“So my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” -President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, January 20, 1961
If President Kennedy (who opened the country to Asian immigration) were to evaluate Indian-Americans, he would certainly approve of their contributions to the United States. Indian-Americans have served Uncle Sam with the traditional Indian sense of devotion exemplified by Panna Dai, the medieval Rajput nurse who sacrificed her own son to save the kingdom. Have you ever smelled the fragrance of ginger-flavored tea and then savored it lovingly to be transported to the seventh heaven at the end of a long day? Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to state that if the U.S. is that fragrant teacup, Indian-Americans constitute the ginger; America the melting-pot has been undoubtedly and uniquely enriched by Indian spices.
The Eurocentric American immigration law precluded Indian immigration till 1923. Those who were allowed in after were treated like unwanted and unwelcome gatecrashers. Despite such inimical conditions, the then Indian-Americans were (and continue to be) at the cutting edge of new developments in a variety of fields. Their achievements in fields as diverse as agriculture and sciences were completely out of pro-portion for their population of a few thousands, as will be illustrated through the following snapshots of various professions.
PHILOSOPHY AND SPIRITUALITY
“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another,” said Jonathan Swift of “Gulliver’s Travels” fame. As the melting pot of various cultures, the U.S. has become home to numerous religions and has had a record of Interdenominational violence. Some of the pioneering work in building cross-cultural and inter-denominational relationships was performed by various Hindu spiritual masters who made the U.S. their home.
The Self-Realization Fellowship was founded by Paramahansa Vogananda to spread teachings on India’s ancient philosophy of yoga and meditation in the U.S. He came to the U.S. in 1920
as a delegate to the International Congress of Religious Liberals and was able to create an awareness in the West of the spiritual wisdom of the East.
One of the pioneer swamis of the Ramakrishna Order in the U.S.,Swami Prabhavananda, established the Vedanta Society of Portland and in 1928 founded the Vedanta Society of Southern Califomia in Los Angeles. His knowledge of philosophy and religion attracted such students as Aldous Huxley and Gerald Hearld. His publications continue to interest and draw people to the Vedanta philosophy to this day.
J. Krishnamurti was a philosopher whose stature attracted non-traditional thinkers and philosophers. He said man has to free himself of all fear, conditioning, authority, and dogma through self-knowledge. By establishing schools in India, America, and England, Krishnamurti envisioned that education should emphasize the integral cultivation of the mind and heart, not mere academic intelligence.
POLITICS AND ACTIVISM
Political activism is another field in which Indian-Americans carved out a niche for themselves. In the teens and 20s, Indian students in California helped form the Gadar Party, one of the first organizations that attempted to fight British colonialism from American soil. Gadar Hall still stands in San Francisco, a memorial to the freedom fighters.
The Watmulls of Honolulu have had a long history of involvement in political and public affairs. Eileen Watumull led a crusade for the repeal of the Cable Act, which stripped off her American citizenship when she married an Indian. In 1946, Congress passed legislation granting Indians eligibility for citizenship and Gobindram was the first Indian to be naturalized. The Watumulls established the Wattumull Foundation to help bring bright but impoverished Indian students to the United States.
If San Francisco was the locus of the struggle for assimilation by educated Indian-Americans, Yuba City was the scene of a struggle by the Sikh immigrants against both nature and human narrow mindedness. Responsible largely for the thriving citrus fruit industry in Central California, they poured not simply water, but also sweat and blood into the soil in order to cultivate what had been a no man’s land but were denied access to the produce because of existing property laws. The saga of their struggle to enjoy the fruits of their own labor is a monument to Indian patience and perseverance.
The complete assimilation of Indians in mainstream America came about in 1952 when an Imperial Valley farmer from Punjab, Dalip Singh Saund, was elected Judge in the Justice Court of Imperial County, California. He went on to be elected to the House of Representatives and served from 1957-1963, and became the one and only Indian-American to hold such office.
