Being Indian abroad

Being Indian abroad

What is it to be an Indian abroad — in the United States for instance? How much of yourself do you give to your American identity — and how much space do you preserve for your Indian-ness? This what Indian expatriates should ask themselves today. Many second generation Indians whose parents settled in the US twenty or thirty years ago, have merged themselves totally in the American way of life, speak with an American accent, think American… and in the process forget all about their wonderful Indian culture…

What is it in the American way of life that fascinates so many Indians? The fast life? Right: fast is exciting; but Americans live so fast — eat breakfast in their cars, gulp down meat and French fries, and often grow immensely fat. They also run the risk of getting ulcers and heart attacks by the age of 65. What else dazzles Indians in the American way of life? The lights? True, New York is a fascinating city, with its illuminated skyscrapers, its million of pulsating lights, its giant electronic billboards, its fancy bars, that one feels a kind of throbbing vitality entering as one walks the streets by night. But what a waste of energy, when the world is fast losing its sources of energy; and isn’t this a kind of artificial vitality, that fades away when one wakes up in the morning, with a hangover and one has to face the reality of life?

What else? America’s nature? No doubt, the United States boasts of some wonderful natural beauty and Americans have shown us what it means to plant trees and live in a green environment. But nature can also be an illusion here: a highway is never very far from the forest, with its thousands of cars pouring out millions of cubic feet of carbon dioxide, which annihilates natures’ bounty, as the Los Angeles smog amply demonstrates. Besides, America is an unending suburban concrete jungle, with its boring repetition of mega stores, parking lots, and KFCs. When you have seen a city, you have seen them all.

What else? The ‘quality’ of American life: barbecue parties, beaches, tattoos, fun and frolic? Yes, except that one out of three American couples divorce within three years, one out of four Americans consults a psychiatrist for depression, bulimia, schizophrenia or plain boredom, and American children often indulge in shooting other children, just because they are exposed to so much violence…

Is this the legacy you want to bequeath to your children, O Indian brothers and sisters, who long for the American way of life? For this great brain drain that has been going for so long, does not affect only the ordinary middle and upper class ‘secular’ Indian, but also many good Hindus. They put their children in the best US universities and accept the fact that their children will settle in the American way of life and will probably never go back to India. True, their kids get heftier pay cheques in the US, better facilities, escape the Indian bureaucracy, corruption… But what are they going to bequeath to their own children in the long run: insecurity, violence, divorce, depression… Above all their offspring, unknowingly, will be afflicted by a loss of identity. They will not know, nor feel like their grandparents did, this natural space of Indian-ness, which automatically confers certain qualities. What is that Indian-ness?

First and foremost it is this belief: ‘I accept you; I accept that you may be White or Black, Red or Yellow, Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim. I am even ready to go and worship in a church or a mosque, besides my temple. I accept that my Gods are avatars, incarnations of the Divine, but so is Jesus Christ, and also Buddha and even Mohammed.’

This an extraordinary statement and a marvellous instrument towards world peace, at a time when the two great monotheist religions of the world, Islam and Christianity still say: ‘There is only one true God in the world — mine — and if you worship any other god, you are an infidel and a pagan and it is my right to convert you by any means, or even to kill you.’

The September 11 attacks are nothing but a result of that dangerous theorem. As a result, Indians adapt easily wherever they go, particularly in the West, as they are very open to Western culture. Of course, Indians also go to the other extreme: ‘not only I accept you, but I am going to become exactly like you — not even Whiter than the White: I am going to denigrate my own culture, spit on my religion, belittle my countrymen.’ This is why so often in the US you can come across negative articles on India written by Indians — nay by Hindus. The Gujarat massacres were actually a great opportunity for these Hindu haters, such as Pankaj Mishra, to come out full blast and prove to the world that India is a land of Hindu fundamentalists where nobody is safe, particularly the Muslims ‘who are regularly victims of pogroms.’

Mishra conveniently forgot to mention that India is an extraordinary country of freedom, where all persecuted religious minorities in the world have found refuge over the centuries, whether Jews, Parsis, Syrian Christians, or today the Tibetans.

