By Rajiv Bhatia*
The nomination of Kamala Harris as the Democrats’ candidate for vice-president and her election to the august office last year has been cleverly used as the peg to publish an interesting collection of articles that shed new light on the Indian-American community in the U.S. today. Harris and her sister were raised by Shyamala Gopalan, their mother, as black girls, given her marriage to a Jamaican academic. The family, however, remained deeply conscious of their Indian heritage. Harris leveraged it to good effect in her march towards victory. But the Indian diaspora’s America connect is a much bigger saga. As Maina Chawla Singh, a contributor, puts it, “Harris’s story is only a milestone in that journey, not a destination.”
The diversity, strengths and vulnerabilities of the community have been captured and showcased creatively by writers that include former diplomats Shashi Tharoor and T.P. Sreenivasan, journalists Aziz Hanifa and Tarun Basu (who excels as editor), and successful figures of the community such as M.R. Rangaswami, Pradeep K. Khosla, Bijal Patel and Laxmi Parthasarathy. Arun K. Singh, a former ambassador to the U.S., provides a crisp ‘Epilogue’.
This theme is of immense interest to audiences in India, the U.S. and beyond due to three reasons. First, the Indian-American community, now estimated to be over four million, has relatives, friends and contacts spread all across India. Second, it represents the most shining segment of India’s global diaspora, now numbered to be 32 million, according to the Ministry of External Affairs. Third, a close linkage exists between the positive trajectory of India-U.S. relations and the rise of Indians in the U.S. in the past two decades. Closer bilateral ties will lead to more Indian students and H1B workers. “Growing numbers of the Indian-origin community in the U.S. would incentivise U.S. elected representatives to be sensitive also to India’s concerns,” writes Arun Singh.
Indian-Americans are not “a monolith”; they are of different religions, classes and linguistic affinities. A major division can be noticed between the parent-generation — those born in India who migrated in the 1960s or thereafter — and those born in the U.S. The latter are perhaps more confident, ready to experiment with lifestyles and career choices, and better integrated with the local society, while still being driven by Indian values that put a premium on hard work and strong family ties. They are also alive to the struggles and sacrifices of their parents, grateful that the latter gave them ‘a leg-up.’
The 16 articles bring out details of the success stories of Indian Americans in diverse fields such as politics and administration, corporate world, science, medicine, academia, hotel industry, entertainment and civil society. Writing styles vary: some are scholarly essays, others journalistic takes, and yet others autobiographical in nature or pen-portraits of real people who toiled and are still engaged in securing their goals.
The volume refers more than once to the 630,000 Indians who live as “undocumented immigrants” in the U.S. One wishes that a chapter had been devoted to their plight and concerns. A table or infographic showing the state-wise break-up of the community would have enhanced the book’s value for future researchers.
As someone who served in Indian diplomatic missions in five countries hosting large diasporic communities, this reviewer found the book a fertile source of insights. While working in Toronto, I often pondered if Indians in the U.S. were different from their counterparts in Canada.
They are, asserts Laxmi Parthasarathy, adding, “America is truly a melting pot, while Canada is a tossed salad.” But her husband disagreed! Books of this genre that enlighten us about contemporary situations of the Indian diaspora in various regions and countries deserve to be welcomed.
*About the author: Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former Ambassador.