South African Indians at least have a history, Indians in America do not have that, and so they invest in myths of mystical greatness and update them with profiles of Sachin Tendulkar.
Indians livingg outside India sometimes consider themselves more Indian than those left inside. These desi diasporics are members of the FBI, the acronym for “Full-Blooded Indians”. I’m an Indian who lives and works in the US but I resigned from the FBI long ago. This past summer I went to South Africa to conduct research for a film about the FBIs in that country.
My findings: When it comes to the fight for a non-racial society, the FBIs in South Africa leave behind in the dust the FBIs in the US. When I was there, accompanied by my film-collaborator Sanjeev Chatterjee, The Johannesburg Mail & Guardian carried a matrimonial ad in its pages that was a little different from those one usually encounters in the classifieds. It read: “Sick of South Africa? USA man seeks single white female, non- smoker, 28-40, to emigrate.”
The man who had placed the ad in the paper was a South African by the name of Neil Shuda. When one of the Mail & Guardian reporters asked Shuda why he wanted to emigrate, he replied, “Even Al Capone never attacked a police station—he wouldn’t have dared to. Yet in South Africa, people just drive up to satellite [police] stations and shoot cops to death.”
Crime might be driving South Africans like Shuda away from their own country. But, it isn’t keeping away the Indian and Pakistani immigrants from South Africa. Especially the latter, who are hard-hit by domestic inflation following the economic sanctions imposed after the 1998 nuclear blasts.
Lining the streets in the local neigh-bourhoods of Johannesburg, you can see Urdu- and Hindi-speaking men and women running small kebab shops. Tar drums, sawed in half and filled with cinder, serve as ovens. Smoke and the smell of spiced meat fills the air.
These are not, however, the FBIs. That is a term reserved for the Indians who are fully South African. These newer immigrants, the ones selling kebabs and working at menial jobs in shopping malls, are often only called “India Papas”. Others—including those of Indian descent—find the India Papas mildly amusing. As one FBI said, “They dress funny. You can tell them from a mile away.”
I cannot imagine how funny the ancestors of these Indian South Africans had appeared to their European masters a century ago. I say this with all sobriety. Even today, the descendants of the Indians in South Africa are called “Russians” (because they fly red flags on bamboo poles in their houses) or “Rotis” and “Calkies” (because it was somehow believed that all of them had come from Calcutta). Or “Coolies” (because they are the children of indentureds, or maybe only because they need to be put in their place. Even in the new South Africa).
What are these diasporic Indians to think of themselves today, particularly after the demise of apartheid that had up till now designated their place in the racial hierarchy? One evening, I was listening to my car radio. I was tuned to Radio Lotus, South Africa’s Indian station (its slogan: “You are in the position. Lotus.”). The programme I was listening to was “Viewpoint”.
I had heard about the show from several friends in Johannesburg and Capetown. The show’s host Ashwin Desai, I had been told, was smart and provocative. The topic under discussion that night was “Identity”. A man called in to say that he was Indian because he prayed every day. Desai asked him if, for example, Jewish people didn’t pray every day. Did that make them Indians? The caller insisted that he was Indian because India, the land from where his forefathers came, is, as we all know, the greatest country in the world…
On this particular night, I was in Durban, where Radio Lotus is based, and a city with an Indian majority. In the Durban telephone directory, the entries under “Naidoo” totalled 15 pages. The second longest list of entries, which ran up to 10 pages, belonged to “Pillay”.
It was exciting to be among such a large group of diasporic Indians, and the questions Desai was posing were hard-hitting and vital. When I turned into my hotel driveway, Desai was asking a caller, “Can I be a homosexual and still be Indian?”
I called the show from my room. I said that I was in town to do research for a documentary which was going to be called “Where Gandhi Became Indian”. On air, I asked Desai why one of his callers felt he was Indian because he prayed every day. Why wasn’t he proud to be Indian, instead, because another Indian by the name of Yusuf Dadoo had laid the foundation for Indian and African liberation in South Africa or others like Laloo Chiba and Ahmed Timol had been tortured in prison for their resistance to the system of apartheid?
The callers on “Viewpoint” did not answer my question that evening, but Desai invited me to be on his show the next night. Delighted, I went, and got my answers. One irate listener called in to say that we were Indians because we were a special people descended from Lord Shiva, and who the hell was I to say anything about the need to examine what it meant to be Indian? Another caller from nearby Phoenix suggested to the host that folks from the Subcontinent were “a bitter lot”, envious of all that the Indians in South Africa had achieved. I replied that I was indeed. I was envious that so many of them had fought against apartheid.
The decisive contributions made by Indians to the political and economic structure of modern South Africa is incontestable. This is evident not only in the present leadership of the African National Congress (with a presence of Indians that far exceeds in proportion their population vis-a-vis Africans and the so-called coloureds) but also in other groups going back to the days of the Natal and the Transvaal Indian Congress’s. The callers to the radio station were making it plain, however, that they did not value that particular past, and, sadly, their sense of pride seemed premised on long-distance Indian nationalism that had nothing to do with struggles and sacrifices in the broader African struggle.