What else? ‘I have inherited from my ancestors the tools to become a better man, whatever my religion, ethnicity and profession: a better Christian, a better Hindu, a better Muslim, carpenter, or CEO, IT engineer, or sailor.’ What are these tools? Hata-yoga, India’s gift to the world, which has been copied and imitated everywhere (although Time magazine did a story on yoga without mentioning the name ‘India’ once). What else? Meditation, this extraordinary technique of coming back to one’s self, of settling the mind and the body, which is today practiced by millions around the world — another bequest of India to humanity. Pranayama, the science of respiration, perfected by Indians for three millenniums. ‘Does the breath have any religion?’ asks Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living movement, which has spread today in 140 countries.

What first generations Indians in the States should ask themselves today is: ‘How can I repay my debt to India’? After all not only did they get a nearly free education in India which was good enough for them to obtain well paid jobs in the US, but did they also not inherit that certain Indian-ness, which has been a great help to adapt to the American way of life? As for second, or third, or even fourth generations Indian Americans, what they need to tell themselves is: ‘what can I do for my country’? ‘In what way can I contribute to this great nation which is India, which is so maligned and sidelined in the United States’?

The first thing they can do is to counteract the highly unfair and biased press coverage which India gets in America by writing to editors, or challenging the shameful coverage of CNN (which depicts Vajpayee as an old feeble man, but gives hours of live retransmission of the recent Pope’s visit to Canada), or canvassing their elected representatives.

Finally, because of the continuing confrontation between Islam and the United States (Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan etc), even though Mr Bush thinks that the problem will be over once he kills the elusive Bin Laden, Hindus in the US are going to come more and more under threat. It will not matter that they speak with a perfect Yankee accent and think of themselves as one hundred percent Americans — they will be seen in the streets as ‘coloured’ Asians and could be mistaken as Afghanis or Saudis and targeted like the unfortunate Sikh after the September 11 attack.

The only solution for them would be that they start regrouping themselves under an ‘Hindu American’ banner. Not only will it rekindle in them an ancient beautiful and powerful identity, but also grant them protection, as it will quickly become known that Hindus in the US are upwardly mobile, Western friendly and themselves a target of Muslim fundamentalism. How will it be done? By the force of circumstances, probably, because left to themselves Hindus are too passive and selfish to do anything. Committed Hindus groups should also apply pressure on them, as the LTTE does on expatriate Tamils with funds and lobby.

Being Indian abroad, II

My article, Being Indian abroad, I triggered such a massive reaction that I felt it is better writing another column to respond to points made by readers, rather than answer e-mail.

Obviously, America is not only fast food, artificial lights, cars and a superficial vitality. There is a certain openness about America, a willingness of the American people to listen to other points of view, which is unique. Yes, America is also a land of freedom where in the last 300 years, people from all nationalities, social classes, have been given the chance to make it good. They have in turn responded to this unique trust by giving the United States their 100 per cent, which makes it the leading industrial and military nation in the world. One finds too a sense of collectiveness, a caring for others, which gives America some of the best road systems in the world and first-class public amenities, such as the community centers found in many American cities.

But is America really the benevolent, casteless society some readers are convinced it is? Well, I am not sure. For one, what the White Americans did to the Blacks not that long ago must rank amongst some of the saddest deeds perpetuated by one class of humanity on another; not to speak of the terrible and shameful treatment inflicted upon the hapless Red Indians, the original inhabitants of their land, a karma the US will have to pay for sooner or later.

There are also a lot of inequalities in the States: extremely rich people and some incredibly poor folks, mostly Blacks, for such a country of tremendous wealth. Secondly, are the Blacks today on a truly equal footing with the Whites? I am not convinced either. Barring a few exceptions here and there, one still finds an invisible and subtle ghetto, an unwritten caste system existing in the US between the two communities and their problems are far from solved.

India has had an untouchable President. Has the US ever had a Black president, or vice-president? American journalists and human rights activists like to highlight the ‘oppressed’ condition of women in India. But as early as the late sixties, India democratically elected a woman prime minister, the highest post of the nation — and that for nearly twenty years. Can the country of triumphant feminism and gender equality boast of a woman President? The problem is that most Indians suffer too much from an inferiority complex vis à vis the West, to point this out to the Americans who are constantly criticising India for its human rights in Kashmir and Gujarat.

