joker123 Bombay on the Hudson (City Journal Summer 1997) » Jonathan Foreman
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You don’t have to be a demographer to know that more and more New Yorkers these days come from the Indian subcontinent. Just hail a taxi in midtown: chances are, you’ll find a man named Sarabjit, Uday, or Ali behind the wheel. The legions of South Asian taxi drivers are the most visible sign of an immigration that has been going on for more than three decades now. Today newcomers from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are a vital component of New York’s mosaic: their vibrant communities enliven every corner of the city.

Begin in Manhattan, where Bangladeshis have settled into the old tenements of the Lower East Side and lined 6th Street in the East Village with their “Indian” restaurants. Then take the Number 7 subway across the East River to Long Island City, Queens, another Bangladeshi neighborhood, where new stores, auto workshops, and taxi garages are quickly supplanting abandoned factories and warehouses. If you continue on the Number 7—popularly known as the “Orient Express”—you’ll find that Jackson Heights now contains a teeming and prosperous Little India whose turbaned Sikhs and sari-clad women make the main strip feel like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk or one of Bombay’s upscale shopping districts. Finally, hop on the B train to Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush. There Pakistanis have revitalized block after block, festooning their new storefronts with Urdu script.

South Asians have sunk roots in New York neighborhoods from Gramercy Park, Astoria, and Flushing to Brighton Beach, Richmond Hills, and Jamaica. All told, the city’s population now includes some 500,000 souls—half of them Indian, the other half almost equal parts Pakistani and Bangladeshi—who come from the lands that formed the British Dominion of India until 1947.

But New York’s South Asians are not just another large and exotic addition to the city’s ethnic mix. They have prospered mightily in Gotham, as they have elsewhere in the United States. Their varied ranks include not only hardworking taxi drivers and shopkeepers but also thousands of accomplished engineers and entrepreneurs, physicians and academics. And their children excel in school, quickly entering the American mainstream.

What explains their success? South Asians have a double cultural advantage. They arrive not only with all the traditional immigrant virtues but also with an invaluable cultural and educational legacy from the days of British rule. That doesn’t make assimilation an easy, trouble-free process for them, of course. As with other immigrant groups, it takes a painful toll. But the astonishing rise of these newly made Americans shows how resilient the American Dream remains and how much the nation benefits from an influx of such energetic new residents.


In 1965 Congress passed the Immigration Reform Act, an effort in part to deal with labor shortages in certain technical fields. The new law opened the door to the subcontinent’s doctors, engineers, and pharmacists, accelerating a “brain drain” that began in 1947 and still afflicts the region. By the early 1970s, Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangla-deshis—most of them highly trained—had established a modest foothold in the U.S. of some 45,000 residents. A decade later the South Asian community was around 500,000 strong.

By then the professionals who had come to the U.S. with little more than their talents had prospered and become citizens, enabling them to take advantage of the family-reunification provisions of the 1965 act. Thus began the second wave of immigration from the subcontinent, a gathering surge of brothers and sisters, cousins and in-laws. The result: a combined South Asian population in the U.S. that today exceeds 2.5 million. Indians alone now constitute a bigger American minority than Koreans or Vietnamese, and in New York they outnumber Koreans by 20 percent.

If the typical first-wave immigrant was a much-sought-after pediatrician or chemical engineer, the second-wave immigrant is likely to be less educated and less proficient in English. But make no mistake: the second wave hardly represents the subcontinent’s poor, huddled masses. Almost all South Asian immigrants to the United States come from the region’s English-speaking middle classes, from families able to send at least one child to college (many of the cabbies really do have degrees). As Farooq Bhatti, founder of New York’s Pak Brothers Taxi Driver Union, explains, the rural poor of India and Pakistan are far too destitute to obtain a tourist visa and a plane ticket—or even a bus ticket from their villages to Bombay. Like the upper classes of these countries—who enjoy lives of extraordinary luxury and privilege—the very poor don’t emigrate.

The social gulf between the two generations of immigrants can be profound, deepened by the rapidity of the first wave’s success in “Amreeka.” Ram Iyer, an Indian-born social worker who deals with South Asian families in New York, talks about a “disowning factor.” As he explains: “People are embarrassed by their relative who works in a gas station.” But such embarrassment is far from universal. For instance, Rahaul Merchant—who came to the U.S. in 1979, got a degree in computer science and an MBA, and is now head of technology at Sanwa Financial Products on Wall Street—is proud of his brother, who owns a convenience store in Queens. Merchant was pleased to have his siblings (two sisters came over as well) stay with him until they found their feet. The family still invariably comes together every Thanksgiving and Christmas, and, says Merchant, “we always talk on Divali,” the Hindu festival of lights.

