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Colonial cousins

When Bobby Jindal became the first ‘Indian American’ Governor of Louisiana earlier this month, for instance, many Indians believed yet again that it had something to do with us, writes Barkha Dutt.

india Updated: Nov 03, 2007 00:43 IST

When steel baron LN Mittal was still jostling for the takeover of French company Arcelor, India was convinced that racism and xenophobia stood between him and history. And when he finally won the bid, we were swept away by a wave of economic patriotism. We chose to see Mittal’s ascent as another medal for India in the global race — one more compelling example of why the world could no longer ignore us.

But now Aditya Mittal — the heir to the giant empire that catapulted his father into becoming ‘the world’s richest Indian’ — has swiftly punctured India’s romantic notions. At a seminar in London that debated the notion of ‘Made-in-India multinationals’ he declared without any compunction or coyness that Arcelor was "not an Indian company".

His father, on the other hand, has charmed countless interviewers (including this columnist) with his soft-spoken and matter-of-fact refusal to surrender his Indian passport. But the son — seen to be a key architect of the Arcelor merger — sees no contradiction between holding an Indian passport and running a “foreign company”.

Like many expatriates of his generation, Mittal junior is clearly comfortable being a world citizen with cultural roots in India. So, Shah Rukh Khan and an entire entourage of Bombay stars may dance at the family wedding in Paris, but when it comes to the crunch, he will say unapologetically, as he did to The Times of India, that he "never saw India as an opportunity".

But where does all of this leave the Indian propensity to foist a confused form of national pride and ownership on anyone with a desi gene in their DNA?

For decades we responded to those who left our shores in search of a better life with an unspoken resentment and, perhaps, even mild condemnation. Subconsciously, those of us who stayed back or returned home after an Ivy League or Oxbridge education believed that we were somehow more ‘Indian’ than the others. We didn’t relate to countries that offered dual citizenship and held on to our Indian passports as a badge of honour and optimism. We were guilty of superciliously ignoring millions of men and women who had made their home elsewhere but were at least partially shaped and formed by India.

Somewhere along the way though, a booming global economy and the startling success stories of expatriate Indians turned us around. We were forced to concede that the émigrés were often the best advertisements for India abroad. And now, as we parade our NRIs at the annual Pravasi Divas festivals and promise them PIO (People of Indian Origin) identity cards, we have swung entirely to the other extreme. We now want to claim everyone as fellow travellers. We want to believe that we are all part of the Great Indian Dream.

But what of those who have embraced new identities and left their national origins buried firmly in the past? In a world increasingly made smaller by the forces of globalisation, the notion of home and identity has become more complicated than ever before. And yet, we are so compulsively self-congratulatory these days that we insist on celebrating every global success as our own if it has even a vague hint of India about it.

When Bobby Jindal became the first ‘Indian American’ Governor of Louisiana earlier this month, for instance, many Indians believed yet again that it had something to do with us. The media devoted an extraordinary amount of space and time to the story of the 36-year-old whose father left a dusty village in northern India three decades to ago to chase the American dream. We mythologised his political victory despite knowing that Jindal’s story is much more about American assimilation than it is about Indian assertion.

Whether it was hastily abandoning his Indian name (Piyush) in favour of a more anglicised one or converting to Catholicism to create an easier fit for himself among Conservative voters, Jindal’s identity has been deliberately manufactured. His first words after winning — “I am one of you, a normal, red-blooded, football-loving Louisiana guy” — tell us everything we need to know about how little he or his landmark achievements have to do with India.

We obsessed in a similar way about Sunita Williams’ space odyssey. Just because she ate samosas while staring out at the stars, we decided to convert even that into a vindication of India. Williams was born to an Indian father and a Slovenian mother in Ohio. Unlike her close friend Kalpana Chawla, who went to school in India, she was shaped and formed entirely by America.

Her Gujarati relatives may have got their 15 seconds of television fame when Williams went up into space. But if our militaries are a measure of national pride it may be useful to remember that Williams served as an aviator for the US navy during the Gulf War. And yet, whether she likes it or not, we are deluded enough to hold her up as one of our own and we’ve decided that her journey into space was partially an ‘Indian’ achievement.

Even Trinidad-born author VS Naipaul overawes us and inspires in us a false and misplaced sense of ownership. We meekly accept the flagellation when he calls us an "a wounded civilisation” and feel grateful and proud when he changes his mind and concedes a grudging admiration.

And yet, each time he comes visiting India, we fall over ourselves to meet with him and measure our self-worth through his scathing eyes. One such round of India-bashing finally compelled the current Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson, Navtej Sarna, to lash out in his other avatar as a writer. In an open letter published in the Hindu Literary Review, Sarna asked, “If this country is so hopeless, its literature so bankrupt, its literary soul so vacuous, then why not just let us be? You see, we are like this only."

The tragedy is that all too often we forget who we are and begin looking outwards (especially to the West) for approval. Every time India insists on being a forced stakeholder in a global event, it makes you wonder if this is really a celebration of nationhood or some lingering colonial complex.

Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24x7

First Published: Nov 03, 2007 00:36 IST