Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Yes, desis are moving America!

Yes, desis are moving America!
Syed Ali Mujtaba

Stories about Indian doctors, engineers, professors and scientists excelling in the US and earning respect among the average American citizens are part of Indian folklore. However, it's difficult to make a realistic assessment of these Des-Pardes stories as most of the inputs filter through the media and family gossip.

In order to understand how desis are moving America, the EWC (East West Center) Chennai Chapter organised a public lecture by Prof Sreenath Srinivasan, Dean of Students and Associate Professor, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, on June 27 in Chennai.

The well-attended function saw Prof Srinivasan giving an erudite talk on the Indian American dream and telling the distinguished audience how desis are breaking boundaries in various fields of activity and moving America.

"Immigration from India in the 1960s and '70s was very limited. There weren't many people of Indian origin in the US. There were no Indian restaurants, grocery stores, video rental stores or movie theatres. For Indians, the American Dream was just to get a foothold in America and be economically comfortable. There was apprehension and hesitation in their minds. America seemed so far away and so alien to them. They were people with the wrong colour, wrong accent and the wrong looks," Srinivasan said.

However, this is no more the case. The children of Indian immigrants are now coming of age. They are shaping American politics, public policy, art and culture in a big way. There are thriving immigrant Indian communities across America. This extends to college campuses where second generation Indian Americans have forged powerful cultural and political organisations. "Most interesting for me is the flowering of talent in non-technical fields, such as media, entertainment and the arts," Srinivasan said.


"Not long ago there were hardly any Indian sounding names on the magazine and publication mastheads. Now, names like Fareed Zakaria adorn the editorial column of the prestigious 'Newsweek'. Rajiv Chandrasekaran is assistant managing editor of 'The Washington Post'. Ramesh Ponnuru is senior editor for 'National Review magazine'," Srinivasan, who is co-founder of South Asian Journalists Association (, said.

Zain Verjee, Sumi Das, Aneesh Raman, Ali Velshi, Mish Michaels, meteorologist for the Weather Channel, Uma Pemmaraju on Fox News, and Sukanya Krishnan on CW11 Morning News, are a few names that have become a fixture on US mainstream television, Prof Srinivasan said, adding that Dr Sanjay Gupta is a medical star on the CNN and Rena Golden is senior vice-president at CNN International.

"There seems to be a strong drive to express the unique experience among the second generation Indian Americans. The number of actors, playwrights, movie directors, novelists, journalists and musicians is really striking, especially when contrasted with the doctors, engineers and college professors that characterised the early immigrant generation," Srinivasan said.


"With Bollywood blood flowing in their veins, it is not surprising that young Indians are enamoured of the entertainment industry. M. Night Shyamalan churns out multi-million dollar blockbusters in Hollywood. Naveen Andrews, Sarita Chowdhury, Ajay Naidu, Kal Penn, Aasif Mandvi, Sheetal Sheth and Purva Bedi are all celebrities in the US movie and television industry.

"The arts and entertainment world has many well-recognised Indian names. You have Manu Narayan taking the Broadway stage for Bombay Dreams, Suphala playing Indian tablas for mainstream audiences. Sameer Samuel Bhattacharya is one of two guitarists in the Texas alternative band Flyleaf and, of course, Norah Jones the pop star and her half-sister Anoushka Shankar an international sitar player."


To the immigrant generation of the '60s and '70s, politics extended as far as photo-ops and political fund-raisers. Actually standing for office was entirely out of the question; a vast majority was not even citizens. Now so many Indian Americans are moving into political office or moving up the ranks of public policy that it's hard to keep track. Indian Americans are exerting political clout on the local, state and national level as never before, Prof Srinivasan said.

"The most striking example is Bobby Jindal, who, at 33, became the first Indian American to be elected to the House of Representatives from Louisiana in a landslide with 78 per cent votes. Another example is Neera Tanden, policy advisor for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Neera works closely with Hillary on her policies and proposals as a presidential candidate, dealing with issues from immigration to education."

"No discussion about Indian Americans would be complete if the names like Indra Nooyi, Sunita Williams and Jhumpa Lahiri are not mentioned. Indra Nooyi is the chairwoman of PepsiCo and Sunita Williams has just returned from six months' space odyssey with a NASA team. Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri is vice-president of PEN," the US professor said.

P M Belliappa (retd IAS), president of the EWC Chennai Chapter, briefed the audience about the East West Center and its activities in Chennai. Ragani Gupta, cultural counsel at the US Consulate, Chennai, opened up the discussion citing her example how Indian Americans are branching out to different professions in the US. Kamalendra Kanwar, former resident editor, The New Indian Express, spoke about the changing profile of international media coverage about India from negative to positive news stories.

There was a lively Q&A session after the main speaker's speech. Fatima Muzaffar, alumni of EWC, Hawaii, proposed a vote of thanks to the dignitaries and the distinguished audience for making this EWC event a grand success.

Published on July 6th, 2007 at

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