Indian-Americans: Tales from the Diaspora

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Two sisters - from the Indian-American project at the Smithsonian

Two sisters – from the Indian-American Heritage Project at the Smithsonian

 

 Indians in America – The Archives of Our Lives

In big American cities and small Apple-Pie towns,  the early Indian immigrants to America yearned for nothing more than a steaming bowl of their mother’s home-cooked daal  – but it was just a sweet mirage, something simmering continents away.

Fast forward a few decades, and the Indians are almost drowning in daal! Sparkling supermarkets, restaurants and takeaways provide almost an ocean of daal. In fact, there are so many varieties of daal from different parts of the world, you could probably export daal from America to India!

So it’s hard to imagine that even in a big glittering metropolis like Atlanta, just 30 years ago, daal was such a rare commodity that immigrants had to make do with ‘pretend daal’ – yellow split lentils from the local stores. There were no Indian grocery stores in Georgia until an enterprising couple Bhavana and Raj Shah started the first desi supermarket – in their own home!

From the Indian groceries that we take for granted today to the scores of Hindu temples where we and our children worship, the tapestry has been built up grain by grain, and brick by brick by pioneering Indians.

 

 Photograph from an early Patel Brothers store in Chicago. The first Patel Brothers was opened in Chicago in 1974. Courtesy of SAADA and Susan Patel.

Photograph from an early Patel Brothers store in Chicago. The first Patel Brothers was opened in Chicago in 1974. Courtesy of SAADA and Susan Patel.

 

Jagan Bhargave, a longtime resident of Atlanta, GA, mentions many dynamic Indian-Americans who have laid the foundations for the Indian community in so many parts of the US. He mentioned he was just returning from the funeral of PV Rao, another Indian who had helped build so much of the structure of the Indian community in Atlanta. Bhargave had told me that when he came in the 60’s as a student to Atlanta, the very first person he had met in college was Raj Chawla, who went on to be the first one to show hindi movies commercially in Atlanta  and had also started the first Hindi radio station.

Where was Raj Chawla now? I was told that he had passed away.

 

 A Disappearing Tribe

 

San Francisco 1983 - photo Saarika Sharma (Indian-American Project)

San Francisco 1983 – photo Saarika Sharma (Indian-American  Heritage Project)

 

 

Indeed, the Indian-Americans, now numbering a sizable 3.3 million, successful, entrepreneurial and with healthy, happy families behind them, seem to be at a crossroads for the demographics tell yet another story, a more sobering one. The Indian immigrants who came here in the 50’s and 60’s are now approaching their final years and many of these voices are disappearing – and with that,  all the untold stories, the celebration of lives well lived.

Stories which are undocumented will surely be lost, silenced. Now is the time to gather these voices and record them for posterity. Some attempts are being made to do this, by institutions and individuals. A major effort is the Indian-American Project at the prestigious Smithsonian Museum in the nation’s capital which will be launching a major exhibition spotlighting the Indian community.

There have also been several digital efforts to record the trajectory of  the communities in India and abroad. The Indian Memory Project was founded in 2010 by Anusha Yadav, a photographer and photo archivist, and an INK (in association with TED) fellow of 2011.

In this online archive which is carefully curated, you find wonderful old images, letters and stories shared by families. While many of the stories are India-based, so many of them have the diasporic connection. In fact, if you go to http://www.indianmemoryproject.com/tag/migration/, you will find fascinating photos and stories from Africa, Canada and the US.  One  old photo contributed by Mitul Patel of Texas shows ‘The Big Gujarati family all of whom migrated out of India’.  He writes, “Almost all of the Patels in the picture  now own and run businesses like Pizza Parlours, Liquor Stores, Motels, Hotels or work in the IT industry. My parents and I too live in Rockdale, Texas, USA and run a hotel called Rockdale Inn.”

Yadav mentions that she has received images from as far as Scotland and Australia, and would always like to hear from more people who’d like to share their family photos and histories.

Images from the Past – The Indian Connection

 

Photograph of Rabindranath and Sudhindra Bose at the University of Iowa, circa 1912-1913. Courtesy of SAADA.

