Weekends in our US suburb, the immigrant who lived next door would hunch on a rigid wooden chair in his garage and absently watch a 13-inch colour television whose thin antennae barely mustered the berserk picture on its screen. He would smoke upwards of a pack of cigarettes a day and down a case of Heineken deliberately, quietly, without apology. Beyond this, his only task those afternoons away from shifts at the ironworks was to mow the lawn, and he happily devoted a clattering hour or two each weekend to manicuring the grass around his wife’s flower beds. In spite of what seemed his obvious affection for lawn care, whenever he would see me sent out by my father to mow our own lawn, he would offer a scrunched smile, untangle his Bavarian tongue, and call cheerfully in accented English, “When you finish, Jas, you come over and cut my grass too!” This became his recurring joke, and he had a variation of it no matter what the season. When I trudged out to corral the leaves of autumn, I would be greeted by the immigrant grinning and calling me over to clear his already tidy yard. In winter, when I would be sent to shovel snow from our driveway, he would already have tossed most of it from his own, but through the chiselling wind he would grin and shout, “When you finish, Jas, you come over and clean my driveway too!”
We’d befriended the immigrant and his family only a few months after moving into the house just north of Chicago. My mother would invite them all – the immigrant and his wife, her elderly aunt, and the grown son who lived with them – over for samosas, for stewed lamb, for dahl or aloo gobi. They would invite us over for steak fillets wrapped in bacon, for slaw, mashed potatoes and gravy, for pastries that should have been sold for dollars an ounce in a European bakery. Depending on which household was grilling burgers on a given summer day, meat patties wrapped in aluminium foil would be delivered in one direction or the other over the short chainlink fence between our gardens.
A year or so after we moved in, during one of our dinners together, the immigrant noticed the black-and-white portrait of my father’s father on display in our living room. In the photograph, taken sometime between the Great War and its successor, both of which he had served in, my grandfather stands at attention in front of a brick wall, a subedar, dark-bearded and turbaned, in full military regalia. I never knew him. He died in 1957 when my father was only eleven, and this is my only impression of him, the one I think of when I hear the word ‘grandfather’.
A few days after that dinner, the immigrant walked out of his garage, crossed the grass to our driveway, called to my father and me in the afternoon light and eagerly thrust a frame toward us. It too contained a photograph of a soldier, of his father, also in military regalia, standing at attention during the Second World War. Now the immigrant presented it to us. “My father! He was soldier too! Like you’ father,” he exclaimed, leaving off the ‘r’ in ‘your’. “He was in the SS!” The immigrant beamed at this earnest offer of friendship. “Like you’ father!” he repeated in strudel-ed English. My father took the photograph in hand, betraying no surprise at the apparition of this soldier, this photograph that could have been pulled from a history book, could have been a portrait of villainy. He held it gingerly. He looked into the other side of the war, paused a moment, then smiled, nodded, and said, “Yes. I see. Thank you,” before handing back the frame.
In this moment, some avenue of history ended. In this driveway, an old argument evaporated. In this way, a people are born. When we in this country say ‘Only in America’, this is what we mean. This minor occurrence on an otherwise unremarkable day in the dull comfort of suburbia offers only a glimpse into how complicated the question of identity becomes in the United States, and how resistant identity can be to differentiating labels like ‘South Asian American’ or ‘European American’. The neighbour’s offering was an erasure of ethnic and racial difference in favour of a shared immigrant experience. I don’t suppose he was naïve. He must have understood the resentment the portrait might evoke, but he offered it anyway. After all, the immigrant’s father, a Romanian, had been drafted into the Nazi machine unwillingly, and whatever we think of the choices he faced and the decisions he made, the father’s actions are not his son’s. When the war is over, its orphans are left to negotiate the peace.
In that moment, my father and the neighbour stood as evidence of the better version of the USA – one based on a democratic erasure of the past and a common identity, one that complicates my sense of cultural affiliation in these United States. ‘We’re in this together,’ we say, even as we quarrel over the question of who ‘we’ are exactly. In a place where nearly every language is uttered, nearly every history remembered, where nearly every ancestry mingles, the answer to that question isn’t obvious. I can only tell you that by the time he retired from the ironworks a decade or so later, tumours were boring through my neighbour’s guts undetected, and a few years after their discovery, a few years after his stomach was removed and he withered through chemo, a few years after he had grown hairless and wan, the neighbour died. I can tell you he was a lovely guy. He was a member of my tribe, and I miss him.
