Sanjaya, the Anti-Ambassador

 When I was in high school, my best friend Chitra and I won a debating trophy. We had traveled by cycle rickshaw to a vernacular school in the old part of Nagpur, dressed in uniforms of navy blue skirts and white blouses. Our Sanskrit teacher, whom we called Pathak Sir, and whom everyone admired for orating in Sanskrit at every Independence Day, Republic Day, and Bal Gangadhar Tilak birthday, rode his bicycle beside us. After a day of speeches, I suffered a migraine headache. But when I delivered my extempore piece, and heard the judges declare us winners, it all seemed worthwhile. Chitra insisted on taking the silver-plated trophy home, so that it was she who was mobbed on the school playground the next morning. At the assembly, Principal Joshi congratulated us, declaring, "Excellence is True Beauty."

Excellence is True Beauty.

The words became engraved in my mind forever. They were the guiding principle of my young life.

It seemed to me then that I could do anything. I could go abroad, study science, write books, see the world. I could become a mountain climber, fly an airplane, jump with a parachute, live alone in a foreign city.

Physically though, I had always been a somewhat timid child. Unlike my friend Viju, I would not jump from roofs of houses. In later years, I would even be afraid to drive in India through the chaotic traffic.

The moment I realized these limitations was the moment I grew up.

I did win the National Merit Scholarship and the Atomic Energy Commission Fellowship. I did go on to the Government Science College, and later, to IIT. At each stage, the competition got fiercer. It was at IIT that I got severely depressed after realizing that I really did not love physics. Luckily, I was able to survive this setback too, by coming to Berkeley and studying Energy and Resources.

In the United States, the possibilities seemed limitless at first. America of the late 1970s seemed less competitive compared with India. There were few Indians around, so I became an ambassador for my country.

But then I faced some serious setbacks—physically, personally, and, as a result, professionally. I realized I was mortal. It dawned on me that I was flawed physically, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually. I realized that we humans do not control everything. Destiny plays its part in our lives and no matter how hard we might strive, many of us are forced to recognize that the attempt itself and not achievement, the dream and not its realization, has to satisfy.

Later, I began to raise my sons and discovered that they too had their own struggles. I observed that they really did not have the competitive drive. So I began to emphasize happiness, kindness, generosity, and a love of life and nature, rather than intellectual achievement, in their lives.

So I am intimidated to watch Indian Americans excel at everything today. I am proud of my ethnic group but I am also filled with terror as I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s fiction and Atul Gawande’s essays in the New Yorker; as I watch Mira Nair’s films at the cinema; as I hear Norah Jones’s songs on the radio; as I listen to Vandana Shiva’s speeches on the News Hour; as I watch Aishwarya Rai’s interview on 60 Minutes. I am worried about the pressure this puts on our younger generation to compete and excel and win, and most of all, to work and work and work.

I have heard stories of young people buckling under the pressure. I want to tell them that when I got that debate trophy, I wasn’t planning to win, but to have fun.

Which is why I am so intrigued by the latest phenomenon of Sanjaya Malakar, whom I have not yet watched on American Idol, but in whom I have discovered the ultimate anti-achiever. The irony is, he is excelling by doing exactly the opposite of what his culture expects him to do; namely being himself, being different, and being daring.

Ironically, Indians are so hip in America today that these very traits, which would have made him a caricature a decade ago, are winning him fans.

At first, from the media clips I had seen, I couldn’t decide if Sanjaya was the biggest bumbling idiot or a genius on par with Steven Colbert. For, like Colbert’s parody of Bill O’ Riley, Sanjaya seemed to be parodying American Idol, which, let’s face it, has been in need of taking itself less seriously for some time.

I eventually concluded that the secret of Sanjaya’s success could be summed up in one phrase—a sense of humor. Sanjaya has brought to the forefront the one Indian quality that has not yet become a cultural stereotype, Rusell Peters’s success on Comedy Central notwithstanding, namely, a sense of humor. One of the things I most miss about India is the self-parodying, the joking and clowning, the easy banter that pervaded every aspect of our lives. Sense of humor was the glue that held the country together, what kept the poorest from losing hope, what helped us face red tape, electric blackouts, dry taps.

In making fun of American Idol, Sanjaya has not only sent up the hype of American reality TV, he has challenged young Indian Americans to laugh at themselves, to be anti-heroes, to under-achieve.

Yet, underneath this euphoria lies a worry. I wonder if, underneath the hype, the web postings, and even a potential win on Idol, lurks an undercurrent of racism that is making mainstream America over-eager to poke fun of a "Makaka." I relive my first few days in America, when Peter Sellers in The Party was what meant being an Indian to Americans.

But then I realize that joining the melting pot means ceasing to be ambassadors of our country and starting to be individuals, even if that means becoming a butt of other people’s jokes, as long as that is what we want.


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