(Courtesy: SAADA)

A very comprehensive effort in the US is the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), the only independent non-profit organization working to give voice to the South Asian Americans through documenting, preserving and sharing stories that reflect their unique and diverse experiences.

“We started SADA in 2008 because we realized that there were no existing systematic national efforts to document and preserve the history of South Asians in the United States and we feared that our community’s history was in danger of being lost,” says Samip Mallick, based in Philadelphia.

Mallick founded SAADA along with Michelle Caswell, an Assistant Professor of Archival Studies at UCLA. The third founding member is Jennifer Dolfus Ford, who is based in the Bay Area. The other directors include Manan Desai, Assistant Professor of English at Syracuse University, Rabia Syed, CRM Manager at Transportation Alternativesand Pawan Dhingra, Professor of Sociology at Tufts University.

Over the last five years SAADA has documented and provided access to over 1,600 unique archival items, each of which contributes to telling the community’s story. These include materials such as photographs, correspondence, newspaper clippings, maps, articles, journals, as well as audio recordings, videos, websites and other “born-digital” media. Says Mallick, “Through the digital archive, as well as through our outreach and educational programming we hope to help our community understand our past as a way of shaping our future and ensure that our community’s stories are protected and preserved for future generations.”

 

Mahatma Gandhi "Champion of Liberty" stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service on January 26, 1961. Courtesy of SAADA.

Mahatma Gandhi stamp issued by US Postal service on Jan 26, 1961. Photo: SAADA

 

So how has SAADA gathered these materials which are scattered across the US? “We  work closely with community members who have materials of relevance to the community’s history in their possession, perhaps sitting in their attic or basement.,” says Mallick. “We digitize these materials, describe them according to archival standards, and provide access to them online through our website, while returning the original physical materials to their owners. This works well because it allows individuals and families to maintain possession of their materials while simultaneously sharing the stories more widely.”

SAADA also works in collaboration with institutions and other archival repositories, which have materials from the community’s history in their collections, including a number of major institutions around the country, including the National Archives, Stanford University, University of Pennsylvania, University of North Carolina, Swarthmore College, San Jose State University, and others.

The efforts have been to archive stories which show how rich is the Indian connection in America. There is  the story of Anandibai Joshee, who in 1886 graduated from the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania and became the first Indian woman to earn her M.D. in the United States; or the Gadar Party, an organization founded in 1913 and based in San Francisco that sought to gain India’s independence from the British through armed revolution.

 

Dalip Singh Saund with President Kennedy & Vice President Johnson. (Photo: Smithsonian)

Congressman Dalip Singh Saund with President Kennedy & Vice President Johnson. (Photo: Smithsonian)

 

Then you have the story of Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, who in 1956 became the first person of Asian American heritage elected to serve in national office; you also have the remarkable story of Fazlur Rahman Khan, who is the structural engineer and architect responsible for designing the Sears Tower, John Hancock Building and many other notable skyscrapers around the world. As Mallick points out these are just a few examples of the stories documented in SAADA, but there are so many more. All of the materials they collect and digitize are freely accessible to the public through the SAADA website.

For those who want to make their family history a part of the SAADA archives, there are concrete guidelines. That policy is available online HERE

Mallick who grew up in the US but has lived in India for some of those years, says, “For me, the most rewarding aspect of SAADA’s work has been in creating a platform for our community to learn about its own history and to preserve and share this history with future generations.”  One rewarding event was working with S.P. Singh, the grandson of Bhai Bhawan Singh Gyanee, noted freedom fighter of the Gadar movement.

Says Mallick, “Fortunately for us, he recognized the importance of the materials his grandfather had left behind, and he brought them along with him to Atlanta, where he settled. For the last 30 years, S.P. Singh has hoped to have his grandfather’s story told, and it was an incredible honor to be able to work with him in 2012 to digitize and present his grandfather’s materials online through SAADA. As an organization, we firmly believe that individuals make history, that ordinary people make extraordinary contributions to society and that everyday stories matter.”

Yet another cyber effort aimed at the community is the Kahani Movement by Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Suneel Gupta; there are also many young filmmakers who are turning the camera on Indian immigrants and their stories; and of course personal blogs and Facebook pages which are mini personal histories.