In this moment, some avenue of history ended. In this driveway, an old argument evaporated. In this way, a people are born.
In the preface to his recent Uncle Swami: South Asians in America Today (New Delhi: Harper Collins, 2013), Vijay Prashad offers ‘desi’ as a term to refer to “a person of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Afghani, Sri Lankan, or Nepalese descent”. In employing it, he premises his book on the notion that these culturally, linguistically and religiously disparate groups are assembled into a whole in the United States. Prashad’s desi refers to the tribe of the ochre- and umber-skinned, of curried English and proximate geographic origin. The term, with its etymological beginnings in Sanskrit, certainly isn’t Prashad’s invention. Its use is common enough among members of my family that I know it to mean ‘countryman’ in a manner roughly the same as the Italians’ ‘paisan’. However, though Prashad employs desi in the preface to what intends to be an overarching report on “South Asians in America today”, no person from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, or Nepal – or from Pakistan or Sri Lanka for that matter – makes more than a cursory appearance in the pages of Uncle Swami. Prashad’s account skews mostly towards Indian immigrants and their US-born offspring. This makes sense to the extent that Indians constitute the largest percentage of desis in the US, but it also reveals that accounting for all the peoples housed in categories such as ‘South Asian’ or ‘desi’ can get a bit tricky.
Desis know how tricky it is. Even among Indians who arrived in the US from what is ostensibly a single country, there exist chasms of cultural, linguistic, and religious difference that divide us that might remain invisible to an outside observer. One of the consequences is lingering prejudices and animosities. Among the younger generations, those of us of Punjabi descent can share plenty of sometimes painful, sometimes amusing anecdotes with our Gujarati friends – and vice versa – of bigoted comments that are wholly alien to us but are still voiced by our elders. Even in the US, there’s something in a Sikh, we’re told, that shouldn’t love a Hindu. Ditto in Hindus towards Muslims and Muslims towards Sikhs, and even this is only a partial list that leaves out the various relationships between these groups and Jains, Buddhists, Christians, and many others.
One of the more mundane but instructive consequences of all the differences is that among Southasian immigrant parents there remains a sturdy resistance to interfaith or interethnic marriages between their Southasian American offspring. As one of the last among my friends to remain single, I’m occasionally set up on dates with women of every manner of racial, religious and cultural heritage, and though I have shared dinner and conversation with black Protestants and brown atheists, with white Buddhists and others of mixed race and religious affiliation, one of the few times a date was pre-emptively shot down was when friends introduced me to an US-born woman from a Muslim Indian family. She didn’t practice the faith, and it didn’t matter that I had long ago forsaken religion wholesale. The fact that I came from a Sikh family made even a drink with me impossible on the wildly hypothetical chance it might lead to the eventual nightmare of seeking her family’s approval of the relationship. Even an anecdotal example such as this underscores something unwieldy about the desi conflation. This is tribalism on a continental – or Subcontinental – scale, and it doesn’t always work.
And yet, there are ample examples of why ‘desi’ seems a correct and rightful category for us to embrace. Growing up in Chicago in the 1980s and 90s, my ‘aunties’ and ‘uncles’ didn’t simply include my father’s or my mother’s siblings and cousins; instead, they were Gujarati and Pakistani, Hindu and Muslim, Jat Sikh and Saini; they were shopkeepers and cab drivers, physicians and professors. As a child, it seemed I might be related to anyone with brown skin and a more-or-less ‘Indian’ accent. This was a good thing. If it does indeed take a village to raise a child, then I benefited from a richly populated and flourishing one.
That said, an account limited to the Southasian sector of that village falls far short of a comprehensive panorama. It neglects those of other origins – the various babysitters and playmates of my childhood, the teachers and classmates – who have enriched three decades of my life from preschool to graduate school to the workplace. It also excludes the dozens of friends and colleagues and loved ones of varied continental, racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds who have entered my life during that time. It certainly ignores my immigrant neighbour as well as his wife, who still regularly convenes for tea with my parents and invites the lot of us over for dinner when I’m home for a visit. My commonality with the people in this latter list is the same as that with those in the former, and it isn’t anything to do with ethnicity, heritage or ancestral origin. It has everything to do with class.
