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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

India: Abroad, A Secret Mantra, A New Act.

Suzy Singh. Photo by Erik Unger

Blinking red Blackberry lights, event reminders, and due dates punctuate our days. But, listen more carefully. As an Indian, I can hear another beat seeping through, organizing the world. It’s subtle. It’s the sound you heard growing up of mom cutting chilies and onions in the kitchen, the steady cadence of a knife hitting the board, while waiting for the next Pearl Jam song to come on in your room. They conspire with a steam whistle staccato to produce a perfect rasam. A Sunday or Thursday could have featured chiming cymbals.    

The saying goes “The sun never sets on the Indian diaspora.” Our parents, uncles, and aunties did something remarkable. With pluck and gusto, they transcended their circumstance, transforming dirt, thatched lives, and impossible odds into influence, wealth, and security. Today, first generation and second generation Indians in America and across the globe are also doing something extraordinary. Much of their achievement, like an iceberg, lies under the surface, in the subconscious. Look back at India’s forefathers and “inventors” Gandhi and Nehru. Despite their many failings, they cast a national character and consciousness to India’s geography and history. But, today’s India is neither Gandhian nor Nehruvian. Nor is it Singhian. It’s actually a diasporic subconscious that’s helping shape Indian consciousness.

Growing up Indian American forges a natural strength spawned from a seemingly unnatural hot–mix of puris, proms, kimchi, basketball, Jewish weddings, iftar and seder dinners, and barbeques. This strength is more than about blending bhangra with Latin salsa for a college dance performance or exploring your friend’s childhood in Nigeria. As a diasporic Indian, a clear identity is never handed down. Nor is it static. It’s constantly wrestled with and weighed and, over years, galvanized. You can get a hint from dusting off a Jhumpa Lahiri short story collection, but you’ll hear far richer stories from any of my friends. It’s always boggling to see a friend speak fluent Bengali to her parents, right before purchasing Death Cab for Cutie tickets and coordinating a dance practice. Or another who is as comfortable, after treating patients all day, giving directions in Marathi or sounding Hindustani scales on a sarod as he is carrying a Jose Gonzalez tune on a guitar or channeling Turkish writer Orham Pamuk. Or people like Priya Pandya, who tapped a singular charisma along with experiences in Pakistan, Uganda, and Malawi to start up Dhoonya Dance.

After more than two decades of negotiating cultures, one develops a unique, delicate, and potent ability, a cultural fitness that cannot be replicated. It cannot be learned in a semester study abroad in Germany. For many of us growing up this way it becomes so natural, seamless, and nonchalant that it goes unnoticed. Therein lies its power. Even after more time, you can know a poetry to it, understanding it both practically and viscerally. This unique cultural agility has translated into tangible changes on the ground, while amplifying India’s stature.

Indians living abroad tally roughly 30 million (the estimates range from 25 million to as high as 40 million). But, what’s different today is an unusual new confidence, one that mixes equal parts optimism, humility, flexibility, and tradition. What was once superficially just about bhangra–remixed Snoop Dogg singles and spotting counterfeit Indians has matured. Is an NRI a non–resident Indian or “not really Indian”? The days of clamoring to be arbiters of Indian culture or groping for an imaginary throne of Indian–ness are fast fading. A cluttered, half–remembered in–between is now a poised, sharpened, and more defined entity, sometimes classic and sometimes avant–garde. It’s like a rolling pin flattening a misshapen blob into a roundly familiar chapatti.

Despite coining the ridiculous term “Bollystan,” Parag Khanna is right— India needs its diaspora just as much as the other way around. As he puts it, the diaspora is a "force multiplier," evangelizing, investing, and influencing. In 2009, these workers sent $49 billion in remittances back home to India; a staggering 4% of the country’s 1.2 billion person economy comes from North America alone, equaling what India’s own government spends on education (map breaking down Indian remittances by country in 2007). Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, and Nepalis living abroad are estimated to be worth over $1 trillion. While one–way remittances have monopolized the conversation, economist Davesh Kapur stresses that “social remittances— the flow of ideas” matter far more.  

America will remain India’s other center. Kitchen table conversations echo the tens of thousands of Indian Americans who have returned to the motherland to ply new skills, give back, and experience the excitement of living in a country abuzz with growth. While true, reality also paints a different picture. 2010 census data reveals that even with India’s rapid development and public blossoming over the past decade, Indians have been flocking to America at a record pace. The Indian population ballooned nearly 70% from 2000 to 2010 and, at 2.8 million, made up the third largest ethnic group in the America right below Filipinos and Chinese. Even California, long an entrepreneurial hotbed, saw its Indian population swell 68%. Aside from the usual metro suspects— Jackson Heights, Edison, Cambridge, Cerritos, Chicago’s northwest suburbs, and Santa Clara— Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Virginia showcased scorching 80%+ growth!  

