On my grandfather’s 60th birthday, our entire extended family gathered in Kerala for a puja, feast, and celebration. We watched beautifully costumed kathakali performers and noted Papa’s ready conversion to vegetarianism and teetotaling. At 60, my Papa was expected to slow down, and he had no qualms about giving up meat and drink. But when he passed away at 63, his children lamented the sacrifices he’d made instead of fully enjoying the final few years of his life.

India, at 60, is far from slowing down, but the nation is marking her birthday, too, with conversions: nuclear capability and a growing alliance with the United States. To champions of India’s emergence, these steps seem natural and necessary as India ascends the world-stage, 60 years after gaining independence. But will we one day lament what India may have inadvertently given up when she did what was “expected”?

Lesson 1: We cannot anticipate if India’s present conversion will seem to the historians of the future to have been a sacrifice.

Scholars mark the birth of the Indian diaspora in the United States with the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The Act abolished national-origin quotas and enabled the second wave of Indian migration to the U.S.: that of the highly skilled professionals who have shaped the perception of Indian-Americans as a “model minority” capable of transforming the status of our country of origin. Today, we, the diaspora, are in our collective early-40s. Successful, with homes and heirs, and providing for our progenitors.

As discussed in the essay on the 60th anniversary media storm, it is attractive for the diaspora to feel that we “have had some role to play” in the emergence of India. We want to believe—rightly so, some would argue—that our connections and political clout helped push through the nuclear deal and cultivate bipartisan support for India in the U.S. Congress. Indian-Americans in the Silicon Valley are especially proud of having fostered India’s booming information technology industry.

There’s no doubt we can expect great things from India-at-60, especially with the support of her spawn, the Indian-American diaspora. Still, I am mindful of the lesson from another, very different birthday celebration.

When my father turned 40, his friends threw him a raucous party complete with belly dancers. There were no religious offerings and no ornate costumes, unless you count the spectacle of middle-aged men trying on the dancer’s headdress. “Over the hill!” the younger generation shouted. “In our prime!” came the retort from the 40-somethings.

At 42, is the Indian diaspora over the hill or at its prime? Lesson 2: If I’ve learned anything from the image of belly-dancing fathers, it’s that we mustn’t get drunk on our own successes.

 

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan was Editor of India Currents from July 2007-June 2009.
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