My encounters with people of varied backgrounds – Southasian or otherwise – and their subsequent effect on my sense of identity are a result of the neighbourhoods, schools, and other communal contexts in which such interactions take place. They are the consequence of a contemporary geographic proximity rather than an ancestral one, and geographic proximity in the US is determined more by socioeconomic class than it is by any other factor. That it may appear otherwise is the result of an overlap between class and racial divisions that are a consequence of the country’s robust history of racism. I don’t seek to discount that racial history, but class – more than desi- or Southasian-ness – contributes to the experience of community and sense of identity that constitute my notion of tribe. When Prashad relies so heavily on desi commonality to connect the figures in Uncle Swami to each other, what is generated is an incomplete portrait of US immigrant experience.
My father’s brother-in-law was the vanguard of my family’s transplants to Chicago. Now deceased, he arrived in the city for a temporary stay in the late 1950s before returning permanently in the mid-sixties. He worked some four decades, first as a diesel engineer for the Chicago Transit Authority and later in its managerial ranks. Through the 1960s and 70s, he received occasional phone calls from strangers just arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from many of the countries listed among Prashad’s desi nations. These strangers didn’t speak much English, and they had no friends or family here. They would simply find a payphone in the terminal, open the directory, and dial the number next to any name that sounded desi. Receiving these phone calls, my uncle would leave his home in Chicago’s southern suburbs and drive north to the airport. He would collect the new arrivals, whether Punjabi, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi, Hindu, Muslim, or Sikh. My aunt and he would host them, sometimes for weeks at a time, until they got jobs and apartment leases.
My uncle’s actions embody the mindset of practiced by generations of immigrants from and to every part of the world. We Southasian Americans know something of the immense, internecine conflicts and tensions that permeate the histories of our peoples, but those we live among do not. And for us Partition no longer matters. Who assassinated whom and for what reason no longer matters. The cold war over Kashmir, the occupation of Amritsar, the Bangladesh Liberation War, the thousands of years of persecution, animosity and conflict no longer matter. When you reside in a society that doesn’t distinguish between yourself and someone who looks like you, you might come to accept and even embrace the conflation. Says the immigrant in this country: ‘Nobody here really wants us; no one here can tell us apart; we might as well stick together.’
This is what foreigners in foreign lands do, and there isn’t anything uniquely Southasian about it. ‘We’re all in this together,’ the immigrant says, but it isn’t so optimistic an idea as it might appear. The immigrant mindset is a pragmatic one, born of linguistic and cultural barriers that prevent easy access to the host culture. Arriving on alien turf, one needs a translator, a handler, a capable friend. The embrace of the ethnic esprit de corps under such circumstances is a matter of necessary convenience; friendship and the more general sense of solidarity are something of an emergent phenomenon. While there is human decency and goodness in that embrace, the immigrant’s tribal affiliation is more a function of economic self-interest than a selfless championing of the collective spirit. As a result, once the language is learned, resources secured, and economic desperation begins to wane, so do the cultural ties that bind. Though it isn’t always the case, as members of an immigrant group encounter their share of success, concerns about conventional socioeconomic status can come to supplant cultural, ethnic and familial loyalties. At this point, the embrace of heritage becomes a choice rather than a need for the successful immigrant, and more pointedly so for her or his children. There isn’t anything especially desi about this choice either.
As a child, it seemed I might be related to anyone with brown skin and a more-or-less ‘Indian’ accent. This was a good thing.
Still, this is the moment in which many of us children of Southasian immigrants – including many of the figures profiled in Prashad’s book – find ourselves today. And though he offers a glimpse into the history of how we arrived at this moment of decision, Prashad sticks largely to an aerial view in his historicising. He devotes most of his attention in Uncle Swami to elite desi individuals and organisations, and as a result, while the book is terrifically informative about its specific subject, it falls short of anything so grandiose as an account of ‘South Asians in America Today’. In its profiling of the careers and various affiliations of the desi elite, it is more an account of some Southasians in the US.
