Recently my friend Michelle re-tweeted this tweet you see to the left from Aziz Ansari. When I was in college some Indian students would play cricket in the public spaces I had to cross to get between classes, and they would consistently stop what they were doing and give me an inviting stare down. Finally I asked them what was up, and one of the players wondered if I played cricket. I explained not only did I not play cricket, but I had no idea what they were doing most of the time. One of my interlocutors quipped that I looked like I should play cricket. I had to laugh at that, and went on my way.
So first, congratulations to India! I recall how excited Americans were when we won the Women’s Soccer World Cup in 1999, when frankly most Americans didn’t even follow the sport. I can only imagine the euphoria in India due to victory in a sporting activity which is near the center of national consciousness.
But this gets me to a broader issue: as an Indian American, Aziz Ansari serves as a representative in the minds of his fellow Americans of India. In several of the comedic references I’ve seen to his ethnicity Aziz seems to express curiosity as to the farcical nature that his representation of a billion people sometimes takes on. For example, when Slumdog Millionaire was in the public eye people would apparently discuss it with him constantly (Aziz naturally expressed wonder at what the world must be for like for white people, who are the subject of so many films!).
This proxy effect for 1 billion people can be quite ridiculous. Because of the nature of awareness of other cultures most Americans have only a few sketches of India in their mind. These vary by time and place. Mahatma Gandhi is a constant, but forty years ago many more would know Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Today a more salient image is the Indian call center. The latter is one reason that this weblog has tackled the topic of “outsourcing” over the years, from the 2004 presidential election, down to the present. India has over 1 billion citizens, and the Indian subcontinent has over 1.25 billion human residents. And yet we as brown Americans have to grapple with perceptions based on thin, often evanescent, slices filtered through both high and low culture. I say brown American because I am not an Indian American.
I was born in Bangladesh, but raised in the United States, and am an American citizen. My father was born (just barely) in British India, and then was a citizen of Pakistan, then Bangladesh, and now the United States. My parents have lived as many years in North America as the Indian subcontinent, and far more in the United States of America than in Bangladesh, a nation which had only seen a decade when they left. I lay these details out because I understand that there are strong nationalistic strains in the Indian subcontinent, and I try and tread carefully. As I have explained to both Taz and Reihan Salam I have a weak self-awareness as a Bangaldeshi American because I spent so little time there, and my ancestors have been Bengali far longer than they’ve been Bangaldeshi, which is a new identity. Additionally, I am not very invested in the geopolitical machinations of the subcontinent, and take no great offense at being confused for Indian or Pakistani or Sri Lankan (no one has every mistaken me for Nepalese or Bhutanese!). Though I will explain that I was born in Bangladesh.
As a child I recall that my family socialized with a wide range of people from the Indian subcontinent. They had many friends from Pakistan, others from India (often Bengalis), as well as Bangladeshis. In the 1980s you couldn’t be “picky” about your co-ethnic associations. A shade of brown and a predilection for spicy food would do (there was a time when we socialized a great deal with a set of Syrian Christians from Kerala, for example). Though my parents have some subcontinental political affinities (they supported the Awami League, and I have an uncle who is an active politician in that party) this was never a major issue in the house, and only as an adult have I become more aware of the salience of South Asian politics among Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan Americans. In addition, as an atheist with a strong detachment from religious identity (I am not a “cultural Muslim”) I don’t have much emotional identification with the communal conflicts which occasionally roil the subcontinent. Since on a fundamental level I see religions as interchangeable I sometimes thoughtlessly quip that all Hindus should convert to Islam or all Muslims could convert to Hinduism, in the interests of subcontinental amity.
I introduce this post with a biographical prefaces to explain where “I’m coming from.” In many ways I perceive myself as an “outsider brown,” and have felt so since my own participation on this weblog began in 2004 as a commenter, a friend of Vinod and Manish who was curious as to what this desi identity meant (we had had long running email list discussions in 2003 around this issue). Since then Sepia Mutiny has been a boon for data mining: I have spent much of my life being an involuntary ‘authority’ on ‘India’, but my knowledge is generally limited to books and data sets, not lived experience with the place and the people. One of the issues that any brown American must face is that we are perceived, depending on the context, as a generic whole. Therefore, I have been asked about Hinduism, as if I was a Hindu. I have even been told by strangers how much they admired my Gods! On other occasions the assumption is clear that I am Muslim. Sometimes I am asked to offer my opinion on Indian music. I can’t even offer my opinion on American music! (I am tone deaf) And so on. If only I were a comedian in more than my personal life! So much material.
