This piece is the first in a series of conversations with South Asian and South Asian diasporic members of the Tufts community. It is a part of SAPAC’s ongoing “South Asians of the Hill” campaign, which aims to broaden on-campus discourse regarding South Asian identity by documenting the diverse, lived experiences of those who link their identities to South Asia.
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On May 5, 2014, SAPAC sat down with Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was extremely generous with his time, and our conversation left us with so much to grapple with as we think about growing South Asians of the Hill. Below are some excerpts, in which he discusses life in India, his first years in the United States, and raising children in diaspora.
On his upbringing in India
I grew up in Delhi when Indira Gandhi was in power. I distinctly remember at one point, you couldn’t go to school with hair that was this long [gestures]. There were policemen that would stop and measure how wide your trousers could be. We weren’t allowed to listen to Led Zeppelin and other classic rock, so that would all happen more secretly. That was the India I grew up in, not-quite-socialist and not-quite-capitalist – in fact, a little in between, a bit of a jumble of the two.
There was one television channel. Half of the movie was shown on Saturday, then the other half on Sunday. But during elections, they would constantly show movies so that people would watch television – as you can see, this was a very different India from today. Our literature was mostly oriented toward Britain and even Europe; American writing was there, but it was one stage removed, and didn’t figure as prominently.
On his first year in the United States
In India, we were basically students – but in coming to the U.S., though we were still PhD students, we made one step towards being grown-ups. Figuring out how to cook and taking care of things on your own was a process of self-discovery. I discovered that you could buy a nearly unlimited quantity of chicken. …In the first year, I think I ate only chicken and rice. At first, I did not really miss any foods from India, simply because of the sheer amount of chicken I had. But after a year, I started to miss street food, to miss home food. My wife comes from Bangalore – though we both grew up in Delhi – so she also has very distinct tastes.
I find that within India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh there are subgroups. Tamilians interact with Tamilians, Gujaratis interact with Gujaratis, and Bengalis with Bengalis. These “tribal clusters” exist within the South Asian diaspora as well. …But when you come from cosmopolitan cities like Delhi, there is no one thing called ‘South Asia.’ Those of us who grow up in cities like New Delhi or Mumbai are nomads, are not really accepted into those tribal communities.
On life in Boston
I moved to Boston in the early ’90s. Being a South Asian in Boston then was still quite… unremarkable. Boston is, on the one hand, a very parochial city, but it is also a center for academia, professional life, medicine – South Asians are dense in these fields. I never felt out of place in Boston.
At that time, South Asia was slowly coming onto the radar in America. I remember that people had started mentioning India and China in the same sentence as these two “emerging powers,” which was odd. It took me a while to get used to hearing India and China be placed together like that.
Back then, there did not seem to be any real political discussions amongst South Asians…we generally tended to fly under the radar, and our positions were not reflected in mainstream discourse. Then, as you see, it started to change, and we began to see South Asians finding their way into local and state politics, and organizing under presidential campaigns. We began to see the emergence of South Asians in the private sector, to see South Asians rising to the top of various multinational corporations. It seemed very odd at first, but now it has almost become commonplace. These things, for those of us who have lived here for a long time, have taken time to get used to.
On meeting Indians outside India
As a South Asian, there are always a few things we can go back to as common touch points. When you meet someone who says they are from Bombay, you ask them a specific set of questions – which year did they graduate, or where did they go to school – and everyone manages to find a common thread. It’s always surprising to people that within a nation of a billion people, there are so few degrees of separation. Whether it is remembering certain foods or songs from Hindi movies, there are always a few unifying elements that bring people from very different walks of life together.
On returning to India
Whenever I return to India I find that the country has changed, and not always in a linear way. It moves sideways, backwards, two steps sideways, and then forward again. I’m not quite sure whether I’m returning to a place I’m familiar with, or a foreign country altogether. It takes time readjusting to the reality of India.
On raising children in the United States
I believe that in raising our children, we extend our own lives. We didn’t go to school here, and we see primary and middle school through their eyes. To me, this is one of the joys of displacement – to set roots elsewhere, and then go through a totally different life with your children. My daughter right now is a senior in high school and navigating the politics of prom. We had a different prom back in India, and many of the anxieties that she goes through are so different from what we had to go through.
