Saturday, April 21, 2007

Get out of Jackson Heights

The litmus test for acceptability in a media driven society like the United States is how frequently you can make it on television. Everyone knows — you’re somebody as long as you are on TV! So when Sanjaya Malakar, a good American boy of Indian origin, made it to national headlines via American Idol, the question was invariably asked: are Indians finally making it to the American cultural mainstream?

Fame is a measure of success in the US, and to be sure, the Indian diaspora is already visible. Politician Bobby Jindal and hotelier Sant Chatwal are not the only players. Bhangra, yoga, Hinduism, butter chicken have all made their mark. Wall Street is filled with young Indian-American bankers and traders. Silicon Valley has India written all over it. CNN has Indian anchors. But at the same time, the majority of the Indian community in the US is quite happy to lead quiet lives in the suburbs, living in little bubbles, totally unaware of the goldmine they are sitting on. And that goldmine? A post-industrialist capitalist economy that uses culture to fuel itself.

Sanjaya Malakar does not symbolise the acceptance of the Indian in America, but instead, represents the acceptance of America by an Indian. He jumped right into the mainstream — the biggest television show in the country that led to his face becoming as familiar as Paris Hilton’s, and quite predictably, his picture alone sold thousands of newspapers and magazines. And that’s the phenomenon that is the American cultural circus; people are rewarded for making an effort to achieve their goals. The Malakar episode showed millions of Indian-Americans that they too will be accepted if they make the effort to join the mainstream. Simran Sethi’s success as host of the American television show, Ethical Markets, and her environmental website, Treehugger, which led to Vanity Fair profiling her in their 2007 Green Issue, proves just this.

There are, of course, other Indians who are already famous by marketing their unique brand of ‘Indian-ness’. Mira Nair, Deepak Chopra, Aishwarya Rai have all made inroads on the US cultural stage.

Unfortunately, the majority of the 3 million odd Indian diaspora has not yet taken advantage of the free media market, and as a result, has not influenced American culture to its maximum capacity. The one Indian, before Malakar that is, who was a household name was Apu from The Simpsons. That stereotype has partly changed. Indians now appear mostly as doctors and extras on screen. In contrast, African-Americans are cast as leads in movies and their music — from rock, blues to rap — has influenced American society and profited off it.

What keeps large sections of the Indian diaspora from fully integrating into the American mainstream is common to many multicultural countries and communities — the fear of losing their unique identity. Many of the immigrants arrived in America decades ago, and in order to preserve a sense of history and belonging, have clung to their Indian roots. As a result, Jackson Heights, right outside New York, remains a mini-India, complete with jalebi stands and bangle shops, and Indian-American teenagers diligently join desi groups on college campuses and work hard for bhangra competitions and Bollywood nights.

However, the entire idea behind multiculturalism is that a country is ready to open up new space for additional cultures. Instead, Indians fall prey to defining themselves by their consumption, a concept that acclaimed French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu also explored. He found that segments of consumers are targeted to create particular kinds of desires so that they grow into expressing aspects of their identity through their consumption. And so, the diaspora falls victim to itself.

But the enterprising Indians who have made the transition to the cultural mainstream remind us that Indians do not need to define themselves in a uni-dimensional way. This polarised sense of tradition needs to be loosened. A free economy does not just imply movement of goods, but also people, ideas and culture. And just as the African-Americans have done, and the Latinos are in the process of, Indians too need to make their mark in the cultural churning of America. In fact, this years Oscar’s was talked about more for the fact that nominees had been more ethnically diverse than ever before. This was a result of multiculturalism, and on closer inspection, a victory for the Latinos. As Jawaharlal Nehru said in 1950, “There is no culture in the world which is absolutely pristine, pure and unaffected by any other culture.”

We live in a time when Americans are both impressed and intrigued by India. The world’s largest democracy, we are not only secular but have a booming economy. There is tremendous potential and demand for Indians to market their USP — their Indian-ness — to America. Just ask Kal Penn. And Gurinder Chadha. And Anita Desai. Not only does the American melting pot regularly make space for others, their commercial culture practically demands that the Indian diaspora also throw their hat in the ring. It might be time to change the traditional mindset — doctors, engineers and bankers might be respectable jobs, but actors, musicians and other media related careers are both lucrative and enjoyable!

So Malakar may not be indicative of a paradigm shift — but he is certainly a landmark. Undoubtedly, his success will encourage many other Indian-American’s to leave suburbia and try their luck in the big bad world. It pays to be on TV. After all, there is no business like show business!


IR said...

you have to define indianess first , a techie from andhra might not dance to bhangra beats and vice versa for someone from up north , culturally there is no one india.

what is however common among us indians is our spirit,middle class values hard work ,
enggg. mba dr lawyer,(journalist too !) and that is being exported world over.
It was the "IT" industry which got india into focus and not bollywood,

cant imagine casucians dancing too daler mehndi :)

The Dude said...

You know, some of the things you mentioned:
"Bhangra, yoga, Hinduism, butter chicken have all made their mark. Wall Street is filled with young Indian-American bankers and traders. Silicon Valley has India written all over it."
All these things are not new, if you think about it, most of the them have been slowly becoming a part of US culture since maybe the 60s at least in one form or another... in fact most of em are now generic concepts.
The real problem that you almost nailed but just slid past is that the people who really GO to america (not visitor types like me!) would be the NRI types who either completely turn american or start to live in an india that hasnt existed for 50 years and create the jackson heights of the world...
the remaining ones are the ones who have no money and no prospects and want to just make money and become the cabbie and 'quickie mart' stereotypes!
Those that do make a good place for themselves also mostly tend to follow the stereotypes and the typical career path: business, engineering, medicine, maybe the occassional lawyer or such, but nothing that contributes enough to the cultural whirlwind that is the US today (and has been for some time)...
Ok Im gonna stop right here, otherwise I never will...

p.s: to the above comment - dude they would bhangra to daler till their balls dropped if you handled it right, thats a guarantee!

Anonymous said...

very maturely written article. i started reading with disbelief and scepticisim. but theres nothing i could disagree with and there are a number of very insightful observations you have made about the peculiar position of being an india in america. i guess peoples do tend to get trapped in cultural bubbles when they feel a threat to or crisis of identity and cling to anything that defines thier "separatedness". that explains overzealous nri "patriots". i guess now american indians are a lot more secure in thier identities to gradually start venturing into the mainstream. insightful of you to identify sanjaya as a representation of this shift. you perhaps have a historian's knack of detecing order in the seeming chaos and randomness of human events. i saw sanjaya as a wannabe who was lucky to get some time in the limelight and had something that clicked with the audience. the smile perhaps.

[backspace] said...

10 on 10 ...