Community organizer and attorney Urvashi Vaid was the first lesbian of color to serve as Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force from 1989 to 1992. A graduate from Vassar College, New York, she was chosen as one of the Time magazine’s Fifty for the Future, a list of America’s most promising leaders age 40 and under in 1994. She is also the author of “Virtual Reality: the Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation,” in which she envisions how progressive forces in the country can move beyond identity politics.
Kumar Barve, Democrat, District 17, Montgomery Country, Maryland is a second generation Indian-American who has been a member of the House of Delegates since 1991. FILMS
On a weekend, you flip channels and suddenly see a turbaned teenager tame and ride a rogue elephant adroitly in an old movie. “Must be Tarzan,” you tell yourself. Wait a minute, did Tarzan wear a turban? That was our fellow countryman Sabu Dastagir. A native of Karnataka, Sabu made his debut in ”Toomai of the Elephants” in 1937, and went on to become one of the pillars of the highly successful Montez-Hall adventure show in the 1940s.
Almost a quarter of a century later Ismail Merchant and James Ivory formed Merchant Ivory Productions (MlP) in 1961 American distributors that could not be repatriated, but under an agreement could be utilized to make films. There was an opportunity to finance films with funds from frozen rupee accounts of major in India. They made a series of films—The Householder (the first film to be distributed worldwide by Columbia Pictures), Shakespeare Wallah (1966), the Guru (1969) and Bombay Talkie (1970). For over 30 years MIP has been one of the most productive collaborations in cinema with Heat and Dust, A Room with a View, Howard’s End, Remains of the Day, and most recently Surviving Picasso.
Mira Nair set the silver screen ablaze with her films about the Indian diaspora. Her first feature “Salaam Bombay,” was nominated for the Academy Awards in 1988 and won the Camera d’Or for Best Feature Film and the Grand Prix du Public at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1992 “Mississippi Masala,” about the lives of Indians and African Americans in Southern U.S. was released to public and critical acclaim, followed by “The Perez Family” (1995) and “Kama Sutra” (1997).
Today Hollywood has woken up to a new star. M. Night Shyamalan, director of “Sixth Sense,” is one of the highest paid screenwriters of Hollywood today. Raised in America, Shyamalan expresses happiness that minority filmmakers are finally getting somewhere in Hollywood. His next project is the much-awaited “Wide Awake.”
In an age when most women didn’t make it past high school, would it be possible for an Indian woman to obtain a Ph.D. at one of America’s finest public universities and also make seminal contributions to her field? Take the case of E.K. Janaki Ammal. The Kerala born Ammal was arguably the first woman to obtain a Ph.D. in botany in the U.S. (1931), and remains one of the few Asian women to be conferred a D.Sc. (honoris causa) by her alma mater, the University of Michigan. She is best remembered for co-authoring the monumental work, “Chromosome Atlas of Cultivated Plants.”
Best known as a postcolonial theorist, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s reputation was first made for her translation and preface to Derrida’s “Of Grammatology” (1976). She belongs to the “first generation of Indian intellectuals after independence.” Her subsequent works consist of post structural literary criticism, de-con-structive readings of Marxism, Feminism and Postcolonialism and translations of Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. Despite her outsider status, Spivak is widely cited in a range of disciplines.
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
If Sabu introduced elephants to the American public, an Indian doctor,Yellapragada SubbaRow who worked in Boston is synonymous with Hetrazan, the miracle cure for elephantiasis. His other achievements include the synthesis of folic acid, a vitamin that prevents congenital neural tube defects. If only SubbaRow had lived longer, the consensus goes, he would have been the first Indian Nobel Prize winner in medicine.
Pioneer scientist Narinder Kapany is regarded as “The Father of Fiber Optics,” which he discovered in 1955. His research endeavors include fiber optics communications, local area networks, biomedical instrumentation, solar energy and pollution monitoring. Kapany also founded the Sikh Foundation in 1967 to ensure that Sikh tradition will be handed down to future generations of Sikhs born in Europe and North America.
Is there any American household that has not contemplated upgrading to a Bose speaker system? This is designed by Amar Bose who founded Bose Corporation after years of research in the field of speaker design and psychoacoustics-the human perception of sound. Bose achieved international acclaim in 1968 with the introduction of the 901 Direct Reflecting Speaker-System, which set a new standard for lifelike sound reproduction. Today Bose is heard wherever sound quality is mentioned-from the Olympic games to the Sistine Chapel, in the home or on the road.
