Confessions of an Indian-American
By Basab Dasgupta
I would like to start by reassuring readers that this article is not about a spiritual quest or self-realization but a simple identity crisis that every migrant to a foreign country goes through. In my case, the question is “Am I an Indian or an American?”
When I was in college in Kolkata I often used to imagine what an ideal society, best compatible with my personality and interests, would be like.
Unfortunately, it seemed to me that Indian society (and especially Bengali society) was not it. However, I did not have a clear vision of such a society.
I came to the USA for two reasons: i) many of my classmates from India were either already in USA or applying for Ph.D studies in USA, so there was peer pressure, and ii) I fell in love with a girl whose brother was in the USA and she was applying as well. I really did not have a whole lot of knowledge or expectations about the American way of life.
After I came, I realised within a relatively short period that in spite of many social problems, American society was close enough to my “ideal” society. It was not just the comfort and convenience of daily life but a sense of freedom and self-reliance, freedom of speech, opportunity to be whatever one wanted to be, the justice system, pragmatic outlook, spirit of innovation and sense of humour. All appealed to me.
As a result, although I did not say this to my parents, I knew deep down inside that this was where I belonged and this was where I would live the rest of my life. There has never been any thought on my part about going back. When my mother passed away I felt that my umbilical cord with India was finally cut.
I had applied for a green card around that time and became a US citizen at the first opportunity. I genuinely started to regard myself as an American. My intention was to get assimilated into American society to the extent it was possible even though I knew that my skin color and foreign accent would never allow full assimilation. Unlike many Indian friends I was very comfortable with this conviction. If someone asks me to describe myself in one word I would say “American”.
However, I am certainly proud of my heritage. It brings me great joy when I hear about success of Indians, especially on an international forum whether it is Amartya Sen winning the Nobel prize in Economics; A. R. Rahman winning the Oscar for best musical score for “Slumdog Millionaire”; Satya Nadella and Sundar Pichai being selected to lead Microsoft and Google respectively, not to mention the dominance of IT engineers world-wide; Priyanka Chopra winning the “Miss World” crown; universal popularity of masters like Ravi Shankar; India winning the “World Cup” in cricket and so on.
India’s overall economic prosperity in recent decades and the prediction that the Indian economy would be the third largest in two decades reminds me of the line from an old song written by Atul Prasad Sen “Bharat abar jagat sabhay shreshtha asan lobe” (India will again occupy the best seat in the world gathering).
Although I do not consider myself a racist, I do believe that my Indian origin has given me some inherent traits which are typically not shared by other Americans. These are an analytical mind and a spiritual/philosophical outlook. I am certainly thankful for that.
In spite of this pride I do not feel any urge to visit India every few years; I do not keep track of all the political and social events going on in India. I do not feel the necessity of promoting Indian culture in the USA by participating/initiating various programmes and activities. I did not even teach my only daughter to speak in my native tongue (Bengali) or any other Indian language.
I feel strong sense of nostalgia about my life in India, nonetheless. This happens when I listen to Bollywood songs; when I watch a game of cricket on TV; when I eat at an “all you can eat” buffet at an Indian restaurant; when I think of my train journeys and especially when I watch pictures of the Himalayas and all the sanyasis roaming around there in quest for the supreme one!
Many years ago, when I was visiting India, I unintentionally got engaged in a debate with a gentleman who was much older than me, He accused me of betraying my country. His point was that I was not only born and raised in India, but India provided me with a very sound base in education and financial security. I did nothing to pay her back and instead ran to a foreign country. I clearly did not love my country and was motivated by purely selfish reasons. He went on and on about this theme by citing many examples to make his point.
I got exasperated and finally told him “Look. I certainly love my country. I am proud of my country. I will even go to war to defend my country. The name of my country is United States of America”.
My purpose at the time was to simply shut him up and I succeeded. Later I thought about my comments many times to see if I really meant them, especially the last line about going to war.
I certainly love USA and am proud to call myself an American, but would I really go to war to defend the country? I remember when I first came to USA, the Vietnam war was still raging and an involuntary military draft was in place.
There was a reluctance among Indian students who were there on student visas to apply for green card and eventual citizenship because of the fear that they might be drafted to go to Vietnam. Fortunately for me, the war was already over when I applied for green card and I did not have to face this dilemma.
To me, willingness to fight for one’s country and putting one’s life on the line is the ultimate proof of one’s love for the country and a decisive factor in determining one’s true nationality. I can honestly say that if I have to I will fight for the USA against all countries except India. I will not fight against USA on behalf of India either. I would just sit on the sidelines.
War aside, do I really love USA? Do I really feel like I am an American? I have lived in many states before moving to California: other than Wisconsin and Indiana where I resided for years I also lived in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Maryland for various shorter periods of time; I visited Texas and Georgia numerous times when my ex-wife was living there with my daughter.
I found people everywhere to be friendly, helpful and trustworthy; I can honestly say that I never experienced any kind of discrimination. However, deep down inside, when I lived in all those states, I always had this awareness that I was really a foreigner, that I did not belong there.
Surprisingly, I do not feel that way in California where I live now. I consider myself to be just as American as Jose Morales or Kwan Lee or Reza Farazadeh next door. It is a very comfortable feeling, to know that this is my country and I really belong here.
Now I believe that the key for me to genuinely feel to be a proud American is to live in an ethnically diverse community but where the general behavior patterns and interactions among community members follow the American norm and everyone thinks that he/she is an American first. It should be a melting pot where different cultures have already melted together.
The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America.
The article first appeared in The Statesman