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Midnight, Dec. 31, 1999: the world did not explode into a million bits. In fact, even the fireworks display on the banks of the Thames did not explode to the satisfaction of television viewers worldwide. Jesus did not arrive as expected, and the Seventh Day Adventists, who had spent a few billion dollars spreading the word of the Messiah, were sorely disappointed that there was absolutely no bang for the big bucks they had spent. Despite all the monies spent by them and their fellow travelers, and all the tricks of creative accounting, they were no way close to claiming that the world’s Christian population had reached 3 billion and one: the magical 50 percent plus one figure that would herald the second coming. On Dec. 31, 1999 there must have been, however, 1 billion plus one Indians! And in the U.S. there were at least a million-and-a-half of us, if not two close two million (1990 census figures show we were about 815,000).
Seems like this was the “critical mass” of Indian humanity required to get Bill Clinton to hop on to Air Force One and go see the Taj Mahal in Agra, and some lions in Ranthambore. And for Chelsea Clinton to go dancing with the village women of Rajasthan, in the specially constructed Meena Bazaar, and for Hillary Clinton to appear at a few galas in New York and San Francisco to raise a few hundred thousand dollars for her Senate campaign from well-heeled Indian-Americans.
Maybe that “critical mass” also attracted the attention of the Pulitzer committee, and lo there was Jhumpa Lahiri on the winner’s stand. Her turn it was in the spotlight, and she was fetchingly modest and simple in her big interview on PBS. Thank God she is not one of the “new Indian women” who are predictable to the last angry spat at that vile King Rama. However, she has disappointed many an Indian-American bachelor by tying the knot with an Argentinian.
It was not just Lahiri who got invited by SAJA—the journalists’ club for the politically correct. It is de rigueur in those circles to deride and mock the NRI Hindu nationalists, and so Vijay Prashad got invited to talk about his book on the “karma” of “brown folk.” Brown, he opines, is closer to black than white, and recommends that a brigade of the brown/black/yellow join up with a brigade of the women/bisexual/lesbian/gay coalition who then would join hands with the Dalit/aborigine/tribal/oppressed of the world combine to take on the white men and the Hindu nationalists of the world. SAJA-ers invite such perorations to let the world know that under their hard-as-steel exterior, they are androgynous, peace-loving, liberals.
There were those Indian-Americans who made it in Hollywood, got recognition in Berlin, and flew to Cannes to watch Arundhati Roy get angry about being called an “activist.” M. Night Shyamalan got thePeople’s Choice award for an ornery thriller with a cute boy actor and a ham Bruce Willis. Nisha Ganatra’s Chutney Popcorn was consumed more by San Franciscans seeking exotica than the Indians who prefer only their dosas and idlis with chutney. Deepak Chopra lost his case of stalking he lodged against a co-worker, but he won big on Larry King Live, appearing twice this year with the man in suspenders.
What else happened? There was the Millennium Meet organized by the United Nations, to attend which came some 150 heads of states and governments, including our very own Atal Bihari Vajpayee. A contingent of some hundred odd Indian religious and spiritual leaders had descended on New York and the U.N. building just before the heads of state got their heads dizzy drinking champagne. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Bangalore got a standing ovation, we were told by Chidananda Rajghatta of the New Indian Express, and Swami Dayananda Saraswati wrote op-ed pieces condemning the attempts by the Seventh Day Adventists to buy adivasi souls. The Pope was not there but he had his minions standing outside the U.N. building passing out “papal edicts” telling the world that unless one is a Catholic one is doomed to eternal misunderstanding and wrong road directions to the heavenly gate. The Southern Baptists, not to be outdone by their more famous fellow worshipers, mailed a booklet calling Hinduism “a dark religion” to 40,000 of its churches and affiliated institutions. Dayananda Saraswati was clearly incensed that all the incense burning by Hindus would lead them about only as far as the U.N. building, and only let them live in darkness. But he was better off than the Dalai Lama who got dis-invited because Kofi Annan was afraid he would be subject to “Chinese torture” if he invited the second most famous spiritual leader in the world to address the U.N.
There were scandals in the Indian-American communities, and crimes of passion, and of omission and commission. Migrating to the U.S. does not mean the emigre leaves behind his or her frailties as a human being. In fact, the lure of money, fame, and power could be more tantalizing here than there. From Lakireddy Bali Reddy accused of smuggling poor, young, nubile Telugu girls to serve his lust, to a self-appointed priest, Bhogeshwernand Sharma, sexually assaulting Hindu women who had gone to him for “religious consultations,” to Alpna Patel, a dentist, stabbing her husband Viresh Patel, a doctor, in a fit of emotional rage, the tragedy of humanity was played out here as elsewhere in the world.
Then we had 40 hapless techies shackled and hand-cuffed and shouted at by INS inspectors in San Antonio, even as other Indian techies became multimillionaires, and made the Fortune 500 list. One of them, we now know, spent a night in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House, courtesy Bill and Hillary Clinton. Only in America!
Before this becomes a laundry list, and before readers accuse me of being partial, let me say that the big “to-do” this year was the Indian prime minister’s official visit to the District of Columbia. Al and Bill not only spread out the plusher red carpet to help cushion the weak knees of Vajpayee but they gave him a helping hand too. And Bill and Hillary threw the largest party on the White House lawns for a visiting foreign dignitary. Lots of people of Indian origin got invited, and lots of food and wine was consumed.
So, we are going to be friends forever, some proclaimed. And President Clinton sent a Deepavali/Diwali greeting to Indian-Americans. The first time that a president has so greeted the Indian community in the U.S. India Today proclaimed: “Yes, the Indian-Americans have arrived. Yes, in an election year it is no longer possible to ignore a community whose per capita income equals that of Jewish Americans. … In the years to come, an Indian-American is going to occupy a small post in the U.S. administration. And that will only be the beginning.” A President Sreenivasan and a Vice-President Kumar soon? Naaaah! We are just brown folks wondering whether to vote for George W or Al Gore. Or may be even Ralph Nader. Go Green!
Ramesh Rao is an associate professor of communication at Truman State University in Missouri, and when not teaching writes about media, politics, and history.