The day (Sept. 22) started with a forecast for showers, but none came and, soon, the blazing Texas sun was beating down fiercely on the NRG Stadium complex in Houston.
Families began trickling into the complex starting 6:30am, and were soon streaming in by the dozens. By 8am, the crowd had swelled to a sea of saffron kurtas, tri-colored saris and NaMo T-shirts. Some even sported saffron cowboy hats (this being Texas, after all).
People were here to attend the Howdy, Modi! event, where prime minister Narendra Modi was to speak to a large audience, as part of his week-long US visit.
As expected, the group comprised almost entirely of the Indian diaspora, seemingly dominated by the middle-aged, though there were a fair few college students as well, besides young, second-generation children and teens accompanying their parents.
The loudspeakers within the stadium soon came to life and could be heard loud and clear outside as well. “Vande Mataram” and slogans like “Modiji aagey badho, hum tumhare saath hain” (go ahead, Modi, we are with you) were booming throughout the complex. The volunteers, all wearing blue T-shirts screaming “Howdy, Modi!,” seemed woefully outnumbered by the thousands of attendees, and were frequently heard yelling out general instructions about tickets and ID cards, as a few harrowed-looking NRIs were seen rushing back from the checking counters to the parking lot with their bags since they had apparently missed/ignored instructions about bags not being allowed inside.
By this time, TV reporters belonging to some of the more pro-government news channels could also be spotted outside, talking to attendees.
Inside the arena, the diaspora’s excitement was palpable, and the air rife with expectation. Someone was overheard claiming that it was “already known with certainty” that a direct flight from Delhi to Houston would be announced during the event (this did not happen). Another speculated on something about special work visas for Indians, and yet another gent went a step further and claimed an announcement regarding MoUs with Texas oil giants was imminent and that this would herald the much-needed, quasi-privatisation of India’s oil industry.
Soon though, the anticipation turned to impatience because president Donald Trump, who was supposed to address the crowd before PM Modi, had not yet arrived.
The wait was punctuated by cultural performances—some tolerable, some not so much. One of them was a somewhat cringe-worthy rendition involving Indian-origin girls (and white ones) dressed in cheerleader outfits and cowboy hats dancing to a song called Kick A Little by an American country music band named Little Texas (the intro to the performance purported it to showcase the discovery of “who we are” as young second-generation Indian-Americans). At one point, a rumour went around that Trump had arrived, leading to premature cheers among sections of the crowd as hope spread—only to fizzle out soon, as they (and Modi) continued to wait.
Meanwhile, just across the street from the auditorium, a protest was underway, organised in coordination with various human rights organisations such as Alliance for Justice and Accountability, AZAAD Austin, and South Asian Youth in Houston Unite.
Buses ferrying protesters began arriving at Crowne Plaza hotel from various pick-up points in Houston and from as far as Dallas, too. Soon, there were thousands of protestors squeezed into the designated, barricaded area—while the Houston police lined up grim-faced and watchful, some on foot, others on horseback.
The volunteers at the entrance of the protest here handed out at least four different kinds of T-shirts for free (predictably, they ran out of the medium-sized ones first).
The side facing the auditorium abounded with placards and banners with messages ranging from denunciations of lynchings and caste-based violence in India to the recent communication blockade in Kashmir to the National Registrar of Citizens (NRC) detention centres in Assam, and of RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and Modi himself.
The protest was teeming with Kashmiri flags, and yellow Khalistani ones as well, and angry chants and slogans rang out through the numerous megaphones. While the majority of protestors were of South Asian origin, there was a significant presence of Whites, Latinos and African Americans too.
Most of the protestors were from Houston (which has a large South Asian population, especially in suburbs like Sugarland), and many others had travelled from various parts of Texas, including Austin, El Paso, and Galveston. Some had travelled from states as distant as New York and New Jersey.
Noticeably, a far greater proportion of this crowd was younger than at the event itself. There were some protestors whose parents were actually attending the event at the stadium, including a young stand-up comedian whose parents were “distinguished guests” at the event.
Soon, a band arrived, replete with sax and drums, protest songs played out alongside the reverberating slogans, as some of the protesters flocked to the centre of the music and danced to the beats. By this time, the heat was positively scorching and many sought shelter under shaded areas and in the adjoining parking lot, as volunteers scurried to distribute water and juice.
The protest ended around 1pm local time, and the many buses that lined up the adjoining Kirby Drive to carry protestors back to their homes soon caused a traffic jam. The police had to then close the street to other traffic.
Inside the NRG Stadium, Trump did arrive—more than an hour later than scheduled—but not before Modi had already addressed the crowd once. The two then walked out together to a roar from the diaspora, followed by (fulsome) expressions of mutual admiration as well as a political endorsement of each other.
On the stage
Modi, while introducing Trump, exhorted the Indian diaspora with the words “Ab ki baar Trump sarkaar” (this time it’s the turn of the Trump administration). He later even asked the crowd to give Trump a standing ovation.
Regardless of whatever hopes might have been harboured and whatever concessions anticipated, they got this assurance from Trump: “We’re going to take care of our Indian-American citizens (emphasis added) first—before we take care of the illegal immigrants that want to pour into our country,” which some may have found a bit baffling considering a large chunk of the NRI crowd comprised of non-citizens working in the US.
After this, Modi proceeded to deliver an hour-long speech in which he lauded Trump’s “Art of the Deal” and how he himself continues to learn from the American president, extolled the latter’s government (as well his own), and praised India’s economy, shortly after assuring the diaspora in different languages that “everything is fine” in India.
And then it was time to leave.
Around 2pm, the attendees began emerging out of the stadium, many wearing the Howdy Modi t-shirts they had been handed at the event.
As they left, there seemed to be a broad consensus regarding two things: it was unbearably hot outside, and this event had, by and large, been a political one, at least partly to help Trump’s fortunes in the next election (especially in Texas, what with recent speculation about the traditionally red state potentially turning blue in 2020—which could obviously be a big blow to Trump’s re-election bid).
As expected, the departing crowd choked the traffic outside NRG soon thereafter and some of the attendees had to take Ubers to get to the more distant parking lots. For at least a couple of hours, Mahatma Gandhi district as well as Hillcroft Avenue, which has a large presence of Indian commercial establishments, saw traffic move at snail’s pace and much honking of car horns.
The well-known Indian restaurants Shiv Sagar, Shri Balaji Bhavan, Chowpatty Chat and others were completely packed with queues extending way outside till as late as 4pm, as bemused American passers-by looked on, seemingly wondering about the source of this sudden Sunday afternoon influx.
Those who came in late after struggling to find parking spaces nearby watched the long queues outside the restaurants with dismay, and, hungry by now, some decided to forsake Indian food this time, resigning themselves to lunch at one of the many fast food outlets in the area.
For a spell of two hours, Hillcroft had transformed into Little India. Mostly everyone walking the pavements and crossing the streets seemed desi, with many yet to take off the Howdy Modi T-shirts they were wearing over their clothes, despite the oppressive heat.
There soon came a brief respite though, in the form of a downpour which lasted a few minutes. And then it was hot and humid again, as the last of the NRIs trickled out of the restaurants and drove away to make their way back home.
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