In the early pages of Patrick French’s recent biography of V.S. Naipaul, there is a detailed portrait of the first representatives of the modern Indian diaspora in the mid-19th century. These were unwilling travellers — luckless, impoverished indentured labourers, mostly drawn from regions in north India suffering drought or famine — tossed on-board ships like chickens in a coop for an arduous journey across the seas on their way to plantations in the West Indies. From those early beginnings, fraught with dread and uncertainty, beset with dangers to both body and self, the Indian diaspora has come a long way to become, over one and a half centuries, “an incontestable fact of world culture”, as Vinay Lal puts it in his new history of South Asians in America, The Other Indians.
American idol: Republican senator Bobby Jindal comes from a family of Punjabi immigrants. Photograph: Mario Tama / Getty Images / AFP
Notwithstanding several other significant narratives of movement and resettlement, the great Indian narrative of migration, at our point in time, and surely for many decades to come, has been the Indian journey to the US. This migration has a kind of double reality: It is as much a dream for millions of what Lal calls Resident Non-Indians (RNIs) as it is a proud fact for actual NRIs.
For a long time, before our current period of reverse migration in modest porportions, the US was thought to be the natural destination for our best and brightest, the land where they might break free of the crab mentality, sloth and stasis of a benighted Indian life and grow wings.
But one of the tricks of the human brain — it is the reason we need history — is that it all too easily extrapolates from a present reality that things have always been that way in the past. One of the aims of Lal’s book is to show us the stages of negotiation, attrition and doubt through which Indian life in America has passed in order to reach its present bullish phase. For instance, although educational attainment among Americans of Indian origin is now famously high (63.9% now have a bachelor’s degree compared to 24.4% of the general population), as recently as 1940, Indians had the lowest educational standards of any ethnic group. Even as India made the transition from a colony to an independent republic, Asians in the US were fighting for the most basic political rights (and often allying with the African-American movement). Lal’s book meticulously charts the progress of Indian life in the US — from trickle to flood, stammer to swagger.
Indians first began to arrive in the US in significant numbers around the close of the 19th century. Almost all were male. Some were peasants from Punjab who had been drawn by reports of American prosperity, and who found work as farm labourers; others were students. Perhaps, the most interesting of these groups was the one with clear political aims: A set of nationalists and revolutionaries trying to unshackle the British empire from without by both words and militant action.
These men formed a movement, “Ghadr”, and some of the more intellectually-minded among them endeavoured to present to the American public “an account of Indian society and politics not filtered by colonialism”. Just before their arrival, a certain picture of Indian civilization had already been imprinted forcefully on Americans by the discourses of Swami Vivekananda, whose electrifying address to delegates of the World Parliament of Religions at Chicago in 1893 catapulted him into the consciousness of the American public.
As the century rolled on, India slowly became synonymous in the American imagination with the thought and work of Mahatma Gandhi, who acquired a considerable following among the intelligentsia and members of the press. At the same time, Indians in America were fighting a battle over their right to citizenship that would not be resolved until the passing of the National Origins Act in 1965. This set in place systems and quotas for immigration which are still largely in place today.
Lal has many interesting things to say on a wealth of subjects, from the growth of Hinduism in America to the takeover of the motel business by the Patel community, and from contributions by Indians to American literature to the changing dynamics of the relationship between adopted land and motherland. He notes the pervasive anxiety about cultural loss and contamination among Indian Americans, which has spawned an aggressive and rancorous form of Hinduism that is broadly sympathetic to, and often lavishly funds, the activities of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India and sees nothing wrong in calling itself Hindu nationalist.
Indeed, there is material for an entirely different book in Lal’s thought that “Indian culture is perhaps more stable in the US than it is in India”. A US resident for almost three decades himself (he teaches history at the University of California, Los Angeles), Lal has the advantage of being able to draw upon both scholarship and personal experience in this work, and speaks as both observer and participant.
He elegantly summarizes and brings into the mainstream a wealth of more specialized literature, such as ethnographies of particular migrant communities (such as, bizarrely, a Punjabi-Mexican community in California). Many Indians at home will savour this book about Indians abroad.
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