 

Smithsonian’s Indian-American Heritage Project

This ambitious project which was earlier known as the HomeSpun program, is now renamed the Indian-American Heritage Project and its new director is Masum Momaya. It is important because this is the first time a major national institution like the Smithsonian has addressed the saga of the Indian-American immigrants and their children.

Momaya herself has her own family story to tell, a story which is very reminiscent  of that of other immigrant Indian families. Born in Elgin, a suburb of Chicago, Il. in 1977, she is the only child of parents who immigrated to the US in the 1960s.  Since her grandparents and extended family were all left behind in India, trips back home became mandatory. “My mom, in particular, missed home a lot – so, before I started school, we used to go back to India for months at a time and stay with various relatives,” she recalls. ” I have lots of memories and photographs of playing with my cousins, and I credit this time in my life with me learning to speak and retaining the Kutchi language.”

Growing up in Illinois in the 1970s and 1980s, she shares something in common with many first generation Indian-American children. “I have a series of school portraits that many others in my generation have – as the only brown kid in the group shots that are mostly white kids, with the occasional East Asian American, African American and Latino kids included in the mix.”

 

Masum Momaya, curator of 'Beyond Bollywood' at the Smithsonian.

Masum Momaya, curator of ‘Beyond Bollywood’ at the Smithsonian.

 

Like other brown children, she had to answer questions about whether  people in India ride elephants, whether the red dot is permanently imprinted on women’s foreheads and why she didn’t eat meat or eat the same ‘American’ food that everyone else ate in their homes.  She says, “I am amazed to see that, in just one generation, due to access to information and the changing landscape of our country, things are very different for most Indian-American kids growing up now.  There are more resources and less ignorance and stereotyping, I think.”

One of the big resources she is helping to organize is the Indian-American Heritage Project at the Smithsonian.  As she says, her interest in these issues began long before the project ever existed. “As a young girl, I used to sit in the basement for hours in Elgin or my grandfather’s library in India looking at old family photographs,” she says. “I always wanted to know everything about them, who was pictured, where they were and when the photos were taken.  I loved to label everything and organize the photos. So I guess I was a budding curator even as a child.”

“I  also saw at first hand how the experience of migration and adapting to a new place shaped a lot of memories in my life. Each time we visited India, I used to watch my mom burst out in tears when she hugged her mom and sisters and we had to board the plane to come back.  And I always find myself tearing up as soon as the plane hits the runway as I’m about to land in Mumbai or Kochi – this never fails to happen, 35 years and many, many trips in the making.  As Indian-Americans, we will always have a connection to our homeland, and have both countries as our homes.”

 

The Ashok Family - one of the images documenting Indian immigration in 'Beyond Bollywood' exhibit at the Smithsonian

The Ashok Family – one of the images documenting Indian immigration in ‘Beyond Bollywood’ exhibit at the Smithsonian

 

It is all these emotions and connections that will be highlighted in the Smithonian’s ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation’ exhibit. As she points out, the exhibition is simultaneously an enormous undertaking and a first step in the privileged platform of the Smithsonian, America’s national museum.  It’s impossible to adequately ‘cover’ the diversity of identity or experience that is represented in the Indian-American community but Momaya has a two-pronged purpose: dismantling stereotypes and highlighting the contributions of Indians Americans to shaping this country – political, professionally and culturally.  She adds, “I think this is especially timely and important given that immigration is a core part of American history and that although we are a nation of immigrants, there are still strong sentiments that are we are ‘foreigners’ and ‘outsiders.’”

Indeed, this false impression still persists and dates back to 1790, just 14 years after the nation was founded.  Indian-Americans have indeed been an integral part of the building of America. Says Momaya, “Our hands have been part of building the railroads and cultivating farms and establishing trade and small businesses five generations ago that still exist today.  We fought for citizenship and civil rights not just for ourselves but for many peoples.

And, as many know, yes we are doctors and engineers, and we drive taxis and own motels and Dunkin Donuts stores, but there is much more than meets the eye. These are some of things the exhibition will show;  ultimately that we are part of the American story, in both expected and surprising ways.”

