An Immigrant’s Tale

Natwar Gandhi
24-10-2017

There is yet another reason why I write this memoirs.  The story I write here is that of an immigrant who migrated from India empty handed when he was twenty-five and lived better part of life in the U. S., the country of his dreams where his dreams came true. Yet, millions of immigrants stream into the country.  After all, the country is made of immigrants and their descendents.  So what is so special about my story as an immigrant?  More than a story, this memoirs is my tribute to America.

In this winter of American discontent of 2016, when a presidential candidate rode into the White House based upon his anti-immigrant rhetoric, it is rather quaint thing to say this is still the Promised Land for immigrants like me. In singing America’s glory, I am not ignoring what is bad and ugly here--crime, drugs, social promiscuity, the homelessness, racial discrimination, and its special interest driven toxic politics. And, yes I too feel the sting of discrimination--crank calls from crazies asking me to go back home. But where would I go? This is home now!

As I write this in June of 2017, what was just an occasional crank call for me, “go back to your country,” has turned into two shootings of Indians, one fatal by apparent strangers. All of sudden a climate of fear has spread across immigrant communities, particularly among South Asians who have made this country their home.  There was a recent report that catalogued  “incidents of hate violence and xenophobic political rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities” from late December 2015 through Nov. 15, 2016, one week after the presidential election.1 That represented a 34 percent increase in incidents in less than a third of the period since 2014. As the young widow of a computer engineer who was gunned down in a Kansas bar said on her Facebook page: “Do we belong here? Is this the same country we dreamed of and is it still secure to raise our families and children here?”2

There are larger issues that also bother me about contemporary America.  Above all, the disintegration of American family. Family is a stabilizing force in any society.  The gradual disintegration of American family over last half century has been relentless and profoundly worrying. This has a lot do with extreme emphasis on individual liberty, lax social mores, sexual promiscuity, and casual attitude towards marital obligations, particularly children. What Senator Moynihan prophetically warned about black families in 1965 might now be applied to all American families, including, white.3 He reported that out of wedlock births among black were about 24 percent, today that rate is around seventy percent.  “In 2015, nearly a third of all children (31 percent) were being raised by single parents or no parent at all, up from 15 percent in 1970. Over the same period, births to single mothers jumped from 11 percent of all births to 40 percent.”4 The recent book Hillbilly Elegy narrates this issue with great alarm.5 Despite all the issue with traditional families such as the one in which I was raised in India, a child is assured of family stability which is critical for early childhood development. Immigrants like me bring with us that social capital of family stability that has saved us so far from the ravages resulting from volatility of contemporary American family. Extraordinary success of the second and third generation Indian Americans might be attributed to this family stability.

This emphasis on family as a basis of good society is at variance from what the British anthropologist Edmund Leach argued in his Reith Lectures. He concluded that, "Far from being the basis of the good society, the family, with its narrow privacy and tawdry secrets, is the source of all our discontents."6  I have lived for many years in an Indian extended family and would not prefer to live there again. Yet, the kind of assurance a stable family gives to a growing child should not be underestimated. In a traditional Indian family, when a child comes home from school in the evening, he or she never has to face the problem of a missing parent because parents divorced.

I must admit that I am also disillusioned by the special interest driven descent of American politics into a quagmire that has immobilized not only Washington but also state governments. I had always credited American people with pragmatism, but of late, I have doubts. I hope this is temporary and that America will get back its mojo again.  Further, as historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. once pointed out America gets into a kind of collective lunacy every thirty years or so and gets into an unnecessary war--Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.  It is almost an American affliction, but because the destructiveness of American power, its consequences are catastrophic for a people that are at the receiving end of the lunacy. If my first book of poems, America, America, was a celebration of my adopted country, the latest book of poems, Pennsylvania Avenue was a scathing indictment.7

Yet, despite all its ills, I do not see America as a tragic country, as it is fashionable to say among some select intellectual circles.8  On the country, I see it as a triumphant nation that has provided an unprecedentedly high standard of living and freedom of expression to the majority of its heterogenous people.  No other country has done it on such vast American scale.  It has made good life possible even for the common man.  It gives him a chance to make something of his life by liberating him from the crushing burden of poverty plaguing most of the world. Any country that can do it within mere two hundred years of its formation should not be called tragic.

I still say that if you know what you want do with your life then America is still the place to come. Here in America you get your chance to make your mark in life.  Here at last, what matters is what you know and what you can do.  Its generous people still open their hearts and doors for immigrants like me and let them pursue their dreams and remake their lives.  As long as that spirit is alive and well, America will remain great, Trump or No Trump! No demagogue can detract America from its manifest destiny and no terrorist can make it lose its bearing.  For an immigrant like me it is baffling to hear some of its opportunistic politicians bad mouthing America. 

Most Americans take their country for granted.  I don’t.  I know better.  I am from the old world, where they still see America as the Promised Land, and keep their eyes on that prize of the Promised Land.  When I hear people denigrating America, I am reminded of a poem by Ray Bradbury: 9

America

We are the dream that other people dream.
The land where other people land
When late at night, they think on flight
And, flying, here arrive where we fools dumbly thrive ourselves.
Refuse to see we be what all the world would like to be.
How dumb! Newcomers cry, you are mad! They shout,
We’d sell our souls if we could be you
How come you cannot see the way we see you?
You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be
You are the dream that other people dream.