South Asians of both waves have wasted no time in climbing the American ladder of success. The 1990 census reported a median family income for Indians living in the U.S. of $50,000, compared to $35,000 for native-born Americans. Sixty percent of them had at least a bachelor’s degree, and over a third had a graduate degree. Still more impressive, perhaps, this year the children of Indian immigrants won four of the ten prestigious Westinghouse prizes for high school scientists and placed second and third in the National Spelling Bee.

The cultural afterglow of the British Raj accounts for some of this rapid ascent. It is rare to find a South Asian immigrant who cannot speak at least some English—an enormous advantage. No less ingratiating in an America where language and manners seem to grow coarser by the day, most adult South Asians comport themselves with a certain old-world politesse, a courtesy redolent of Victorian tea parties. The consuming passion across the entire South Asian community for the game of cricket is emblematic: a slow, almost ritualistic sport of arcane rules, it typifies the immigrants’ devotion to order and fair play, civility and good form. Finally, of course, South Asian newcomers tend to adjust quickly to the American political and legal scene: most have had experience with democracy and the rule of law, however imperfectly the post-independence regimes of the subcontinent have realized such ideals.

It is also hard to dispute the claim, common among South Asians, that America has received the cream of the subcontinent’s migrants. Many of them have indeed demonstrated unusual initiative and perseverance to come here, and they have done so in order to build lives unimaginable back home. Thirty-five-year-old Joginder Singh, a Sikh taxi driver from the Punjab, has been in the U.S. for seven years and plans to stay. He started out making sandwiches at a Blimpie’s, drove a limo for a while, and now, like many Americans, dreams of moving to California. “There are more opportunities here,” he says. “It really pays you if you want to work.” The now-prosperous technologist Rahaul Merchant agrees: “I started from scratch. For the first few years I had nothing in my pocket. I could hardly afford French fries. But I made a go for myself. It’s the meritocracy that attracts people like me.”

The first decades of Indian independence were especially cruel to such strivers. The Congress Party subjected the new country to one socialist experiment after another, including nationalization. Protectionist policies and an obsessive fear of multinational corporations kept out capital, products, and ideas from abroad. And the so-called “licensing Raj” made setting up any kind of business a bureaucratic nightmare, made worse by endemic corruption and nepotism. By the mid-sixties, India couldn’t even keep pace with other developing nations like Turkey and Mexico. In the last several years the country’s political elite has begun to open up the economy, but India still has far to go if it is to hold on to its entrepreneurs. As the Indian-American novelist Bharati Mukherjee says of one of her characters who emigrates to the U.S., “Success had meant to him escape from the constant plotting and bitterness that wore out India’s middle class.”

The Hindu caste system has done even more than socialism and bureaucracy to stifle Indian enterprise and social mobility—and to drive out the ambitious. A complicated form of hereditary ranking linked to occupation, caste effectively sets Hindu society in stone. As a guest at a Brahmin house in Rajasthan, I once watched in amazement as food spilled on the floor one hot afternoon remained there for hours: the servant whose role it was to clean up was out. Under this rigid system, any effort to improve your status is pointless—once a member of the floor-mopping class, always a member of the floor-mopping class. Such distinctions exact an enormous psychological toll on those of higher rank as well. The British author V. S. Naipaul, an Indian born in Trinidad, has noted that Indian scientists who win Nobel Prizes for work done abroad go home and produce little of value ever again; achievement ceases to have any bearing on their social standing.

The concept of caste is particularly hard for Americans to understand, the U.S. being in so many ways the antithesis of a caste culture. Indeed, caste identities tend to dissolve quickly once Indian immigrants arrive, in part because it becomes impractical to follow the system’s elaborate codes of purity. Traveling abroad was itself once considered a defiling experience. After decades of official disapproval, caste is finally losing its grip in India—but not fast enough for thousands of middle-class emigrants.


Physicians were among the first to flee the subcontinent and the earliest Indian immigrants to flourish in the U.S. Today the 32,000 Indian doctors practicing here are a formidable presence in the profession, especially among anesthesiologists, 10 percent of whom are Indian. With years of experience in the U.S. and plenty of money, they are an unrivaled organized influence in their community, acting through the powerful American Association of Physicians from India.

