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Why are American desis celebrating Trump?

Mohan Guruswamy

Some years ago Joel Stein wrote a witty and perfectly appropriate column in Time magazine titled ‘My Own Private India’, about a town called Edison in New Jersey. Stein was thoroughly excoriated as racist and anti-Indian by people purporting to represent the Indian community in the United States. Time chipped in with an apology of its own but apparently not convinced about the extent of anger said: “We sincerely regret that any of our readers were upset by this humour column of Joel Stein’s.” Very clever indeed, which is why Time is what it is. Now Edison has another reason to be deemed notorious. It is home to the only ethnic group that played host to Donald Trump. Two days ago over 5,000 people, including the elderly and children, attended the nearly five-hour event organised by the Republican Hindu Coalition, founded and chaired by Indian-American industrialist Shalabh Kumar, chairman and CEO of the AVG Group of Companies.

Indians and Indian-Americans turned out in large numbers to show their support for Mr Trump, carrying placards that read “Trump Make America Great Again”, “Trump for Hindu Americans”, “Trump Great For India” and “Trump for Faster Green Cards”. Dressed in traditional Indian finery, the audience broke into loud applause and cheers as Mr Trump came on stage against the backdrop of the American flag. Clearly the only thing that endears Mr Trump to this lot is that he has come out vocally against all Muslims. And they seemed to have imbibed their Kautilya somewhat. Kautilya in Arthasastra, Book VI, “The Source of Sovereign States”, wrote: “The king who is situated anywhere immediately on the circumference of the conqueror’s territory is termed the enemy. The king who is likewise situated close to the enemy, but separated from the conqueror only by the enemy, is termed the friend (of the conqueror).” Simply interpreted by the simple desis of Edison, this is interpreted as “my enemies’ enemy is my friend”.

Now about Edison, that neighbour of Newark and a transportation hub with an extensive network of highways such as US Route 1, which also sits astride a five-mile length of the New Jersey Turnpike. Edison was incorporated as Raritan Township and became Edison in 1954, ostensibly hoping to ride piggyback on the name of the great inventor who had made it his home in 1876. For many decades Edison has been a magnet for Indian immigrants, particularly those from Gujarat. Today about 20 per cent of its estimated population of about 99,000 is identified as Indian-American, most of them Gujarati. I have driven through Edison, NJ, on a few occasions and it is not the kind of town I would want to live in. Its at once grungy and noisy, seems to teem with Indians noisily looking for bargains or cheap desi food.

My friend with whom I used to drive through Edison used to describe it as the second armpit of America. The first one being Hoboken, also in New Jersey. Desi means homegrown and is used in a self-pejorative manner by almost all NRIs when referring to a fellow Indian. At last count there were over 2.5 million desis in the US. The US Census 2000 map shows that Indian Americans (officially called Asian Indians) tend to concentrate themselves in certain areas. Whenever I visit the US, it never ceases to amaze me that my Indian American friends and relatives seem to only socialise with other desis. They do tend to flock together. The US has a fair number of Indian American clusters. But it is Edison that has the highest concentration. Indian Americans have the highest median incomes in the United States and are generally white-collar professionals in most parts of the US. Edison’s Indian American community however has a fair sprinkling of less well-off people doing jobs which probably fetch them much less than the median Indian American income.

 It shows easily. One out of five desis is of Gujarati origin, and like Indians from other regions tend to live and socialise within themselves. Gujaratis, referred to within desi circles as Gujjus, are more entrepreneurial by nature and tend to be in business. The 400,000-strong Gujarati diaspora in the US consequently has a smaller number of professionals. They now own more than half the economy lodging properties in the US. Since a large proportion of the Gujaratis in the US have the Patel surname, these hotels are popularly referred to among the Indian American community as “potels”, and quite often are places that rent out rooms by the hour. Edison is a perfect hotspot for the RSS and Rambhakts, who prefer the superior creature comforts it would offer in comparison to Rajkot or Surat.

This is Narendra Modi country. Indians, in general, are very racist, sectarian and colour conscious, and our standards of political correctness are not very high. Our discourse is laced with racist and derogatory references to others. The desi community in the US is not very different. Mira Nair’s 1991 movie Mississippi Masala, set among the Indian American community living in steaming Biloxi, Miss, captures in full all the prejudices and inward-looking mores prevalent in Hindu society back home carrying on as before among an expatriate Indian American community.

The story is about the romance a girl of Ugandan Indian Gujarati origin and a handsome African American, played by Denzel Washington. But expectedly the family and friends, mostly in the potel business, vigorously oppose the romance with a kalu, as persons of African origin are derogatively referred to by desis. Indians also generally derogatively refer to white people as goras when not referring to them as white monkeys. As America’s wealthiest median income community, they are now bigger players in US politics with PACs active in serving many Indian causes, be it the civil nuclear deal with the United States or an increase in the number of work visas. The economic clout of Indian Americans is also being felt in many ways. It’s good that they have begun to flex their muscles a bit, but it is not good that some of them are showing themselves to be numbskulls.

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