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Cover Story

Between India and Indiana



EAST MEETS WEST: (From left to right) Ashley, Marcia and Meredith from California at the ongoing Maha Kumbh mela in Allahabad

Americans who mix a mean dosa batter, Chinese who talk in Tamil and Australians who can dance the bhangra - the mantras of multiculturalism are thriving.

At a dinner party hosted by their mutual friend, a young American woman walked up behind an Indian man, tapped him on his shoulder, and asked "Heggiddira?" (" How are you?") in faultless Kannada. She had heard through another acquaintance that he was from Bangalore and she wanted to reconnect with a city she had lived in for a year during her graduate studies, when she did her PhD field work on vote bank politics in Karnataka. When the said gent recovered from spilling his drink on his shirtfront, their conversation swung between India and Indiana, her home state in the United States. On her part, she learned that he knew much about the boonies in Middle America where she came from, which is typically unfamiliar territory for professional Indians who stick to the East Coast or West Coast (" I went to Waco, Texas, long before the Branch Dravidians made it famous, "he said. He could recite Frost and Whitman, was familiar with Dylan and the Dixie Chicks, and did not suffer from the anti-American pathology of many Indians even as they engaged the west. He was comfortable in his own Indian skin and ethos. On his part, he liked that she could be as Middle American as Cracker Barrel, did not overly romanticize India, didn't gush about Bollywood or yoga (both of which she was familiar with), and took it for what it was - a country of great contradictions that even an Indian, let alone a westerner, could never come to grips with;a nation that defied definitions and stereotypes.

Their all-too-brief and engaging conversation at that dinner led to a second meeting over coffee, this time during India's last cricket tour of England. When conversation somehow veered around to cricket, a religion for the Indian male, the Midwestern American lass vehemently opined that Rahul Dravid should open the innings for India so that both Yuvraj Singh and Suresh Raina could play in the middle order. More beverage was spilled on shirt front. Further inquiries about her deep knowledge of cricket revealed that even before her graduate school stint in Bangalore, said lass had lived in Pune as an undergraduate, interning at a storied American firm from her hometown that had an Indian collaboration going back to the 1960s. Her family members had worked in the firm and talk about and traffic to and fro India was something she grew up with. When she arrived in Pune as a young collegiate, the only way she could engage Indians, mostly men, at the joint venture was to bone up on cricket and Bollywood. Out of personal interest, not just self-interest, she also cottoned on to Indian cuisine, classical music (dhrupad), yoga etc. There was no magic, no mystique, and no initiation. It was a process. In Pune, she got hooked to Chitale Bandhu Mithaiwala in Sadashiv Peth;in Bangalore, she would home in on Asha Sweets in Malleswaram. Of course, none of this diluted her passion for Mirabelle Chocolates, in Soho, New York City or Zaharakos, the century-old ice-cream parlour in her hometown in Indiana.

A few weeks later, the two engaging parties coincidentally found themselves in India at the same time. More meetings and discoveries followed. One evening, when the Indian male was sick at home with food poisoning, the American female dropped by. Seeing him moaning in discomfort, she asked the housekeeper if there was any ajwain (bishop's weed, a parsley-like spice) at home. She then proceeded to concoct a ghastly (he said) potion which (he admitted) eventually addressed the stomach upset even as the astonished housekeeper picked up her jaw which had clattered to the floor seeing some gori memsahib grind out a desi formulation. Love over ajwain, she surmised correctly. A week later, the housekeeper fainted in shock when the Midwestern lass instructed her on the precise proportions of rice, urad dal, poha, and methi to soak overnight for a batter that made dosas crisp.

Such stories are now all too common in the ceaseless engagement between India and the west. The idea that Indians blindly ape the west is taken for granted, but increasingly, with rapid globalisation, westerners, and indeed all sorts of foreigners, comfortably embrace India and its bounteous offerings, from Chinese who teach Bharatanatyam and speak Tamil, to Africans and Australians and Americans who can dance the bhangra and can make daal-tadka. In the US, thousands of American homes adopt Indian practices, habits, rituals etc from food to meditation, often because they have visited India or have Indian friends or family, but often even without such connections. In one recent instance last week, when this correspondent ribbed an American friend about one of her favourite Indian brand of packaged food, she responded by saying she had given up on pre-cooked food because of concerns over use of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) in plastics;she was now making her own chapattis at home.

It is not very well-known that Americans have always been deeply into India, not in the fleeting faddish ways of contemporary entertainment industry, but more intensely. Long before Uma Thurman became a Hollywood star, her father was a distinguished scholar of Sanskrit and Buddhist studies at Columbia University. The founding director of the CIA, Allan Dulles, spent two years in Allahabad learning and teaching Sanskrit and Hindi, although this does not square with how he and his brother John Foster Dulles were on the wrong side of India during the Cold War, an event which colours many perceptions in India. And those apples in Himachal you think are home-grown and need to be protected against wicked Washington apples now coming into India? Turns out they are also of American origin, brought in by Satyananda Stokes, born Samuel Evans into an American Quaker family. Similarly, there are Indians now who are bringing all kinds of desi influences into American mainstream. Earlier this week, Monica Bhide, a Virginia-based foodie, introduced a "Spice Sutra" collection of chocolates infused with distinctly Indian flavours - cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, ginger, and gulkand (rose petal extract ). Winning rave reviews Washington Post and Wall Street Journal, the collection sold out before Valentine's Day, marking another sweet Indian advance into Americana.

Of course, all this accelerated co-mingling in the 21st century is beyond the understanding of the semiliterate yahoos of various senas and jamaats and petty tea party tyrants whose idea of nationalism is to demonise and trash other cultures and influences, fearful of their own inadequacy and marginalisation. But in millions of households across the world, and particularly in the US and India, the mantras of multi-culturism are thriving, leading to a way of life that accommodates both Valentine's Day and Karva Chauth, Christmas and Diwali. It's the way of the 21st century.

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