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Global Ambitions

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April 2003
Global Ambitions

By MURALI KAMMA

'Who is an NRI?' asks Amitava Kumar in his engaging new memoir, Bombay-London-New York: A Literary Journey. Then, tongue-in-cheek, he gives his answer: ?The one who goes back ? with many suitcases instead of that single one that he or she had brought on the first journey.? Other amusing ? but dubious and unflattering ? definitions of the acronym include Nouveau Riche Indian, Never-Returning Indian, Nerve-Racking Indian and Non-Responsible Indian. As a widely recognized moniker, it has been put to several uses over the years, clouding over the original: Non Resident Indian. Despite the many jabs at the NRI label, it nevertheless commands a certain appeal as is evident in Indian matrimonial ads, for instance, where it is eagerly brandished as a qualification to attract the right mate.

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The attitude in India toward NRI?s seems to have undergone a sea change in recent years. In fact, one could argue that these days, especially in official India, the most accurate description of an NRI is Newly Respected Indian. Consider the Indian diaspora event (?Pravasi Bharatiya Divas?) that took place in Delhi this year from January 9 to 11. Appropriately, the inaugural date of the event was chosen to commemorate Mahatma Gandhi?s return to India from South Africa in 1910. The invitees had come from 63 countries, and in India it was showcased as the largest gathering ever of Non-Resident Indians and Persons of Indian Origin (PIO?s). Almost 2000 ?prominent Indian achievers? ? including two Nobel laureates (Amartya Sen and V. S. Naipaul) ? attended the event. Ten of them, which included one Indian-American (Rajat Gupta of McKinsey & Co.) and one Premier (Anerood Jugnauth of Mauritius), were honored by Prime Minister Vajpayee.

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This extraordinary gathering in India wouldn?t have been possible just a few years ago. So what brought about this change? One factor could be that the Indian diaspora ? now numbering 20 million spread out in 110 countries ? has reached a critical mass. Their collective income is estimated at $160 billion, about a third of India?s gross domestic product. Also, increasing globalization over the years has made these diverse people, with all their accomplishments, a highly visible and influential group. They frequently attract attention in the Indian media. In January, for example, India Today put out a special edition (?The Global Indian: Doing Us Proud?), featuring over a 100 highly successful expatriates. Significantly, Kalpana Chawla in a spacesuit was chosen for the cover photograph. In February, one day after the shuttle tragedy, the headline in Indian Express simply read: ?Kalpana?s Columbia Explodes.?

A mosaic of Indian

Anju Siraj of Alpharetta is one of these global Indians who are redefining what it means to be an Indian in an interconnected world. Not only was she born outside of India, and has never lived there, but she is a third generation expatriate. Yet, she is as Indian as can be! Steeped in Indian culture and traditions, she speaks her mother tongue (Gujarati) fluently, and watches Indian soap ?Kkusum? not unlike many of its hardcore fans from India itself. At the same time, she is quite comfortable with her East African and British identities as well.

Anju was born in Tanzania, spent her childhood in Uganda and Britain, and has lived in the U.S. for the past 17 years. Her grandparents had immigrated to East Africa from Gujarat. Her father became a very successful businessman in Uganda, but in 1972 suffered a devastating setback, when Idi Amin and his henchmen viciously turned on the local Asians, confiscated their assets and expelled 50,000 of them. However, the family did not experience any hostility from ordinary Africans. In fact, Anju says, ?A lot of them were crying when we left.? Her father had known and employed many locals, and they remained friendly. After this tragedy, Anju?s family had to start all over again in Britain.

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In the late 19th century, Indian laborers began arriving in East Africa to build an extensive railway line, which eventually linked Mombasa in Kenya to Lake Victoria in Uganda. It?s estimated that of the 16,000 people who worked on it at anytime, 15,000 were Indian laborers. Indian businessmen followed them and, over the years, became successful. A young Winston Churchill observed that the Indian trader was ?penetrating and maintaining himself in all sorts of places to which no white man would go.? Thomas Sowell, the economist, stated that the growing affluence of Indians created a backlash among European settlers and some African groups, which ?tended to be anti-Indian in outlook.? In Uganda, the Asian population dropped precipitously from a high of 96,000 in 1968 to a low of 1000 by the end of 1972.

