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What’s Wrong With ‘Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans’? The Title

What’s Wrong With ‘Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans’? The Title

  • What the anthology lacks in scholarship and academic rigor is adequately made up by the anecdotal perspectives of consequential participant-observers, making the story of a complex ethnic community come to life.

What’s wrong with “Kamala Harris and the Rise of Indian Americans,” a recently released book, is the title itself. It sounds like one of those self-published self-congratulatory books that are usually ghost-written for first-generation immigrants who are convinced they have “arrived” (there are several of them probably gathering dust in an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey). Or worse, it might be mistaken for an eager beaver’s rush to cash in on the coattails of Kamala Devi Harris moving into Number One Observatory Circle in Washington, D.C., the official residence of the Vice President.

But the book, edited by Tarun Basu, a highly regarded Indian journalist, is anything but. It is instead an engaging compendium of articles written by a motley group of business leaders, entrepreneurs, journalists, social activists and critics, among others, about a community whose “arrival” is anything but enigmatic.

Indiaspora, a nonprofit “network of global Indian origin leaders,” hosted a virtual event July 29 to formally launch the book, unselfconsciously billed as “a first-of-its-kind anthology on the community in the U.S.” Published in India and available on Amazon, the book, laid out in leisurely 341 pages, chronicles the progress and accomplishments of Indian Americans in 16 essays — from politics, entrepreneurship, technology, medicine, to science, business, entertainment, social activism, etc. It also includes a chapter on Indian American philanthropy, an area that has not evolved enough to write home about. Its inclusion must have been at the nudging of M.R. Rangaswami, the founder of Indiaspora and a philanthropist himself, who helped in corralling many of the book’s contributors.

Several authors featured in the book spoke at the virtual launch, most of them compellingly, given their expertise in their respective fields of endeavor. Rajiv L. Gupta, chairman of Aptiv PLC and Avantor Inc., and former executive with Rohm and Haas, (and even more well-known as the father of Vanita Gupta, the Associate Attorney General of the United States,) discussed the traits that make Indians natural business leaders; while Rangaswami, a tech entrepreneur — his original claim to fame — focused on the evolution of Indians’ success in Silicon Valley, and Maina Chawla Singh, wife of former Indian ambassador to the U.S. Arun K. Singh, chronicled the political trajectory of Indian Americans. Editor Basu, who ‘Zoom’ed in from India deferred to its time zone by guzzling what seemed like liters of morning tea, managed to speak about his decades-long association with and coverage of the Indian American community.

“Success as it is defined and celebrated in the diasporic community of Indians in the US—economic and individualistic— is narrow and elitist.”

Other contributors who spoke included the venerable Deepak Raj, founder and managing director of Raj Associates, a private investment firm, and more importantly, chairman of Pratham USA, and Bijal Patel, the young chairman of the California Hotel & Lodging Association (CHLA). Raj’s response to a question about how Indian Americans can inspire other minority communities to channel their philanthropic energies was spot on. He took the cue implied in the question and confessed that Indian Americans must also focus their charity efforts on marginalized communities here in the United States. As for Patel, while he admirably portrayed California’s Indian American hoteliers’ contributions during the pandemic — turning over their properties to house the Covid infected and the homeless — it was not lost on the audience that our enterprising hoteliers managed to profit even during the crisis. Who said, “never let a serious crisis go to waste,” again?

Among those who were not the featured speakers at the book launch were authors of a couple of essays that stood out in the book. Mayank Chhaya, an alumnus of India Abroad, wrote the informative chapter titled, “At the Center of Excellence: Seminal Contributions in the World of Science.” It was fascinating to learn about the scores of Indian American scientists who are involved in cutting-edge scientific research, particularly in frontier disciplines like space science. Some of them will certainly cross the bounds of the “Chandrasekhar Limit,” making the case for another anthology.

It would have also been interesting to hear from Vikrum Mathur who wrote the chapter “From Stereotypes to Household Names: A Cultural Shift and New Role Models,” about Indian Americans in entertainment who are making an impact on the cultural front. Their foray into arguably the most competitive arena in America has been truly remarkable. The acceptance of Indian faces in entertainment may be greater evidence of Indians blending into the great American melting pot.

The most interesting speaker at the launch, however, was Shamita Das Dasgupta, social activist and co-founder of Manavi, “the first organization of its kind that focuses on violence against South Asian women in the United States.” Her presence and presentation were as interesting and incongruous as was her essay in the book. Incongruous, by her admission in different words, is because she challenges the very notion of “success” that the Indian American community’s glory is premised on.

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Her gentle demeanor and soft voice made no effort to hide the ‘contradiction’ in her definition of the community’s “rise” that is very different from that of the co-panelists and coauthors. She reiterates, but in kinder and gentler words, her central argument in her co-authored essay, which, incidentally, appears at the end of the tome — not as an afterthought, but probably as an involuntary admission.

Dasgupta writes “that success as it is defined and celebrated in the diasporic community of Indians in the US—economic and individualistic— is narrow and elitist. This limited version of success deliberately excludes activists and changemakers who work at the margins of the community. While individualistic successes have certainly brought fame and recognition to the community, they have not instigated internal changes or fundamental modifications to the community’s inequitable culture.” Boom.

While it cannot be said that the book has not looked beyond the surface littered with shiny objects, a chapter chronicling the remarkable work of Indian American activists would have been a testimony to how far the community has come from a racist portrayal of a ‘model minority to becoming consequential agents of social change. There are young Indian American idealists, activists, changemakers in almost every field of human endeavor — not the ones who are in it to pad their resumes to get into top schools or corporations, but the real ones.

In the final analysis, however, what the book lacks in scholarship and academic rigor is adequately made up by anecdotal perspectives of worthy participant-observers, making the story of an ethnic community that is resplendently diverse and full of contradictions come to life. The title, notwithstanding.

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