Another scientist, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar won the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics for his theoretical and experimental studies of the nuclear reactions of importance in the formation of the chemical elements in the Universe. He shared the prize with William A. Fowler.
An immigrant-turned-billionaire, Vinod Khosla exemplifies the quintessential American dream. Khosla co-founded Sun Microsystems in 1982 at age 27 with four employees. Today, Sun is a $9 billion global leader in network computing. In 1995 he became a venture capitalist with Kliener Perkins Caulfield and Byers. He has brought many companies to the fore like Excite, Juniper Networks, and Qwest.
His work as a senior designer on Intel’s Pentium in the early 1990s earned Vinod Dham the sobriquet of “Father of the Pentium.” He has proved instrumental in bringing some of the most critical products in Silicon Valley’s history to market. He moved to Nexgen, which was acquired by AMD in 1995.
AMO’s K6 chip based on the Nexgen technology made Dham a star in the world of chip design.
In 1992, a group of Indian entrepreneurs and businessmen formed The Indus Entrepre¬neurs, a non-profit organization that has since mentored several entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley. Suhas Patil was elected its first president and under his leadership TiE became a vibrant organization. Patil is also founder of Cirrus Logic Inc., a leading semiconductor company with revenues close to a billion dollars. He invented the company’s proprietary design technology.
Sabeer Bhatia‘s idea was to offer a service that could provide an E-mail link anywhere in the world. For free. In 18 months he converted $2,000 and an idea into Hotmail-a million-dollar corporation. In 1998, Bhatia’s Hotmail had 10 million subscribers worldwide growing at 60,000 per day. Hotmail was acquired by Microsoft for a sum of 400 million dollars making Bhatia, one of the quickest millionaires on the block.
Indian music can now be heard everywhere-be it in commercials for cars or athletic shoes, in Hollywood films, and in the musical hits of Ricky Martin and others. Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan brought Indian music to American audiences in their own ways.
Hailed by George Harrison as “the Godfather of World Music,” sitar virtuoso and composer Ravi Shankar is a pioneer in bringing Indian music to the West. His innovative sitar music inspired The Beatles, The Byrds, John McLaughlin, and Yehudi Menuhin. Shankar has won two Grammys and an Oscar nomination for musical scores composed for film. In 1967, he was named Billboard’s “Recording Artist of the Year,” and “Musician of the Year.” He has also composed concertos for the London Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.
A musical giant, Ali Akbar Khan has played Indian classical music in concert halls all over the world. He established the Ali Akbar College of Music in San Rafael, California where he has offered his knowledge to over 10,000 students turning them into savants of the Indian classical tradition. Khan has been nominated for two Grammys and in 1991 won the MacArthur genius grant.
Musician Zubin Mehta has conducted over 1,600 performances on five continents. He became the Music Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1978, where he served for 13 years. One of his tours to the Soviet Union in 1988 culminated in a historic joint concert with the State Symphony Orchestra.
He has also conducted the legendary Three Tenors Concerts in Rome and Los Angeles. In 1994 he brought the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to India. This international performer is now serving as Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.
Son of the legendary Alia Rakha, Zakir Hussain‘s brilliant performances have not only established him as a national treasure, but as an international phenomenon. Not only is he a favorite accompanist of most Indian musicians, he also has worked with many internationally renowned musicians like John Mclaughlin, the Grateful Dead, and Van Morrison. In 1999 he won the National Heritage Fellowship, the most prestigious national honor given to artists in traditional arts.
