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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.