But part of the issue at work here is the unfortunate tendency of humans to generalize so casually about so many and so much. The Indian subcontinent is after all a subcontinent. It is home to one out of six humans. The physical and cultural variation of the people is riotous. But as brown Americans, and for Indian Americans especially, there is a critical need to grapple with it today. Why? Money.
In the near future India will surpass Britain in terms of gross domestic product. Barring world wide catastrophe it is an iron law of prediction simply based on demographic and economic trends. An awareness of India is not just a matter of spiritual or personal interest, it is demanded by the bottom line. India is a market, an engine of production and consumption. On a plainly utilitarian level I am overjoyed by this. Wealth and prosperity are a positive good, and a reduction of human misery requires no justification.
In the aggregate things are looking up! But aggregates can hide more fine-grained trends which are still disturbing. I am broadly speaking a supporter of neoliberal economic policies, insofar as I think economic growth is the best weapon against poverty. On a subnational level I think over the long term economic uplift through investing in one’s own human capital is more efficacious, and more edifying, than a perpetual reliance on government transfers and fiat.
Consider this article from The New York Times, Business Class Rises in Ashes of Caste System:
Chezi K. Ganesan looks every inch the high-tech entrepreneur, dressed in the Silicon Valley uniform of denim shirt and khaki trousers, slick smartphone close at hand. He splits his time between San Jose and this booming coastal metropolis, running his $6 million a year computer chip-making company.
His family has come a long way. His grandfather was not allowed to enter Hindu temples, or even to stand too close to upper-caste people, and women of his Nadar caste, who stood one notch above untouchables in India’s ancient caste hierarchy, were once forced to bare their breasts before upper caste men as a reminder of their low station.
Despite my general preference for economic growth, there is another side to this: the rise in inequality. Inequality in itself is not so problematic if the pie continues to grow so that the lowest in society also benefit. But this is not totally clear in India today. Much of the nation may be shining, but hundreds of millions continue to live in squalor. This is not a brown issue, this is a human issue. One-third of the world’s poor live in India, more than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa:
To compile the index, researchers analysed data from 104 countries with a combined population of 5.2 billion, 78% of the world total. About 1.7 billion – a third – live in multidimensional poverty, they found. This is 400 million more than are estimated by the World Bank to be in “extreme” poverty. The new index is also designed to track variations within countries much better. So while the poverty rate is more than 80% in the rural state of Bihar, it is about 16% in the southern state of Kerala.
My post “A civilization of regions” was a pointer to these sorts of realities. I have spent my life being somewhat uncomfortable about the perception that I represent these billion people in all their diversity, but now as an intellectual matter I’m aghast at the generalizations which elide gross differences in human well being. What has Kerala to do with Bihar? Everything, and nothing, both at the same time.
Most of you know that I have a biological background, and so am particularly interested in vital statistics such as the prevalence of malnutrition amongst children. Though some of the data needs to be interpreted more carefully (e.g., reductions in per capita calorie consumption can reflect a shift from physically taxing rural lifestyles to more leisurely urban ones), much of it is not easily dismissed. Some estimates suggest there are 500,000 cretins in India, an iodine deficiency induced form of mental retardation. This is probably the tip of the iceberg, insofar as retardation is a high threshold in terms of diagnostic measures.
A new paper in PLoS Medicine makes explicit the lack of connection between development and nutritional gains, Is Economic Growth Associated with Reduction in Child Undernutrition in India?:
We failed to find consistent evidence that economic growth leads to reduction in childhood undernutrition in India. Direct investments in appropriate health interventions may be necessary to reduce childhood undernutrition in India.
