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What it Means to Celebrate Onam Amid a Segregated Indian American Community

What it Means to Celebrate Onam Amid a Segregated Indian American Community

  • When there were a few of us, we were happy to identify with one another as fellow Indians, but now that there are many, we are back in our silos based on language, creed and state of origin.

Onam is widely celebrated among Malayalees around the world. This Onam, however, will be much different. Instead of large gatherings with thiruvathira dancing and large celebrations, we  may celebrate with  more private gatherings yet still putting pookalam (intricate arrangement of floral rangoli) to welcome King Mahabali. 

According to legends, King Mahabali, known for his strength of character, reigned during the golden era of Kerala, India. The King was greatly respected as judicious and extremely generous. His regime was absent of discrimination on the basis of caste. The rich and poor were treated equally. Kerala was void of poverty, corruption or disease under the reign of King Mahabali and people lived together in harmony. What a stark contrast to the world we live in today — bigotry, riots, inequity, and COVID-19.

There is a valued lesson in the legend of Onam that resonates in today’s times of division, hatred, and selfishness. That lesson is people over power.

When Lord Vishnu disguised as Vamana threatened to ruin the earth, King Mahabali sacrificed himself and his power for the benefit of his people. He was a true public servant. The festival of Onam is celebrated in Kerala as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. He put his people over power.

My parents came to the United States in the late 1970s, when there were only a few Malayalees in the area, and the Indian Orthodox Church they belonged to only had about 15 families. At that time, if my  father saw another Indian at the grocery store, he would smile in excitement, and strike up a conversation.There were so few Indians that it didn’t matter whether that Indian was Malayalee, or from the north or the south. It was the common countryhood that bonded them, a story of immigration that they could identify with. 

As a Malayalee Indian American, I celebrate Onam and Christmas, but growing up in America, I also celebrate Diwali, Holi, and Eid, among many other Indian holidays. The beauty of being Indian in America is we celebrate India as one. We learn about the different cultures within India and celebrate them with eager enthusiasm. We see another Indian as “Indian” not Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamilian or Malayalee. This doesn’t always happen in India.

Is it Trump’s America that has brought on this division or is it Modi’s India?  Or maybe both? 

The Indian Orthodox Church my family belongs to now has about 160 families. Seeing a fellow Indian at a grocery store is commonplace, but the growth of Indians in America has oddly put Indians back in  silos based on language, creed and state of origin. I’m very proud to be a Malayalee but I’m also very proud to be Indian and American. Being one of any of the above doesn’t exclude the value of the other, In fact, it enhances it. 

This year has been quite unique as the world  battles with the COVID-19 pandemic and braces for the upcoming presidential election. Division among Indian Americans seems to be increasing to levels never previously seen. Segregation is even common in the second generation, especially around the upcoming election. When there were a few of us, we were happy to identify with one another as one, as fellow Indians, but now that there are many, we are back in our segregated groups and sometimes intolerant of others.  

Is it Trump’s America that has brought on this division or is it Modi’s India?  Or maybe both?  The lack of global leadership and collaboration has been highlighted during COVID-19. It’s every country for themselves, it’s every state for themselves. It’s brought on ethnocentric selfishness.   

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Why is it when there are few, we were stronger and collaborative, but when there are many we are divided?  Divisiveness and conflict are fueled by the inability to see each other as people. We have more in common than we are led to believe. We need to have an approach to politics that does not depend upon division, hatred and fear. Perhaps we need a leader who possesses the traits of King Mahabali, a leader that thrives on unity and puts people over power.

This Onam, I hope through the urgent need of unity uncovered by Covid-19, we strive for collaboration and seek exemplary leadership. We know that we are all interlaced. A virus that infects one affects us all. Can we re-learn to value celebrations to be about unity and not division? 

I hope America will still be a country in which those of Indian heritage celebrate all of India. Identifying as Indian doesn’t exclude my Keralite origins. Being American doesn’t exclude my Indian origins. So why are Indian Americans becoming so divided?  My hope is that we, citizens of the world, will evaluate our current  leaders and elect people who strive for King Mahabali’s character that puts love and acceptance for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, language, religion or country of origin, over power. 


Asha Shajahan is an Indian American primary care physician in Metro-Detroit. Her parents are from Kottayam, Kerala and immigrated to the U.S. in the 1970s. She has been published in the Huffington Post, USA today, The Detroit Free Press, Crains Detroit Business, Michigan Bridge, The Macomb Daily and the Indian Scene. 

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