That’s just the veneer. Indians boast a median household income of $90,429, making them the most well­–heeled ethnic group per capita in America. Today, more than 150 members grace the India Caucus of the House of Representatives. It was only in 2008 that droves of Indians amassed a coordinated effort, canvassing and lobbying President Bush and even, then senator, Obama to push through an historic nuclear deal. Across American campuses, you’ll find nearly 105,000 Indian students, more than from any other single country. They comprise 13% of graduate students at top universities. The catalogue of prominent Indians seating high places from cinema to C–suite to town hall is now too large to score. More interestingly— Indian Americans are increasingly shedding clichéd engineering and physician posts while taking new risks, mixing and matching, and adopting professions as choreographers, comedians, and culinary pioneers. Over 6% of Indian Americans in Chicago work in the arts, entertainment, and food industries.
What was once a one–way “brain drain” has evolved into, what Jagdish Bhagwati terms, a “brain exchange.” Each month I attend Subcontinental Drift, an open mic in New York City showcasing young South Asian American performers through storytelling, poetry, acoustic vocal, and stand–up comedy. Aside from the brimming talent, I’m more amazed and humbled by the smart, self–aware, and charismatic people behind it. Many of them have turned down high flying salaries for extended stints in India through organizations like Indicorps, sharing technical expertise on everything from elementary education and job training to health clinics and rural farming.

The most obvious draw for the cultural compass of a diasporic Indian is in renovating the Indo–Pak relationship. A global, stitched together fabric of Indians and Pakistanis abroad could leapfrog local political frictions and diplomatic animosities in shepherding peace, financing cross–border infrastructure, and kick–starting trade arrangements. The same goes for China. Spreading further, diasporic Indians can put muscle behind integrating India regionally with pluralist, diverse, democratic economies like Turkey and Indonesia. Diasporic India can hold a mirror to India and help the motherland look inward. Go to India today and you will still hear voices from Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Kerala, Punjab, or Uttar Pradesh uselessly measuring musical or moral superiority. After so effortlessly globalizing with the world, India has yet to fully globalize itself. India’s ability to seduce and cajole is indisputable. Unfortunately, its ability to engage has been timid and disappointing.

The social and political capital among diasporic Indians, particularly in America, has reached a tipping point. A first–of–its–kind South Asian Diaspora Convention just wrapped up in Singapore. The feeling’s tingly. The next diasporic act is about to unfold, one that moves beyond remittances and a series of detached, one–off arrangements to a more coherent, dynamic, and muscular engagement. Our new vocabulary will include more “diaspora bonds” and innovation exchanges. New noble ventures will sprout. For India, expect fresh ways for creatives and entrepreneurs to partner, NGOs, local businesses, and governments to align, and trade blocs like ASEAN, GCC, EU, and NAFTA to open up.

I wonder how my great grandmother, who recently passed away at 107, would interpret tomorrow’s world— an Indian identity in a global space, a global identity in an Indian space. Walking down 2nd Avenue past chatter and clinking glasses, wine and oyster bars, I sometimes imagine the earth her bare feet felt ambling a remote, dusty path in Kollegal more than a century ago.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Sphinx Bends Your Ear

“Forgive me sir, my pen… it does a strange trick. It will tell you all the secrets of my heart.” -Unknown


Just around the corner, around the steaming, clove–scented tea stalls and fly–pocked apricot pyramids lining Mandawi bazaar, Kabul’s largest open–air market, you’ll bump into chatter of Saad Mohseni, Afghanistan’s first media mogul. Well, not him per say, but one of his creations. Mohseni heads up Moby Group, an expanding media force that owns household Afghan names like Tolo TV, Arman Radio, and Afghan Scene magazine, among others. He is the maestro and muscle behind Farsi1, a satellite network that bundles and beams Malcolm in the Middle, Dharma and Greg, Oprah, 24, and How I Met Your Mother, as well as Turkish soaps like Bez Bebek and racy Latin American telenovelas like Eva Luna to Tehran and South Asia’s eager Farsi–speaking audience (Farsi was actually the official language of India’s courts until 1837). Empty calories, you might think. But, Mohseni takes pride in ruffling the Ayatollah’s feathers while plying a generation’s moral imagination.

The crown jewel is Tolo TV’s Afghan Star, an adaptation of American Idol now on its sixth season. An estimated one–third of Afghanistan’s people tune in each Thursday. When you think American, Coca Cola and Apple are the usual suspects. But, Idol may actually be America’s greatest export (the U.K.’s original Pop Idol never carried the same cache). Why? Afghan Star imbues a democratizing spirit that’s sorely lacking, bringing together Tajiks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras to compete on a single stage with their own voices. Equally, it’s a meritocracy. Lema Sahar, a Pashtun from Kandahar, became a finalist in 2008 by drawing millions of text messaged votes from Herat to Kunduz. The eighteen–year–old even campaigned the old fashioned way, knocking on doors and taping up flyers. In the same vein, Aydah al Jahani took home the grand prize in the UAE’s Million’s Poet, reciting traditional Bedouin Nabati poetry, navigating taboos of women and society. There’s an electricity in the air from Casablanca to Cairo to Kabul. Literally. Parag Khanna writes that in Turkey “when the mosque’s call to prayer sounds during a football match, restaurant patrons simply turn the television volume way up.” 