Isn’t that largely true also of Non- Resident Indians in the US, that vast land that now plays host to a million FBIs? American FBIs invest in myths of mystical greatness, and update them with profiles of Sachin Tendulkar.
We take pride in acts of jingoistic muscle- flexing in the Subcontinent or worship the gods of Bollywood. I have encountered very few instances where our sense of community, and our pride in it, emerges from our acts of cross-cultural activism and achievement. We’d rather go on about yet another Indian child who has won the spelling-bee contest!
In the few days prior to my radio interview, I had read Indres Naidoo’s prison memoir Island in Chains. Naidoo, an ANC activist, had been jailed on Robben Island for 10 years. I remembered one line from his 1963 trial report about Laloo Chiba and the visit in prison from Chiba’s wife: “Laloo had suffered because the warders had insisted that he speak only English or Afrikaans and his wife knew only Gujarati so that the two of them had simply had to stare at each other for the whole visiting period with tears in their eyes and saying nothing…”
We had met and interviewed Chiba for the film in his ANC office the previous week. Chiba is now a leading member of the South African Parliament. At the height of the ANC struggle, he was a commander of the guerrilla operations, and later Mandela’s neighbour in the “B” block at Robben Island. He was there for 18 years.
When I talked to him, he had not mentioned his prison experiences, but Naidoo’s description and my meeting with Chiba had made this part of the country’s history real to me. I wanted to convey this to my radio audience and I said that I was envious that there were so many Indians who, choosing amongst their idols everyone from Mohandas Gandhi to Steve Biko, had faced imprisonment and death, fighting apartheid. And I was envious that, rather than thinking of themselves as a separate people, men and women of Indian origin had made common cause with Africans and fought a united fight. These included Mac Maharaj and Ahmad Kathrada, both fellow prisoners of Mandela on Robben Island, and whom he thanks in his autobiography. Accused of sabotage, they too spent 20 years in prison.
It is not my intention to idealise South Africa or Indian South Africans. I was stung by the elitist, indeed racist, ways in which subcontinentals were given the name “India Papas”. Clearly, if nothing else, some of the inanities of my interlocutors on “Viewpoint” would also certainly halt unchecked optimism. And, as Ashwin Desai points out in his acerbic book, South Africa Still Revolting, prejudice is still pervasive there: “Among Indians the latest is, ‘Muslims bury the same day, Hindus the next and Africans after a week because they have to find the other leg in the bush’.” So, if I still use the word envy, it is primarily to acknowledge the differences I perceive between Indians in South Africa and the US.
The main difference, I believe, is that when it comes to the question of a struggle for a non-racial society, American FBIs have done nothing to even merit comparison with the Indian South Africans. Prejudice, especially against African-Americans, reigns unabashed in Indian communities in the US.
Let me return for a moment to the prison memoirs of Indres Naidoo in pre-democra-tic South Africa. A white policeman asked Naidoo, “What’s the matter with you Indians? You’ve got a long history of civilisation, you wore silk long before the white man, and here you are jumping from tree to tree with these barbarians, what’s wrong with you, man?”
In the US, quite frankly, we have not waited for the white man to impart us this piece of racist wisdom. We have produced it in our own heads and embraced it with unabashed fervour. And even in places where that slur is absent, there is hardly any evidence of a passion for solidarity. If you read the pages of a publication like India Abroad, you might encounter a lot of breast-beating about apathy among Indians. Several column inches are devoted to the need for political awareness among Indians, but that notion of politics is as narrowly identitarian as doing garba dance and eating samosas.
There’s never a word about laying a coalitional, democratic foundation for a non-racial society. We’ll fete second-string white legislative leaders. We’ll have parties for dignitaries in the Indian embassy and consulates. We’ll don ill-fitting suits and thrust out our paunches in pride every time any mainstream politician praises India for the most fatuous reasons. And, in this picture, you see me rubbing my oily forehead against the chappal worn by Jesse Helms—or for that matter anyone who is anyone in Washington DC.
But, that is the insider politics of lobbying! Every group—from soy manufacturers to the sellers of guns—has its lobby, and so why should FBIs in US not have one? Their privileged position as members of a professional class inclines them to such machinations, and the US system is certainly compli-citous in encouraging such trends. The point of a more progressive, pro-people’s politics, however, is in the organising of strong, new identities, especially if they are identities forged collectively and aimed at the greatest good of all.
The discovery of such identities for the Indian communities will begin with a recognition that they form a part of a mixed majority of people of colour. And that their success as a group and as a people lies, in large part, in taking a stance against an unjust society that keeps black and brown populations disenfranchised and poor. A drive through the inner cities of America, even through the safety of our Honda Accords and Mercedes-Benzes, should confirm not our feelings of false superiority but the realities of an invisible system of apartheid at work here.