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'We should respect interfaith and pluralism of America'

May 21, 2010 00:54 IST

One of the most prominent of Indian immigrants in America, Subash Razdan has, along with his wife Raj, made America his home for more than 34 years. Among his many achievements are leading the effort to have a Mahatma Gandhi statute in Atlanta at the museum that honors Martin Luther King Jr., the highly influential activist who was inspired by the Mahatma.

An IIT graduate, Razdan has studied management at Georgia State University and is one of the top city officials in Atlanta. His wife Razdan, a scientist, has been running a program for desi senior citizens in Atlanta.

Arthur J Pais caught up with Subash Razdan. Excerpts:   

What are some of your most memorable experiences in America?

Meeting Coretta King (the widow of Martin Luther King Jr) and working with her to set up the Gandhi statue…. Getting the autograph of West Indian opening batsman Conrad Hunte when I was 7 years old in Delhi and then meeting him in Atlanta 20 years later and showing him the autograph… Receiving Khata from Dalai Lama after having the honor of introducing him at a religious symposium at Emory University when the Dalai Lama fondly played with my pony (hair) tail. Many people do not realize he can be very playful.

What was the reaction of the onlookers?

The same afternoon, people in the audience wanted to touch me so as to imbibe some of the blessings they thought I had been bestowed.

You have also been running a popular TV show called Namaste Bombay.

It is one of the most popular of Indian shows produced in America. Through the show, I came to know many Indian movie stars.  Presenting Amitabh Bachchan key to the Atlanta City on behalf of Atlanta Mayor was a big honor to me..
You have a very successful career; you have led strong community organizations and are a proud grandfather of two children.

But there must have quite a few difficult decisions you had to take.

There were many. Leaving behind a 7-month pregnant wife in India when I came to Georgia and then asking her to agree to a very unfair demand to leave behind our first child, Rahul with grandparents in Delhi before joining me. Later, I had to bring Rahul to join us in America and that meant taking him away from my parents after they had raised him for seven years in India.

And yet Rahul was not separated from his grandparents for long….

Few years after Rahul joined us in America, I was able to invite my parents to stay with us in Atlanta. But my father (Prithvi Nath Razdan, India's former Labour Commissioner) fell seriously ill a few years later. The decision to move him to a nursing home versus keeping him at home was yet another difficult decision.

You talk warmly of your parents, particularly of your father. What have you taken most from him?

He valued integrity and duty. He had held one of the highest government positions in the Labour Ministry as its Chief labor Commissioner. Many of the India's Industrial Disputes Acts and labor laws were drafted by my father.

You also talk about his retirement

When he retired he had very little saving. He had an ancestral house in Kashmir, but he had no savings to buy a house in Delhi. My wife and I were in the US as students but we had token savings that we sent to pay for the first installment of the flat near Greater Kailash, Delhi.

If there is something you have taken from your father that you are most proud of?
Fearlessness. I speak my mind and at times that gets me into trouble. But I will continue to do so, based of course on my knowledge of a situation.

Like what?

I have angered fundamentalists on both sides. Some Hindus across America were angry when I condemned the destruction of Babri Masjid. And some Muslims were angry too when I condemned Muslim fundamentalism in India and elsewhere. My wife got threats from some Muslims who said, "We know all about your husband and we know how to get him."

What was her response?

She said something like they (the threat-makers) should have to deal with her first before thinking of doing anything to her husband.    

Some things you look back at and chuckle…

On a lighter note, paying credit card bills on time! Quitting smoking and drinking so that I could be a role model for growing teenagers at home. Now that they have flown away to their own nests and with Ivy League credentials, I have gotten my freedom back to enjoy a few pegs of whiskey from time to time in our own empty nests. Nevertheless and thank God, I have been able to stay away from cigarettes for now over 25 years.

Today there are over 3 million people of Indian origin across America and in any city you get to know people who help the newcomers adjust to America. But 34 years ago there must have been just a few Indian families and students in Atlanta. What was the situation to you?

It was but natural to go through the cultural shock. I remember, at the end of the class, some of my classmates wanted to meet at the Library. I still, in my bellbottoms and carrying my brief case to classes, waited outside the Georgia State University Library. Least did I realize we were all to meet at the pub called Library. This was also the time when I thought Hamburger (around $0. 21 then) was made of ham. But there were many amusing moments, too.

What are some of the best life lessons that your wife and you have given your children?

The most important one: Money may buy all the comforts of life, but not necessarily happiness. Second lesson is that unfounded attitudes, perceptions, and stereotypes are often root of conflict and feed into a cycle of hostility, and these conflicts tend to shape daily interactions and relationships between different groups, especially different ethnic groups….ultimately compromising the progress of the human race. Therefore doors must always be left open for honest communications, dialogue and mutual agreement.

You have been highly influenced by Gandhi and King…

I remind my children of a quote by King that has influenced me a lot:  'We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies." I will be passing on this quote to my grandchildren, too.

What else do you tell your children about your American experience?

I would tell them that though it is so true we have come to America from every compass point but we have journeyed over a path plowed by the keels of American treasureship. So, we should not see each other as aliens, but allies, as kinsfolk with an inspiring future in the spirit of Kahlil Gibran's words:  I believe that you have inherited you're your forefathers an ancient dream, a song, a prophecy, which you can proudly lay as a gift of gratitude upon the lap of America.  

What are your children doing now?

We have two sons; Rahul and Rishi went  to Emory University for their undergraduate degrees, and then graduated with their medical degrees. Presently, Rahul is finishing his Fellowship at Yale in Interventional Radiology. Rishi is also following his brother's footsteps with interviews for his fellowship at Ivy Schools at Yale, Brown and Harvard. Rahul's wife, who is also a physician and is of Swedish origin, is getting ready to start her Fellowship in Allergy/Immunology in Nebraska. We are blessed with two adorable grand children Isabella Tamana Razdan and Rafael Prithvi Razdan.

What would you tell the older generation of Indian Americans?

It is time to hand over the baton to the younger generation. They are more than ready to play a meaningful role connecting India and the US and many of them have been doing it for over a decade. For those who are still active in the community, we should remind ourselves from time to time that banquets and other events to raise money for the politicians or the congressional luncheons should be taken seriously. They should not be driven by a desire for photo-op but with a mission to bring the American leaders and our community closer. Photo-op can be the cart ...but not the cart before the horse.

How about Indians who become American citizens and yet feel they are outsiders…

Those who have taken up US citizenship, should make an extra effort to assimilate with our new homes and where our hearths are....Unfortunately, we still have the tendency (though with all good intentions) to call India as our homeland..

What can community leaders do something about this?

The community leaders should set an example. We ought to know the difference of homeland versus land of origin...This does not mean we should forget our rich cultural and historical heritage. We need to respect diversity and interfaith and pluralism of America.. Likewise, we should not hesitate to defend our respective faiths if denigrated wantonly and baselessly by western academic Indologists.

Arthur J Pais