As Indians, home and abroad, commemorate 71 years of independence today, there’s much to celebrate. Looking back, descendants of the sub-continent can be proud of birthing an array of amenities that humans universally enjoy today: shampoo, ink, buttons, chess, the concept of board games in general, and most notably, yoga (among a litany of other important discoveries part of modern society).
Indians contributed to the field of arithmetic by assisting in deriving the rudiments of Algebra and conceptualizing the number zero (an appropriate figure for how many times Indian children enjoyed studying this field of math over summer break).
In science and technology, members on team melanin are responsible for the invention of wireless communication, USB flash drive, and plastic surgery. For those who have ever sent a text, transferred a file, or starred in a Real Housewives show… you’re welcome.
Today, India’s muscular democracy (near 70 percent of Indians vote) and booming economy (6th largest in terms of nominal GDP and now the fastest growing among industrialized nations), provide reason to be cautiously optimistic about its future.
With 23 national languages recognized, eight main religions, 22,000 distinct dialects, and over 1,000 types of brews cultivated, the subcontinent is an area where anyone can literally find their cup of tea.
Overseas, snippets of Indian culture are ubiquitously enjoyed. From the tiny villages in sub-Saharan Africa to our colonial companions in Australia, individuals across the globe gleefully consume India’s most popular cultural export: Bollywood — a multi-billion dollar industry that annually produces a thousand movies, garners billions of fans, and has been the largest film industry in the world since 1970. (America, it’s time to rename your film capital Hombay).
On my way to the airport recently, my Senegalese cab driver told me about his mother back home, who despite being illiterate and deaf in one ear, took the bus once a month to immerse herself in the highly-choreographed sequences and delightfully innocent love tales showcased in Indian cinema. These occasions were also the only time she left the house.
In the home of India’s pale stepfather, England, South Asian restaurants now employ more people than the nation’s coal mining, ship building, and iron and steel industries combined. Some call it globalization, others call it karma.
Over the past few months, I corresponded with over 1,200 of my brown brethren across six continents, evenly split between male and female, to gauge what makes them proud of their ethnic heritage.
Many praised the strong values instilled in them, the importance placed on family, and the monikers meant to show respect.
In the United States, second generation Indians praised their parent’s bravery and distinct struggle in their pursuit of the American dream. Specifically, pulling a Drake and starting from the bottom, fighting through the pain of being homesick, and combating xenophobia and unchecked institutional bigotry in order to broaden economic and artistic opportunities for their offspring. Thanks mom.
Others highlighted a group with a strong desire for inclusivity, as well as a people engulfed in raw, welcoming affection who live life with extreme emotions, even when it’s at their own peril. As the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore noted, “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade. It makes the hand bleed that uses it.”
Eight percent of those surveyed stated the success of Priyanka Chopra as a reason to be proud, while 33 percent cited her recent engagement to Nick Jonas as a reason not to be.
My favorite response came from Rahul Adhia, a young man I met while vacationing in Tanzania during the summer of 2014. Rahul’s Goan grandfather moved to Tanzania in 1958 to work on a clothes plantation. Today, Rahul is a petroleum engineer who presides over north Africa exploration projects for Shell.
After berating me for 15 minutes for not visiting, the self-described third generation Afro-Asian stated, “Bhai, this is easy. Whether we were born in India or migrated elsewhere, we know chicken tikka masala is British bullshit.”
Personally, identifying the source of my pride would be as hard as choosing between rasgulla or jalebi for desert. What’s brought me the most joy is coming to understand the complex vibrancy that people from namaste nation offer. If parts of the typical Indian character were placed in a thali, it’d be comprised of the following: carbs from the rice or naan symbolizing the energy of a global nomad complemented by a sumptuous serving of intellectual boldness, along with a side of altruistic curiosity and a dash of warmth sprinkled in every component as if it were turmeric powder.
I remember first witnessing this idiosyncratic vitality at dinner parties thrown during my adolescence. Our family would invite over fellow Eastern migrants where the analysis of affairs back home and the opinions regarding the hurdles of navigating a new life as a stranger in a strange land were as lavish, diverse, and multifaceted as the eight-course meal being served.
However, as much as this time amongst fellow melanin migrants was valued, there was an unspoken understanding that this blissful period was fleeting as many would trek to their next destination whether that be California, Indiana, West Virginia or taking their talents back home.
The melancholy of these moments was eventually swapped with a sense of pride over this vagabond spirit I’d come to realize was instilled in our DNA; a tribe ready, eager, and confident to wade into unchartered territory where we would in due course build a community that blended our new world with the old.
On the nation’s 60th birthday, Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor wrote, “India’s founding fathers wrote a constitution for their dreams, we have given passports to their ideals.” In acquiescing to the principles of Gandhi, Ambedkar, and Nehru, this grand social experiment has created a cohort that is a beautiful contradiction. An ecosystem of individuals who are awkwardly endearing, adaptable in stubborn times, calm on the shoulders of chaos, and hospitable in an inhospitable world.
Like any other dense democratic laboratory, there are grand shortcomings. For a nation that reveres the likes of Sonia Gandhi, the poetry of Rumi, and holds such ecstatic adulation for their Bollywood heroines, far too many aunties and didis tremble in fear while strolling through the public streets aware that these may be their last steps. Further, for all the lofty rhetoric around the nation’s harmonious diversity, state sanctioned ethnic strife and/or indifference to religious conflicts are a troubling norm. Despite the laudable achievement of empowering so many in the underclass over the past twenty years, there are still many with no hope of climbing up the ladders of prosperity.
In the Western world, too many in our Indian community shed any attachment to our roots, harbor unjustifiable animosity towards other immigrant groups, and publicly disown others in our diaspora in efforts to appease the majority Caucasian culture. And let’s not get started on Indian bros.
Fortunately, none of this is ignored by the greater Indus network. Last week I gathered with a group of six Indians, some immigrants and some second generation, for snacks in Jackson Heights, an area in northwest Queens, NY that is scattered with heaps of tandoori shops, sari stores, and a region where it is the norm to see business signs in English and Hindi, Bengali, or Urdu.
Over some chai and samosas, we spent an hour arguing over the most pressing topics concerning our broader community: is Prime Minister Modi’s strain of nationalism dangerous, what is India’s ideal position on the global stage, how do migrants abroad continue to pass down traditions, and will Katrina Kaif ever learn Hindi?
Knowing this was not going to end soon, an uncle invited us all over to his house to continue this discussion over drinks. Perhaps it was the generous pours of Blue Label Johnnie Walker that I consumed as the conversation continued well into the night, but what I realized that evening is that being Indian isn’t easy, nor will it ever be. Its culture and history incapable of being neatly reduced to a sound bite, its home’s rich tapestry impossible to be explained with a simple narrative, and its people uneasily appeased. There are nuanced problems of being part of this ecosystem, but this unique challenge is a privilege bestowed to one of six people on the globe, a mixture of circumstances when stitched together is a blessing, and a spice to life that I am proud to possess.