Commonality, no matter how tenuous, is the foundation upon which factions are built. A minority faction can, by the sheer numbers of its membership and collective resources, accrete cultural influence and political capital. Prashad delivers an account of the process of factional organisation as undertaken by Southasians – primarily Indians – in America. After a lyrical first chapter addressed to the book’s title character – Uncle Swami as the USA personified – Prashad goes on to describe how Southasians, banned by law from emigrating to the country in the early part of the 20th century, first began arriving in small waves of highly educated and skilled engineers, scientists, and physicians in the 1960s, and then in larger numbers with more varied backgrounds in the 1970s and 80s. He explains how they settled in as a “model minority” subject to the relative indifference of “white America”. Later, in the chapters ‘The India Lobby’, ‘How the Hindus Became Jews’, and ‘Compulsions of Ethnicity’, the author details the rise to prominence of a few exemplary Southasian – again, primarily Indian – politicians, corporate CEOs, influential lobbyists, and power brokers at every level of government, from the municipal to the Congressional to the Executive, this last in the person of Sonal Shah, who served on the post-election transition team for Barack Obama’s incoming administration in 2008.
In its profiling of the careers of the desi elite, it is more an account of some Southasians in the US.
Prashad offers their stories as a narrative history of the tribe at large. However, he excludes too much – the book is a decidedly short read at 183 pages – to really describe the Southasian condition in the US. Almost everyone on display here is a lawyer, politician, lobbyist or academic. There is no mention of scientists, journalists, writers, artists or entertainers. It is an odd work on Southasian Americans that would leave out, among others, Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria, Jhumpa Lahiri, and 2012 Democratic National Convention host Kal Penn. On a similar note, while Prashad makes ample mention of Sikhs and Muslims at the book’s outset, these groups quickly fall by the wayside along with the Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Afghans, Sri Lankans and Nepalis that Prashad includes in his definition of desi. His catalogue prefers figures like Sonal Shah, Gopal Raju and Amrish Mahajan, and organisations such as the US-India Business Council, the India Lobby, USINPAC (US-India Political Action Committee), as well as the Hindutva movement.
In order to establish a connection with these subjects, readers need to embrace the idea that they are bound to these figures by shared membership in the desi tribe. However, the heritage of Prashad’s characters leaves little feeling of commonality; they are so different from each other that their Southasian-ness becomes an incidental and forgettable fact. Maybe Prashad wants to present the diverse concerns that play within the disparate tribe of the desis, but in doing so he reveals that there are ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ within this group as much as there are within any other large and diverse subculture. It just so happens that the figures described in Uncle Swami might be called our good guys and bad guys by virtue of their heritage, but I don’t feel much kinship with any of them, and knowing their stories doesn’t really give me much insight into how to consider or reconsider my life as a Southasian in the US today.
My dissociation with Southasian-ness as presented by Prashad is exacerbated by the fact that even when he does turn to a ‘street view’, I don’t recognise the experience he describes. For example, his second chapter ‘The Day Our Probation Ended’ begins with the aftermath of 9/11, and in it he offers a sombre portrait of Southasian immigration to the West. He writes,
The documented endure the humiliation of endless forms, with prying and unfriendly questions, and an array of acronyms to slot us into this category or that. Passports and other papers worn by clammy hands as they wait in endless queues that lead to the same airless exchange with immigration officials whose seats are cleverly placed to make them look down on us.
I’m not sure if Prashad means this is the case post 9/11, or if it has always been so. Either way, his account doesn’t match the process of naturalisation as described by the desi immigrants I know, nearly all of whom left their countries without wealth or education beyond secondary school. If anything, members of my immediate and extended family – I was the first of that very large group to be born in this country – describe feelings of eagerness at the outset of the naturalisation process and a sense of pride in citizenship.
Yet, Prashad continues, “Finally, entry into the cities of the United States or Europe, but only to persist with that fear that there has been some error, that sometime, if not now, they will come and put you on a plane that takes you away from this place.” Strange, then, that I have never encountered a legally immigrated Southasian in the US, Canada or the UK who describes feeling this rather hyperbolic brand of paranoia. This doesn’t mean Prashad is wrong; maybe he encounters such people and stories all the time and can offer ample examples. Pitting my anecdotal evidence against his is a pointless exercise, but it reveals the woefully limited sightlines of single observers. What might be more relevant is that my anecdotal evidence is likely the result of my only knowing Southasian immigrants whose socio-economic class is nearly identical to my own. I don’t know other stories not because I don’t know enough desis, but because I only know desis who are like me. Here again, it seems, when it comes to identity and experience, class trumps culture.
