Teaching Americans about being American

Haley is potential subject for a great biography, but this book is a missed opportunity

Published - September 10, 2012 11:41 pm IST

CAN’T IS NOT AN OPTION — My American Journey: Nikki Haley; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 599.

CAN’T IS NOT AN OPTION — My American Journey: Nikki Haley; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 599.

Why do you pick up a biography? To know more about an interesting personality, about a distinguished achiever, a person of interesting opinions? To understand a surprise success?

Born to first generation Indian immigrants, Nikki Haley (born Nimrata Randhawa) is the first woman to be elected as Governor of South Carolina in 2010, and the youngest (born 1972) of the current lot of American governors. No mean achievement, especially since she won against strong and seasoned politicians, fighting the ‘boys’ club’ as she describes it.

Haley has the potential to be a great biography subject. But this book is a missed opportunity. A politician's manifesto, at best, and not even a strong one. A politician who in the quest to be more American than most has distanced herself from what makes her interesting.

Her gender, her ethnicity, her religion(s), and even original thought have all been pushed out of focus, only to be touched upon to prove a point about how American she is. We get it, you are. But there are so many parts to being American, the diversity of it all, which she marginalises doing no favours to her country. If only she had moved on from her citizenship and patriotism reaffirmations to something more interesting!

She quotes a newspaper article written after she was elected as a State legislator. “Isn’t it something that a person whose parents are from another country can portray America better than you and I can? They can teach us a lesson of what it means to be an American.”

The fact that she quotes it with pride is disturbing, because if anything, that is a quote that alienates her from the rest.

But she writes, referring to this article, and the quote: “That’s what I’ve tried to do every day since.” Teaching Americans about being American?

Despite the secular separation of the Church and the State, religion is a huge election issue in the U.S. And to be Nikki (Randhawa) Haley cannot be easy.

She writes: “My conversion and my walk with God as a Christian remain intensely personal to me. I will probably never be one of those pelicans who sprinkles biblical passages into every speech. Mind you, I have no objection to those who do. The effort by some in our country to remove religion from public discourse is entirely wrong.”

Yet in the very same page, talking about critics who used religion against her, she says her response was: “I am the proud daughter of Indian parents who reminded me every day how blessed I was to live in this country.” Prevarication? According to Haley, it isn’t. Just that she did not wish to hurt her parents.


With every page turned, it’s difficult to get past the obvious. This is not much more than a politician’s doublespeak. As is the wont of politicians, she has riddled the book with contradictions. The repeated need to emphasise how much South Carolina has moved away from its racially bigoted history, while still littering the books with ample instances of discrimination. The total lack of honesty in the tone in which she describes the discrimination her family suffered when they first moved Stateside, the desperation with which she repeats that it is no longer so.

She recounts an incident when her father was treated as a suspect because he was different. She ends that story with: “I remember what my father so graciously put up with there. And I smile. I smile because I know that the same thing would never happen to him today. South Carolina is a different place. My story is proof of that.”

Throughout the reading, I could’t help but wonder whom she was addressing in the book. It is obviously not meant for a wider audience. It is clearly for her vote bank.

And even after being elected Governor, she was trying to prove she was one of them.

There is another anecdote from her early days as a legislator when a colleague asked her if there were certain things that she might not eat.

“I got his point. Even at thirty-two years old (sic), I was still having to prove that I was the same as the other kids. ‘I can eat hamburger with the best of them,’ I replied.” Would it have been so bad to have a different dietary preference? Maybe even a vegan one?

It’s tricky reviewing an autobiography, as you can’t fault the plot. Do you review the book or the person? It’s difficult to detach the subject from his or her context and history.

Nikki Haley has tried too hard to do that herself, which leaves us with no choice to read into the jarring vacuum between the lines. Ms Haley will go places, no doubt. One can only hope when she is comfortably American, without the compulsive need to explain she is one, she would write a truly memorable autobiography.

CAN’T IS NOT AN OPTION — My American Journey: Nikki Haley; Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110002. Rs. 599.

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