Asked about the challenges of such a large-scale project, Momaya says the Smithsonian is just beginning the process of building relationships with Indian-Americans and continually working to nuance its telling of American history. Thus, this exhibition depends on members of the community to contribute pieces to the mosaic that is Indian-American history – through stories and artifacts.

“As a sole curator, it’s hard for me to reach everyone, but I’ve been relying on and have been assisted by connected individuals, community organizations and the power of social media to reach people,” she says. “It’s an ongoing process, and really the responsibility of the whole community.  In many ways, the Indian American Heritage Project is as much as the process of connecting and collecting and curating,  as the final exhibition itself.”

 

 

Patel Motel - Indian-American Project

Patel Motel – Indian-American Project

 

The Kahani Movement

Imagine a cyberspace dedicated totally to the Indian-American community spread over all 50 states, to the personal stories of those who came from diverse parts of India. Old childhood photographs, wedding certificates, pickle recipes – nothing is too mundane to gather and cherish because all these are the threads of a family tapestry.

This is the Kahani Movement envisaged by two innovative brothers who are well known to us – Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the noted CNN TV journalist and neurosurgeon, and his younger brother Suneel Gupta who has been Groupon’s VP for Product development, has worked with Mozilla Labs, MTV, Sony Pictures and even served in President Clinton’s West Wing. Drawn by a passion to retain their family stories, Sanjay and Suneel produced the Kahani Movement, an interactive film project in 2009.

They were inspired by the experiences of their mother Damyanti (nee Hingorani) Gupta who came to America in the 60’s as a single woman and an engineer. She was the first graduating engineer from her class in Baroda, and became the first woman to be ever hired as an engineer by the Ford Motor Company.

“My mom is the strongest person I know and she made us believe that for us nothing was impossible – we just had to figure out what it was we wanted to do. For Sanjay it meant a career in neurosurgery and television and for me it meant a career in the law then working with Mozilla on new technologies and with Groupon,”  says Suneel.

 

The Gupta family - (Photo courtesy - Kahani Movement)

The Gupta family – (Photo courtesy – Kahani Movement)

 

Growing up, they had heard so many inspiring tales from their parents, especially their mother, of how she brought her entire extended family to America, and helped her brother and sister get an education and careers. They were particularly charmed by the story of how she met their father back in the 60’s. When her old car broke down, she had gone to the phone booth and tried calling up a random Patel or Shah for help, since she had lived in Baroda and spoke good Gujarati. The Patel she found in the phone directory was not at home but his room-mate Subash Gupta answered and was happy to help a fellow Indian. That was the man Damyanti Hingorani finally married!

“These were stories Sanjay and I would hear all the time growing up and we realized that for both Sanjay’s daughters and now mine, they may not have this luxury. How do we make these stories live forever?” recalls Suneel.

The Kahani Movement is a social network that aims to capture untold stories from first-generation South Asians in the U.S. “What’s amazing is that in this digital age, almost every person with a smart phone is an instant journalist, and everyone is becoming their own media empire,” says Suneel.

The Kahani Movement is very much a work in progress, nurtured by the two brothers,  and has no paid staff. As Suneel emphasizes, it’s a community owned movement, and it will be as strong as the community makes it. Right now there are about a thousand pieces of documentation including blogs, videos and audios from over 1175  members.

The Kahani Movement – Ted Talk by Suneel Gupta

“Every single piece of content has as story behind it, and as the stories increase, you start to get story density,” he says. ” You can find patterns, you start to get really, really personal. But in order to get there you have to go from a thousand pieces to 100,000 pieces.” Besides the Gupta brothers,  others who are involved are Amardeep Singh Kaleka who leads the cinematography and production for the Kahani Movement, Kiran Divvela, and Leena Rao.

The content grows non-linearly and comes in mini viral bursts, and one of the future ideas that the Gupta brothers have is to conduct a film festival around the content, basically challenging filmmakers to remix the content and musicians to contribute tracks, and generate new content to inspire the community.

There is a value to recording these stories for you never know when the end comes up. Amardeep Singh Kaleka is the co-producer and director in this project, and as part of the Kahani project, he decided to interview his own Sikh community in Wisconsin, where his father was the president of the Oak Creek Gurudwara.

This was the gurudwara where the lone gunman gunned down his father and several other members of the community that Amardeep Singh Kaleka had interviewed. Life can end just like that, and stories can be lost forever. Recalls Suneel Gupta: “It’s a grim reminder –  this isn’t the way you expect our stories to disappear but at any point in time the anecdotes and stories that are in our lives and which we think are amazing can just leave and one day  be no longer available. Two of the people we interviewed in our trailer have also passed away. That’s the thing I’d like to hammer home to you  –  that at some point in time these stories do disappear and what do we do with them when they are still available.”

The Kahani Movement, which is not currently curated, has promise if the community takes ownership and there is proper curation, and specific guidelines about what should be posted to create a historical perspective – captioned pictures of births, weddings and deaths; family trees and detailed journals. The idea in principle is a good one. To participate, sign in at the kahani movement

 

Life in the Digital Age

Almost every family has wonderful chunks of fine photographs, videos and audio files. What might be great is for young second and third generations to turn to the celebrities in their families – the frail yet gutsy grandparents who crossed oceans to come to a new land and gifted adventure and entrepreneurship to them. This is the time to document their stories for future generations. When your clueless two-year-old grows up, it will be a wonderful legacy for her to know why she’s here and how she got here.

In this age of social media, Facebook is becoming the archive of a community. Friends love to share old images with pride –  pictures of parents and grandparents, especially old black and white photos. Friends rave about the beauty and emotion of these fading images, and share stories of their own. And when someone close passes away, their profiles remain on Facebook, as a tribute, as a memorial. To me, it looks like social media could be another thoughtful, fun way of archiving old pictures and memories.

From digital to the real: will Indian-Americans ever want to take the giant step of creating their own museum, like the one for the American-Indians, the Chinese in America or the Jewish American community?

Looking to the future that does seem to be an appropriate step, keeping not only our heritage but also our legacy intact. One day young children may wander the galleries seeing old photographs of the first Hindoos who arrived on ships to America; the first apricot and peach Sikh farmers with their Mexican wives; workers on the railroad, the MTA, 711s and of course the small mom and pop motels, The Potels.

A museum that could house photographs and artifacts, small immigrant dreams and the big possibilities, bhangra and Bollywood, and inspire a new generation, and also address the issues of racism and stereotypes, of  ethnic culture and values.

 

Although Indians have embraced and are fulfilling the American Dream, there is some ways to go for Indian Americans to be be fully embraced by the nation itself. (Indian-American Project)

Indian-American Project: Although Indians have embraced and are fulfilling the American Dream, there is some ways to go for Indian Americans to be be fully embraced by the nation itself. (Indian-American Project)

 

Meanwhile though,  in our immediate future, this very year is the big Smithsonian exhibition and it is in our hands to  fund it and make it the best it can be. It will take a concentrated effort by various communities uniting together to make the full impact. As Momaya points out, the Indian American community is made up of 3.3 million individuals and the Indian-American Project has only reached a small fraction of them.  There is great excitement in the ones who’ve been reached and they have contributed funding, stories, artifacts and photographs. However, a lot more people need to be reached to have the full impact.

Indians are not a homogenous lot, and stories differ depending on what part of India they come from, and the back stories they bring with them.  So how does the Indian-American Project plan to tell a story which has so many different characters?

“Part of my responsibility as a curator is to choose characters for the story whose experiences convey more than a narrative of one individual but rather represent something larger about our collective experience,” says Momaya.  “So while I might be presenting one farmer, public servant, taxi driver, doctor, engineer, motel owner, artist or athlete, I will tell a broader story.”

The exhibition will open on February 28 at the National Museum of Natural History, be shown there until early 2015 and then travel around the country for 5 years thereafter. What does she hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?

Says Masum Momaya, speaking for families everywhere: “I hope the exhibition will dismantle stereotypes and erroneous assumptions that are held about Indian Americans and for Indian Americans, I hope they will leave with a sense of pride about the numerous ways we’ve shaped this country.”  So finally Indian-Americans are playing themselves in the longest continuing immigrant saga…applause and break a leg!

