Like politics, Bollywood and sports, “Find the Indian Connection” seems to have become a bona fide beat in our media houses. As soon as someone with Indian roots makes waves anywhere in the world, the reporters on this beat get cracking.
When 17-year-old Samir Banerjee became the Wimbledon boys’ champion this year, the Indian connection beat went into instant overdrive. By the next morning, I knew that young Banerjee had played at the local tennis club on his last visit to Kolkata, where his family owns an apartment, and had eaten phuchka opposite Victoria Memorial. Assam staked its own claim to him, with a television channel calling it a “proud moment for the Northeast” because his grandfather was a general manger with an oil company in Assam in the 80s. That Banerjee is actually American felt almost like an aside, with news anchors gushing about a “huge moment of pride for India”.
By now the format is fairly well established. Dig up a local relative willing to talk. An elated grandmother is best. When Nina Davuluri won the Miss America title in 2013, her grandmother in Vijayawada, who ran a group of Montessori institutions, told the media, “I was always confident she would go places.” The girls at the grandmother’s Montessori school celebrated Davuluri’s win while her home, we were told, wore a festive air. When Sunita Williams went to space as a NASA astronaut in 2006, no grandmother was available. No matter. Her father’s brother-in-law was around to do the honours.
Once the interviewee is established, the questions are also pre-determined. When did the our newest “moment of pride” last visit India? Banerjee last came to Kolkata six years ago. And most important, do they like Indian food? Williams, her father’s brother-in-law told the media, liked spicy food like dosa, samosa and dhokla. Banerjee loves chicken tikka masala and biryani. Also, do they like Bollywood/ Tollywood/ Kollywood? Davuluri likes her Telugu films.
At one level this is timepass, colourful copy about the “Indian connection” of a celebrity. For example, when Boris Johnson became U.K. prime minister, we learned that his ex-wife Marina Wheeler is the daughter of Dip Singh, who was married to Khushwant Singh’s brother. That’s just amusing trivia, but what’s less amusing is our anxiety to ensure that their Indian roots (or their parents’ desi roots) are still showing. It’s as if we need to stake a claim in their success. These people are, however, American or Canadian or British. None of them is Indian. Those strands of Indian DNA do not constitute an umbilical cord.
But in our gush we sometimes clean forget that. When India-born Sirisha Bandla joined Richard Branson on Virgin Galactic’s first fully crewed suborbital test flight, the Vice-President of India tweeted out his congratulations while a renowned industrialist rejoiced that Indian women were breaking glass ceilings. While Banerjee seemed happy for all the Indian support at Wimbledon, he did point out that he was an “American” player. (And the player he defeated in the finals was American as well, making that game an all-American story.)
It would all be innocuous fun, except there are consequences on both sides of the hyphen. The Indian pride can easily tip over into a sense of ownership. When Davuluri faced some racist trolling after her Miss America victory, a newspaper in India ran the headline “Racist remarks sour Indian girl’s Miss America moment” even though Davuluri herself said she saw herself as “first and foremost American.” Indians can rejoice as spectators, but it’s not an Indian story.
In fact, by trying to project it as an “Indian moment of pride,” Indians run the risk of reinforcing the sense of being “other” that someone like Davuluri faces anyway. When Ananya Vijay won the Scripps spelling bee in 2017, a CNN anchor made a joke about her being used to Sanskrit. CNN insisted there was no bias intended, but it drove home the point that the anchor presumed Vijay was still somehow more Indian than American, more “used to” Sanskrit no matter that she might be from Fresno, California.
This is probably fairly benign as racism goes, but the bigger problem is that pride comes with expectation. When Kamala Harris became vice president of the U.S., social media buzzed with interviews with her uncles and aunts in India. It was heart-warming dosa and chitti talk, but during Covid’s second wave, she also faced social media criticism, as if her Indian roots meant the American vice-president owed some special debt to be extra-responsive to India.
Young Banerjee hopefully has a great tennis career ahead of him, but it will be a shuddh American story and not an Indian one. And his love for chicken tikka masala will not change that fact.
Sandip Roy, the author of Don’t Let Him Know , likes to let everyone know about his opinions whether asked or not.