Indian ‘dotheads’ with their multiple-armed, elephant-nosed gods have taken over the once pure white American town of Edison, New Jersey and destroyed the memories of innocent white boyhood. That’s the burden of Joel Stein’s controversial article in Time magazine that led to so much uproar among the Indian American community that Time and Stein were forced to apologise. But while Indian Americans have expressed their outrage at Stein’s ‘humour’ and asked why a mainstream publication like Time should publish such an article, there’s also an argument that Indians should learn to take themselves less seriously.
Our gods, after all, are multiple-armed and elephant-nosed, our food is often spicy to the exclusion of taste, and the dots and dashes on our foreheads can look hilarious to those not used to seeing them. The lesson is actually quite simple. Want to live and work in a globalised marketplace? Learn to be less hung up about ‘culture’ and identity. Want to wallow in identity and culture? Don’t venture out beyond home.
Yet the cultural balance of power between Indians and America is lopsided. Middle-class urban Indians adore America. American soft power envelops us in the manifold pleasures of its soaps, music, education, clothes, movies, thinkers, books, even worldview. If the colonial caricature of the 20th century was the dark-skinned desi babu in a three-piece suit who saw himself as a white Englishman, then the post-colonial caricature of the 21st century could be the American-speaking urban Indian who sees himself as a white American, even though he may be a resident of Mumbai or Bangalore.
The Sprite ad, in which an Indian jungle explorer distributes Sprite to black-skinned tribals, shows to some extent how the Indian — particularly the elite Indian — continues to identify himself with the Indiana Jones discourse of the white man surrounded by strange natives. No wonder there is personal anguish when this Americanised Indian with his secret belief in his own white-ness, with his Indiana Jones posters and Bob Dylan CDs, finds that sections of opinion in the very country from which he draws so much of his identity, actually sees him as a ‘dothead’ who worships bizarre gods. The feelings of exclusion are immense.
Yet when it comes to America, Indians have always voted with their feet. Even at the height of the Cold War, more than a million Indians lived in the US. Almost every middle-class family today has a family member living in America, the rich, educated Indian American community is the fastest growing ethnic group there. Such names as Indra Nooyi, Sanjay Gupta, Jagdish Bhagwati, Vikram Pandit are justly celebrated in India as aspirational figures. But cultural ‘sacrifices’ are required along the way to achieve the American dream. Namrata Randhawa had to change her name to Nikki Haley and convert from Sikhism to be an acceptable ‘American’. Politician, Piyush Amrit Jindal goes by the name Bobby and it would be unthinkable perhaps for any Indian American public personality to be seen as recognisably non-Western.
The distinctive cultural traits of the Italian American or an Irish American are far more acceptable in the American salad bowl than the distinctive cultural markers of the Indian American. Bollywood and vindaloo have not become as much part of America as Italian contributions like the opera or pizza. The Indian diaspora is high-achieving but has not really contributed significantly to American pop culture, perhaps because elephant-nosed gods and dots on the forehead are just so completely at odds with the underlying assumptions of American society. Thus Indians in America need to be ironed into culturally neutral brain banks and professional high achievers, whose ‘elephant-nosed’ identity is best practised ‘in secret’ at home.
So while the globalised economy knits communities from India and the West ever closer, India’s cultural integration into the global society is still a work-in-progress. Indian ghettos in Western countries are so paranoid about losing their culture, so stubbornly refused to change their dress, behaviour and mentality that naturally the majority looks on them with derision and hostility. Surely the process of integration can be a more gentle swap of cultures where mutual give and take enriches both immigrant and host. Analysts pointed to an upsurge in hankering for white ancestors that accompanied the Obama presidency. America’s first black president was compared to Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy to somehow ameliorate the tectonic change in the top job. The Time article, in its wistfulness for the lost white town shows a similar nostalgia for the pre-multicultural era.
Just as the Maharashtrian finds the North Indian sometimes objectionable, or the Kannadiga has trouble with the Haryanvi code of conduct on buses, Indian communities have still not managed to distinguish between cultural identity and cultural assertion. Its ridiculous to expect that a fierce and noisy attachment to identity will be welcomed by the host country or state. Of course it won’t.
We Indians protest loudly at the depiction of gods and depictions of Gandhi, but we hardly embody the dignified ways of the truly cultured. We protest that our thousand-year-old traditions are being denigrated. Yet in taste and lifestyle we embody the worst forms of aggressive newly-rich downright uncultured behaviour.
As Stein writes in his article, it’s one thing to have immigrants who are genteel doctors and engineers, quite another to be swamped by hordes of raucous ‘dotheads’ who overwhelm local mores by sheer force of numbers. India’s integration into Western societies shouldn’t mean becoming dark-skinned imitations of white people nor should it mean propagating a raucous ostentatious Indian ‘culture’. Instead, let’s exemplify the spirit and not the outward form of our elephant-nosed multiple-armed pantheon: the spirit of grace, wisdom, and being unafraid to be thought of as a little eccentric. Such godly self-belief will make integration much less painful!
Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor, CNN-IBN
The views expressed by the author are personal