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After the Asians left Uganda, the economy quickly deteriorated. In the following decades, some efforts were made to lure Indians back. Not surprisingly, given the high level of uncertainty that still existed, there were few takers. Mira Nair was one of the first filmmakers to tackle this sad saga of dislocation. In Mississippi Masala, Jai and Kinu ? along with their daughter ? have reestablished themselves in the U.S. after being expelled from Uganda. But Jai, who is still drawn to Uganda, cannot adjust to his transplanted life in Mississippi. With eager anticipation, he returns to reclaim his assets. However, in the closing scenes of the film, he painfully realizes that there can be no going back to a country that had so violently rejected him. In a poignant letter to his wife, he writes: ?Home is where the heart is, Kinu, and my heart is with you.? Incidentally, it was while making this film that Mira Nair met her husband, Mahmood, one of the few Indians still living in Uganda.

Anju?s family thrived in Britain, but it was not easy at first. Especially in the ?70s, she recalls, the rising prosperity of hardworking Asians caused some resentment among the local population. ?Skinheads were a problem,? she says. Fortunately, though, Britain has come a long way from those difficult days of ?Paki bashing? and Enoch Powell. Now it?s a tolerant and multicultural society, and many Asians play prominent roles in all walks of life. Indians, the largest minority group, are very well educated and have high levels of income. Karan Billimoria, the founder and CEO of Cobra Beer, recently said, ?If you have the grit and aspiration to succeed, there is no greater country to achieve your dreams than Great Britain.? However, given its somewhat insular nature, Britain is not a fully integrated society. ?There is no crude discrimination of the militant type, but it?s more subtle,? said Lord Bhikhu Parekh. ?It tends to hit you as you go higher up the hierarchy.?

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Anju, for one, is happier to be in the U.S., which she considers ?the best country to be in.? When asked about 9/11, she points out that there would have been a tremendous backlash anywhere else.

From the land of elephants to the land of Kangaroos

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For a long time, Australia, among the affluent countries where English is spoken, was not an attractive destination for Indian migrants. Restrictive immigration policies (until the ?70s) and limited economic opportunities made it less popular than North America or the U.K. Over the past several years, however, many Indian professionals and entrepreneurs have been going ?Down Under? in search of greener pastures. Seema Jain of Atlanta lived in Melbourne and Sydney for about 13 years. She found both cities agreeable and compared them favorably with San Francisco and Atlanta. But she pointed out that there were ?less growth prospects? for Indians in Australia. ?Here there are more successful Indians,? Seema said. ?In Australia, we were very westernized and my children had little contact with Indian culture.?

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As the CEO and Managing Director of CALTEX, Jeet Bindra is one of the very few Indians to reach the top in corporate Australia. But that?s because he went to Australia only after serving the company for 30 years in the U.S. In a recent interview, he said, ?Australia has not yet assimilated the minorities represented in the community into the workforce.? However, he also found ?the Indian-Australians a very isolated society, mostly clinging to their own.? Bindra added, ?We should find ways to contribute to all communities.?

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The first intrepid Indians to go to Australia were Sikhs, who went more than fifty years ago to work on banana plantations in southern Queensland. Paul Singh, a newer Punjabi immigrant, exemplifies the dynamic and cosmopolitan Indian who is helping to transform the Australian economy. About five years ago, this IT professional at Mills & Boon started a web portal called Indoaust, which is bringing together Indians from different parts of Australia. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, it?s the matrimonial ads that attract the most traffic to his website! In recent years, many Fiji Indians ? fleeing the racial turmoil on their island ? have settled in Australia, making it a more vibrant society.

Patterns of Indian migration and assimilation������������

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The Indian diaspora is unique in that it has great diversity. As a major group that?s widely distributed, it shares some traits with Jewish and Chinese diasporas. However, unlike the Jews, Indians follow numerous religious traditions; and unlike the Chinese, speak an array of languages. Increasingly, these days, English is the lingua franca that brings all Indians together. In terms of numbers, overseas Indians form the third largest migrant group (after the Chinese and the British) in the world. Another interesting feature of the Indian diaspora is that it can be divided into two broad categories. The first can be called the old diaspora, which comprises the descendants of migrants who left between the early 19th and the early 20th century. They worked mostly as indentured laborers on the plantations and in the mines of European and Asian colonies. One estimate puts their total number at 30 million.

