Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Governor formerly known as Piyush, and first American of Indian descent to run for the Oval Office, doesn’t believe in hyphenated Americans. He insists that he is not an Indian-American, but just an American.
In return, the Indian-American community has heaped scorn upon him, accusing Jindal of disowning Indianness. The hilarious Twitter hashtag, #bobbyjindalissowhite, has been resurrected after Jindal’s appearance in a pre-debate Republican forum yesterday, August 6. Critics cite his Americanized name, conversion to Christianity, and allegiance to the Republicans all as signs of a race traitor.
But who is that authentic Indian that benchmarks “Indianness”? Is his name Raj? Is he a computer programmer in Bangalore? Did he come to his arranged wedding on an elephant?
To be truly Indian, does Raj run around trees serenading his bride-to-be, Simran—who is being forced to marry a different authentic Indian? If you slap Raj, does he extend the other cheek, like Gandhi said we should? Does he spend five days straight watching India get thrashed by Australia in cricket? Does he dance bhangra at weddings by raising one hand in the air and placing the other under his arm pit, as if putting on two lightbulbs at the same time?
I’ll tell you a secret. There is no typical Indian. There is “typical” and “Indian.” Juxtapose the two and you have conflated nearly one billion people into an unrepresentative, and frankly offensive, singularity. Many Indians can’t dance to bhangra. Some can’t even dance.
We can be capitalists, communists, socialists, pseudo-socialists, religious fanatics, secularists and atheists. Some of us like Arundhati Roy. Some prefer books by the arch imperialist, Rudyard Kipling. PG Wodehouse is a big hit in India. Not all Indians love Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy.
Many Indians love Bollywood. Many love Hollywood. Some can’t stand Bollywood. Many Indians love India and don’t leave India. Many have no choice but to love and live in India. And many, a lot in fact, dream about life in Dubai, the USA or Australia. Take a look at the queues outside the US embassy. You will find that in a high-end restaurant in New Delhi, the locals talk in English, not Hindi or Punjabi. Post-colonial hangover, obviously.
Jindal changed his name to Bobby. This, say some, is a trick to hoodwink the Republicans into thinking he is white. Right. If a fellow with brown skin says “My name is Piyush,” that’s a dead giveaway that he’s brown.
Then there is the question of Jindal becoming a Christian, another cunning plan to endear himself to Louisianans. Incidentally, if you’re ever in Thiruvananthapuram*, the capital of Kerala, just shout “Anthony” at the top of your voice. Don’t be surprised if half the town answers “Yes.” There are Christians in Kerala. Yes, Indian Christians. Are they authentic Indians or do they secretly wish to be the Governor of Louisiana?
My little son prefers pizza to chicken dopiaza and baseball to cricket. It breaks my heart, but it’s no cunning plan to make him the Governor of Alabama.
I recall growing up in England that British Indians cheering England in soccer were called coconuts by British Indians who were cheering for Argentina. A “coconut” is someone brown on the outside and white inside—a traitor. I will let you grapple with the irony. Indianness was defined not by a civilization nearly five thousand years old, but a soccer team which loses at penalty shootouts. That’s auto-relegation!
It is bigotry to limit Indianness. This is an odd bigotry which arises to fight bigotry but scores an own goal. When we accuse Jindal of being white because he does not conform to our conventions, we show our insecurities.
To adapt to a country is a characteristic of an Indian. Not every Indian shares that view. Many cling to the “pind” (motherland). That’s fine. To disagree is also a characteristic of an Indian—we’re an argumentative lot.
This is not a panegyric on Jindal. But to not vote for Jindal because he is “so white” would be just as wrong as voting for him because he is the first Indian-American to run for the presidency. His race should be immaterial to his run for the White House. This is a post-racial United States. Right?
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Kochi as the capital of Kerala. It has been corrected here to Thiruvananthapuram.