"Gan-dee, Gan-dee, Gan-dee," they chanted. "Cow lover," "cow ****er," "Hin-doo schmuck."
The words spewed from the lips of eight boys in Catholic-school uniforms gathered outside their junior high school in New York City. The object of their spite was a fellow seventh grader, a brown kid with metal braces on his teeth and a clip-on tie on his neck. He was the only Indian boy in a school filled with whites, blacks, Hispanics, and a few Asians. There was one Indian-looking girl in the sixth grade, but he'd seen her only from afar.
The chanting continued as the boys circled the Indian kid, yelling, laughing, and taunting him. One of the bigger boys reached out and shoved him. Someone caught the Indian and pushed him back. He looked nervous, his face bordering on fright. The taunting continued. "Hin-doo Gan-dee."
A teacher happened to wander by and ordered the boys to "break it up." And just like that, it was over.
That was 17 years ago, and I was the Indian boy.
I had gotten their attention because the previous night, at the Oscars, two movies that my schoolmates were cheering for--"E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" and "Tootsie"--were almost shut out. You see, that evening in 1983, "Gandhi" won eight Academy Awards and made a few ignorant young Americans unhappy. Their little brown alien had been silenced by a little brown man.
When was the last time
we saw Peter Jennings anchor from Delhi other than during a funeral for someone named Gandhi or Teresa?
For a couple of minutes that distant day, my Indianness was not my strongest asset.
These many years later, I have made my peace with Oscar. On Sunday, I helped my students host a big-screen Academy Awards party for 100 people. I had graduated from a clip-on necktie to a clip-on bowtie for my tuxedo.
For the second straight year, I was cheering the work of desis (slang for "South Asians"). Last year, it was director Shekhar Kapur and his "Elizabeth." Last night, it was director and writer M. Night Shyamalan and the six nominations for "The Sixth Sense," and Deepak Nayar, co-producer of "Buena Vista Social Club," a nominee for Best Documentary. Plus, there was "Caravan," a French-Nepalese production in the category for Best Foreign Film and Nepal's first nomination for an Oscar.
The desis didn't win, but seeing Shyamalan featured prominently was consolation enough for me; for him, the $600 million that "The Sixth Sense" has made worldwide should ease any pain. At least one desi did get to go home with an Oscar: Shakira Caine, Michael's wife (and a onetime actress from Guyana).
It's not just Hollywood--South Asiana has been in the American media spotlight more than ever before. Just look at the last two weeks. President Clinton's subcontinent trip has meant front-page stories in dozens of daily newspapers, never-ending footage of the president on his little excursion, and a raft of articles about desi Americans.
Peter Jennings anchored his ABC evening newscast live from Delhi's India Gate. When was the last time we saw that kind of link other than at a funeral for someone named Gandhi or Teresa? Even Comedy Central's "fake news" show had a lead item about India, making a predictable joke about starvation and poverty.
Recently, WNET, New York's public TV station, aired an hourlong documentary on a subject never covered in a similar fashion, "Desi: South Asians in New York." They ran it four times in three days, bumping a show about multi-Grammy winner Carlos Santana. During pledge breaks, it pulled in more than $127,000 in three hours.
Not all South Asians are happy with many of the depictions of desis in the American media. Some desis get upset when Madonna wears henna tattoos in public and fret that Apu, the convenience-store owner on "The Simpsons," is the most visible South Asian on TV. I don't. You haven't truly arrived as a community until you show up in places you haven't before: in the sports pages, in the crime blotter, in a "Saturday Night Live" skit, or as a purveyor of chutney Slurpees at a Kwik-e-Mart.
One place we are going to show up is in this year's census, thanks to increased awareness within the community--and massive advertising by the government. A form landed in my mailbox last week. Under the race designation, there's a category called "Asian Indian."
Asian Indian. It's an odd, made-up word, but it allows us to stand up and be counted. You can be sure that in that old junior high of mine, there are more than a few Asian Indians today. Or, as they used to say, "Hin-doo Gan-dees."