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Seeking a more ''cultural'' cultural definition

BY MANISH RAIJI
Nothing Catchy
Published November 21, 2001

The first Indian American Students Association Cultural Show I attended was five years ago, as a junior in high school. The memory that has stayed with me was of one particular skit: Two Indian mothers sitting together, one speaking proudly of her son. "He"s so smart, I"m so proud of him, he wants to be a doctor."

And in the background arrives the son, drunk in his Ann Arbor apartment, unseen by his mother and her friend. In his hand is a bottle, tucked in a brown paper bag. He takes a long drink and says sarcastically, "You should be so proud of me. I really want to be a doctor."

There was silence in the audience. Absolute silence and in that silence, a strong point about Indian-American culture was made.

I was in high school at the time, so I have no knowledge of the backlash that the organizers felt. But the backlash must have been there, because IASA has since shied away from real issues involving the balance between the Indian and American facets of Indian-Americans.

Arriving on campus, the Indian-American freshman faces a dilemma. Balancing Indian and American culture is relatively easy at home his home life is largely an exercise in Indian culture, while outside he is immersed in America. Losing track of his Indian heritage is impossible because the Indian community is so much a part of his life.

But once at college, that ease disappears. America is still there, just as it always has been, but India is left at home.

IASA seems like the obvious way to fill that void freshmen flock to it like flies to flypaper. Before they know it, they"re entrenched in an organization that fails on so many levels to truly represent Indian-American culture. In the subsequent IASA cultural shows that I have seen, the focal point has been jokes involving our parents" accents. Those sorts of jokes were funny when we were 12, but they"re pathetic when we"re 21.

There has been substantive criticism of IASA among Indian-Americans on this campus. Gautam Setty, a hometown friend of mine, pointed out that so many students, immersed in Indian culture while at home, have largely shirked IASA while at school. Why we have done this can be answered in one of two ways: Either we aren"t interested enough to actively pursue our culture, or else we have found that IASA presents a skewed vision of our culture.

I tend to agree with the latter answer. In 1990, IASA leadership decided that the inclusion of Hinduism in IASA events alienated Indians of other religious faiths. Instead of expanding its cultural focus to include other religions, IASA decided to become secular. Divorcing religion from Indian culture is impossible much of the culture of India is decidedly wrapped up in religion. IASA shouldn"t be an organization that considers Hinduism to be the defining part of Indian culture, but it should also not pretend that religion isn"t an integral part of the culture.

The decision to push religion out of IASA was more damaging because of the precedent that it set for successive leaders. In essence, it was made clear that IASA was more interested in becoming a large organization, even at the expense of Indian culture. IASA"s history has been one of backing off of important issues in order to remain popular.

At that, they have succeeded. Setty pointed out that "(IASA) got to such a size that they think if you"re not in IASA, you"re not Indian."

This raises another interesting point about IASA: A lot of people criticize it for being a sort of clique excluding IASA members from the larger Indian-American community, while secluding the Indian-American community from the larger University community. Doing so segregates Indian-Americans while further polarizing the Indian-American community.

IASA faces an interesting challenge most of us are first- or second-generation Indians, so it is our opportunity to define Indian-American culture. By presenting a strictly secular version of India and mixing it with American hip-hop, IASA is creating a bizarre cultural definition which isn"t ours. IASA shouldn"t be "more Indian" or "more American," they should only be more honest about their goals.

I spoke with Sumanth Padmanabh, the chair of the IASA board, who admitted that much of what IASA does is social providing a forum for people to meet one another. He also provided a very compelling defense of this practice, pointing out that, for all the criticism IASA receives about its lack of culture, very few of its members actually participate in cultural events. If IASA hosts a forum on some aspect of Indian-American culture and only 20 people come, than IASA is not doing what its group members want.

Essentially, Padmanabh feels that the first answer regarding the apathy of Indian-Americans toward IASA is the relevant one people aren"t willing to actively pursue their Indian culture. Perhaps the balance lies between what I believe (that IASA is doing a poor job of representing us) and what he believes (that we aren"t interested enough in our culture). In that case, it is the job of those Indian-Americans who dislike IASA"s definition of Indian-American culture to take leadership and change its direction.

The cultural show this year seems to hint at just such a change. I unfortunately missed the show this year, but I have heard from Indian and American students alike that it was a step away from the accent jokes of years past and toward a stronger statement of our culture. I regret that I couldn"t attend the show this year it appears as if, just as I had given up hope for IASA, they proved me wrong. If all that I have heard about the show is true, than I applaud those involved in setting the tone for the night. I sincerely hope that younger IASA members continue to push IASA in more cultural directions so that our generation"s contribution to Indian-American definition isn"t the joke that it is today.

Padmanabh left me with an interesting thought. "People don"t care about their culture until they think they"re losing it." Perhaps this year"s cultural show is an indication that Indian-Americans on campus are becoming acutely aware of the fact that complacency about IASA is making us lose our culture.

Manish Raiji can be reached via e-mail at mraiji@umich.edu.