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We've come a long way, baby

Last updated on: July 31, 2013 21:26 IST

We've come a long way, baby

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Jeopardy! Champion of Champions Vijay Balse reflects on how far the Indian-American community has come since his days as a grad student nearly 30 years ago.

It was August of 1985, and I was waiting in a departure lounge of Bombay’s international airport, on my way to Madison, Wisconsin, via Paris and then Chicago. I had gotten some information about graduate student housing in Madison, but had no real plan about what to do upon reaching my destination.

Strange as it may seem, life does proceed often on the basis of a series of random and unpredictable events.

I turned to the person sitting next to me -- who also appeared to be going to the US for graduate studies -- and asked him where he was headed. He answered, “Wis Mad,” which, of course, stood for the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and I was glad to make the acquaintance of Nilkanth Phadnis.

On the way out of immigration at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, we happened to run into Mani 'MVS' Iyer, a colleague of Nilkanth’s at IIT–Madras, and found out that he would be received at Madison by a friend, Sriram Rajaraman.

MVS, Nilkanth and I ended up staying for a few days at the apartment of Sriram and his roommate, Ganesh Jayaraman, before finding an apartment for ourselves with a fourth roommate, Jayant Haritsa.

I will always be grateful to Sriram and Ganesh for doing their part in making my first few days in a new place a very pleasant experience. In subsequent years, I was happy to emulate their hospitality by opening my doors to graduate students newly arrived from India and in need of orientation.

Living in Madison was, for me, a great way of easing into American culture after having spent all of my life up to that point in India.

I met -- and became friends with -- students from countries all over the globe, sampled all sorts of international music, films, and cuisine, and nestled in the comfortable embrace of an enlightened community open to a variety of viewpoints.

Incidentally, after having gotten used to the Midwestern accents of most of the Americans I met in Madison during my first few months there, I ran into a gentleman whose accent I couldn’t quite place, and asked him which country he was from. His response? “Well, I am from Brooklyn.”

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Image: A pedestrian makes their way on a path in Madison, Wisconsin on the campus the University of Wisconsin-Madison a day after a record snow fall. (Inset) Vijay Balse
Photographs: Andy Manis/Getty Images, (inset) Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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In November of 2009, I was fortunate -- having tried out six times over a period of 16 years -- to receive an invitation to appear on the syndicated television quiz show Jeopardy! in March of 2010.

I asked to be introduced by Johnny Gilbert, the announcer, as a chemical engineer originally from Bombay, India, as a way of showing my appreciation for my origins.

My success on the show made a lot of people proud of my achievements, and I was gratified to receive congratulations as well as encouragement from complete strangers -- Indians as well as Americans -- who had located me in the telephone directory and wanted to express how happy they were for me.

When I qualified for the 2010 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions in May of 2010, I asked to be introduced as a chemical engineer from Chatham, New Jersey, in a symmetrical show of appreciation for my current hometown.

If someone were to ask me what I consider myself, nationality-wise, I would respond that I am an Indian American who is proud to embrace the cultures of both India, where I was born and raised, and the US, which has been my home now for nearly three decades.

I have been blessed to experience life in two quite different cultures, which has given me the ability not only to better appreciate both, but also to take the best learnings from each as a guide to how to live my life. And I wish everyone would be so lucky.

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Image: Vijay Balse receiving the India Abroad Award for Special Achievement 2010
Photographs: Paresh Gandhi/Rediff.com

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My wife Jayshree and I were attending the arangetram -- literally 'ascending the stage' in Tamil -- of the daughter of one of my undergraduate classmates, Abhay Borkar, last weekend.

We drove to our destination by way of Iselin, New Jersey, and were pleasantly surprised to notice that a business district there is named India Square.

The name change was apparently made a few days before India’s Independence Day, August 15th, back in 2011, in fitting honor of the economic turnaround brought to the area by its many Indian-American-owned commercial enterprises.

Most of the attendees at the arangetram were dressed in their best Indian attire, and the dinner menu -- which included Bhindi Masala, Filter Coffee, Khaman Dhokla, Punjabi Samosa, Surti Undhiyu, and so on -- made it difficult for me to remember that I was in North Brunswick, New Jersey, and not Mumbai, India

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Image: Vijay Balse at the television quiz show Jeopardy!
Photographs: Screen grab from Jeopardy

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Back then, the closest I could come to an Indian culinary experience was eating a curry dish offered at a Nepali food cart on the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus. And a trip to India entailed a three-hour bus ride to Chicago and a two-stage flight to Bombay by way of Europe. Now, all I need to do is get on a plane at Newark and get off the plane in Mumbai just fifteen or so hours later.

While some may lament the spread of Western influences to India, I, for one, am thrilled that the accessibility of things Indian in the US has become so ubiquitous.

In the metropolitan New York area, one is just a short drive away from being able to indulge in all the sorts of activities -- such as eating at a restaurant, grocery shopping, purchasing a music CD, or renting a DVD movie -- that one might want to participate in back in India.

As globalisation makes it more and more difficult to figure out what part of a person’s upbringing in, say, Mumbai is attributable to Indian traditions, and what part to the West, one might ask the question, “What does it mean to be Indian?”

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Image: Vijay Balse at the television quiz show Jeopardy!
Photographs: Screen grab from Jeopardy

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I would argue that the cultural aspects of life in India -- be they cinematographic, culinary, musical, sartorial, or terpsichorean -- are what distinguishes us Indians and Indian Americans from other national identities, and are the one constant in a rapidly changing world on its way to global homogenisation.

Given the constraints imposed by modern life, I cannot make it back to India more often than, say, once in every two years. But, having experienced all that India has to offer so close to home and in such variety, I cannot say that I miss being in India much, other than not being able to see my relatives and friends more often.

An old saying goes, 'Home is where the heart is.' Perhaps it should be modified to, 'Home is where the art is.'?

Vijay Balse, who has a PhD in chemical engineering and won the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions in 2010, is one of more than half a million Indian Americans who make metropolitan New York their 'home away from home.' Dr Balse won the India Abroad Award for Special Achievement 2010.


Image: Vijay Balse at the television quiz show Jeopardy!
Photographs: Screen grab from Jeopardy

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