In October 2007 Raja Sen visited Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s village in Punjab to find out how its residents, and relatives, feel about their oddest export. His report was published in India Abroad, a weekly newspaper published in the US and owned by Rediff.com.
With Jindal announcing his bid for the 2016 US presidential elections, becoming the first person of Indian-American heritage to run for that country's top post, we reproduce the article.
If a town is judged on its stomach, then meat-loving gourmands would have a blast in the tiny hamlet of Malerkotla in North Punjab. The town, one of the only Punjab areas with a Muslim majority -- and, historically, one of the only Punjab areas to steer completely clear of communal disharmony during the 1947 partition -- has dhabas scattered tantalisingly all over the landscape, pure vegetarian dal-roti joints rubbing shoulders with hardcore bakra-ya-murgi eateries, which surprisingly happen to be significantly cheaper. Red meat is all well and good, but where is the governor’s family?
Bobby Jindal, the newly elected Republican to take over gubernatorial duties in Louisiana this January, hails from Malerkotla, and in search of his extended family -- none of whom have yet migrated to the US -- one hits the small town hoping a mere mention of the name Jindal would be enough. It isn’t. Several eyebrows are raised, the role of a governor in the US is explained, and even grocery stores sharing the last name don’t have a clue.
Thankfully, it is one of the aforementioned dhabas that helps out. A friendly Sikh gentleman picking up tandoori rotis to go scratches his immaculately trimmed beard, whips out a cellphone. He listens to his blessed informant for a couple of seconds, then pauses and asks me, “This is the same guy who’s become a chief minister in America, right?” Indeed, and thus the difference in the two nations’ political hierarchy is summarised with extreme, instant clarity. In Punjabi spoken far too fast for the casual grabber-of-gist to understand, directions are given to Subhash Medicals, a chemist’s store owned by Bobby’s cousin.
Rajinder Kumar, 26, sits behind the counter and smiles knowingly at ‘yet another journalist.’ Bobby’s father Amar Jindal is Rajinder’s father’s uncle, “making Bobby my chacha,” he grins, bringing out a stack of newspaper clippings about Bobby and the local extended family. “We knew he’d win a month ago,” he says about Bobby’s governorship, before raving about the convoys of cameras and television vans swooping onto the sleepy town. “And all the politicians and the top police chiefs, the MPs and MLAs, everyone came to say congratulations.”
Rajinder’s father -- and Bobby’s cousin -- Subhash Jindal is a genial man, with quite an intimate knowledge of the differences in the voting systems and counting processes between the US and India. “We knew it a while back, and spent the last two days before the results were announced in a great state of anxiety. We had to plan a double celebration, you see, Dussehra along with this great news about our Bobby.” Subhash, who takes great pride in showing visiting cards from journalists as far flung as Associated Press-men from China, is rather close to Bobby’s father, Amar Jindal and says he can’t wait for him to visit Malerkotla.
On the outskirts of Malerkotla, en route to a town named Khanna -- yes, this indeed is the single point of origin for the common last name, its citizens boasting that family ties for every Khanna in the world can be traced back to this Punjab settlement -- is a grain cellar owned by Narinder Jindal, Subhash’s brother. Narinder, 42, speaks in strict Punjabi and, asked to record a congratulatory video message for his cousin on Rediff, gets most self-conscious. A pair of proud, gushing friends, never missing an opportunity to complete Narinder’s sentences, now hold forth and dictate him an appropriate congratulatory paragraph. “It’s important to get things right,” Narinder explains after before diligently reciting heartfelt yet twice-rehearsed felicitations for the camera, “Bobby’s in politics now and something I say might be taken in the wrong sense. I don’t want to make trouble for him.”
And what of young Piyush Jindal’s heading to Catholicism, of his watching The Brady Bunch on TV and rechristening himself Bobby? “It’s a different atmosphere out there, and he must have felt the need to adjust,” feels Rajinder. Narinder smiles and asks what difference it makes these days, mentioning the fact that his name is still officially Piyush, “which means he is still a Hindu at heart.” It isn’t the kind of sentiment the Republican might endorse himself, but Subhash has the most pragmatic view: ‘Sonia Gandhi also calls herself a Hindu when it comes to vote-collecting, so Piyush has become Bobby because it will help people in a foreign country accept him.”
There is no resentment towards Jindal and his conversion from his traditional elders, they say, but that could be due to their life in the super-secular Malerkotla, a community largely believed to be founded by mystic and seer Baba Sadruddin over 400 years ago. The Sufi leader, also known as Baba Haidar Shaikh, has a shrine in the town and residents living alongside it gush gladly about the complete lack of communal disharmony in the area, where Urdu and Punjabi are taught side by side in local schools.
Right now, the tranquil Malerkotla is planning a formal celebratory bash for Bobby on the 2nd of November, one where politicians and prominent citizens will honour the governor, father Amar Jindal emailing in a list of invitees he’d like to see there. “It’s all great right now,” explains Subhash, “but the real madness will begin when Bobby actually comes to Malerkotla. The city will go crazy.”
“Bobby’s had a tremendous rise to the top,” details Subhash. “He became a senator, and then became secretary for health. And at this young age, he’s already a governor. It’s a very big deal, and while he has already made us all very proud, all we can hope from this ambitious boy is that he continue at this rate and eventually be president.”
While settled in Malerkotla for a considerable while now, the Jindal clan actually hails from Khanpur, a small village eight kilometres away. Shamlal, Amar, Bachanlal and Dharampal JiIndal were all sons of a provision store owner who came to the city, driven by ambition. While Malerkotla might not seem a big city to most -- the town’s biggest landmark is the nondescript bus station -- it was enough to allow these village boys more room to grow. “They used to all live in one very big house, the whole family,” informs Rajinder, who has obviously grown up on the stories. And while eldest brother Shamlal -- father to Subhash and Narinder -- continued in the provisions business, going on to enter the grain market and start rice cellars, and Bachanlal and Dharampal started up chemist stores, Amar had other plans.
“He did his matriculation examinations from the biggest school in Malerkotla,” says Rajinder proudly, adding that Amar topped the examinations, with his record results still remaining unbeaten in the city. “He then went to the Guru Nanak Dev College in Ludhiana, and here also he topped college.” It was around then that Amar met bride-to-be Raj, a vice chancellor in Chandigarh University. The two got married in 1970, and migrated to the US in 1971, a few months before Bobby’s birth.
Curiously, none of the remaining family chose to follow their cousin to foreign shores. “Well, we have talked about it,” Rajinder admits, “but nothing has happened yet.” Subhash mentions the time difference, and the fact that uncle Amar is very busy, saying, “We all thought about it, but he would call from the US rarely, and keep telling us that life in America is too rushed and he doesn’t have time to settle properly. We thought about it, not for ourselves but for our children, but never got around to doing anything about it.” Narinder, who has never spoken to Bobby on the phone because the latter can’t speak Hindi or Punjabi, smiles and says there is work to be done here, and one would rather take care of the home, family and businesses here instead of venturing out.
There is, however, a new generation possibly more inspired by Jindal. Narinder’s garrulous buddies -- convinced that the governor of Louisiana will help immigrants get into America more easily -- urge him to talk about his aunt’s son Navratan, a life insurance agent who actually went to the US briefly, for a conference. Then there are mentions of Narinder’s brother Krishanlal, who has the brightest kids. “His daughter has done an MSc, and his son is doing an MBA. These are intelligent kids, they want to do more than we have done,” smiles Narinder. “They might follow Bobby.”
Image: Republican Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal, the first person of Indian origin to throw his hat into the US presidential race. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters.