Indians Have Long Loved America — Can Clinton Make This a Mutual Affair?

President Clinton’s trip to India should highlight how much in common Indians share with Americans — and how much America needs India rather than the other way around.

Two objects, side by side on our living room wall, dominate my memories of our house in India — my brother’s charcoal sketch of John F. Kennedy Jr. saluting his father’s coffin, and a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi wearing his famous wire-rimmed glasses, a wedding gift to my parents. America and India were thus intertwined in our minds. India, the cradle of our past. America, the land of our future. For a brief while, I had an American pen pal because of John F. Kennedy. To mark his presidential visit, students in America sent a gift of notebooks to schools in India. I received one such book from Anaheim, California.

I would move my fingers over its glossy pages, compare its feel with the rough, yellowed paper of my other books — too precious for everyday use, I saved it for writing poems.

So I cried when our principal told us at morning assembly that Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We had so much in common with the U.S. we thought then! For, if America was the world’s richest democracy, we were the largest.

Sure, our government was flirting with an economic alliance with the Soviet Union, and 150 years of being a British colony had made our parents a little wary of the multinationals.

But culturally, spiritually and intellectually, our hearts and minds were turned towards America. So we read Mary McCarthy and Betty Friedan. We bought space ice cream from visiting NASA scientists. When I finally entered the American-built Indian Institute of Technology as a student of physics, I dreamed of MIT, Berkeley, and NASA. Indians of my generation imagined that our love affair with America was mutual. With a multitude of languages, religions, races and cultures, we were, like America, a melting pot.

We thought if we needed America, then America needed us too, if for no other reason than to espouse its belief in freedom and democracy. When I finally arrived in the U.S. as a graduate student in the late 1970s, therefore, I was dismayed to discover that Americans wanted to know only three things about my native country — cows, gurus, and untouchables. Worse, Americans treated us as if we were not only a part of the Soviet bloc, but a dark continent behind the iron curtain. I wanted to tell them that it was not that India had chosen to align itself with the Soviet Union, but that America had pushed my native country in that direction by supplying arms to our neighbors, Pakistan, and more recently, China. That my native country’s policy of non-alliance in the post-war world was seen by America not as an extension of our belief in non-violence, but as a failure to succumb to U.S. corporate interests. I was also troubled by the U.S. government’s hostility toward the largest democratic experiment in any “third world” country. What could better show that our nation thought of America as a soulmate than the fact that “midnight’s children” — those born around the time of India’s freedom from British rule in 1947 — aspired to emulate America, the land of opportunity and enterprise?

Many longed to go there — and did. During the last three decades, many Indians were instrumental in founding California’s Silicon Valley. Thousands more workers are being imported from India every year to feed the U.S. cyber-industry.

But Microsoft and Intel court Indians for more than their talents. We Indians have more in common with Americans than most Americans realize. We are just as individualistic, outspoken, diverse, and multicultural as Americans. We survive as the world’s largest democracy in a region that has been plagued by autocracy for half a century. Alas, most Americans still perceive India as a land whose citizens are busy standing on their heads if they are not charming snakes. So, the visit by an American president, albeit lame duck, comes at an opportune time. If the Clinton trip can bring home the fact that the world’s second largest democracy needs the resources of its largest, the visit will have served its purpose.

PNS contributing editor Sarita Sarvate writes for India Currents, a monthly based in San Jose, Ca.

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