Dr. Mukhund Modi, an ethnic Gujarati from Bombay, has practiced pediatrics in the tough Brooklyn neighborhood of East New York for 25 years. Working in the borough was not his first choice, but he did his residency at King’s County Hospital there and decided to “hang around” while his wife, a pathologist, completed a fellowship at Columbia. “I went for the first five years thinking I would go back to India and live happily ever after,” he says. “I think that was true of most of my Indian colleagues too. But this country has given us a lot. Things changed—we had kids. It wasn’t a sudden decision. The opportunities we had here and the quality of life were very important to us.” His wife now works at University Hospital on Staten Island, where the Modis have lived for the past 19 years.

Modi has gradually come to identify with his new country. Though he remains the head of a New York organization that raises funds for the BJP—India’s Hindu nationalist party—he is also involved in local Republican politics, having long been good friends with his next-door neighbor, Staten Island borough president Guy Molinari. After many years Modi has finally decided to become an American citizen. “I didn’t apply before because of the dream of going back to India,” he says. “Now I feel that I’ll go back to visit but not to stay forever, so why should I lose the chance to vote in the U.S.?” Like many Indian professionals, he and his wife have settled comfortably into suburban life. They sent their daughters to local public schools—after a stint in Catholic primary schools—and then on to Amherst and Wesleyan. “Indians are typical middle-class people,” observes Modi. “We want a house, a good school, and a safe neighborhood. I’d call that the American Dream.”

Dr. Unni Moopan, a urologist and general surgeon who teaches at the Brookdale University Hospital in Brooklyn, remembers well the advertisements for doctors in the Indian press that drew him from the southwestern state of Kerala to America in 1976. Already a surgeon in India, he came for additional training and to do research. Five years later he had become a U.S. citizen. “The best part about New York is its mixture,” he says. “You don’t feel as though you are in a thoroughly foreign place suddenly. In New York everybody can feel at home. You are not the odd one, standing out in the crowd.” Moopan and his wife lived in Brooklyn and Queens before moving to Hewlett, Long Island, attracted by the public schools. The father of two children, he knew just what he was looking for when it came to their education: “The class size is small, and the rate of going to Ivy League schools is very high.”

Engineers formed a second large contingent in the professional exodus from the subcontinent. Today more than 20,000 Indian engineers work in the U.S., many of them graduates of the elite Indian Institutes of Technology. Unable to find work at home, these superbly trained technologists have made key contributions at such American high-tech giants as Sun Microsystems, Intel, and Bell Labs. The U.S. job market continues to place a premium on computer experts from South Asia, who now outstrip physicians among the professionals who choose to emigrate.

Kersh Birdie came to the U.S. in 1971, an early refugee from India’s high-tech sector. Formerly a partner at First Boston and head of technological development at Morgan Stanley, he took an MBA at night and now runs his own software and consulting company, Northstar Technologies, which employs 25 people in Manhattan. “Back in India they have tremendous computer-science education,” says Birdie. “They can compete with anybody. But in the Third World, opportunities were very limited in the technology business. Coming here was great—the market was wide open. I made up my mind to stay as soon as I got here, and I became an American as soon as I could.” Many others followed suit, Birdie notes, reeling off a list of senior Indian technologists at Wall Street firms like Fidelity, First Boston, and Bankers Trust.


South Asian immigrants who lack professional qualifications have gone into an array of traditional immigrant occupations. Crucially for the day-to-day life of New York City, they have nearly taken over the taxi industry: some 30,000 of the city’s 45,000 yellow-taxi drivers are now of South Asian descent. When a Pakistani “taxiwallah” was murdered in 1993, as many as 10,000 drivers protested outside City Hall. As for service, this takeover has made it almost universally possible once again for drivers to communicate with passengers in English.

Gaining entry into the taxi business is easy, but it’s a grueling way to make a living. After getting a New York hack license—a process that takes about six months—a new immigrant will lease a medallion taxi, keeping what he can, after expenses, from fares and tips. In a slow seven-day week, a cabbie can make as little as $300, which partly explains why so many of them compete recklessly for fares. “You must remember that we have the medallion owner on our back,” says a Bangladeshi driver named Imran. “I pay $112 per day for the cab, $3 for the union, $20 for gas, and $10 for food—plus taxes, TLC tickets, parking violations, and summonses. I’m driving 90 hours a week, and I cannot make $2,000 a month.”