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The second can be seen as the new diaspora, consisting of people who emigrated from India mainly for economic reasons. This process began in the middle of the 20th century and then accelerated over the last few decades. These migrants have usually settled in the English-speaking countries of the West, although a substantial number also started going to the Gulf region in the ?70s and the ?80s.

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For Indian migrants around the world, the rate of assimilation varies from country to country. It depends not only on their desire and ability to adapt, but also on how the host society treats them. In North America, for instance, Indians blend in smoothly for the most part. As multiethnic societies with a long history of immigration, the U.S. and Canada make the acculturation process easier. It helps that these well-educated Indian migrants, who already know English, tend to spread out in the population rather than form large ?Indiatowns?. In many countries, especially in the English-speaking West, one notices a dramatic increase in acculturation when it comes to the second generation. This is only to be expected.

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In some of these societies, intermarriage is an important indicator of assimilation. At Princeton University, not long ago, there was an analysis of the Indian intermarriage rates in the U.S. Among first-generation Indians in 1990, 13 percent of men and 6 percent of women were married to non-Indians. But when it came to second-generation Indians under thirty-five, about 50 percent of them had intermarried ? the 2000 Census will most likely show an even higher rate. In several other countries, however, theree?s not much integration with the native population. For example, in the Gulf region ? where migrants are regarded as guest workers ? Indians largely keep to themselves and their culture. Also, in many nations of the old diaspora, the intermarriage rate remains quite low.

Despite the impressive gains made by Indians living abroad, India still has a long way to go when it comes to harnessing their intellectual and economic power. A simple comparison with China is illuminating. The 55 million overseas Chinese invest an astonishing $60 billion in China, whereas the 20 million overseas Indians invest a mere $1 billion in India. This huge disparity cannot be attributed to income levels or emotional attachment. As many experts have shown, both groups are roughly comparable in these matters. On the other hand, India lags way behind in its attempts to attract the diaspora. Media analyst Anil Dharker has stated that the greater interest shown by overseas Chinese is ?not because their investment decisions are misty eyed; it?s because they know that they will get good returns for each dollar they put in.?

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Rajat Gupta has argued that India can achieve better results by creating an ?enabling environment? for its diaspora. He wrote: ?Policy makers and the Government of India can facilitate such an enabling environment by creating emigrant networks, facilitating communication and offering targeted incentives.? Whatever its shortcomings, the recent ?Pravasi Bharatiya Divas? was a move in the right direction. The government?s offer of dual citizenship to Indians in the affluent West was an important gesture. At the same time, it was hypocritical and shameful to leave out the other overseas Indians, who surely deserve the same treatment. On a more positive note, one should welcome the introduction of a compulsory insurance scheme for Indians in the Gulf region. Many of these people continue to be exploited, but their links with India remain strong. According to one estimate, these workers pump over $300 million into the Indian economy every year.

The tug of roots

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More and more overseas Indians are reconnecting with India these days. Vijay Singh, the champion golfer, has only a tenuous link with his ancestral land. Nevertheless, when he was in India late last year, he said: ?I?m an Indian and my roots are Indian. My nationality is Fijian, but I?m of Indian origin. Coming here is, in a sense, like coming home.?

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However, when it comes to the old diaspora, the nostalgic attachment to one?s roots shouldn?t be overstated. After the big event in Delhi, V. S. Naipaul ? in a characteristically blunt interview with The Times of India ? pointed out that ?families that went abroad 120 years ago have an ambiguous attitude towards India.? He added, ?India is full of shocks for us, yet we are attached to India.?

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Fatima Meer ? one of the ten honorees in India ? is a well-known activist in South Africa, and she has written an authorized biography of Nelson Mandela. ?We Indian South Africans have had to struggle hard to claim our South Africanness, and that is something we jealously guard,? she noted. ?We are not a diaspora of India.?

For a long time, the old diaspora had little or no contact with their land of origin and the new diaspora. But fortunately, due to a variety of reasons, this is changing fairly rapidly. V. S. Naipaul, who was born in Trinidad, made his first trip to India in the early ?60s. In his book, An Area of Darkness, there is a despairing account (?The Village of the Dubes?) of his visit to a place that his maternal grandfather had left as an indentured laborer more than sixty years before. He writes: ?In a year I had not learned acceptance. I had learned my separateness from India, and was content to be a colonial, without a past, without ancestors.?