(C) Lavina Melwani

(This article first appeared in Khabar magazine)

 

Kahani Movement –  A Father Remembered

“My father was a wonderful raconteur with an amazing recall of detail and atmosphere. His India is the India I know best, although I lived there till the age of eight and have been back to visit many times. My father, Jatinder Nath Kapur, was an executive in the limestone quarries in Orissa and then an oil executive in the jungles of Assam in the ’50s and early ’60s.

His stories of the British-style social life in these remote outposts, the tense relationships between executives and labor, the hierarchies between British and Indian professionals, of the whole aftermath of colonialism that formed his experiences also formed the India that lives in my imagination. My father knew firsthand the conflicting cultural forces that created modern India and I wish he were still here for me to interview on camera, so that his stories of India’s recent history could be heard by others.

My beloved father passed away on January 29th and I wish I had recorded his voice. I have all his stories down in writing, but there is something special in hearing the tale from the speaker’s own mouth, in his inimitable style, for it is not only the story but the storyteller himself that recreates the past in an invaluable way. Our parents embody a culture in their way of speaking, their habits of thought, their mannerisms. Please take advantage of this site to record who they are and what they came from, it is a wonderful way of tying us to our past.”

– Parul Kapur Hinzen Atlanta, GA  (Courtesy – Kahani Movement)

 

The Kahani Movement - Parul Kapur Hinzen with her father

The Kahani Movement – Parul Kapur Hinzen with her father Jatinder Nath Kapur.

 

Family Kahanis

It’s taken me the better part of four decades to come around and appreciate how frightening it truly is, to leave everything you’ve known behind, with a complete stranger, and fly halfway across the world, to an entirely alien environment and culture, with no more than the clothes on your back and $15 in your pocket. As I said before, my parents would relate stories to my older sister and I, to teach us, as well as give us a sense of a larger family that existed beyond our home.

My parents, in their own humble way, never recognized how incredible their own experiences have been, how they have changed and changed others. I hope to capture their experiences and the rest of my family’s stories to teach my children and their children, so they can appreciate and be proud of our family.

I’m grateful for a medium such as Kahani to do just this. Thank you so much.

– George Mathew from New York  (Kahani Movement)

Living Testimony: The Indians of Atlanta

Bisquick Gulab Jamuns & Other Tales

Jagan Bhargave came to America in 1961 to obtain an Aerospace Engineering education and worked with Delta Airlines for 30 years. He has lived in Atlanta for all these years, having come with one suitcase and the requisite 8 dollars in his pocket. He held on to the memories of those years – exam mark sheets, old passport and travel documents, and precious photographs. He is a precious resource of our Indian-American heritage.

Bhargave likes to share stories with the young generations and his own grandkids who happen to be multilingual and participate in the traditions of both India and America. He says, “I love to share with them the old memories of our growing up, compare our experiences with their life style, and achievements.  I do that mainly so that they will have some feel for where and how the world and times have evolved in our lifetime. My wife and I have made it a part of our routine to make them aware and proud of their heritage, and culture.”

Here are his memories in his own words:

Atlanta was a lonely place for the Indians at the time since almost all of us were single students away from the family and friends in a strange land.  Therefore, we stuck together very closely.

Georgia was a rural and socially conservative society where the population was primarily identified either “whites” or “blacks or colored”.  There were very few like us who did not fit either of these identities, and were classified as “others”, and they were looked upon as strangers.

Georgians had to make as much adjustment to accommodate us, as we had to accommodate Georgians.  However, mostly, they were very polite and understanding and went out of their way to make us feel comfortable.  For the Indians, the biggest problem was to establish our identity.  We very seldom had any problems with locals on the college campuses or with the people that we worked with.  Almost all the Indians in Georgia were either in academia or were professionals (physicians or scientists), and therefore, had established a respectable place in minds of most Georgians.  The earliest effort to organize our group was formation of “Indian Students Association” with total membership of little over a dozen.

The next significant phase came in late sixties when a few families started building amongst us.  Those “Indian-food starved” lonely students, including myself, found some loving and caring “Bhabis” to console us.  Suman joined this unique group following our marriage in 1967.  These ladies found some innovative ways to satisfy our appetites for Indian taste, such as using yellow split peas to make daal, and Bisquick to make Gulab-jamuns.  They had to make bigger adjustment in their life-style and tolerance in Georgia.  They got the stares from the curious locals in shopping centers and work places because of their different looks (typically bindis and sarees).   We frequently got together at different homes to socialize and to celebrate special holidays and occasions.  We all identified ourselves as Indians only, regardless of where ever in India we originated.  Unity and solidarity were the outstanding characteristics of the Indian community in that era.

Late sixties and seventies were the period of slow but steady growth of the Indian population in Georgia.  There was need to identify ourselves as a distinct community, which led to formation of first social organization “India Association”. We used to meet in homes, schools, and community halls, and organize activities of common interest. Mrs. Lillian Carter, mother of then Governor Jimmy Carter, and a Peace Corp volunteer in India was among the first prominent guests of the community.

Later on in early seventies, “India American Cultural Association (IACA)” became the sole social organization representing the community.  Interestingly, IACA was initially formed to help the drought and famine victims in Bengal in early seventies.  Even with the small numbers, we were successful in raising some $50,000 in cash, medicine, and other supplies to aid the victims.  IACA is still remains an active community organization serving all Indian Americans in Georgia.

As the Indian American community started growing, the second generation became a compelling factor in our lives, and we began to feel a need to establish a base for spiritual and religious activities. Atlanta Hindu Society was organized by about half a dozen families (Sachdeva, Manocha, Bhargave, Vijai, Chawla, Lala families to name a few) to fulfill the spiritual needs of the community.  Atlanta Hindu Society is still operational, and meets periodically at various member homes.  Today, metro Atlanta Indian American community is served by several Temples, Gurdwaras, Mosques, and Churches.

The cultural and entertainment activities also moved up to the next stage, when occasional screening of Indian movies started on Georgia Tech Campus with 16 mm format films.  Raj Chawla and Manorama Pandit were the first ones to start screening the movies in commercial theaters in mid-seventies.  They also began a radio program “Music from India” on a regular basis.  This all volunteer and community non-commercial radio program is still on the air (Sundays at 3 PM on WRFG FM 89.3).

Slowly, the community started changing from purely professionals to a mix of entrepreneurs, and other skills.  Some of the firsts for Indian American community are listed here.

  • The first Indian grocery store was started by Bhavana and Raj Shah in their apartment.
  • The first Indian Restaurant, “Calcutta”, was started by Sumitra and Ashok Bhattacharyya.
  • First commercial artist’s performances were organized by IACA in mid seventies.
  • Indians began going into a wide variety of businesses, mostly small-scale businesses such as Ice Cream stores, Travel Agencies, Convenience and grocery stores.

 

The eighties and the nineties saw the real explosion of the Indian population and their economic growth.  No longer was the Indian community limited to small businesses.  They spread over the entire spectrum of society.  The second generation Indian Americans began to assert their own successes.  This newest group of immigrant population brought in economic strength to Georgia, that is mind-boggling and unprecedented.

The eighties also saw the initiation by Indians into political and governmental arena.  Krishna Srinivas was instrumental in initiating the Georgia Chapter of Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE).  Subash Razdan organized the Georgia Chapter of National Federation of Indian Associations (NFIA), and later moved on to lead the organization on the national level.  This process grew very rapidly, getting attention of the political leaders as well as that of large industry leaders.

That brings us to the current stage of the Indian community in Georgia – a real success story in any book. Today, Indian Americans enjoy a respectable place in Georgia.  They are enjoying unprecedented role in almost every phase of Georgia’s success and growth. We are privileged to be living in a community where we enjoy the best of both worlds.  We can be proud of our heritage, enjoy our successes and the life-style, and be able to make a real positive contribution to our newly adopted homeland.”

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. Twitter@lavinamelwani & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

2 Comments

  1. Sreedevi Murthy on

    A truly superb effort of my homeland friends. Keep up the good work. I am not very computer literate but can understand the heritage story. My salutations to all Indians in this country.

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