It’s a physically and mentally exhausting job. Because the city has so few public restrooms, every cabdriver must carry a mental list of restaurants whose facilities he can use—without getting a parking ticket or a Taxi and Limousine Commission citation, which means at least a day of lost income. The rudeness of city officials, especially the police, baffles and pains the South Asian drivers. A Pakistani driver called Ahmed told me he was “stunned” the first time a cop told him to “move your fucking car.” The cabbies often find their passengers abrupt and unfriendly too, especially by South Asian standards. And because impatient passengers and their own financial interest push them to drive as fast as they can, they live in fear of tickets.

Taxi driving tends to be a bachelor’s profession, a fallback job for younger men in need of work. A Bangladeshi named Rahim came to New York to study aeronautics but had to drop out of school and start driving a cab. “I needed more money,” he tells me over a 2 AM dinner at the Kasturi restaurant on Lexington Avenue, a favorite hangout of Bangladeshi drivers. “My family back home is dependent on me.” Ponytailed, bespectacled, and sweatshirt-clad, he looks like a graduate student. Rahim lives with four Bangladeshi friends in a four-bedroom apartment in Astoria, where he pays $300 a month for his spartan quarters. He and a partner recently borrowed money to buy a medallion—no mean expense at the going rate of $200,000. It will take them 10 to 15 years to pay off the debt, but once they do, their incomes will shoot up. If Rahim can make enough money in the next couple of years, he would like to return to school part-time and find a wife to bring over from Bangladesh.

Most South Asian taxi drivers dream of being in business for themselves someday, whether with a medallion of their own or some other enterprise. Karnal Singh drove a cab for five years and then opened the Punjabi Palace restaurant on Houston Street, where he employs a brother, a nephew, and two cousins, as well as a Bangladeshi chef. Still only 25, he recently opened a second restaurant at Tenth Avenue and 27th Street. Though a Sikh, he retains only one visible sign of his faith: the steel bangle, or kara, on his wrist. His Pakistani friend and frequent customer Riaz Ahmad, who wears the traditional shalwar kameez pajama suit and a backward Yankees baseball cap, has a master’s degree in Islamic studies; he has been driving a taxi for five years. A restaurant is not in his future; he imagines instead going into “something like a car service—because I know this business.” Many drivers pool their resources to make the down payment and pay off the loans needed to start a business. “Four drivers making $30,000 a year will get together and buy a $100,000 workshop,” explains Farooq Bhatti, “and then they are on their way. In Pakistan we have become very good at repairing cars, because parts are so expensive.” In the westernmost avenues of Chelsea and the Garment District, Pakistanis and Indians now run dozens of small auto-shops-cum-taxi-garages.

South Asians have also turned New York’s newsstand business into a virtual ethnic monopoly. According to the Department of Consumer Affairs, they now operate an astonishing 300 of the city’s 330 street newsstands.

Eight years ago I found myself in Penn Station after midnight, waiting for a delayed Amtrak train. The main hall was a dirty, unwelcoming place, full of the homeless and prowled by other unsavory types. I noticed a new shop on the concourse, with a sign announcing: Hudson News. It was an oasis of cleanliness and light, with a handsome selection of magazines. Best of all, it contained several young Pakistani men in uniform, keeping a watchful eye on what was clearly a place of refuge for the respectable. Since then, Hudson News has gone on to revolutionize the terminal newsstand business, with a hundred stores in train stations and airports nationwide. Almost all of its employees are South Asian. The managers of the Penn Station, Grand Central, and Port Authority stores are “Joe” Khan, “Bob” Khan, and “Mo” Khan, respectively. Unrelated to one another, all are Pakistani immigrants and vice presidents of the company.

Joe DiDomizio, son of the chain’s founder and vice president of marketing and operations, is quick to give credit for the company’s expansion to its employees from the subcontinent. “They have a tremendous work ethic, they work very long hours, they are very dedicated, and they treat the business as if it were theirs,” he says. “We hire them at every level.”