At any rate, Prashad presents a dark view of the Southasian immigrant experience, and attributes that darkness to the context of the post-9/11 United States. In ‘The Day Our Probation Ended’ and in his preface, he presents the al-Qaeda attacks as the impetus for Uncle Swami. He describes the weeks, months and years after that Tuesday in September as rife with threat for any brown-skinned body. “Mosques were included with gurudwaras in the saturnalia of random violence,” he writes, “just as South and West Asians of all faiths became, along with Sikhs, targets of retaliation for 9/11.” Prashad describes baseless interrogations on trains, acts of intimidation and verbal abuse, unwarranted incarcerations, and assaults and even murders carried out against Southasians as a result of their being taken as analogues of extremists and terrorists. The decades of desis living as a model minority had ceased, an avenue of history had ended. Prashad writes, “This book is about the South Asian American community after 9/11, and so in many aspects is about the ways in which many of us took cover behind liberal tolerance to get to the other side of the most difficult period of the domestic impact of the War on Terror.”
His target audience seems to be those for whom desi identity is already essential, those for whom his book might feel immediately relevant.
However, except for a brief reappearance in the book’s very last pages, Prashad doesn’t mention 9/11 or its aftermath at all after the first few pages of his second chapter, preferring biographies of prominent desis and narrative histories of prominent Southasian American organisations that predate 9/11. This is odd considering that the dust-jacket copy and preface purport that the book will focus on those very events and their far-reaching consequences. This suggests that though the chapters in Uncle Swami are presented as a whole, they are actually a series of independently written essays only loosely held together by the notion of shared Southasian ancestry. The connection is tenuous at best.
Prashad himself underscores the danger in overemphasising shared ancestry as a unifying principle when he profiles Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. The section on Jindal – housed in the book’s fourth chapter ‘Compulsions of Ethnicity’ – is titled ‘The Republicans’ Obama’. This is a an especially outsized comparison for anyone who watched Jindal’s hilariously awful turn as Republican respondent to Obama’s first State of the Union speech. Still, in this section Prashad writes,
… Jindal’s personhood is more compelling than his actual political programme. Young and charismatic, with a promise to be postracial and yet with dark skin: that is the temptation of both Jindal and Obama. Their politics are not part of the equation, only what they represent symbolically. [But] As men of colour, both need to be taken seriously for who they are, not simply what they look like. If we take Jindal seriously, we find him to be not so far removed from … [2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate] Sarah Palin.
The author argues that, though Southasians might be tempted out of some sense of tribal affection to celebrate Jindal, we should ignore the fact of his heritage and focus strictly on his ideology in deciding whether to support his political career. Prashad writes, “The compulsion to support someone because of ethnicity is false,” a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree. However, he goes on to say, “Nevertheless, you’d have to be made of stone not to feel something at the inauguration of Bobby Jindal as Louisiana’s governor on January 14, 2008.” Trouble is, I don’t feel anything, and it never becomes clear why I should.
Regardless of physical appearance and ethnic lineage, Jindal’s sociopolitical perspective and his personal affect is as foreign to me as that of former Republican senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum. Origins are irrelevant. Jindal isn’t a member of my tribe any more than 2011 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is. This isn’t to say he’s some sort of sell-out or Uncle Tom either. It is that Jindal’s, Santorum’s, and Romney’s wealth afford them a perspective that runs counter to my own. Jindal’s side doesn’t see the relationship between government and its citizens the same way I do, and my trouble with Jindal is the same as my trouble with anyone with whom I would respectfully disagree. Our common ethnicity plays no part in the conflict. More than his fiscal conservatism – aspects of which I do on rare occasion agree with – it is his membership in the Republican party of the moment that I find irreconcilable. This is the small tent of Santorum and Romney, of Palin, and even more radically of Dick Cheney, Michelle Bachmann, and Peter King. I have no empathy or affection for one of that party’s most prominent members even if he, like me, is the offspring of Punjabi immigrants. More to the point, Jindal doesn’t bother me from my perspective as the son of desis. He bothers me from my perspective as a voter.
This is as it should be. After all, Jindal doesn’t politic as a Southasian; he politics as a fiscal and cultural conservative in the contemporary sense, with his loyalties committed to that political faction. He courts the wealthy and the Christian rather than betraying much allegiance to his ancestry. This too is as it should be. Prashad makes this exact point when he remarks, “[In college] Jindal spent his time with the Christian Fellowship, not with SASA [South Asian Students Association]. There was no need for him to have been at the SASA events. He had the right to make his choices. There is no compulsion to inhabit your ethnicity in an organised fashion, as there should be no compulsion to support political figures because of their inherited ancestry.” Jindal’s interest is ideological and political. He has made his choice. We all do.
