By Pranay Gupte
There is a cultural defensiveness among many Indians, but they bring enterprise and energy to communities with their presence, and this works to everyone’s benefit.
There has been increasing angst and teeth-gnashing among Indians in the United States this week over a tongue-in-cheek essay by columnist Joel Stein in the international newsweekly, Time. Stein ruefully talks about how his native Edison, a New Jersey community just across the Hudson River from New York City, has been transformed into a “Little India” —with the overpowering smells of Indian cuisine, the eclectic colors of Indian ethnicity, and the distinctive dialects of the subcontinent dominating what was once a largely Italian-American town.
The blogosphere has been ricocheting with rants against the writer, accusing him of prejudice or worse. Time’s editors subsequently said that the magazine — whose circulation is just under four million — did not intend to offend Indians. I know Stein, and he’s scarcely a racist; he has acknowledged that the presence of Indians has brought fresh prosperity and diversity to Edison. I am pretty sure that his piece was intended to be satirical, even if it wasn’t especially felicitous. Colum-nists, after all, are paid to be provocative; engendering offence is sometimes one of those unintended consequences of the trade.
An Indian friend, who lives in East Asia, put a healthy perspective on Stein’s article after I had e-mailed it to her. “I was aware somewhere that I ought to be insulted as this guy is saying mean things about my countrymen and culture — but the piece is written with so much humor and candor that I could not help but see his point,” she said. “I cannot help but see where he is coming from. It may not be balanced but brings out the feelings of so many. And somewhere along the line admits to being biased. I see why Time ran it!”
My own feeling is that Indians — especially those living and prospering abroad —often tend to be bereft of irony and a self-deprecating sense of humour; they are given to being far too readily offended as a tribe. It may not quite be a “Masada Complex” — a feeling of being under siege — but there’s a cultural defensiveness that I have sensed among many Indians I have known since I first landed in the US as a student.
Of course, there are now many more Indians in America since my initial arrival in 1967. When I visited the US — now my adopted country — not long ago for a major class reunion at Brandeis University near Boston and Cambridge, it struck me that just about every second person on the streets seemed to be of Indian origin. In my home city of New York, the situation was no less different.
Surely, I thought, America — a nation of 307 million — must profit substantially from the presence of these Indians, of whom there are now more than 2.5 million, a tenth of the global Indian Diaspora. How Americans benefit by bonding with India — India Tribune (July 10 issue.) As if by serendipity, I came across a study showing that indeed America does benefit handsomely through the contributions of Indians, including businessmen, physicians, and high-technology entrepreneurs.
This study was jointly prepared by the India-US World Affairs Institute of Washington, the Robert H. Smith School of Business of the University of Maryland, and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry; it revealed that Indians are not only the most affluent and most educated of the scores of ethnic communities in the melting pot that’s the US, they are also rapidly becoming among the most significant investors in the American economy.