The assistant manager of the Grand Central store is Waris Khan. A Pathan from Pakistan, where his people are famous for their martial qualities, he is a former high school math teacher. Today the mustachioed Khan stands a short distance from the store in his smart tie and navy blazer, keeping a fierce watch over the whole operation. He commutes each morning from Westchester Square in the Bronx, arriving in time to open the store at 5 am, and he doesn’t usually leave until early evening. “We are from the North-West Frontier, and we are very strong,” says Khan. “We don’t mind doing anything. I am 63 and still working.” Would-be robbers have tried to hold him up several times, but he so intimidated them that they left empty-handed. “You have to show that you are ready to fight,” he insists, mindful perhaps of the famous Pathan motto, “If someone gives you a pinch, respond with a blow.”

Sponsored by his four brothers—two of them lab technicians, one an accountant, and the fourth a supervisor at an Atlantic City casino—Khan came to New York in 1988, largely to get his two boys away from the guns and drugs endemic to his corner of Pakistan. The breaking point for him came when his 11-year-old returned from school one day talking about the Kalashnikov rifle that he and his friends had been playing with. Both of Khan’s sons now attend City College, and one of them recently applied to medical school.

South Asians man the ranks of many other businesses in New York. Many work behind the counter at neighborhood delis and grocery stores, and at chain stores like Duane Reade and National Wholesale Liquidators. The more entrepreneurial of them have bought into Blimpies, International House of Pancakes, and other restaurant franchises; Baskin-Robbins reports that some 250 of its operators nationwide are now South Asian. In the low-income neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, Pakistanis have made a specialty of under-a-dollar retailing, with successful stores like 99¢ Dream, 99¢ World, and 99¢ City. And should you venture into such porn emporia as remain in Times Square, you will find that a Sri Lankan runs almost every one of them.

Young South Asian men of the second wave have made a niche for themselves in several of the city’s more dangerous occupations. After taxi driving, the most common lines of work for Pakistani immigrants are construction and trucking. Sikhs have established an empire in the gas station business: the city’s Department of Consumer Affairs estimates that immigrants from India’s Punjab region—the great majority of them Sikhs—now own nearly half of New York’s gas stations.


Sikhs seem well qualified for such work, where the possibility of robbery is a constant. Observant male Sikhs take the surname Singh upon admission to a quasi-military order called the Khalsa, and they are famously macho: “We are kind of like the Klingons in Star Trek,” one young man told me. A fifteenth-century offshoot of Hinduism, the Sikh religion demands that observant males wear unshorn hair under a turban and, most important, carry a dagger. The Sikhs developed their proud military tradition through years of armed struggle—against India’s Moghul rulers, against the British, and then against the Empire’s enemies in India and abroad. Since independence, Sikh separatism at home has accelerated their emigration: many left amid the anti-Sikh sentiment that followed their bloody attempt to establish an independent state in 1984 and the assassination of Indira Gandhi shortly thereafter by one of her Sikh bodyguards. But even Sikhs have their limits. One told me that he started working at a gas station after two armed robberies in his cab, only to be robbed twice more “by black guys with guns.” He wants to move back to India.

South Asian community leaders are quick to liken themselves to the Jewish immigrants of yesteryear, and there are indeed some pronounced parallels. Like Jews, members of the Indian “diaspora”—especially Gujaratis and Sindhis—have played the role of middleman in international commerce, trading and settling throughout the world. Their economic success has often stirred resentment, giving rise to harassment and confiscations in the Caribbean, in Burma and Malaysia, and most notoriously, in Uganda and Kenya, which expelled South Asians by the tens of thousands in the 1970s. Having been driven now from several homes, many South Asian immigrants to the U.S. are multiple exiles. Here they rarely encounter serious discrimination or racial hostility (though this hasn’t prevented some South Asian campus activists from declaring that their communities share the victimhood of other “people of color”).

Like their Jewish predecessors, people from all three countries of the subcontinent have a special reverence for teachers, whom they often address as “masterji” (the suffix “ji” indicating great respect). Keshavan Narayan, a Tamil Brahmin who works as a journalist in New York, touches the feet of his former schoolteachers when he encounters them back home. Farwana, a 14-year-old Bangladeshi girl whose family moved to Long Island City a year ago and who attends the Newcomers’ School there, misses the respectful ways of her old classroom: students would stand up when the teacher entered and quiet down immediately when the teacher spoke. But she doesn’t miss the beatings that Bengali teachers sometimes give their students.