I am a citizen now, and I celebrate July 4, but the day of my biggest celebration each year is October 10--on that day of October 1965, I landed in America.  That is my Independence Day!

On Being Uprooted

I still have to face the fundamental issue of migration--of being uprooted--that all immigrants face. Famed novelist Salman Rushdie referring to his migration to United Kingdom writes, “migration tore up all the roots of the self.  The rooted self flourished in a place it knew well, among the people who knew it well, following customs and traditions with which it and its community were familiar and speaking its own language among others who did the same.”10 Migrating to England Rushdie felt the loss of three of his four roots: place, community, culture. The fourth one--the language, English, was still with him there. The fundamental difference between Rushdie and migrants like me is the social and economic conditions in which we were raised and lived before we migrated.  He came from an affluent family living in an exclusive area, and went to a private school. He was blessed with all the privileges and prerogatives that go with being rich in India. Had he lived through all the harrowing times that I had gone through in Mumbai, he would not be much talking about “my beloved Bombay.” He hated to leave the city which I had hated passionately and wanted to leave desperately.  Poverty trumps most of our personal likes and dislikes.

The perennial issue for an immigrant is: where do I belong? This is an intensely personal issue. Given all the slights, hurts, humiliations and hopelessness that I had endured in Mumbai, I knew I did not belong there.  When my lucky break came, I took the first available opportunity to jump the ship.  After living in the U. S. for more than fifty years, I know where I belong and that is not India.  Every time I go back to Mumbai and other places in India, I would be at a loss there now.  After every visit when I return to the U. S., I feel I have come home.  That is not just because I am now used to my American amenities, but because America has given me my human dignity.  In Mumbai, I felt worthless while in America I am valued for who I am and I feel good about myself that was never the case in India.

There is another reason why millions of poor people like me want to come to America. Rushdie like many who migrated to England, found that the country’s establishment was “not letting them in.”11 That is not how I found the U. S. Given the record of amazing success of even the first generation Indian immigrants, among others, American society at large and the establishment in particular have been open to immigrants, particularly those who are educated and skilled.  Just imagine several major American corporations, universities and their business schools are now headed by first generation Indian Americans. Citing my own example I could say that only in America, a first generation Asian Indian with accent could become Chief Financial Officer of the nation’s capital with extraordinary power and responsibilities. But even those immigrants who are not educated and skilled in professions have found a way to achieve their American dream as long as they were willing to work hard. For example, the less educated but entrepreneurial Indians have been remarkably successful in running small businesses as convenience stores, donut shops, laundries, motels, gas stations, grocery stores, etc.  Simply put, if you are willing to work, work is there!

In my long life spanning two countries and nearly eight decades I have made many mistakes but coming to America is not one of them. Indeed, that was the best thing that has happened to me. And I was glad to give up all the things that Rushdie was loathe to give up--place, community, culture. I even lost the fourth one--the language. Yet, I am happy that I came to America that gave me the opportunity to be who I am today.

My Indian story as well early experiences in America narrated here appear so dated now. I am writing about the events and things that have happened some sixty or more years ago. Though some events are still vivid in my mind, most are buried under the layers of hazy memories. As we remember past to write about it, there is a some invention as well. Some sort of palimpsest is inevitable.  But then this is not history, it is memoir. Of course, any thing we remember of a distant past is colored by our subjectivity. However, there is no other way to remember the past. “Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory, and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the human brain. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare, and that, for the most part, our memories are relatively solid and reliable.”12

References :

1. See Amy Wang, “A man assumed a store’s Indian owners were Muslim. So he tried to burn it down, police say.” The Washington Post, March 12, 2017.  Also see, Power, Pain, Potential--South Asian Americans at the Forefront of Growth and Hate in 2016 Election Cycle, SAALT, 2017

2. See Editorial, The Washington Post, March 8, 2017

3. Daniel P. Moynihan, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Washington, D.C., Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor, 1965.

4. Robert Samuelson, “Trump is not destiny. Here’s what it is.” The Washington Post,” June 12, 2017, p. A17. Samuelson summarises the finding of Report of Joint Economic Committee, The State of Associational Life in America, SCP Report 1-17

5. J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy (New York: Harper Press), 2016

6. Edmund Leach, A Runaway World? (New York, Oxford University Press, 1968), p.44

7.  Natwar Gandhi, America, America (2006) and Pennsylvania Avenue (2011), Mumbai: Image Publications.

8.  Natwar Gandhi, “Still the Promised Land,” The Washington Post, June 13. 1989, op-ed

9.  Ray Bradbury, America: An Ode to Immigrants, The Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2006.

10.  Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton, New York: Random House, 2012, p. 53.

11.  Rushdie, ibid, p, 69.

12. Oliver Sacks, “Speak Memory, The New York Review, February 21, 2013.

e.mail : natgandhi@yahoo.com

Category :- English Bazaar Patrika / Features