In a small town in Texas, two Indians found themselves in the lobby of a plush doctor’s office. They looked at each other, and then quickly looked away. With furtive looks, they tried to evaluate each other as questions buzzed in their minds, “What does he do?” “Wonder if he is an H1B or a green card holder?”, “Is he married,? And finally, “Where is he from?” Both showed an eagerness to communicate, but the big wall of pride, prestige and a fragile ego forced a quick retreat. Meanwhile, there were 3 more patients and the wait seemed long. One of the Indians walked up to the receptionist to ask a question about insurance. While talking to her, he happened to glance at the visitor’s list and noticed the name of the other Indian. Suddenly, he lost all interest. “He is not from my state. Why waste time by talking to him?” he said to himself. The instinctive acknowledgement of oneness as an Indian got derailed to the comfort zone of a regional cul-de-sac.
And it happens all the time. The psychological baggage of regionalism, casteism and elitism stays like a leech sapping the unified strength of Indians abroad. Our countrymen constantly yearn for the warm, social glue of community and home, yet are unable to connect with ease with their own fellowmen. Sometimes, they are embarrassed and sometimes they are contemptuous of anything Indian. Eager to earn the certificate of a “model, rich community,” they willfully ignore the psychological and social warts that leave gaping voids in their “hungry for attention” lives.
Such a regional disconnect not only causes a trek into social wilderness, but also prevents an effective response to cold winds of change. Not too long ago, in the late 80’s, a gang of “dotbusters” fueled by smoldering hatred and jealousy, targeted the “affluent” Indians. “We were paralyzed and petrified by fear,” said Dr. Lalita Masson, a soft spoken gynecologist. Trash, obscenities and stones were hurled at Indian businesses and homes. “It is white people against the Hindu,” stated Michael Miller who was only 14 at that time, while his companion piped in “I can’t stand them.” Women hesitated to wear the sequined, silk sari or the red dots as they triggered harassment and racial epithets. Even when the taunts became deadly as when Navroze Modi, a manager at Citicorp, was beaten to death, there was no effective response. Contrast this with the riots in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of police officers charged with brutality in the case of Rodney King. Eventually he got justice when community outrage forced a retrial and two of the officers were indicted.
Regionalism maroons Indians on a fantasy island of splendid isolation. Getting involved is a marathon process. Citizen activism which involves warm feelings of camaraderie towards other Indians, a concern for your fellowman, and a mindset that spells, “when the community suffers, I suffer,” rarely works even on a regional basis. Nurturing such unity, regional or otherwise, starts with small actions that bind and bond. For example, when an Indian meets another Indian, he tries to impress him with his “sterling credentials”, his wealth and status, his family connections, his gold medals at IIT, and so on. Instead of bonding with him as a fellow Indian in a foreign land, he is busy “showing off,” or competing with him. When he sees him in a mall, he turns his face away, instead of smiling and extending his hand. On the other hand, a professional scientist spoke bitterly about his experience in breaking the ice and inviting an Indian to his home for dinner. “He was busy examining and evaluating how expensive the furniture was, the size of the rooms, the upgrades and what we paid for them.” Instead of appreciating his kindness and friendship, he was rewarded with a cynical, “just checking if your status is better than mine.” In this mad rush to the top riding on fragile egos, God help the poor Indians, the unemployed, the blue collar workers, the students, the old and the retired, etc. They are treated as virtual “pariahs”, outside the cocooned existence of elitists.
If elitism damages the bricks of solidarity, the “chalta hai” attitude kills any meaningful reform, thinking or action. Along with the “mesmerized by profit,” blindness, “the head in the sand,” escapism, self-congratulatory rhetoric, and a confused identity tied to the approval of others, the fate of the Indian community as sitting ducks for target practice is sealed and delivered. It may be as soon as the next American perceives injustice when he loses his job and mutters bitterly, “Them, foreigners are taking all the jobs. It is now Us versus Them.” A brooding spark may not take long to ignite in the very dry fodder of continued economic distress, war and budget cuts.
A divided people are a weak people. And Indians will continue to be soft targets as long as they think they are Marathis, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Tamils, etc, and refuse to come together and invest in the emotional capital of “thinking for the common good.” Instead of pouring millions into temples, it would be a much better investment for the community to own several small houses in various parts of Houston and encourage healthy local interaction. Physical presence and interaction leads to social communication, fellowship and bonding. When people are determined to act, nothing can stop them. And in this we have the support of a timeless adage, “Where there is a will, there is a way.”