Such attitudes translate into sterling academic performance. As anyone who has spent time lately on the NYU or Columbia campus knows, South Asians make it into the top schools in disproportionately large numbers. Like youngsters from China, Korea, and Vietnam, they are more likely than other Americans to excel in the hard sciences and mathematics (though as native English speakers, they are more comfortable with liberal arts subjects than many other Asian children). Solid early schooling accounts for some of their success in these fields—primary and secondary education on the subcontinent is often superb—but so does parental pressure. Like generations of Jewish parents, South Asians strongly prefer their children to take courses that promise secure professional careers. Engineering, medicine, and business administration are clear favorites. The idea that a college student should study, say, theater arts because he or she finds it personally fulfilling is an utterly alien, American idea that causes considerable generational strife.


South Asians pursue many traditional Jewish trades. The Jains—members of an Indian religious sect famous for its ascetic vegetarianism, nonviolence, and business acumen—have become a powerful force in the diamond industry, as cutters, polishers, and importers. Their connections extend from Antwerp and Tel Aviv to the cutting workshops of India and Manhattan’s 47th Street, where they do business with Hasidic Jews. “Our philosophies are pretty close,” says Arun Kothari, a Jain in the gem business, of his Jewish associates. “We have been working with them for 25 years. We trust them implicitly, and they trust us implicitly. We know their families, and they know our families.” Punjabis in New York, like Jews before them, sell textiles and apparel in dozens of shops west of the Port Authority.


Natives of Gujarat, in northwestern India, have distinguished themselves as the premier shopkeepers and small-scale entrepreneurs of the South Asian diaspora. Wherever one finds immigrants from the subcontinent, a Patel—the most common Gujarati surname—is likely to run the neighborhood store. On the corner of 7th Street and First Avenue, one Mr. Patel has recently expanded the hardware store that he bought from a Russian Jewish family eight years ago. Both his sons and one of his daughters-in-law work in the store and have helped him open a second one in Gramercy Park. They presently employ workers from Mexico, Ecuador, Bangladesh, and Ukraine, and one can only listen with wonder as Mr. Patel’s son Muk yells down to the storeroom in a mixture of English, Gujarati, and Spanish. Though he sports a long gray beard, Mr. Patel still puts in a 12-hour day between his two stores.


Most South Asian immigrants come to this country with at least a vague idea of returning home once they have made their fortunes. Yet few go back, especially if their children have gone to American schools. They do visit, however—and that can be a traumatic experience. In Bombay I met an Indian-American businessman who had just come “home” from a successful career as a management consultant in Manhattan. After only three days he had decided to go back to New York: he could no longer handle what now struck him as unacceptable chaos, filth, and deprivation. Sunita Mukhi, a scholar at New York’s Asia Society, tells the story of an Indian businessman who went back for the funeral of his father. The sympathy of his relatives, many of whom he had never met, overwhelmed him. Mukhi asked him why he didn’t move back. “Are you crazy?” he replied. “I cannot breathe there. Too many people, too much corruption. Even the priests were asking for money to facilitate my father’s passage to the next life.”


Other Indian-Americans forget what made them migrate and romanticize the old country. Like tourists, they see only the colorful trappings and cultural confidence of the life they left behind. The result, very often, is a kind of pan-Indian identity that even the Indian state, for all its efforts since independence, has failed to generate. For the children of such immigrants in particular, what matters ethnically is that they are from the subcontinent—not that they are Keralites or Kashmiris. In an effort to recover their roots, many will take classes in Hindi—India’s official language—even though their parents speak, say, Tamil or Bengali. This softening of ethnic differences has carried over to the region’s most combustible conflicts. “We get on fine with each other all over the world,” a Pakistani taxi driver told me of his community’s relations with Indians. “It’s only on the border back home that we have a problem.” South Asians from all three countries often refer to themselves as the desi community or just as desis. The term means “countryman,” like the Yiddish landsman.

Like previous immigrant groups who have made a quick success of assimilation, South Asians struggle to hold on to their heritage. Pride drives much of this effort, but so too does a certain unease with their new home and its alluring but often destructive mass culture. As Theodore Dalrymple has written in these pages, “immigration across half the world is very stressful and disorienting, and old customs therefore become to some immigrants what soft toys are to children in the dark—a source of great comfort.”

South Asians rely heavily on religion to transmit traditional values to their children. Families worship together at their local temples and mosques (hundreds of which are scattered throughout the New York area), and parents often send their children for cultural instruction—weekend religious school for young Muslims and classical Indian dance for Hindu girls.