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Contrast this with Naipaul?s reaction after he won the Nobel Prize in 2001. ?It is a great tribute to England, my home, and India, the home of my ancestors . . . .? he said. His comic masterpiece, A House for Mr. Biswas, is arguably the Great Indian Diaspora Novel. At the ?Pravasi Bharatiya Divas? in Delhi, a high-ranking politician suggested that this was the second Indian Nobel Prize for Literature (after Tagore). One could have laughed and thought this was an opportunistic appropriation by an establishment that had scorned him for so long. But Naipaul did not think so. ?I like it,? he remarked. ?I find it very moving.?

Fiji: A lesson in loyalties

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Many Indians of the old diaspora feel that India also has an ambiguous attitude toward them. Indolink, the widely used web portal, is an example of how Indians from all over the world are coming together. Recently, on a discussion forum, there was a typical posting that read: ?Fiji Indians want support, not hype.? The writer said that life for Fiji Indians is ?a constant struggle for economic, political and human rights.? He quoted Mahendra Chaudhry, the deposed Prime Minister, who?d said, ?We are looking for help from the land of our ancestors.?

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Kirtan Patel, originally from Fiji, is an attorney living in Atlanta. ?The damage has been done,? he said, reflecting on the racial polarization in Fiji. ?The divide is too big to be resolved now. Never the twain shall meet.?

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In 1987, after a weak coalition came to power with the backing of Fiji Indians, the government was ousted in a military coup. There was resentment against the Indians for their political gains. During this time, according to one account, ?Indian-owned business establishments were petrol-bombed and there were violent attacks on Indian communities.? Consequently, there was an exodus of over 80,000 Indians. Again, in 2000, the democratically elected government of Chaudhry was violently overthrown in a coup, led this time by a failed businessman. Since then, a lot more Indians have left. As Kirtan pointed out, prior to 1987, the Indian population in Fiji was around 49 to 47 percent. But now it?s lower than 42 percent. He added that Indians there have at least ?one family member outside the country,? making it easier for them to emigrate.

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Despite these political and economic setbacks, Fiji Indians retain a deep attachment to their Indian heritage, even though they have been separated from India for several generations. Apart from Hindi, which is known widely, South Indian languages such as Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam are also spoken. Indian cultural and religious traditions continue to play a large role. One heroic example of cultural preservation is a recent book entitled Dauka Puran (The Saga of the Simpleton). A Fijian author named Subramani wrote this long novel entirely in Bhojpuri Hindi. As Harish Trivedi of Delhi University said, it was ?an epic act of cultural retrieval of the life of Fijian Indians, a community much buffeted in the last decade or so by repeated racist rejection.?

Kirtan agreed that Fiji Indians should receive more support from India and other nations. ?The solution is fairness,? he noted. ?If nothing else, the plight of Indians there should be considered a humanitarian crisis.?

On a brighter note, he saw the recent ?Pravasi Bharatiya Divas? in Delhi as a great opportunity for making progress in many ways. He was one of the few locals to attend. For him, this ?very well-done effort? was a ?great welcome back.? Kirtan felt ?a sense of connection with the people? there, and he thought the event was ?promoting one big community and one big family.? Needless to say, these positive developments can only bode well for the future of India and its diaspora.���

The Indo-Caribbean Fusion

Anita, a Guyanese-American of Indian descent, lives and works in New York. She agrees that Indians of the old and new diasporas are coming together as never before. Differences exist but, increasingly, people are finding that they have a lot in common. Especially after 9/11, Anita believes, there has been a shift in their thinking. ?As a highly visible ?brown? minority in the U.S.,? she says, ?Indians feel a little vulnerable these days. They?ve realized that unity is strength.?

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For Anita, though, this shift came about a few years ago. On a quiet evening in September 1998, Rishi Maharaj ? the son of Trinidadian immigrants of Indian descent ? was walking in a mixed neighborhood, not far from his home in Queens, New York. It?s not known for certain what triggered the assault. But that day, according to a news report, Maharaj ?was beaten senseless with baseball bats by three young men who, the authorities said, wanted to attack an Indian.? This incident united the local Indians and galvanized them into action. Until then, as some residents admitted, there had been little contact between the two communities. ?There has not been much interaction between Indians from India and the Indo-Caribbean community over the years,? said the host of an Indo-Caribbean radio program.