Yes, in America one enjoys the liberty to do whatever one wants without bureaucracy and heavy taxation that one is subjected to in India, or even in industrialised countries such as France. But after September 11, freedoms have been heavily curtailed in the US, especially if you have brown skin. Compare this to India: I have lived here for 33 years, I have gone to the most remote places, traveled to sacred spots with my cameras, tape recorder and white face. And never once have I been aggressed, never once has my passport been asked for in the streets (try traveling in the subway in Paris if you have a brown face and a leather jacket), never once have I been mugged at late nights in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai, whereas in Washington, the capital of the ‘land of freedom,’ we were told not to go out alone in certain parts after 8 pm.

Some e-mail dealt with the extraordinary ‘religious freedom one can enjoy in the US, where nobody bothers whether you are a Jew, a Hindu, or a Christian.’ Fair enough. But let’s put it that way: the American population is overwhelmingly Christian and nobody there finds anything to say that the President of the United States is sworn in on the Bible, or that in some states a Christian prayer is uttered before the start of the school.

India has a thumping Hindu majority (80 per cent), but imagine the uproar if Atal Bihari Vajpayee had been sworn in on the Bhagavad Gita! And remember what happened when Murli Manohar Joshi wanted to introduce the chanting of the Saraswati Vandana in schools. Yet, India has today a Muslim President, the third one since Independence. Did the US ever have a Muslim President?

Some of you have a point: when I say all Indians settled in the US should regroup themselves under a ‘Hindu American banner,’ it does look as if I want to exclude Christians, Muslim and Sikh Indians. Indeed, most of the protesting e-mail were from Christians, Muslims and Sikhs. Let’s answer the objections from Christians first. One Christian reader tells me: ‘Christians have no freedom in India, or else they are killed like Australian missionary Graham Staines.’

There is no denying this was a horrible crime and that its perpetrators should be punished — and they are in the process of being punished. But this is an isolated case and our friend disregards what the Christians have done to Hindus over centuries. The first Christian community in the world, that of the Syrian Christians, settled in India in the first century. They were not only allowed to practice their religion in peace, but they prospered here, whereas at the same time they were persecuted in Rome and later in many Arabic countries. But when Vasco da Gama landed in India in the 16th century, the Portuguese, with the active collaboration of many Indian Christians, unleashed a reign of terror in Goa and some parts of Kerala, crucifying Brahmins, razing temples, forcibly marrying their soldiers to Goanese women.

The British, even if they did not use such violent means, gave a free hand to missionaries to convert huge parts of India, particularly in the Northeast. Today, American or Australian dollars are used to still convert unethically, by using the economic incentive amongst tribals and untouchables, teaching the new converts to hate their culture and customs and creating a spirit of separatism, as the Christian Bodo and Mizo militants have shown.

A few Sikh friends also resented my not having mentioned Sikhism. Let me quote straightaway from Sri Aurobindo: ‘The Sikh Khalsa was an astonishingly original and novel creation and its face was turned not to the past but to the future. Apart and singular in its theocratic head and democratic soul and structure, it was the first attempt to combine the deepest elements of Islam and Vedanta. But it could not create between the spirit and the external life the transmitting medium of a rich creative thought and culture. And thus hampered and deficient it began and ended with narrow local limits, achieved intensity but no power of expansion…’

Unfortunately, the Sikhs, because they had to defend themselves against the terrible persecution by the Muslims, cut themselves from the mainstream spirit of Hindu tolerance — from where they originally came, and where they might ultimately return. But do they not come from the great Hindu family? Has not till lately every good Hindu family donated one of their sons to Sikhism? Do not Hindus still today go to gurdwaras? Yet today, many expatriate Sikhs want to have nothing to do with Hinduism, and sometimes even with India.

What about Indian Muslims? Today we see, even though they benefit in India from a freedom they would not have in Saudi Arabia, or even in Pakistan, Indian Muslims often feel their first allegiance goes to Islam and not to India. The irony of it all is that Muslims invaded India, ran it with an iron hand, attempted to make India a totally Islamic country by forcibly converting millions of Hindus — and today they manage to portray themselves in the eyes of the world as the persecuted.

Another strong objection from some readers: religion divides. First let me say Hinduism, as Sri Aurobindo or Vivekananda, or Sri Ramakrishna envisioned it, is not a religion but a living spirituality which has given to the world — and still gives it today — wonderful tools: hata-yoga copied all over this planet, meditation, or pranayama. Secondly, at a time when the two largest monotheistic religions of the world, Islam and Christianity still claim their God is the only true one, while Hindus, through the extraordinary concept of the avatar, recognise that God manifests himself at different times, in different countries, under different names and thus grant to everybody the right to worship God under any form. This is a very precious spiritual (and not religious) knowledge which has been lost to the world and which, even the most humble Hindu peasant spontaneously practices.

