Sunday, January 23, 2022 | 02:04 pm

Indian Influence in US Polity, Culture

Indian Influence in US Polity, Culture

Some 20 years ago I reviewed a book on Indian American stars who’d made a splashy, giant-sized impact in Silicon Valley, launching billion-dollar companies that were the toast of the booming tech sector. That era’s tech celebrities were newly-minted millionaires and billionaires like Hotmail’s Sabeer Bhatia, Pentium-chip inventor Vinod Dham, and Vinod Khosla, who, a business magazine, in an overheated moment, called the greatest venture capitalist on the planet (or it may even have been the universe).

It’s clear now that was only a foretaste. Indian Americans have spread their wings far beyond Silicon Valley and the high-tech world and moved into the US mainstream. The book’s star is Vice-President Kamala Harris, who, as the cliché goes is a “heartbeat away” from the land’s highest job. There are also physicians, scientists, and educators, who get their own chapter titled, “A Conspicuous presence in Temples of Learning”.

Harris isn’t the only one with eyes on the presidency. Take a glance at the super-ambitious Nikki Hailey (aka Nimrata Randhawa) who tasted power at the state level as South Carolina governor and the national level as UN ambassador. A few rungs below are Indian-American members of Congress (the Samosa Caucus). And yes, there’s also a South Indian sub-group calling themselves the Idli Caucus.

The greatest danger in this book is it can descend into a list of names. Corporate stars like Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and Mastercard Chairman Ajay Banga jostle for space with the newer generation hi-tech wizards such as Satya Nadella, Google’s Sundar Pichai, or IBM’s Arvind Krishna. There’s also Novartis chief Vasant (Vas) Narasimhan, Adobe’s Shantanu Narayen, and women like Cisco’s chief technical officer Padmasree Warrior.

Physicians’ imprint

Physicians? Siddhartha Mukherjee, Abraham Verghese, and Atul Gawande have distinguished themselves as both healers and brilliant writers. The physicians have a tale to tell of how they fought back against prejudice by forming powerful lobbying groups. These groups worked the professional and political circuits to overcome discriminatory rules holding back “international medical graduates”. Incidentally, the first Indian doctor who landed in the US was a woman, Anandiben Joshi, granted a part-scholarship by India’s viceroy. About her life’s mission, Joshi said: “My soul is moved to help the many who cannot help themselves.” The greatest change now taking place — and which this book details — is that, like Kamala Harris, second-generation Indian Americans, who know India only as a land where welcoming relatives cook up huge meals, have well and truly come of age. For them, the US is the only home they know, and they’ve no hesitation in grabbing every opportunity it offers.

Some have followed in their parents’ footsteps and joke about how their parents only want them to be doctors or engineers. Others, enjoying financial stability from affluent parents, have struck out in new directions like acting or even, heaven forbid, politics. But they’re very conscious of their different identity, the book underlines. “They were born in towns across the US and had navigated school lives beginning with their Indian names being mispronounced or hearing jibes about curry smells.” But unlike their parents, says the book, they studied American history and the constitution. “They were born American but had lived complex, hyphenated lives”.

Think Mindy Kaling (born Vera Mindy Chokalingam) who after school spent afternoons at her mother’s practice where “she would be cordoned off in a room where patients’ blood was drawn. She’d amuse herself by writing single-page plays.” She rose in the entertainment world by getting a job as a writer on the hit series The Office and devised an Indian American character that she ended up playing herself. Later she created a hit series Never Have I Ever based on growing up as an Indian American. Then, there’s director-writer M Night Shyamalan who produced blockbuster movies like The Sixth Sense and very recently Old which has already made $65 million.

Another of the book’s overriding themes is how influential Indians have become at every government level while still comprising just 1.2 percent of the population. Aside from the politicians, there are the civil servants. Nisha Biswal headed the State Department’s India desk and Arun M Kumar headed America’s trade and global investment efforts under President Barack Obama. The Indian Americans kept ascending under President Trump. But Under Joe Biden, a veritable flood of Indians has headed to top jobs in Washington. As founder-editor of India Abroad News Service, the book’s editor Tarun Basu had a ringside view of Indian Americans’ rising power and influence. Contributing to this anthology is his ex-colleague Aziz Haniffa, India Abroad’s managing editor, who revisits an interview he did with Kamala Harris in 2009. From the Indian side, there are former ambassadors to Washington like Arun Singh and TP Sreenivasan and also Shashi Tharoor who spent most of his career at the UN.

MR Rangaswami had a close-up view of Silicon Valley’s beginnings and its explosive global-scale growth. Bijal Patel tells of how three generations of Gujarati businessmen, beginning with his grandfather, built a hotel empire and how Asians now own half of US hotel rooms. On a different note, Laxmi Parthasarathy discusses in this age of instant, anywhere communication, how actress Richa Moorjani went to Bollywood to build a movie career before returning to the US where she made it in Never Have I Ever. Moorjani may sum up the story of Indian Americans: they’re truly American but they don’t shake off the sub-continent entirely.