Home / Opinion / Columns /  The insufferable fuss over Rishi Sunak’s Indian roots

In the end, the waiter asks you about the meal and you say it was good. And he beams. I have never understood his glow. He behaves as though he cooked the meal. You may argue that his behaviour is a flicker of collective pride, a worker bee collecting an award for the hive. But that is nonsense, not because he probably hates his job, but because if you had instead told him the soup was disgusting, he would have said, “I’ll tell the chef." No one takes a blow for the team, but everyone is big on collective pride.

This phenomenon is the underlying reason why I dread people who are said to be “of Indian origin" doing well, like achieving something big in an advanced economy. Naturally, then, I brace for the day Rishi Sunak becomes prime minister of the UK.

On that day, urban India will erupt in celebration. Indians will say, explicitly, that they are proud. But about what? There will be statements and allusions that there is something about Indians, which makes them beat others; something mysterious inside us that is potent outside India and evidently does not work in India.

But Sunak has very little to do with India. He was born in Southhampton. His parents were born in Africa. He has come so far in Britain because he is in a society where even conservatives, the very people who are meant to speak the minds of common people instead of pretending to be nice, do not discriminate between races. So he has done well because modern Britain is not like modern India.

Usually, emotions have logical underpinnings. Even collective emotions have reasons. But civilizational pride in foreigners “of Indian origin" has none. It is plainly absurd. When Sunak triumphs and Indians gloat, what exactly are we rejoicing? That we have good genes, like him? That we emerge from a special post-Africa race that can create leaders like him? That we created a global coaching class from where Sunak emerged? That all Indians have the innate capacity to become prime minister of Britain? This sentiment, of civilizational pride, is absurd for many reasons, but the funniest reason it is vacuous is that Sunak’s bid to lead Britain was made possible by a man named Boris Johnson, whose leadership is proof that a great civilization does not make all its members great. Johnson, the UK’s outgoing prime minister, had to quit because of incompetence and scandals.

When Venkataraman Ramakrishnan won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, you can imagine the euphoria in India for a man who was born here but is identified as “British-American". He felt assailed by the sudden pride of millions of Indians and rebuked them for being absurd. Also, there was a rumour that he had accepted a job offer made by an Indian institution. He not only denied it, he also said, “I can categorically state that if they did so, I would refuse immediately." He then apparently felt bad and expressed regret for hurting Indians, who were merely desperate to feel proud.

Indians rejoice the triumph of their own, or those whom they imagine as their own, only in the West. We won’t get that ecstatic if a person “of Indian origin" rose in, say, Africa. True racists are those who feel inferior, not superior. Racism does not only in reside in insults and abuses, which are actually very banal, unremarkable and lacking in conviction. A more potent form of racism is in worship—like how resident Indians look up to the West. In return, the West does not spend much time thinking about India or Indians. So there is an unequal relationship between Westerners of Indian origin and their resident Indian admirers. Westerners of Indian origin do not appear to be as proud of India as India is of them, nor do they consider themselves Indians in the first place. But when it suits them, they do play the India card. For instance, every now and then, I would see a writer or academic “of Indian origin" make a decent living out of interpreting India, and even Asia, to the West. But if some Trump supporter asks him to “go back to your home country", he would say that marvellous thing, “I was born in Houston."

Also, in the face of an anti-immigration wave, like the one Donald Trump created, people of Indian origin attempt to include themselves among the destitute migrants. What their audience does not realize is that there is a difference between high-caste or wealthy Indian families that move to the West in search of prospects, and the African, Latin-American and middle-eastern poor who are often sneaked in. In a useful generalization, the typical US-bound Indian reaches there after a rigged race, as a consequence of his social equity or wealth, and therefore as a result of a big head start over most Indians. This migration is very different from what the West understands as migration.

Community pride is not always ridiculous. For instance, take the national pride generated by Olympic triumphs. What the people of a country are saying is that their nation invested and created systems that helped talented athletes realize their full potential. But, as this column has argued before, Indians are not in a position to claim even this form of pride. Indian athletes who succeed at an international level mostly do so because they have been trained in the West, or they are so extraordinary that even the Indian government could not ruin their chances.

Maybe, in our subterranean consciousness, we know that logical reasoning will deny us the sensation of collective pride; so we take care not to let reason interfere with our quest to appropriate a foreigner’s success as our own.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’ 

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