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Forum: The Sanjaya Phenomenon

August 2007
Forum: The Sanjaya Phenomenon

Yes, we are exploring new interests and lifestyles


One thing all of us can agree about Sanjaya Malakar is that he generates strong emotions—people either love him or hate him. Is he a success story, just a harmless joker, or an "anti-ambassador," as Sarita Sarvate termed him (India Currents, May 2007)?

A few months ago there was debate here whether the elevation of Indra Nooyi to CEO of Pepsi showed we have "arrived" as a community. I believe Nooyi accomplished what a large majority of the Indian professionals in the United States already know in their hearts: When it comes to engineering, medicine, management, and marketing, when it comes to intellectual pursuit, we are just as good, if not better, than our white or black counterparts. But if we are to be a true contributory minority, we also need to seek non-"nerdy" pastures. Today, for 99 percent of Indian-American kids, graduation from high school means limited choices: medicine, engineering, management, and law. Anyone aspiring to be an NHL goalkeeper, an all-American chef, police detective, talk show host, or, in this case, a pop music heartthrob?

Sanjaya's success is that he ventured into a challenging area— singing mainstream American music, not music with Indian roots. And he accomplished success in this not due to his talent, but using a quintessential American trait—ability to manipulate his own publicity and generate followers.

Sanjaya hung on in the American Idol show till the final six mainly because

of the support of swooning pre-teen white girls who adore him.

And it has launched him to success. Sanjaya is going on the American Idol tour, performed with the guitarist from Aerosmith on the Idol finals, and Britney Spears is rumored to be interested in recording a song with him. Whatever his lack of talent, he managed to capture America's attention enough to be ridiculed on a Saturday Night Live skit; talk shows vilify him, and through all this he has become a household name.

I think it is truly an achievement when nearly every American youth can recall your life's story. Just like M. Night Shyamalan, Sanjaya is opening yet another crack in the social glass-ceiling for others to follow. Their success has already spurred on another Indian youth: Shalini Kantayya on Fox's reality filmmaking show, On the Lot. I believe these folks are role models for the next generation of ABCDs (who should henceforth be known as American Born Confident Desis). Just because you are Indian does not mean you are stuck with the choice of being a doctor or an IT person; you too can be a Madonna or Prince or Oprah. This, unlike Nooyi's case, is something you and I did not know in our hearts.

Rajeevan Kattil is an IT manager in Detroit, Mich.

No, a visible minority will not be mainstreamed


Indian-origin children growing up in white-dominated countries experience

early what might be called the unavoidable tyranny of skin color. Amitav Ghosh wrote poignantly about this in his masterpiece The Shadow Lines: the child, bombarded with TV images and suggestions that white-ness is good and beautiful and the norm, desperately wishes to be white. These kids often despise their brown-skinned relatives, their Indian accents, their culinary preferences, their cultural taboos, their rituals and interests, in fact everything about them. Naturally, they wish to fit in with their white peer-group.

Fortunately, if their parents are an understanding lot, and if they themselves

are sensible, over time these kids reconcile themselves to living "under two flags," as it were: they have both their Indian and American heritages, and this is a matter of pride, not a handicap. Some of them take to Indian classical music, dance, and other cultural artifacts in an assertive demonstration of pride in their heritage (which explains the numerous

dance and music schools that advertise in this very magazine).

Sanjaya celebrates the first tendency: that of fitting in at all costs, burying or perhaps even murdering, metaphorically speaking, their Indian selves—as Bharati Mukherjee's characters often do. Is Sanjaya a good role model for Indian-American kids who wish to experiment with new professions and interests? I am skeptical.

Shakespeare's maxim, "To thine own self be true," is worth remembering. The child should figure out whether being celebrated for having no talent is something he or she can live with. Second, would Sanjaya have become so (in)famous if he weren't partly a brown Step'nfetchit (the grotesque and extreme caricature of black culture that used to be considered "entertainment" before the civil rights movement)? Were people laughing with Sanjaya or at Sanjaya and, in particular, his brown-ness? Remember the notorious Peter Sellers film, The Party, where "brown man" was equated with "clumsy, socially graceless oaf "?

Mainstreaming, assuming it is desirable, takes a long time, even if you are not

a visible minority. For a visible minority, this is practically impossible. There is that famous offense, DWB, "Driving While Black," whereby black people, even dignified middle-class professionals, are much more likely to be pulled over and questioned by police than comparable whites. Browns too are victimized. Stereotypes rule.

Non-WASP whites, e.g. Italians, Irish, and Jews, found significant barriers

in society. It was only when they succeeded in becoming affluent that they were taken seriously. Money talks. Until Indian Americans become entrenched in American society, it is better to follow traditional professions

—doctors, engineers, bankers—than risky entertainment or sports. It is hard being a pioneer, and it's not so bad being considered brainy but nerdy (flamboyant Donald Trump vs. unexciting Bill Gates?).

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from Fremont, Calif.

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