The rapid growth of Indians in America has coincided with the coming of a new generation of writers for whom the English language is a native tongue. Their stories, written from the perspectives of immigrants or American born Indians, have documented the lives of this maturing population. Bharati Mukherjee‘s “The Middleman and Other Stories” won the National Book Critics Circle in 1988. Vikram Seth made a splash with “Golden Gate,” a novel in verse about love, death and confusion among yuppies in the Bay Area. In “My Own Country,” Abraham Verghese writes about the struggles of an Indian doctor In the South at the start of the AIDS epidemic. Travel writer extraordinaire Pico Iyer has “Video Night in Kathmandu,” and “Cuba and the Night” to his credit. Shashi Tharoor, executive assistant to Secretary General Kofi Annan at the United Nations, gained notice with his satirical retelling of the Indian epic poem Mahabharata, using modern political figures in his book “The Great Indian Novel.” Anita Desai’s novels, “Clear Light of Day” (1980), “In Custody” (1984), and “Fasting, Feasting” (1999) were short-listed for the Booker Prize. Amitav Ghosh’s “The Circle of Reason” and “In an Antique Land”
were selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year in 1994.Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s book “Arranged Marriage,” won the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Prize for Fiction, the Bay Area Book Reviewers Award for Fiction and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation.
Knowledge of traditional Indian sciences like ayurveda, yoga and meditation has now been received recognition in the West due to advocates like Deepak Chopra and Vasant Lad.
Deepak Chopra has gained worldwide recognition for interpreting Eastern principles and making them accessible to the Western world. An endocrinologist, he became disillusioned with Western medicine and turned towards a holistic approach to health through meditation and ayurveda. He aggressively spread the word-on television, addressing students, physicians, scientists, at the World Health Conference, World Peace Conference, and more. A prolific writer, his books “Perfect Health,” “Return of the Rishi,” “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind,” “The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success” have found prominent shelf space in every bookstore in America.
Recipient of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics, Amartya Sen, the celebrated champion of the under-privileged success-fully pushed this cause into world recognition. His work had made him a cult figure among students, academics and notable public policy planners. Having been the professor both of economics and philosophy at Harvard Uni-versity for over a decade, Sen secured his place at the high table of “liberal” America amid such Boston Brahmins as Paul Samuelson and Solow. In 1996 he became the first non-American president of the American Economic Association.
Against the backdrop of the listed galaxy of achievement and contribution, it is incumbent upon us Indian-Americans not only to feel proud of our laurels, but also to pioneer new paths in newer and hitherto untouched fields.
Kalpana Chawla was chosen to be a mission specialist on STS-87 the fourth U.S Microgravity Payload flight that lasted from Nov 19-Dec 5 1997. She soared into space and became the first Indian female astronaut who has participated in a space mission. She has earned a Masters degree in aerospace engineering and a doctorate in aerospace engineering.
America’s most influential foreign policy publication, Foreign Affairs, has Fareed Zakaria as the Managing Editor. He also writes on international affairs in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, IntellectualCapital.com, International Security, The New Republic. He has published a book on the Unites States’ origin as a global power, is at work about “democracy everywhere, past, present, future,” and is a columnist for Newsweek.
If the twentieth century belonged to the U.S., may the 21st belong to Indian-Americans. If the U.S. is the land of milk and honey, then may the Indian contribution be as luminescent as the Milky Way! May our tribe increase, diversify, and include future attorney generals, governors and even presidents!
May we make the our Indian motherland as proud of us as the mother described in the ancient Tamil classic Purranannoorru who said:
Holding the pillar of my house, you ask:
“Where is your son?” Wherever my son is, I do not know. This womb, which has given birth to him, is like a rock cave that a tiger has inhabited and left.
Somewhere on the battlefield you will find him.”
May we also retain our distinct culture and continue to practice both, “unity in diversity” by becoming full fledged patriotic Americans as well as “diversity in unity” by retaining our distinct culture and customs.
Our wish for all Indian-Americans is best expressed by an ancient Sanskrit prayer from the Yajur-Veda:
Sarve bhavantu sukhinaha,
Sarve santu niramayaaha,
Sarve bhadraani pashyantu,
Maa kaschit duhkka bhaagbhavet!
May all be happy, may all be healthy.
May all people see good,
Let no one be unhappy.
S. Gopikrishna is an engineer whose peregrinations have taken him from Kharagpur toAnn Arbor, MI and Toronto, Canada. He is a commentator on South Asian politics and c1assical lndian studies.