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The ‘Oh-Ohs’: An Indian-American Decade

January 2005
The ‘Oh-Ohs’: An Indian-American Decade

By Murali Kamma

In March 2004, a timely article in Newsweek captured the growing prominence of South Asian Americans. Talking about this community, it pointed out that "they've changed the way we eat, dress, work and play." No longer are Indian influences in the American mainstream limited to yoga, meditation and gurus clad in loincloth. No longer are Indian-Americans just caricatures on the periphery of American consciousness. Instead, increasingly, they're now engaged in quintessential American quests such as Hollywood blockbusters and NASA space missions. And although currently all the attention concerning India and Indian-Americans seems to be centered around the weighty issue of outsourcing, as the Newsweek article noted, "India has also been exporting tremendous talent to this country. Young South Asians are transforming America's cultural landscape, setting the pace in business, the arts and media as well as the traditional fields favored by their parents' generation, medicine and technology."

These positive developments, hopefully, signal the proverbial "coming of age" of Indian-Americans. Having reached the approximate midpoint of the first decade in this century, it's perhaps quite reasonable to think that the Oh-Ohs (one of the more common descriptive that is starting to take hold, to describe the current decade) ushered in a bright new era for Indian-Americans.

First and foremost, of course, the transformation can be seen as a tribute to this nation, which has itself undergone dramatic change over the last two generations. In fact, the current year marks the 40th anniversary of a landmark immigration legislation that permanently abolished the national origin quota system and gave emphasis to needed skills in the U.S. This change in law essentially thrust open the door to qualified migrants from India and other Asian countries.

To appreciate the significance of this abrupt shift in policy, one can point out that between 1948 (the year following India's independence) and 1965 (when the INS Act was amended) only about 6400 Indians came to the States. Over the following decade, in contrast, that number rose sharply to more than a 100,000, with an astonishing 83 percent of these new migrants belonging to the professional and technical category. One study mentions that they included around 25,000 physicians, 40,000 engineers, and 20,000 scientists who already had doctoral degrees.

After the 21st century dawned, the 2000 U.S. census data revealed some startling facts about the fast-changing Indian-American population. In the decade leading up to the new century, it grew by almost 106 percent and more than doubled in size to reach 1.7 million. After the Chinese and Filipinos, Indian-Americans are now the third largest Asian community in the nation. It has been shown that a major reason for this explosive growth was the higher quota for H-1B visas, which attracted hordes of IT workers from India. Every year during the 1990s, reportedly, about 30,000 to 45,000 of these people became permanent residents. At the same time, relatives of earlier immigrants continued to move here in large numbers. In 1991, for instance, an estimated 44,000 Indians (or 80% of the total number) who came to the U.S. were in this category.���

So it's easy to see how, within a short span of time, Indian-Americans have become a more visible and influential group, although they're still a tiny minority when compared to some other communities. According to a report by the Migration Policy Institute, the foreign-born from India make up the third largest immigrant group in the U.S. "In addition to a large percent change, Georgia was also among the 10 states with the largest numeric increases in their Indian immigrant populations between 1990 and 2000," the report adds. Yet, in the U.S., the foreign-born from India constitute less than 1 percent of the total population.

Indian-Americans also form one of the wealthiest and most accomplished ethnic groups in the U.S. As the Los Angeles Times put it last month, "Indian-Americans have surged forward as the most successful Asian minority in the United States, reporting top levels of income, education, professional job status and English-language ability, even though three-fourths were foreign-born . . . " Their net buying power is $20 billion. A recently updated statistic indicates that their median family income ($70,708) is much higher than the national average. Around 64 percent have at least a bachelor's degree, and more than 5000 Indian-Americans work in academia. Not long ago, according to a study done at the University of California at Berkley, roughly 300,000 IT workers in Silicon Valley were Indian-Americans, and they've been responsible for more than 15 percent of the start-up companies. Also, it's been noted, a third of the engineers working there are of Indian descent while 7 percent of the firms are headed by Indian-American CEOs. Vinay Lal, a professor at UCLA, has been quoted as saying that 20 percent or more of the employees in the Valley are Indian-Americans.