For Hindus, such training has met with mixed success. Anand Mohand—a professor of philosophy at Queens College who is a Purohit, or hereditary Brahmin priest—argues that a meaningful Hindu education requires a Hindu social setting: “In India we are raised by tradition. You don’t ask questions, and if you do, you are told `because it is so.’ Indians are Hindus more by osmosis than anything else. This means that immigrant parents are not equipped to answer the questions raised by their children. They spend millions of dollars building temples, but the youngsters are unwilling to sit through the ceremonies.” Journalist Keshavan Narayan, who has observed the community for two decades, believes that many of these young Indian-Americans eventually give tradition a second chance. “After college, when they are looking for relationships and establishing careers, they undergo a change in thinking,” he says. “They look at their roots and realize that their background gives them enormous strength in a society where family structure is falling apart.”


Growing up in New Jersey, Anu Anand, 25, went to some kind of Indian cultural event every weekend while attending Catholic school during the week. Her parents, worried by stories of South Asian students unable to deal with the newfound freedom of school away from home, insisted that she pick a local college. A recent graduate of Farleigh Dickinson University now bound for law school, Anu is fascinated by her roots. “I would like to have a traditional wedding ceremony if I marry another Hindu,” she says. And though she is not devout like her Brahmin parents, who pray every day, she studies Indian classical dance with her mother, Lakshmi, and insists, “I’m not an atheist, and I pray on my birthday.” Whatever the differences between herself and her parents, Anu generally approves of the traditional upbringing that Indian parents provide: “Overall, our parents did very well. We don’t have too many drug addicts, teen pregnancies, or alcoholics.”

Najma Sultana, a psychiatrist and a prominent member of the Indian Muslim community in the U.S., applies a practical test to her faith. Yes, South Asian families “lead a boring life,” she tells me as we sit in her living room in Jamaica, Queens, decorated with framed verses from the Koran, family pictures, and posters from the recent International Women’s Congress in Beijing, which she attended. But such a life “comes in handy: we hold on to our money, and we hold on to our families.” Islam helps them navigate American culture. “For us, religion is a positive force for dealing with all the temptations. We go to the mosque, we pray, we share—and half the battle is won.”


Nothing is so fraught with the tensions between the old life and the new as relations between the sexes. When an Indian couple come to New York and take an apartment, it is often the first time they have enjoyed any privacy; on the subcontinent, even the wealthy live with their extended families, a constant source of company and help. Life in the city thus brings on feelings of intense loneliness, straining many marriages. For men who come here alone and work until they can bring over their families, the solitude can be unbearable, as one after another told me. This is the flip side of the family-values coin—not having your family with you is extremely painful.

Yet for South Asian women, these new arrangements can also be profoundly liberating. “In India, whether you are married or not, there are too many people guarding you,” explains the novelist Susham Bedi. “And there are constant social and familial obligations, constant pressure from your parents, from your peers.” Most immigrant wives go out and work, a practice still relatively rare on the subcontinent—and a sore point with husbands whose ideas of family life took shape in very different circumstances. “We feel strong here,” continues Bedi. “Men, on the other hand, feel un-nourished. In India, even if his wife weren’t around, his mother and a sister would take care of him.” To appreciate just how revolutionary this change in family structure is, consider that in a Hindu marriage the wife promises to worship her husband “as a god.” “It’s tough for an Indian man,” says Sunita Mukhi. “He comes to this country, and it doesn’t fly anymore that he is a god, and the law doesn’t say that he is a god.”

The humiliations inherent in immigrant existence also bedevil South Asian men in their family lives. Not knowing how to do things—paying taxes, registering the kids for school—makes them feel unmanned in the eyes of their wives and children. Nor is it easy for someone with a college degree to find himself driving a cab year after year. Many weave lying stories of corporate advancement to pass along to family back home. Social worker Ram Iyer says that it is hardest for immigrant men in their forties or older, many of whom “have to come to terms with the fact that they are always going to be working at a newsstand or in a garage.” They transfer their ambitions to their children.

Unfortunately, such frustrations often contribute to domestic violence—a serious but largely unacknowledged problem in the South Asian community. According to Prema Vora, the program director of Sakhi, a Manhattan-based South Asian women’s group dedicated to combating such abuse, it is not uncommon to encounter battered South Asian wives whose husbands have deliberately refused to sponsor them, thus depriving them of legal-immigrant status. The women “are terrified to go to the police because they’re afraid they’ll be deported.” Domestic servants—many of them illiterate and brought over illegally—are vulnerable in the same way and often suffer under atrocious conditions.