While I might be at the opposite end of the political spectrum, far more sympathetic with Prashad’s ideological leanings than with Jindal’s, I can’t say my relationship to heritage is much different than the governor of Louisiana’s, at least superficially. Certainly, I can speak my broken Punjabi and understand a bit of Hindi. Certainly, I can cook a sabji or two. But like Jindal, I have no history of membership in Southasian American organisations, or much knowledge of them. As with Jindal, though it constitutes part of my sense of identity, ancestral origin hasn’t been a driving force in the professional choices I have made or in deciding whose company I keep. Uncle Swami doesn’t convince me that it should, and persuading me isn’t Prashad’s objective. His target audience seems to be those for whom desi identity is already essential, those for whom the history offered by his book might feel immediately relevant. I’m not among them.
In recent months, ‘desi’ seems a poignantly immediate term. In the aftermath of the August 2012 gurdwara killings in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an acquaintance of my father’s stops by my parents’ house where I’m visiting from out-of-state. No one else is home, so he shakes my hand and introduces himself. He wants to offer his condolences. He explains he isn’t a Sikh like my father – ‘the sardar,’ he calls him, though my father sports neither beard nor turban. He says he is a Muslim, Indian like us but a Muslim. He says, “It’s the same – Sikh, Muslim – we’re all the same here. I wanted to offer my condolences to your family.” I say, “Thank you,” delivering the part of the dialogue I’m supposed to deliver in this sort of moment. We talk for a while, and it becomes clear he views this killing as peculiar, as directed at people ‘like us’ whose condition is unique in this country. This is a moment that binds us desis together.
I understand this in my gut. The news of Wade Michael Page’s murderous rampage at the Oak Creek gurdwara arrived via radio a few days earlier while I was driving through suburban Chicago only an hour or so south of Milwaukee. This was a moment when my Sikh, Punjabi heritage came pulsing out of some usually inert artery. There have been shootings in the US, and there will be shootings in the US, but this one feels personal. Members of my family and their friends have visited that temple. People I know appeared on local news broadcasts in the requisite media frenzy that accompanies the event. In this sense, it technically is personal by virtue of these – very loose and distant – personal connections. Such connections, more than anything else, account for that feeling in my gut. But, for the man at the door, Oak Creek is personal for another reason. His sympathy and offer of condolence, genuine and generous, is centred on the idea that an attack on a group of desis in the USA is an attack on all desis in the USA and, more to the point, an attack on desis uniquely. I understand this in my gut, but in the end this can’t be how the attack is considered.
Prashad’s profiles and histories demonstrate how individuals become part of this nation’s continued invention.
The Milwaukee shooting took place barely two weeks after another gunman opened fire inside a crowded theatre in Aurora, Colorado, during a midnight screening of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night Rises. In Colorado – not so far from Columbine High School, site of another mass killing over a decade earlier – 12 people were murdered and another 58 wounded in at the cinema. This is the sick stuff of this country. There have been mass shootings in grammar schools, high schools, universities, post offices, and banks, in restaurants, convenience stores, and on military bases. There are countless shootings in the streets and alleys of Chicago and in nearly every other large US city every day. There are ‘conventional’ murders and the murders motivated by bigotry that we call ‘hate crimes’. Even so, my claim to all of these ought to be no different than my claim, even as a descendent of Punjabi Sikhs, to the gurdwara murders. Each one of these miseries should affect me the same. Each one is evidence that for all the optimism that comprises the United States’s idea of itself, this is a place as much defined by the disparity, alienation, and desperation of the modern state as it is by democratic, egalitarian, and optimistic ideals. More than plain ignorance, there is madness and villainy here, and all of us are subject to it.
The most dispiriting denial of this version of solidarity arrives via the person-on-the-street responses featured in local news reports after Oak Creek. So many Sikhs interviewed echoed the same sentiment over and over again: ‘This happened because we are mistaken for Muslims. People must understand that we are not Muslim.’ The sentiment implicitly suggests – even if inadvertently – that one might understand the motivations behind the shooting if Muslims had been the victims. It is a tragedy for sure, but it is a greater tragedy for the factor of mistaken identity. The imperative then becomes to differentiate Sikhs from Muslims, and one comfort that is voiced is, ‘At least America will learn who we are as a consequence of this tragedy.’ What a bizarre idea. Here, an event that unites on the one hand but divides on the other. Here, the Southasian experience is defined by its fissures as readily as it is by its sense of solidarity. The Muslim at the door offers his condolences based on one version of tribe even as some he would offer solidarity to distinguish themselves from him based on another. The thing both versions have in common is that they are defensive rather than inclusive.