Given this extraordinary progress, it's probably correct to think that a confluence of factors has brought them to this interesting moment in the first decade of the 21st century. Many immigrants who came here in the 60s and 70s are reaching or have already reached the peaks in their professional lives. Meanwhile, a sizeable number of second-generation Indian-Americans have come of age and they're making their own contributions in diverse ways.

One should also mention the continuing impact of students, who have been coming to the U.S. in a steady stream since the 60s. After completing their higher studies, a number of them get jobs here and become permanent residents. Indians now make up 14 percent of the total foreign student population in the U.S. (13 percent in Georgia), but the overall number of international students continues to drop. In 2003-4, for the third year in a row, India sent the most number of students to this country. The total now is almost 79,800, which shows that it has more than doubled over the last decade.

It should be stressed that there is no sense of triumphalism in this overview; instead, it can be seen as a quietly positive celebration of both Indian-American accomplishments and the country that made them possible. As commentators have pointed out, the achievements have to be viewed in the proper context. In The Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad writes: "Those attainments are not caused by natural or cultural selection; rather, they are the result of state selection whereby the U.S. state, through the special-skills provisions in the 1965 Immigration Act, fundamentally reconfigured the demography of South Asian America. This skewed demography is only now being corrected as nonprofessionals migrate to join families, as economic and/or political refugees; as workers in transportation, lodging, and other trades; and as small businessmen (running shops, motels, and so on)."

The community is much more diverse now due to the changing pattern of migration over time. It's an open secret that there is rising poverty among elderly immigrants and single-parent households headed by females. According to the Indian American Center for Political Awareness, the Welfare Reform Bill of 1996 has had an adverse impact on these immigrants.

Nevertheless, despite the challenges, Indian-Americans as a community have much to be proud of in an unchauvinistic way. What follows, then, is a selective recapitulation of notable accomplishments in this decade so far, with a greater emphasis on the year that just ended. Given that it's a representative rather than comprehensive survey, a caveat is that any omissions ? including glaring ones ? should be seen as unintentional.

Highlights of the Oh-Ohs

Since the Newsweek article referred to earlier names twenty movers and shakers from the South Asian American community, it would be helpful to use that list as a template while exploring Indian-American success in more detail. Sabeer Bhatia, the Hotmail cofounder who became the "Indian Bill Gates" after he sold his company to Microsoft, has been included in the line-up; but one can easily add other big names from the IT field. The two Vinods come to mind as good examples. Vinod Dham designed the Pentium chip widely used in computers, and Vinod Khosla has been ranked the number 2 venture capitalist in the world. It's not just corporate bigwigs, however, who draw attention. Small business owners like Bharat Desai also manage to gain a high profile. His Michigan-based Syntel was recently named the richest small business in the U.S. by Fortune Small Business magazine.���

What's fascinating about some of these entrepreneurs and innovators is that they've turned into large-hearted philanthropists. Perhaps few of them are more committed than Abraham George, who has just come out with a widely praised book called India Untouched: The Forgotten Face of Rural Poverty. After making millions from the sale of his software company in the U.S., he returned to India and spent most of it on various noteworthy projects, which include a fully equipped, well-regarded residential school for impoverished Dalit children. George continues to spend more than a $1 million of his money every year, and to raise additional funds he has even managed to cultivate bananas near Bangalore with the help of Israeli expertise!

The list also has lesser-known Indian-Americans like Mitesh Shah, an Atlanta-based hotelier who, as one of the up-and-coming stars in the industry, is at the helm of a nationwide chain of 62 hotels. He received the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA) Award for excellence in 2002. Consultant Stanley Turkel notes in Lodging Hospitality magazine that the more than 17,000 hotels (exceeding 1 million rooms) acquired by the AAHOA over the last 25 years have a combined market value of $38 billion, making Indian-Americans the most dominant ethnic group in this industry. "This represents more than 50 percent of the economy lodging properties in the U.S. and 37 percent of all hotel properties," he adds. "If you bear in mind that Indian-Americans constitute less than 1 percent of America's population, the achievement appears extraordinary."

