The Indian-American paradox: Indians expect them to be Indians, but they are not

There’s a lot of excitement over Parag Agarwal becoming the Twitter CEO. But it is futile to expect Indian-American CEOs to suddenly swing their companies in directions that help India, or Hindus

Rajeev Srinivasan December 04, 2021 10:53:43 IST
The Indian-American paradox: Indians expect them to be Indians, but they are not

Parag’s work at Twitter at huge impact on the re-acceleration of audience growth in 2016 and 2017, as per Twitter.

The promotion of Parag Agarwal to the position of CEO of Twitter created a bit of a commotion online. Many celebrated the fact that several Indian-origin people now head large technology companies such as Alphabet, Microsoft, Adobe, IBM and now Twitter. Elon Musk said something to the effect that he appreciated talented people from India.

Others bemoaned the fact that many Indians apparently had to leave the country to do well. The usual reasons were trotted out: Reservations prevent the meritorious from rising; the bureaucrats and the system mess everything up; there is no room for independent thought, and you must kowtow to the Big Men on Campus; and so on. There is a little truth in all of them.

In this narrative, the US is the place where they reward merit; there is an opportunity for all; and if you keep your nose clean and work hard and produce results, they will let you rise to the top. There is a little truth in all these claims as well. But that’s not the whole story, either.

The fact is that there is a brutal selection process. Among a billion people, surely there are some who are exceptional, and some more who are outstanding. So the fact that a few Indian-Americans do well may also be attributed to the fact that they are not 1%ers, but 0.001%ers. They might truly stand out in any crowd. But that doesn’t mean the average Indian-American is doing amazingly well.

Having been one of said average Indian-Americans before returning to India, I have seen the beast from the inside. We saw an opportunity and took full advantage of it. Those fortunate enough to get through the IIT JEE got a world-class engineering education for peanuts, subsidised heavily by the taxpayer.

Then we managed to get into good US universities because of good test-taking skills, GRE scores, and grades. They gave us financial aid for graduate school, got jobs, and at least in my day, got the coveted Green Card in a year or two. Then we raised families and lived middle-class lives (or better, if we managed to join the right startups). We began enjoying a kind of American Dream.

We made annual trips to India, though the kids rebelled against the heat and dust. We forced the kids to attend Indian classical music or dance classes, and the Tiger Mothers amongst us groomed them to win Spelling Bees and get perfect 4.0s and perfect 800s in the SATs, and get into Ivy League schools and onwards to med and law school.

Somewhere along the line, especially after our parents died, we realised that we had almost nothing that connected us back to the old country, especially now that we, finally, caved in and acquired our US citizenship. It’s just easier to travel with, we’d console ourselves, and in any case, just like Jews did about Jerusalem, we could always toast each other: “Next year in Mumbai” when we got together for a Christmas party.

Imperceptibly, as Vikram Seth, who knew a thing or two about the California of the 1980s, wrote in ‘Diwali’, America rose, and India sank in their hearts:

… Kalidas, Shankaracharya,
Panini, Bhaskar, Kabir,
Surdas sank, and we welcomed
The reign of Shakespeare….

This is not to blame anybody’s life choices. It is a dilemma: Should you immerse yourself in the culture of where you live, or should you hang on to an identity that you once had? Bharati Mukherjee, who best chronicled immigrant angst (Jhumpa Lahiri is second-generation), felt that one had to abandon, in fact cremate, the old identity; and immerse oneself in the melting pot.

Let me note in passing that this is the life of upwardly mobile Indians, some of whom have become fabulously wealthy, and the rest are solidly middle-class or upper-middle class. They are at ease in American society, contribute to National Public Radio, read the New York Times, go to the Opera, the Symphony, and Lake Tahoe, to be simpatico with their native peers, even if they don’t enjoy it very much. They may also have married Americans.

There is another whole class of bluish-collar Indians, and they tend to carry a cocoon of Indian-ness with them. They mostly socialise with the local Malayali Association, the Tamil Manram, the Bengali group, etc. They live in America, but they are not of America. That, too, is a reasonable choice, and some of them end up wintering in India as they get older. There is a small connection left.

What is the point in all this? It is to emphasise that it is futile to expect Indian-American CEOs to suddenly swing their companies in directions that help India, or Hindus. They have other compulsions, and they don’t find it advantageous to wear their Indian origin on their sleeves. They have assimilated and probably acquired native prejudices about India.

The narrative about India, assiduously cultivated by the Deep State and its organs, is that it is a benighted place, should be balkanised, is full of “beastly natives with their beastly religion”, as infamously said by war criminal Winston Churchill. The ‘caste, curry and cows’ narrative, in Rajiv Malhotra’s words. Indian-Americans over time begin to believe that narrative.

The other thing that I find odd is the cult-like obsession many Indian-Americans have with the Democratic Party. I used to identify myself as a Democrat, but over time I began to believe that their worldview and narrative are fundamentally in conflict with both India’s interests and the US’ own long-term survival. So I became a Republican, although I am aware of their (many) faults. But I believe they are better for the US and for India in the medium term.

I am in a WhatsApp group of former IIT classmates, and I am astonished at their groupthink about Biden, Fauci, far-left Democratic politicians, and so on. They swallow as the truth and the whole truth anything that is pushed by their favourite media. An Indian leftist piles on to this love-fest despite knowing virtually nothing about the US. Similarly, most of my old acquaintances in Silicon Valley are staunch Democrats, anti-Modi and pro-Congress. It seems to be a package deal.

Let us be very clear. Indian-Americans may do well in America. Good for them! That has nothing to do with India, except that they may urge their companies to invest in India if it makes financial sense for the company. I did this: With a colleague named Deepak B, I got my former Silicon Valley employer to invest in India. I chose to stay in India; Deepak, bless him, must still be in California.

The writer has been a conservative columnist for over 25 years. His academic interest is innovation. Views expressed are personal.

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