A different response comes also from another person-on-the-street perspective. In the days after Milwaukee, Chicago Tribune reporters Lisa Black, Michelle Manchir and Jim Jaworski interviewed a number of Sikhs in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. One of these, a Chicago-based anaesthesiologist named Ravi Singh, responded plainly, “It is not an attack against the Sikhs. It is an attack against humanity.” Singh’s statement is the one I most agree with and return to the most. This wasn’t a uniquely Sikh, desi, or Southasian moment. In this country, such shootings are too-commonplace and familiar horror. When we here say ‘Only in America’, this too is what we mean. In the aftermath of this attack on the human spirit, Singh points to the one essential fact: culture might divide us, villainy might besiege us, but all of us are in this together.
Prashad never denies or contradicts this, and I’m not suggesting he does. Uncle Swami is his contribution to the ongoing study of one of the many nucleotides that constitute the USA’s national genome. In offering it, he educates those of us who might otherwise have no knowledge of these particular segments. That said, in writing about Southasians in America today he focuses on the ‘South Asian’ qualifier where I would focus on the ‘American’ one. He concludes his book with a query directed strictly at Southasians. He writes,
The choice lies between giving over the traditions you love to the forces of hatred who might masquerade as the defenders of tradition (in religious terms) or as the promoters of progress (in economic terms), or to the force within you, and around you – a force of love and ecstasy, passion and pain – to transform the world. What would you have?
And so he ends Uncle Swami as lyrically as he begins, but when the only options are hatred or transformation, his question seems too easy. I cannot imagine anyone would deliberately choose the former over the latter, and for those of us who call the US home there are other conflicts to consider when it comes to the self, history, and identity.
This is a place where we negotiate a peace between the tribe of the past and the tribe of the present, between the part of the self that is artefact and the part that is a fact newly asserted. We measure the solidarity of conflation – offered by family, by the ethnic village and its shared struggle – against the solidarity of erasure offered by our diverse neighbourhoods, by the multicultural panorama of America and its promise of acceptance. Here, the matter of class is pitted against questions of race and culture such that we’re forced to wonder when we make a proud assertion of ourselves, and when we pander and surrender to the backhanded compliment of the ‘model minority’ or the callous disregard of bourgeois complacency. The difficulty in all of this is finding a détente between self-preservation, self-denial and self-respect. This conundrum isn’t mine alone. It confronts every person like me, which is to say more than Southasians alone. It confronts Bobby Jindal and Barack Obama alike, but it looms too for my ‘white’ friends who emigrated to other versions of the US from insular steel mill towns in Pennsylvania or politically and culturally conservative Mormon families in Utah. It confronts gays in a heteronormative society and women in a misogynist one. It stands before any and all of us who concede membership in the tribes that birthed us, their mores and expectations, for membership in tribes of our own making; and in this country, such concession is the essential act. It is the premise of the country itself.
The Europeans who first arrived here called it the New World, but this was a lie. Indigenous peoples – the original tribes of America – inhabited these continents for epochs before any Viking or Spaniard or Englishman made a boot mark here, for generations before a German mapmaker named this place after an Italian explorer. This is a country born of the genocide of those native peoples. It is a country hoisted by slave chains and carried forward by the toil of immigrants and migrants, legal and illegal, who even now labour years in farm fields and thankless urban interiors, all the while knowing they’re unwanted and unwelcome here. This is the weight of our history, but it is countered by the notion that the US is also an idea made manifest, that it is the ambitious, admirable and broken reality born of an egalitarian and meritocratic ideal. This country attempts a version of the world better than the world can perhaps permit, and in this it is a place that must always make itself new. Vijay Prashad’s profiles and histories demonstrate how individuals become part of this nation’s continued invention. For Southasians and for all of us in the USA today, it is a commitment to that project of invention that makes us more than mere denizens. Our individual contribution to the collective moment is what makes us citizens, and when I say ‘We’re all in this together’, this is what I mean.
Prabhu Ghate is an independent researcher, journalist and consultant. He was formerly in the Indian Administrative Service, and an economist at the Asian Development Bank.