Then there is Flyod Cardoz, co-owner and executive chef of Tabla in New York, where he has created a buzz with his inventive, Goan-inspired cuisine. Rekha Malhotra (aka DJ Rekha) has made waves as a DJ who popularized "bhangra basement" parties in New York and elsewhere. Last year she took part in a multimedia show called TransMetropolitan, which included an eclectic group of performers like Vijay Iyer, who'd won the reputed Alpert Award in the Arts in 2003. As a composer and jazz pianist who has played with Ravi Coltrane and Steve Coleman, Iyer has shown that Indian-American musicians can appeal to a wide range of people.

Zubin Mehta is a household name in the world of classical music, but the talent in the family runs much deeper. In 2000, his brother Zarin took over as the executive director of the esteemed New York Philharmonic, the oldest orchestra in the nation. Their father was the founder and conductor of the Bombay Philharmonic, and their cousin Bejun is one of the few well-known countertenors performing today. Unsurprisingly, Bejun Mehta's parents are also professional musicians. Salman Rushdie made an unexpected foray into this world when his book, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, written during the fatwa years, recently inspired an opera by Charles Wuorinen.

The Newsweek list includes diverse figures such as Sree Sreenivasan (a journalism professor and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association), Dinesh D'Souza (a prominent neoconservative writer), Anand Jon (a fashion designer), and Kamala Harris (a leading prosecutor). Another notable name is Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon and professor at Harvard Medical School who is also a staff writer at The New Yorker. Like the trailblazing Abraham Verghese, Gawande is another doctor-cum-author who has been able to produce quality writing that wins high accolades. His book, Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2002. Incidentally, one study found that 12 percent of physicians in this country are Indian-Americans.

Indian-Americans belong not just to the first and second generations, but also to what one may call the in-between generation. This includes people ? such as authors Suketu Mehta and Sanjay Nigam ? who spent their formative years in both India and the U.S. Mehta's recent book, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, has been described as a memorable debut in nonfiction by an Indian-American writer. Like Verghese and Gawande, Nigam also studied medicine, but unlike them, he only writes fiction.���

In other occupations, too, there are people who have been able to successfully pursue writing on the side ? Akhil Sharma and Manil Suri being two good examples in this decade. Sharma, an investment banker, won the 2001 PEN/Hemmingway Award for An Obedient Father, his debut novel. Manil Suri, a professor of mathematics, drew wide attention with his novel, The Death of Vishnu, which is the first in a planned trilogy that will include The Life of Shiva and The Birth of Brahma. Last year he was one of the three Indian-American recipients of the coveted Guggenheim Fellowship. The other two were Kannan Krishnan, a professor of materials science, and Vijay Seshadri, a poet.

When Raghuram Rajan became the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund in 2003, it was a big step forward for Indian-Americans. Time magazine, in one of its issues last month, selected Balaji Krishnamurthy as one of the top 25 business mavens who are "setting the global standards for management, ethics, marketing and innovation." This Indian-American CEO of Planar Systems in Oregon designed an inverted bonus system that starts with the employees in the lower ranks and then moves up to the management level. His success has generated much interest.

Second-generation South Asian Americans are ? like earlier immigrants ? pursuing careers in science, technology, finance and medicine, but in rising numbers, they're also branching out into less conventional professions in the arts. This, of course, should come as no surprise. Expatriate writers have been attracting readers for years in this country, and now the spotlight is also on the second generation, especially after Jhumpa Lahiri bagged the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2000. Even more noticeably, there has been a surge of South Asian talent in the American entertainment business. To be sure, a handful of expatriate filmmakers like Ismail Merchant and Mira Nair have already made their mark in mainstream cinema.

