Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Continue to grow and evolve. In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” Indians the world over are doing just this.
It is in our DNA. We assimilate, we blend, and we establish ourselves. In his own way Gandhiji did this in South Africa. In a more subtle way, Indians have been forging their identities across continents. While Africa and England were initial favorites, America was not far behind. The first known Indians arrived into this country as far back as the 18th century.
According to Pew research data Indian Americans are 2.8 million strong. We have the highest percentage of educational attainment compared to other ethnic groups and a substantially higher income level. The figures depict not only the economic well-being of the Indian American community, but also how important we are to the growth of this country.
Traditionally, Indians in the U.S. followed a stereotypical career path in medicine, engineering and academics. Indian-Americans constitute less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet the community represents 3 percent of the nation’s engineers, 7 percent of its IT workers and 8 percent of its physicians and surgeons. The dotcom age opened a new frontier in Silicon Valley. With an ethic of hard work and perseverance, it is no surprise our community excelled and flourished.
As Rabindranath Tagore said, “Don’t limit a child to your own learning, for she was born in another time.” Today, Indian-Americans have branched out into new fields, making waves in fashion, culinary and performing arts, media, sports, film making and a myriad of other professions. There is also a new breed of young Indians serving in the U.S. government as politicians and policy-makers.
Among Indians in showbiz we have Mindy Kaling (The Office and the Mindy Project) and Kunal Nayyar (The Big Bang Theory) garnering a massive fan following. Aziz Ansari is making scores of people laugh with his brand of humor. The field of media comprises of many young Indian anchors such as Vinita Nair, a co-host on CBS This Morning Saturday and Kevin Negandhi, the sports anchor for ESPN’s Sports Center.
In the culinary world, chefs such as Maneet Chauhan, Vikas Khanna, Floyd Cardoz and the glamorous Padma Lakshmi are forging new paths. Artists such as Tina Sugandh and Karsh Kale as well as fusion bands like Red Baraat and Indo Funk are creating sounds and beats popular even among non-Indians.
Performances of age-old dance techniques in a more contemporary format by dance troupes such as The Mona Khan and Sa Dance Company’s have become quite the rage. History was made when Indian American, Nina Davuluri, performed an Indian dance routine for her talent at the Miss America pageant 2014 subsequently winning the Miss America crown. Another bastion stormed. The Indian American love affair with erudition is evident with long-established authors such as Anita Desai and Vikram Seth, novelists Akhil Sharma and Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni making the English language their own. Indian Americans Jhumpa Lahiri and Siddhartha Mukherjee have won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize: Lahiri for literature and Mukherjee for non-fiction.
Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana and Nikki Haley, Governor of South Carolina are an indication of how Indian Americans hold important positions in politics too. Californian Ami Bera is currently the only Indian American Member of Congress, though President Obama has appointed many Indian Americans in his administration. High profile US multinationals are dominated by Indian Americans: Indra Nooyi of Pepsico, Ajay Banga of MasterCard and Satya Nadella of Microsoft. In the world of academia, Indian Americans have gone from being professors and researchers to take on more leading positions. Nitin Nohria is Dean of Harvard Business School, Subra Suresh is President of Carnegie Mellon, and Renu Khator is President of University of Houston.
Our young ones are not far behind. For the last seven years, the new crop of Indian Americans have been champions at the Scripps National Spelling Bee and the National Geographic Bee.
American thinker Thoreau has said, “In the great teaching of the Vedas, there is no touch of sectarianism. It is of all ages, climes and nationalities and is the royal road for the attainment of the Great Knowledge.”
In a sense we are bridge builders, closing the gap between cultures and finding a common path. Our list of achievers is endless and those listed above are just a few examples. What is equally astounding is how Americans have been crossing over into traditional Indian fields. Some prominent yoga gurus, classical singers and dancers as well as NGO heads in India are Americans.
“We owe a lot to Indians who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made”, opined Albert Einstein. One day similar pronouncements will be made in other fields too.
In tangible terms our community has added billions of dollars to the US economy. The work of US based non-profits in India has increased significantly in the last decade. Health contributions by US based Indian physicians enable free aid and research in the medical field. From winners of the Pulitzer prize to Nobel prize winners, from spelling bee winners to beauty contests, our presence in the US is holistic and comprehensive. In an intangible sense, our community has shown how easy it is not just to assimilate but also to add value to its adopted country.
In a shrinking world the implications of Indian Americans excelling in their adopted country as well as Americans working in India, bode well. India can benefit from much needed help in infrastructure projects, infusion of funds into worthy causes and knowledge sharing. On the other hand, Indians have added quality and variety to spice up American creativity, giving Americans a wider perspective, a broader world view.
In this era of globalization, this type of exchange is inevitable. Jazz musician Herbie Hancock has aptly summarized this by saying, “Globalization means we have to re-examine some of our ideas and look at ideas from other countries, from other cultures and open ourselves to them.”
Indian Americans are leading the way.
NOTE: This piece was written for the souvenir book created for the PM’s Diaspora speech in New York