On his children’s interactions with South Asia
The ways they relate to their roots in South Asia are totally different. Our son is more connected to India – he loves Indian food, and he identifies as an American South Asian. Our daughter is more neutral; she actually doesn’t like Indian food, and is generally uncomfortable in India. Right now, if I’ll say that we all should go out to an Indian restaurant, she won’t want to. She prefers Italian food, “American” food.
It’s been interesting to see South Asia through their eyes. It can be both a traumatic and a heartwarming experience…you watch them see things in India that they find shocking or embarrassing, and then they turn to you and ask why people do these things. As someone who has grown up there, you take these sorts of things for granted. But with your children, you start questioning and are forced to confront that aspect of your life. These two things – children and displacement – are important together. We grew up with a set of assumptions, and it’s important to have those assumptions questioned, like why servants eat at a different table, or why there are even servants at all. People always expect that the cows on the street, the beggars, that these will be the shocking things. But cows and elephants aren’t the issues. It’s the other, subtle things that you don’t expect.
On how South Asia influences his children’s lives
What has been disturbing with the children was the past year, which has been rough on the perception of life in South Asia. One part of South Asia – Pakistan and Bangladesh – has always had a lot of tension and political stability represented in the news, and India has escaped that. But now, because of the series of recent gang rapes, corruption, venality…suddenly, you find yourself questioning whether there is something fundamentally wrong with this part of the world – its culture, its sociological makeup, the overall context. It’s something I’ve often asked my son. He has had problems in terms of speaking to his colleagues at work: When they would say it’s a “really dangerous part of the world to travel to,” at first he would feel quite defensive, and then he would question why he felt so compelled to defend a part of the world that technically, he isn’t responsible for. That’s part of the tension.
My daughter, right now, is going through her college applications. She feels strongly that she wants a small liberal arts college, so we have been visiting several of these schools, mainly in the Northeast. I had mentioned to her the lack of diversity at many of these schools, but she had said, “It’s not a problem for me; I just want to be around people who are energetic” and that diversity was not such an issue. She did an overnight visit at [a NESCAC school] and said it was a great place, but on the way back, I told her that it had felt very White. “There’s nothing wrong with that,” she had said, and I remember thinking that maybe she didn’t think it made a difference to her. Then we visited [another NESCAC school], and as we were debriefing in the car, she said, “I know I don’t want to go to [this school], but after visiting it I now realize that I don’t want to go to [the first school] either.” [The second school] is very diverse, and I think that maybe – even though there’s nothing South Asian about her other than the way she looks – she realized what she missed. Perhaps this is a part of her process of evolution – we all discover things, these hidden compartments within ourselves, and maybe she will in the future relate to these aspects of life in different ways.
On “South Asian”-ness
The reason I feel that people coming out of South Asia are so inherently creative and adaptable comes from their exposure to extremes. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty, extreme comfort and extreme wretchedness – these exist side-by-side in South Asia. If you are used to that, you can adapt to essentially any setting. Growing up in a suburb of Boston, you might only have one kind of exposure – whereas I can be put in any setting and still be able to function because I have been in the heat and the dust.
Being from South Asia is a blessing. This is a part of the world that has constantly been influenced by other parts of the world, be it through travel, migration, invasion. There is an inherent sense of globality that one misses almost anywhere else. I believe the reason you see so many South Asians doing so many things is that we have a “multicultural gene” inherent in us – we are often mediators, able to see both sides of an issue. I feel that being from South Asia has made me a citizen of the world. I would hope that my children will feel the same, that they will use their “South Asian”-ness to feel comfortable in any setting.
On SAPAC’s “South Asians Of The Hill” Campaign
The cultural awareness of South Asia here has been interesting, in that people have certain impressions of what the writing is about, of what movies and food people enjoy. There seems to be a highly homogenized or standardized version of what “South Asia” is all about over here. For example, Diwali seems to be the de facto Christmas equivalent now – but for my family, Diwali is not the biggest thing. In fact, if you look closely you will see that every part of India – let alone South Asia – has its own different major festivals, and then minor festivals too. But I feel that each time you [SAPAC] conduct one of these interviews, you are peeling back layers of the onion and discovering the diversity behind each South Asian identity.
Dr. Bhaskar Chakravorti is Senior Associate Dean of International Business and Finance and the Executive Director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context.
Vidya Srinivasan and Gautam Kapur are sophomores at Tufts University and members of SAPAC’s Executive Board.