August 23, 2002


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Francois Gautier

Being Indian abroad

What is it to be an Indian abroad -- in the United States for instance? How much of yourself do you give to your American identity -- and how much space do you preserve for your Indian-ness? This what Indian expatriates should ask themselves today. Many second generation Indians whose parents settled in the US twenty or thirty years ago, have merged themselves totally in the American way of life, speak with an American accent, think American... and in the process forget all about their wonderful Indian culture...

What is it in the American way of life that fascinates so many Indians? The fast life? Right: fast is exciting; but Americans live so fast -- eat breakfast in their cars, gulp down meat and French fries, and often grow immensely fat. They also run the risk of getting ulcers and heart attacks by the age of 65. What else dazzles Indians in the American way of life? The lights? True, New York is a fascinating city, with its illuminated skyscrapers, its million of pulsating lights, its giant electronic billboards, its fancy bars, that one feels a kind of throbbing vitality entering as one walks the streets by night. But what a waste of energy, when the world is fast losing its sources of energy; and isn't this a kind of artificial vitality, that fades away when one wakes up in the morning, with a hangover and one has to face the reality of life?

What else? America's nature? No doubt, the United States boasts of some wonderful natural beauty and Americans have shown us what it means to plant trees and live in a green environment. But nature can also be an illusion here: a highway is never very far from the forest, with its thousands of cars pouring out millions of cubic feet of carbon dioxide, which annihilates natures' bounty, as the Los Angeles smog amply demonstrates. Besides, America is an unending suburban concrete jungle, with its boring repetition of mega stores, parking lots, and KFCs. When you have seen a city, you have seen them all.

What else? The 'quality' of American life: barbecue parties, beaches, tattoos, fun and frolic? Yes, except that one out of three American couples divorce within three years, one out of four Americans consults a psychiatrist for depression, bulimia, schizophrenia or plain boredom, and American children often indulge in shooting other children, just because they are exposed to so much violence...

Is this the legacy you want to bequeath to your children, O Indian brothers and sisters, who long for the American way of life? For this great brain drain that has been going for so long, does not affect only the ordinary middle and upper class 'secular' Indian, but also many good Hindus. They put their children in the best US universities and accept the fact that their children will settle in the American way of life and will probably never go back to India. True, their kids get heftier pay cheques in the US, better facilities, escape the Indian bureaucracy, corruption... But what are they going to bequeath to their own children in the long run: insecurity, violence, divorce, depression... Above all their offspring, unknowingly, will be afflicted by a loss of identity. They will not know, nor feel like their grandparents did, this natural space of Indian-ness, which automatically confers certain qualities. What is that Indian-ness?

First and foremost it is this belief: 'I accept you; I accept that you may be White or Black, Red or Yellow, Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim. I am even ready to go and worship in a church or a mosque, besides my temple. I accept that my Gods are avatars, incarnations of the Divine, but so is Jesus Christ, and also Buddha and even Mohammed.'

This an extraordinary statement and a marvellous instrument towards world peace, at a time when the two great monotheist religions of the world, Islam and Christianity still say: 'There is only one true God in the world -- mine -- and if you worship any other god, you are an infidel and a pagan and it is my right to convert you by any means, or even to kill you.'

The September 11 attacks are nothing but a result of that dangerous theorem. As a result, Indians adapt easily wherever they go, particularly in the West, as they are very open to Western culture. Of course, Indians also go to the other extreme: 'not only I accept you, but I am going to become exactly like you -- not even Whiter than the White: I am going to denigrate my own culture, spit on my religion, belittle my countrymen.' This is why so often in the US you can come across negative articles on India written by Indians -- nay by Hindus. The Gujarat massacres were actually a great opportunity for these Hindu haters, such as Pankaj Mishra, to come out full blast and prove to the world that India is a land of Hindu fundamentalists where nobody is safe, particularly the Muslims 'who are regularly victims of pogroms.'

Mishra conveniently forgot to mention that India is an extraordinary country of freedom, where all persecuted religious minorities in the world have found refuge over the centuries, whether Jews, Parsis, Syrian Christians, or today the Tibetans.

What else? 'I have inherited from my ancestors the tools to become a better man, whatever my religion, ethnicity and profession: a better Christian, a better Hindu, a better Muslim, carpenter, or CEO, IT engineer, or sailor.' What are these tools? Hata-yoga, India's gift to the world, which has been copied and imitated everywhere (although Time magazine did a story on yoga without mentioning the name 'India' once). What else? Meditation, this extraordinary technique of coming back to one's self, of settling the mind and the body, which is today practiced by millions around the world -- another bequest of India to humanity. Pranayama, the science of respiration, perfected by Indians for three millenniums. 'Does the breath have any religion?' asks Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, the founder of the Art of Living movement, which has spread today in 140 countries.

What first generations Indians in the States should ask themselves today is: 'How can I repay my debt to India'? After all not only did they get a nearly free education in India which was good enough for them to obtain well paid jobs in the US, but did they also not inherit that certain Indian-ness, which has been a great help to adapt to the American way of life? As for second, or third, or even fourth generations Indian Americans, what they need to tell themselves is: 'what can I do for my country'? 'In what way can I contribute to this great nation which is India, which is so maligned and sidelined in the United States'?

The first thing they can do is to counteract the highly unfair and biased press coverage which India gets in America by writing to editors, or challenging the shameful coverage of CNN (which depicts Vajpayee as an old feeble man, but gives hours of live retransmission of the recent Pope's visit to Canada), or canvassing their elected representatives.

Finally, because of the continuing confrontation between Islam and the United States (Iraq, Palestine, Pakistan etc), even though Mr Bush thinks that the problem will be over once he kills the elusive Bin Laden, Hindus in the US are going to come more and more under threat. It will not matter that they speak with a perfect Yankee accent and think of themselves as one hundred percent Americans -- they will be seen in the streets as 'coloured' Asians and could be mistaken as Afghanis or Saudis and targeted like the unfortunate Sikh after the September 11 attack.

The only solution for them would be that they start regrouping themselves under an 'Hindu American' banner. Not only will it rekindle in them an ancient beautiful and powerful identity, but also grant them protection, as it will quickly become known that Hindus in the US are upwardly mobile, Western friendly and themselves a target of Muslim fundamentalism. How will it be done? By the force of circumstances, probably, because left to themselves Hindus are too passive and selfish to do anything. Committed Hindus groups should also apply pressure on them, as the LTTE does on expatriate Tamils with funds and lobby.

Francois Gautier

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