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In spite of their long continental separation from each other, Indians of the diaspora discover similarities in unexpected ways. Amitava Kumar, who grew up in Bihar, now teaches at Pennsylvania State University. In the mid-1990s, he visited Trinidad to make a documentary film (Pure Chutney) on the descendants of Indian migrants. He was making a journey of discovery like the Naipaul brothers, but in the opposite direction. Kumar notes that in Trinidad he ?was a stranger in a familiar place.? In the capital, Port-of-Spain, one of the streets was named after his hometown ? Patna. He drank beer at Kumar Bar. Surprisingly, though, he found that the food was not like the food in restaurants in India. In fact, it was much like the food he used to eat as a child in rural Bihar!!

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In a way, this is not so strange because the ancestors of these Indians had migrated from the Bhojpuri belt of eastern Uttar Pradesh and western Bihar. What?s astonishing is how certain traditions have been preserved virtually intact over several generations. Other examples of cultural preservation include Diwali Nagar in Trinidad and Ganga Talab in Mauritius. Nevertheless, as observers have pointed out, there have been many crucial changes along the way. For instance, Indians in Trinidad mainly speak Creole or English rather than Hindi.

By borrowing and contributing freely, migrants have helped to create a hybrid culture. ?Curry? and ?roti? are household names in the Caribbean and an integral part of the cuisine. Popular singers such as Anand Yankaran and Sundar Popo have combined the musical traditions of India and the Caribbean to create highly original music. In chutney soca (or soul), for example, ?Indian-Trinidadian musicians combine Bhojpuri songs with calypso tempos and even hip-hop rhythms.?

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One very interesting aspect of this hybrid culture is how Hindus and Muslims acknowledge their common heritage. They marry each other and, frequently, celebrate all festivals. Occasionally, even in a place like Trinidad, there are chilling reminders of religious fundamentalism. Kumar describes how ?one Hindu activist, with links to the right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad in India, railed at length against secularism? and Muslims. Elsewhere in his memoir, Kumar writes that he?s sometimes ?disturbed that the ?soft? emotion of nostalgia in the diaspora is turned into the ?hard? emotion of fundamentalism.? But fortunately, these marginal people tend to be aberrant exceptions. For the most part, Indians of the diaspora have shown an ingenious ability to adapt.

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Sheila Dhar, the wife of a former Indian diplomat, a writer and classical singer, wrote, in a delightful piece called ?A Taste of British Guiana?, about her encounters with Indians in Guyana. She befriended a tomato vendor, memorably named Buddhoo, who invited her to his ?Hindoo church? during Janamashtami. The service at the church-like building, with separate pews for men and women, turned out to be a truly cross-cultural experience. Each of the women there held a thali, ?carrying the familiar offering of coconut, banana, red paste, flowers and a lighted oil lamp.? Then the larger-than-life punditji ? flamboyantly dressed in a wide-brimmed straw hat, gum boots and a flowing scarf ? swept in royally and walked up to the altar. Dhar goes on to give us a hilarious yet affectionate account of the sermon, which she calls ?the most original interpretation of the Gita ever offered to mankind.?

You can take an Indian out of India but you can?t take India out of an Indian!

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Ultimately, it?s in the realm of culture that global Indians have their strongest links with India and with each other. Amitav Ghosh trained as an anthropologist before he became an acclaimed novelist and nonfiction writer. The Glass Palace, his latest novel, has been described as ?an epic homage to the Indian diaspora, its loss and longing in the time of war and colonialism . . . .?

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In Ghosh?s recent collection of prose pieces, The Imam and the Indian, there is an illuminating essay entitled ?The Diaspora in Indian Culture.? He cogently argues that the links between India and its diaspora are not primarily political, economic or even religious. The relationship is mostly cultural. An important aspect of this culture, as Indologists and other scholars have shown, is that the symbolic representation (or the idea) of India is ?infinitely reproducible.? Therefore, as Ghosh writes, ?anybody anywhere who has even the most tenuous links with India is Indian; potentially a player within the culture.? In other words, as it?s said, you can take an Indian out of India but you can?t take India out of an Indian!

Rajiv Desai, the founder and CEO of 3Di Systems, has lived in the U.S. for the last 20 years. He probably summed it up best for a lot of Indians living abroad. ?My cultural roots are in India . . . so I always feel the need to be connected,? he said. ?I love the sights, the smells, the sound, the feeling of India . . . . But when the plane lands in Los Angeles, I am against the backrest of the seat ? completely relaxed. I get the unmistakable feeling of reaching home.?


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