A Failure of Imagination: An Essay on Belonging
A Failure of Imagination: An Essay on Belonging

The lorry driver is taking the road

to the pass which leads


with its own familiarity

to another homeland.

–John Berger (from an untitled poem)

 And I am perverse enough

to dream life elsewhere

was simpler —

–Arundhathi Subramaniam (from the poem ‘Another Home’)

My father came to the United States in 1967–fifty years ago next month, and just a few years after LBJ had signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 into law. This law made a drastic change in the so-called National Origins Formula that our country had in place before then, whose primary aim it had been to prevent immigration from changing the ethnic distribution of the population. Imagine that! At the time of that original formula’s enactment in 1924, the ethnic distribution here was 89% white and 13% foreign born according to the Census Bureau.

Now despite the above, and despite the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, LBJ was no hero–one need only mention America’s favorite chemical weapon of the rocking 1960’s, the first Agent Orange. But the hidden agenda of the Immigration and Nationality Act was twofold (and neither fold was altruistic): the President wanted to deflect attention from Vietnam while cementing a long-standing narrative–the race to keep up with the Soviets; and the industry titans of our rapidly expanding economy wanted a serious injection of workers that the American educational system seemed incapable of producing in sufficient numbers. So here entered from stage-right the highly skilled immigrant labor force.

In those fifty years since my father arrived from India, the American population has soared to 325 million, and while we’re still at only 13% foreign born inhabitants, the percent of the population that’s white has dropped to about 75%. That’s one sign of progress, I suppose. The Asians represent 5.5% of the tally, which is 17.4 million people, and since we’re talking today about being Indian and belonging, let’s break it down even further: at 3.1 million bodies, we subcontinenters represent just under 18% of all Asians in the US (#3 in fact, behind the Chinese–we’re always behind the Chinese aren’t we?–the surprise silver-medalists are the Filipinos). So Indians and Indian Americans make up a total of 1% of the US population. Interestingly, the American-born Indians are only 13% of the 3.1 million Indians here.

But here’s the part that gets to the topic of my essay. You could call it the condition under which we are willing to ‘belong’: we as Indians–this 1% of the population–we make as a median household income 177% of the US median (that’s per the Pew Research Center[1]). Of course not every one of us is rich–that’s a reckless inference from the data; there are those among us who live in abject poverty, and others among us that lurk somewhere in between the suburbs and luxury high-rises who have been ripped from the cabs and trucks they drive for a living and beaten near to death, in many cases murdered[2], to say nothing of pre-9/11 violence committed by white supremacists that called themselves Dotbusters[3]. But this statistic — 177% of the median US income–is still far and away the highest income of any ethnicity in the entire country (next in rank per US Census data[4] are Asians as a bloc, whose median income is 137% the US median; then come the non-Hispanic whites at 111%; and way at the bottom–a few percentage points below Native Americans–are black people, who earn 65% of the national median income, a pattern which many years ago gave rise to the trite but accurate phrase ‘wage slave’.)

The Indian wealth and income story is considered by most observers to be a measure of astounding success–but is it also a failure of the imagination? There isn’t necessarily a correlation between wealth and a failure of imagination, but I’d like to offer this counter-narrative, perhaps even an un-American premise, as something worth considering to make sure that we’re not thumbing the scales like an unscrupulous gold merchant, and thus through our Herculean work ethic in fact precipitating humanity’s race to oblivion. Allow me to clarify. I want to be certain we all understand that wealth doesn’t accumulate by accident–the planet is, after all, a finite pot o’gold, and even a wealthy Voltaire had noted back in the 18th century that, “the comforts of the rich depend upon an abundance of the poor.”

So if we forcibly slog down the road of blind income generation…well, history has taught us that we can then quite easily get caught in the downward coarseness of counting only our money, and in that coarseness we become a philistine people who shun our capacity for subtle thought. It’s my belief that the greater one’s capacity for subtle thought, the more profound the cancellation of one’s insularity. In other words: if you live to work and count your cash, you lose your innate compassion fast!

A few weeks back I had the privilege, thanks to the local Anindo Chatterjee Institute of Tabla here in Seattle, to witness the sublime artistry of Shahid Parvez Khan, the sitar maestro and seventh generation member of the Imdadkhani gharana (house or family of music). He had dedicated his performance to the late Kishori Amonkar of the Jaipur gharana. For anyone who hasn’t heard of these musicians, please do look them up. It struck me as that concert ended–and not for the first time–that the United States is not India. What I mean by that statement is that our community here has no longstanding musical or artistic gharanas. There’s no such tradition, just a few one-offs, a Vijay Iyer here, an Asmita Pathak there; the former is a jazz pianist and composer, the latter–my mother–plies her art through a songbook of memory that stretches from Gujarat to the icy reaches of Maine, where she lives. You should meet her–her insults against my dad in a soaring raga gujari todi are legendary.

It may seem unnatural, against custom, but we don’t need the tradition of a gharana to produce more artists amongst us Indian Americans. We need only to reverse the failure of our collective imagination. The failure that tells our children they need to strive first and foremost for financial success. The failure which puts such perverse ideas into our children’s minds that they say things like, I love quantitative finance and accounting. That’s akin to the poor young white man who says, I love coal mining. It’s one thing to love theoretical mathematics or landscape architecture, but it’s unacceptable to raise children who love investment analysis or industrial labor. Such a child, regardless of ethnicity or culture, has been failed by their family, their community, their country.

Let’s attempt to break the insidious upper middle class system of belief that mandates white-collar professionalism of our progeny: the Doctor/Lawyer/MBA/Engineer gharana. And rest assured we don’t need platinum-certified family histories to encourage our Indian-American youth to pursue the arts as a vocation. You need not heed my insistence alone on this matter; Kishoritai said it best herself:

“There is nothing called a gharana. There is only music. It has been bound into gharanas and that is like dividing music into specific castes. One should not teach students the limits of this art. There are none.”

I encourage everyone here today, myself included, to expand beyond the limits of our self-imposed identities. There are none. Let’s teach our children the value of a career in the arts, and teach them not to be ashamed of earning less than the median income level. Thank you.

 [Speech delivered 23 April 2017, ACT Theatre, Seattle]

Monal Pathak is a playwright & novelist in Seattle. He was born & raised in Maine. 

[1] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2014/09/30/5-facts-about-indian-americans/

[2] http://newsfeed.time.com/2012/08/06/timeline-a-history-of-violence-against-sikhs-in-the-wake-of-911/


[4] https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2016/demo/income-poverty/p60-256.html