Today’s narrative, though, glamorizes this energy. It’s not about old media versus the “Twitter revolution” or Facebook graffiti on corrugated doors or Twitter–fed missile coordinates for NATO airstrikes in Libya or Women2Drive in Saudi Arabia or even the fact that Farsi is the second most popular language in the blogosphere. It’s true that social technologies have been indespensible. The April 6th Movement is real and organic. But, today’s banter has reduced them to glitter. Even Egyptian pro–democracy activist and software developer Alaa Abd Al Fattah quipped that the most widely used technologies in Tahrir were rocks and clubs.

The reality is far more delicious and basic. It’s about the fantastical liberation of having your own voice. It’s about how your voice, on ink, air, or byte, has permanence. It’s so taken–for–granted that for most of us it’s cheesy, power ballad–Home Alone cheesy. For a nation cast anew by voice, it’s an intoxicating feeling— knowing that what you say can never be taken back, that sliver of giddiness knowing you’ve turned the earth just the tiniest bit.

Democratic transformation typically conjures new laws and free and fair ballots. But, far richer and more enduring is a nation’s new, forming psychology. Think again of the conventionally “tough” reforms of a full–blown modern, liberal, market–based, pluralist democracy— multi–party elections, term limits, minority rights, transparency, trade liberalization, currency convertibility, inflation and deficit goals, privatization, land grant ease, capital market liberalization, effective tax collection, contract enforcement, modernized labor laws, and ease of doing business. Of course, the checklist is overwhelming, but in reality it might be the easiest part. The longer slog is the subtler task of transforming a nation’s imagination, it’s habits, civil interactions, professional practices, self–awareness, dialogue, empowerment, culture of transparency, and ideas of freedom, class, family, and future.

While economic reforms need to overcome short–term political frictions, renovating a country’s psyche requires careful marination for a generation or more. As with anything worth a damn, there ‘s no fast track, just time and self–toil, stumbles and leaps. America’s social apparatus, political institutions, and signature ethos of self–invention, have been relentlessly debated, cultivated, and curated, progressively and with little interference, for nearly 250 years. Even before 1776, America had a century’s practice with elections (though unfair), habeas corpus, and trial by jury, as well as an English bill of rights.  

Measuring the distance between narrative and reality sheds more light. Take India, for example, a poster child of successful democratic liberalization and soaring growth. Modern India was born in 1991 when it extinguished its “License Raj,” liberalized, and opened its doors to the world. But, only in the past few years has India begun to broadly manifest, as Anand Giridharadas puts it, “a psychological revolution, a revolution in expectations.” He catalogues the ideas shaping India— the subtle use of “sir” and “sahib,” fluidity of class, pulling away from the old senses of family, swiping of a credit card in place of stashing gold, and emerging “situational modernity.” And there’s still a long way to go.  

In Egypt, a voice entombed for four decades has come alive. The political breeze that swept the cobwebs and Mubarak out now leaves a vast desert reality of charting, excavating, and building a new country. Although Mubarak’s National Democratic Party has been dissolved and the notorious security police defanged, tourism has withered and investment has trucked out as quickly as it came in. From downtown Alexandria to Ramses Square, a mid–August–Sunday evening melancholy mixes with a Bosc pear–ferris wheel hope. The tour guide’s call has grown a bit gruffer.

But, Egypt’s media offers good news. Media is central to a robust civil society—that sturdy, formless mesh of daily life. It’s when the Red Cross, Republican National Convention, and Screen Actor’s Guild along with a craft beer collective, gay rights group, soccer club, and farmer’s market and Oprah’s book club, UCLA’s history department, and Brookings Institution gather in a room for coffee. It’s the buffer between you and the state. 

Stitching together Egypt’s strands of civil society, media will guide a new consciousness. Take a look. Under the gaze of the Sphinx you’ll find the world’s third largest film industry, right below Hollywood and Bollywood. Today, an unsteady political transition crawls along, but Egypts’s media, once a steady diet of dull, shackled, fabricated state gruel, has swiftly adopted a bold, new life. During the revolution in Cairo, as legions took to Tahrir Square, TV 1 panned over to an empty street. Today, newspapers like Al Masry and Al Ahram, as well as broadcasts on TV 1 and 25 TV voice true stories of military injustice and corruption for which they were jailed just one year ago. Egypt now boasts its own Jon Stewart, Bassem Youssef, poking fun at the media and letting the air out of a lifetime of political oppression.

The “demubarakization” of Egypt is well underway as his namesake (Mubarak is Arabic for “blessed”) and likeness are pulled from billboards, hospitals, libraries, bridges, public squares, metro stations, and street corners. 388 “Hosni Mubarak” schools will need to be renamed and textbooks rewritten. Today, newborn parties vie over premium political real estate while the Muslim Brotherhood splinters and a constitution is crafted. A vibrant debate spills out everywhere over uncertain sand. Life seems seems clumsy and uneven. The hope is that 80 million voices will cast a mythic February into a future of grace, dare, and measure. For now, roam the headlines at the café and cybercafé, turn on the TV, and type in your wireless password— they’re the binding, the eggs, in this new democratic confection. Sweet.