What's different now is that, increasingly, Indian-Americans who largely grew up in this country are being applauded for their gifts. Perhaps nobody epitomizes this trend better than M. Night Shyamalan, who stormed into the big league at the Oscars in 2000 after The Sixth Sense, his breakthrough movie, won six Academy Award nominations and also became a mega hit. His other films this decade, though varying in success, have kept him in the limelight and at the forefront of a South Asian American vanguard in Hollywood. It's interesting to note that Shyamalan and Jay Chandrasekar, another mainstream filmmaker, are the sons of immigrant physicians.

Last year was, in some ways, a path breaking year for desis in show business. The opening of Bombay Dreams on Broadway was a major event, and although the musical has now closed, it did showcase the talents of young Indian-Americans such as Manu Narayan and Anjali Bhimani in the theatrical world. This could well become a trend, since Mira Nair is reportedly planning to bring a $10 million production of Monsoon Wedding to Broadway. One of the more important shifts in 2004 was Kal Penn's starring role in Harry and Kumar Go to White Castle. For the first time ever, an Indian-American plays a lead role (John Cho is the co-star) in a widely released film from a Hollywood studio. The success of this comedy, with its non-stereotypical view of Asian Americans, bodes well for the future, particularly for the growing number of second-generation actors who are trying to break into mainstream cinema.

At the same time, the Indo-American Indie scene seems to be thriving, and one measure of its increasing popularity was the recently held First NRI TV Film Awards 2004. The more established South Asian International Film Festival continues to gain a higher profile, and at last year's venue, 38 films dealing with the subcontinent were screened. Indian-Americans are also gaining ground in TV land, although they still have a long way to go. Atlanta-raised Sonia Nikore, VP of casting for NBC primetime television, can be mentioned as a notable achiever. When it comes to acting, two Indo-Britons who now live here ? Parminder Nagra and Naveen Andrews ? have received favorable reviews for their roles in ER and Lost, respectively.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the high-end art market, Indian paintings are attracting strong bidding from connoisseurs. A fine example from 2004 was the sale of Syed Haider Raza's ?Rajputana' for a record $220,300 at Christie's, the famous auction house in New York.

One of the most haunting images of 2003 was the sudden explosion of the Columbia space shuttle, which to many horrified viewers seemed like a tragic replay of the Challenger disaster in 1986. Seven astronauts perished as before, but the big difference this time was that they'd already completed their mission. Kalpana Chawla, the first woman from the subcontinent to enter space, had been on the doomed shuttle, making the accident especially poignant for the global desi community. Chawla's accomplishments as an astronaut ? remarkable for a naturalized U.S. citizen ? probably made her the most widely known Indian-American.

NASA's link to the community continues, though, given the large number of scientists and engineers who work there. Last year, for instance, a planetary geologist named Amitabha Ghosh took part in their successful Mars Rover Mission. Another connection worth mentioning is the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, whose mission was extended in 2001 from five to ten years. This massive, space-based telescope with an annual budget of $60 million was named after the late Subramanyam Chandrasekhar, a Nobel laureate.

With regard to scientific endeavors, Vamsi Mootha was one of the top achievers in 2004. This assistant professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School was one of the 23 Americans chosen for the so-called ?genius' award from the MacArthur Foundation. It's worth $500,000 each and comes with no strings attached. Born in the East Godavari district of coastal Andhra Pradesh, Mootha came to the U.S. when he was just six months old. His research, which he hopes will yield cures for diseases like diabetes, is centered in the complex area of genetics and systems biology.

Just as in other fields, Indian-American women are being recognized more and more in the corporate world too. When an Indian-American man, Pradman Kaul, became the chairman and CEO of Hughes Network Sytems in 2000, it was probably seen as a welcome but not unexpected development in the male-dominated upper ranks of corporate America. But the following year, when Indra Nooyi took over as the president and chief financial officer at Pepsico, her commendable rise to the top generated a lot of interest. The Wall Street Journal picked her as one its top 50 businesswomen last year and she was ranked number 16 on their ?Women to Watch' list.

Vishakha Desai, another Indian-American woman, became the head of the Asia Society, a well-known cultural and educational institution headquartered in New York. Somini Sengupta, having won the Polk Award for foreign reporting last year, is becoming the New Delhi bureau chief of The New York Times, making her the first Indian-American to hold that influential position. The multitalented Geeta Anand, who represented India at the Asian and Commonwealth Games in 1982, won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 2003. Also, in this decade, Fareed Zakaria and Raju Narisetti gained the rare distinction of reaching the upper echelons of mainstream journalism. Zakaria is the editor of Newsweek International, and Narisetti became the managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.

In some respects, though, it's women who continue to make the most impressive advances in various fields. As a young attorney with an intense commitment to justice, Vanita Gupta helped to overturn all charges against 46 Texans who'd been falsely arrested in a racially motivated drug bust. Like Erin Brokowich, Gupta is also inspiring a major movie based on her work. It's being named after the town (Tulia) where the incident took place, and most likely, Halle Berry will play the role of Vanita Gupta.

Mohini Bharadwaj, the young gymnast, became another inspiring pioneer when she won a silver medal for her performance at the Olympics in Athens. In the realm of sports, one should also point out that Fiji-born Vijay Singh, now living in the U.S., became the number 1 professional golfer ? at least for the time being ? after the formidable Tiger Woods was dethroned.

In the halls of academia, on the other hand, scholars like Sunil Khilnani (at Johns Hopkins University) and Sumit Ganguly (at Indiana University) have lately been gaining attention by becoming the influential heads of South Asian/India Studies Programs. Locally, in Athens, Seema Gahlaut is the director of the South Asia Program at the University of Georgia. In another interesting development, recently, a fully endowed chair in honor of Jagdish Bhagwati was established at Columbia University. It's worth noting that more than a 1000 Indian-Americans funded this chair in Indian Political Economy.

Indian-American youngsters continue to make their parents and the community proud by regularly winning top honors and prizes in national contests. Last year was no exception. Ryna Karnik and Samir Zaidi, both 17 years old, won the third prize in the Intel Science and Siemens Westinghouse competitions, respectively. At the National Spelling Bee contest, in a dramatic turn of events, 13-year-old Akshay Buddiga fainted briefly on the stage. But the resourceful young man, whose brother had been the champion two years ago, recovered right away and spelt the word correctly and then went on to become the runner up!

For the Indian-American community, and desis elsewhere, the previous year was marked by momentous elections in the two largest democracies in the world. Which, of course, brings us to the widely publicized political gains Indian-Americans have been making. A brief mention (since this has already been covered in detail by Khabar) should include Bobby Jindal, who is now perhaps the most recognized Indian-American politician. He has become only the second South Asian American (after Dalip Singh Saund in 1956) to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Other winners in the election include Nikki Randhawa Haley in South Carolina, Swati Dandekar in Iowa, Upendra Chivukula in New Jersey, Kumar Barve in Maryland, and Satveer Chaudhary in Minnesota. What's remarkable about Dandekar's victory is that she was reelected as a Democrat from a largely Republican district!

Appropriately, just as Indian-Americans are beginning to play a greater role in the 21st century, it was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who pointed out how they remain inescapably connected to both America and their Indian heritage. "A pantheon of global Indians is in the making in areas ranging from art and cinema to computer science and biotechnology, and one feels so reassured to know that so many of them have flowered here on the American soil," he said to a gathering in New York last year. "It is a tribute to this country, to these Indian families and to the spirit of India that lives in us all, wherever it is that we make our home and hearth."

He tellingly added, "You arrived here not just with hope, but with purpose and this has shaped the nature of your contribution to this great land of enterprise and opportunity."

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