Almost all South Asian parents would like their children to marry within the community. When pressed, they will admit that they would prefer them to marry within the same caste and ethnic group. This is true even of people like Susham Bedi, who comes from a generation of Indian intellectuals that pointedly rejected other forms of caste and religious prejudice. Among her friends, she says, “the hardest thing to accept is a black or a Muslim. A Christian or a Jew is okay.” According to Professor Mohand, marriages between young desis and Jews are especially common.


Most South Asian immigrants, even many of the second generation, continue to believe that you love the person you marry—you don’t marry the person you love. A modified version of arranged marriages thus remains the norm in their communities. Parents do not simply impose husbands on their daughters, of course. Rather, they introduce her to a man after they’ve checked his background and met his parents. The young people then decide whether to pursue the relationship.


The South Asian press in New York—Indians alone sustain seven English-language papers and a dozen more in Malayalam, Bengali, Gujarati, and Urdu—bristles with matrimonial ads. “Sikh parents request correspondence from handsome Sikh professionals (no Jats), for their daughter, 27, 5’9″, educated and family-oriented.” “Brother invites alliance from respected Sindhi families for sister, 28, 5’2″, attractive, highly educated, working in US. Prefer early marriage.” “Parents seek tall MD/MS/MBA match for beautiful, tall, slim, fair, Agarwal citizen girl, born/raised in India, 25/5’5″, BS, MBA (US) Senior Executive.” Sometimes parents describe their daughter as “homely”—meaning not that she is plain but that she would be content as a traditional homemaker. And having a “fair” or “wheaten” complexion is a definite advantage for a woman, especially among those northern Indians who consider their light skin and greater height a sign of racial superiority over southern Indians.


South Asians are quick to defend these old-fashioned alliances. “You have a 50 percent divorce rate in this country,” gloats a cabbie named Ali. “Our system is working much better.” It must be said, however, that the sexes divide in their support for traditional marriages. The South Asian press often notes the continuing preference of young Indo-American men for wives from the old country, women who have not been “spoiled” by Western ways. Prizing their newfound liberty, Indo-American women have begun to marry out of the community at a much higher rate.

Sexual liberation is a foreign and deeply disturbing notion for South Asian parents. Most do not allow their children to date, and many will not even allow their daughters to have male friends. Coming to terms with American sexual license is especially hard for those who are observant Muslims. As Farooq Bhatti puts it, sitting in his tiny, windowless office behind the Port Authority, “We don’t want to raise our daughters in all the vulgarity and nudity, the boyfriend/girlfriend concepts. It is hard to remain pure in this culture.” He remembers a friend who was so disturbed by the kissing that his seven-year-old boy and three-year-old girl had seen on television that he packed up and returned to Pakistan.

Most South Asian immigrants adjust more easily to life in the U.S., fending off the more pernicious elements in our culture while embracing the opportunities that attracted them in the first place. They have become model Americans in many ways. Well-educated and industrious, they contribute prodigiously to the wider economy and society while at the same time maintaining the vitality of their own communities.

Each year in mid-August, the Indian and Pakistani communities celebrate the independence of their home countries with parades down Madison Avenue to Union Square. Crowds picnic in the park. There are stalls all around, selling samosas and kebabs. Small children with American accents cling to their parents’ knees and wave little flags. Teenage boys in baggy jeans affect boredom, hoping to impress the girls. Many of the women wear brightly colored traditional dress, while older men look crisply Anglo-Indian in Nehru jackets or coat and tie. Modest by New York standards, the event has an authentic feeling that has long been missing from most of the city’s other ethnic parades.

No doubt the day will come when New York’s South Asians, like sundry Polish-, Greek-, and Irish-Americans, will parade down Fifth Avenue as thousands of their fellow citizens cheer them on. With the mayor on hand to praise their contributions to the community, the marchers will feel a certain self-consciousness as they display their distinctive costumes and food, dances and songs. They will have crossed the invisible cultural line that divides the immigrant from the hyphenated American. Such assimilation has always taken place with astonishing speed. It has its tragic side, to be sure, as traditions fall away. But it has an intensely American glory—well worth parading every year.


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