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A Representative Chronicle of Diverse: Indian Immigrant Experiences

March 2004
A Representative Chronicle of Diverse: Indian Immigrant Experiences

All across America is tangible evidence of the ways successive waves of immigrants have made specific neighborhoods their home and transformed them into ethnic enclaves: The Borscht belt in New York, the Italian Americans in Boston's North End, the Arab Americans in Detroit come to mind readily. For many Indians, this list would definitely include the Indian Americans in Edison, New Jersey. On visits to the city, one is struck by how authentically Indian the city looks with its sari emporiums and chaat bhandars and yes, even paan-stained alleyways.

A second-generation Indian American, Washington Post reporter S. Mitra Kalita decided to embark on the all-American search for her roots. During her many visits to her parents' home in suburban New Jersey, Kalita couldn't help but notice the many classes of Indian Americans who made the state, and specifically Edison, their home. A search for her roots evolved into a principled study of the Indian immigrants who lived in the city.

By honing in on three representative families, Kalita manages to convey the larger impact the Indians are having on the once sleepy city of Edison, known primarily as the place where Thomas Alva Edison invented the light bulb. The biggest strength of Kalita's research is the careful selection of the families she chooses to track for the better part of a year. These include new immigrants and old, and those very successful economically and some barely making do on minimum wage.

Pradip (Peter) Kothari is one of the early immigrants to New Jersey. A small business owner in New Jersey, he has been witness to the burgeoning Indian population in town and to its attendant simmering racial divides. Kothari was also around when the infamous "Dotbusters" terrorized many Indian Americans. During the year that Kalita follows the Kothari family, he is increasingly galvanized into political action and runs for political office. Kalita ably documents the mechanics of his election campaign and the motives for Kothari's seeking elected office.

Newer Assamese immigrants Lipi and Sanku Sarma are here on H-1B visas, a path made easy with the technology boom of the ?90's. They are quickly taken in by the local Assamese community; Lipi even comments once that she never had so many Assamese friends in India before. In this one telling statement, that Kalita elicits from her subject, she portrays the emotional insecurities felt by many an immigrant who make it a point to cling to one of their own hoping it will mirror in some ways their own definition of home. The Sarmas, as Kalita watches them, are soon caught up in economic downturns accentuated by the events of 9-11. Their careers and therefore their lives in their newly adopted country are beset by uncertainties.

In the face of news of many an Indian's economic successes, it is easy to forget the ones who are here toiling away at blue-collar jobs trying to make do with salaries at or barely above minimum wage. The Patel family is one such, and Kalita's description of their struggle to achieve the elusive American dream is skillful reporting at its best.

As the Indians make Edison and much of New Jersey their home, they have achieved economic successes but political parity is still wanting. Kalita talks about the strained relationship between the non-Indians and the Indians and even amongst newer and older Indian immigrants.

Arguably the Indian immigrants in New Jersey have been the torchbearers of the immigrant experience for the rest of us. There is hardly an Indian resident especially along the Eastern seaboard who has not made a pilgrimage to Edison to take in, at least in small measure, the sights and smells of the old world. Kalita ably pays homage to the city's residents in an impressive debut work. Suburban Sahibs is a timely and well-researched addition to literature about the immigrant experience.

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