The paper is open access, so you can try and make sense of the statistical models yourself. I would like to see more district-level analyses, but the general gist jumps out at you when you look at state-level statistics. To the left is a table which reports the 2005 proportion of children underweight by Indian state.
Why am I inundating you with this data? Going back to Aziz Ansari’s insight: as brown Americans we implicitly represent and interpret what is brown for our fellow Americans. But, there is an unfortunate tendency of people conflating the particular with the general, of “speaking of how things are done in South Asia/India, when what they are really talking about is how things are done in their grandparents house.” This is a broader problem of cognitive bias. I had long been under the misimpression that mustamakkara, Finnish blood sausage, was a national dish. It turns out that in reality this is a delicacy of particular note in the Tampere area (some Finns who were from the Helsinki region wanted to clear this issue up strenuously!). This is orders of magnitude more problematic under the rubric of “Indian food.” Like “Chinese food” this is a jumbled construct, which in Diasporic contexts is transmuted and selectively presented. Personally, I don’t know anything about “Indian food,” but I do know a great deal about Bengali food (and I hope to get to know more about South Indian food, but that’s just me!).
As brown Americans we are not representative samples of the Indian subcontinent. My family in Bangladesh has problems with morbid obesity among some of their younger members. This is not a typical problem in Bangladesh. The face of the Scripps National Spelling Bee is becoming brown, but a significant minority of Indian citizens remain illiterate. Despite highlighting the malnutrition above, affluent Indians and Diasporic brown folk are hit very hard by diseases of nutritional excess. Around 10 percent of Indians are Dalits, but in my reading the comments of this weblog since 2004 only one or two individuals of this background have ever admitted this origin on these boards (also look at the backgrounds of Harappa Ancestry Project contributors).
The point? It is hard work speaking accurately, precisely, and contextually, about a region of the world where one out of six humans reside. And yet because of my physical appearance and cultural background I am often asked by friends in academia who take a deep interest in international affairs about social and political issues pertaining to South Asia. So I do what I always do when faced with ignorance: I read, I analyze. On a more personal note interacting with individuals on this weblog over the past seven years has opened for me a window onto the perspectives of many people who have different backgrounds from my own, who had had to represent brown just as I had, but began from very different positions. But, interacting with individuals on this weblog has also highlighted the narrowness and selection biasing of the American brown experience. A disproportionate number of us are clearly the children of professionals or academic brats. This fact is brought home forcefully by the minority who speak up about coming from working or lower class backgrounds, for whom college was an option which they had to fight for, and graduate school was not an expectation.
We can’t extract ourselves from our subjective experiences. But we can respect each other on a personal level. On a broader scale we need to be cognizant about the disproportionate element of privilege which we experience. The very fact that you are reading this on the internet indicates some level of privilege! (even if you are reading in a library because you don’t have a computer or internet access, you must live in a nation which has the resources to subsidize such services) As a political conservative I am not much of a fan of the way terms like “privilege” are used in contemporary “discourse.” Often they seem like power plays in the game of rhetoric, cudgels to silence and intimidate. But, in the broad scope of human development we are the privileged brown, those for whom the paunch tolls. This is concrete and real.
India will continue to shine. The Indian chapter of Joel Kotkin’s Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy will become even more relevant, as the Diaspora acts in a complementary fashion to energize the flows of capital, labor, and services, which characterize the global economy which India is becoming a major engine of. But there are those being left behind. To a large extent the world’s poor are the brown poor. Being brown does not, I believe, give them more of a claim to our compassion and consideration than being black, white, or yellow, would. But, I do think it adds an element of emotional connection when one considers the old maxim, “there but for the grace of God, go I.”
I am at the end of the day a person of data, not impressions. But data is slave of the passions. In my complacency and coddled Western existence I do attempt periodically to do a “reality check,” and reflect on the misery which my distant relations no doubt experience as their daily experience. Economic development will continue apace. Brown faces will continue to be prominent in Silicon Valley, and the economic “competition” from India will continue to be part of the policy discussion in this country. But we need to always keep in mind that the reality is that today most brown folk continue to live in grinding Malthusian poverty. That is what being brown is all about in the most coarse reading. There is no shame in this truth excepting our own neglect of its consequences for human flourishing.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons