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Straddling two worlds

One good thing about the United States is that everyone there has two identities, says Sudha Acharya, who works on issues surrounding South Asian identity

Sudha Acharya: not shy of recasting the `self' — Photos: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

YOU CAN'T close your eyes to the present and cling to a relic from the past forever. Sudha Acharya is convinced of that after living in the U.S.A. for 34 years. "I stubbornly wore a sari to work for the first nine years, flaunting it like a national flag even in the deadliest of winters. But I slowly realised that I don't need to do that."

Not that identity is a non-issue. But it is a complex one, not defined by saris and salwars alone. And Sudha should know it best, as the Executive Director of South Asian Council for Social Services (SACSS) and the permanent representative of the All India Women's Conference to the United Nations. She has also worked for other institutions including

the National Federation of Indian-American Associations and Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin.

The crucial thing, according to Sudha, is not to forget one's roots (or saris!), but to constantly recast one's identity in relation to the present. "Right now, even sociologists don't like the word assimilation. When you shift out of your country and accept a new one as home, you become something in between, something else..."

Constant recasting is what Sudha has done with herself too. A student of literature from Mysore University, she took up a job with the New York telephones when she went to the U.S. with her husband and little daughter in 1969. She did an M.B.A. in finance and climbed the career ladder, but later took an early retirement package to plunge full time into social work. Sudha feels that America is a country that makes these dual or multiple identities — at a personal or a larger level — that much easier to handle. "One good thing about the United States is that everyone there has two identities. You are an Italian American, Indian American, African American..." And if you are a woman or a dalit who was trapped in stereotypical roles back in your parent country, America might just provide you an opportunity to sift through your past and decide what you want to retain of it and what you want to chuck out. But the question of identity has become a particularly tricky one for Asians post 9/11, since anyone "who looks like Osama" is looked upon with suspicion, admits Sudha. The first to die in a hate crime following the fall of World Trade Centre was a Sikh, the second a Pakistani, and the third a Goan Christian. Even the defeat of the gubernatorial candidate of Indian origin, Bobby Jindal, in Louisiana could be because "he looked like someone who attacked WTC," argues Sudha. "But I am glad someone went that far!" she adds.

In the days following 9/11, SACSS was one of the organisations that helped in relief work for the South Asians affected. It was also one of the five South Asian organisations that helped in compiling a report on racial discrimination. They were tough times that underlined the importance of setting forth links with not only the dominant community, but also with other minority groups such as Hispanics, blacks, other Asians and so on. "People realised that strength is only in organising ourselves, in numbers, in how many friends we have, who will support whom." An identity as seemingly heterogeneous as South Asian works because it is "a question of survival", though a Pakistani and an Indian sharing a common identity might be read as even "unpatriotic" back in the parent nations. "That attempted peace, I hope, filters here!" says Sudha. And she believes that all groupings that survive entirely on the nostalgia of first-generation settlers — based on languages, castes, and so on — will peter out when bigger issues come into play.

But what about all that we hear about NRIs pouring huge funds into the coffers of Sangh Parviar and other revivalist organisations? "In a large country, you will have loyalists of Sangh Parivar, secular groups, Left groups, and a whole spectrum of others. Each segment survives. That's how India has been for centuries! Some send money to Sangh Parivar, but many send money for developmental causes," insists Sudha.

After a pause, she adds: "Also, we shouldn't be constantly worrying about what happens back here, when there is a life to lead there, as citizens of that country." Post 9/11 Indian Americans need to educate other Americans that what they seek is peaceful co-existence. "We need to tell them that we are part of the same American dream."

But being part of the American dream, for Sudha, does not mean toeing the Bush administration's line all the time. Addressing a small gathering at Select Bookshop during a visit to the city recently, she spoke with outrage about America's intervention in Iraq: "U.S. has no business going there... And in all the coverage of the war, we didn't get to see any Iraqi bodies. The reporting was so completely sanitised!" And when someone asked her how she was comfortable living in a country that's ruled by principles she doesn't agree with, she threw back a question: "You don't agree with all policies of the BJP Government, do you?"


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