It is also true that things in India are not as they should be. Hindus there are not united, India is divided along caste and religious lines by unscrupulous politicians. Yes, Hindus can also be racists, as one rediff reader remarked; they do suffer at the same time, as another one commented, from a big inferiority complex, as well as one of superiority, quite an achievement! Yes, it is as well correct that expatriate Indians do often tend to become more conscious of their roots than India Indians: they will send their children to learn Bharata Natyam and will remember all the festivals. Good, there is a whole generation of upper middle class kids in India who are so desperately aping the worst of the West, that they are lost for India.

Yes, Hindus can be selfish, passive, cowardly, miserly, whereas many of them are extremely rich. But nevertheless, they remain a wonderful people, alive with an inbred joy and spirituality.

Contrary to what one of the readers assert, there is a definite atmosphere in India, something special, something unique, which is there nowhere else in the world. Those of you who spent a lot of time abroad will notice a certain quality in the atmosphere as soon as you enter India, if you are a little sensitive.

Indian Americans or Hindu Americans? To start with, there are already Indian Americans, those that Columbus mistook for real Indians and you can’t usurp their names. Secondly, it ultimately depends on the Christians, the Sikhs and the Muslims, who in the last few decades, have drifted more and more from the Indian psyche, striving to strike a fundamental identity of their own. We have also seen that the numerous Indian Americans associations in the US, where there are indeed Muslim, Christians and Sikh Indians, are frequently paralysed by these three groups.

Thus, if Hindus in the United States regroup themselves under a ‘Hindu American’ label it might prompt the three minorities to wake up to the reality of a stronger, overwhelmingly Hindu majority. It will give a clear-cut identity to Indians in the States, dissociating them from the Pakistanis, the Bangladeshis, the Saudis, or the Afghans. It will also help make known to the average American the extraordinary achievements of the Hindu community in the US.

Lastly, it will help the Indian government, by creating a powerful and effective lobby in the US, free from the shackles imposed by Christian, Sikh and Muslim Indians. Ultimately, it will be up to these three minorities to decide whether they want to re-join this great family that is ‘Induism.’ For we should then give back to ‘Hindus’ its proper meaning: Indus from the civilisation of the valley of Indus, probably the most ancient civilisation of the world still active today. Once upon a time, Indian Christians, Parsis, Muslims and Hindus were called ‘Indus’ by the invaders without differentiation of caste and religion. Is it not time to put back this habit into practice?

Finally, is America going to be perpetually the El Dorado that still make Indians dream? Not sure. There are certain signs which show that the US economy is entering a period of darkness: the slump in the stock market, the packing up of half of Silicon Valley, the near bankruptcy of many American airlines, and more than that, the erosion of the American confidence.

There are bound to be more terrorist attacks on the US in the next few years, as Samuel Huntington’s prophecy of a ‘clash of civilizations’ between Islam and the West, with China siding with Islam (let’s us not forget that Beijing already gave Pakistan the technology to build its nuclear weapons) and Hindu India allied with the West, will prove more and more true. This in turn will trigger more panic, more loss of confidence amongst Americans and eventually a stock market crash on the lines of the one which happened in 1929.

On the other hand, India, this ‘Third World country,’ has learnt to live with Islamic terrorism, its people do not panic as Americans do, it has a relatively stable stock market, its software business is still expanding and is beginning to offer salaries which will compete with the West. Could it be that this great brain drain towards America could be reversed and that NRIs start coming back to their country of origin in search of greener pastures? One could even dream: today one still sees this huge humiliating queues in front of the US embassy in Delhi, where visa applicants are treated like cattle. Will we one day witness Americans waiting in line in front of the Indian embassy in Washington to obtain working visas in India? It will happen my friends. One day.

Post Script: Out of the 350 e-mails, nearly 80 per cent were messages of praise and encouragement from Hindus. Out of the 20 per cent who disagreed, 14 per cent were (surprisingly) from Indian Christians, 3 per cent were from Sikhs, 2 per cent from Muslims and 1 per cent from Hindus.

Francois Gautier

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