtown and Manchester into little versions of their own native lands.

Hartford is America’s insurance capital and Danbury is home to big companies such as Goodrich, Boehringer Ingelheim and Ethan Allen, the last headed by a Kashmiri, Farooq Kathwari.

All of them employ hordes of H1-B visa holders from India, mainly information technology professionals. Some chartered accountants and Indian doctors have followed them to Connecticut towns in the wake of such migration, seeking lucrative native practice, especially the population of Indian American children born to young H1-B couples.

Hartford and Danbury are relatively more expensive cities to live in by Connecticut standards. So, many Indians have rented or bought homes in smaller neighbourhood towns like Manchester and Newtown.

On summer evenings in several small towns off Hartford and Danbury, it is quite a sight to watch scores of elderly Indians in dhotis or saris taking a walk: these are parents of H1-B visa holders who arrive in hordes to look after their grandchildren during summer holidays because both parents are working and schools have long vacations.

Quite often, at least one of the grandparents stays back. In few other states in the US do school buses disembark so many brown faces as in these small Connecticut towns into the arms of sari-clad or dhoti-clad Indian grandparents.

Places like Manchester no longer have a profusion of old-style American diners that are still a feature of small-town US. Most of them have been replaced by Indian restaurants which serve “all-you-can-eat” curry buffets on weekends for incredibly cheap prices by New England standards. They do brisk business where American diners went into bankruptcy after the Indians arrived.

Shopping clubs and membership-only retail warehouses like Sam’s Club and Costco have sprung up in the unlikeliest of locations because these H1-B visa holders have spending money and they would rather spend wisely than shop at supermarkets which do not offer huge discounts unlike shopping clubs.

Yogananda Street, where the gunman was an unsuspecting threat that overnight shattered America’s morale and repeatedly brought tears to Barack Obama’s eyes yesterday, is an affluent neighbourhood in a hilly part of Newtown that was as peaceful as any in New England as its name signifies, conjuring up Paramahansa Yogananda’s life and mission. Newtown was incorporated as a city in 1711.

Indeed, even the post-2008 financial meltdown has not significantly altered the prosperity of such neighbourhoods in Connecticut, unlike impoverished states such as West Virginia, where there are no jobs to be found other than military service.

Many of these towns prospered after September 11 when Connecticut aggressively campaigned to attract companies away from New York in the wake of the terrorist attacks. The campaign was a remarkable success and brought the Indians to small towns in this state in even larger numbers.

The last murder in Newtown was more than 10 years ago. It is equally true of several small towns in Connecticut, which has helped draw peace-loving immigrants such as Indians in a big way.

Danbury is at a halfway point between Hartford and Manhattan. It is the place where many Indians who travel to New York by road stop mid-way for breakfast or lunch. As a result, a number of Indian restaurants have sprung up in its vicinity, closer to Newtown off the interstate highway 84.

But this weekend, there is gloom at these eateries. Shops and restaurants that Indians frequent have taken down Christmas decorations as a mark of respect for the children and adults who were killed on Friday.

It may be a long time before Connecticut recovers from the latest gun violence. But it will not stop more Indians from flocking to the state.