- Apr 17, 2009
Bolo Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal ki Jai!Portrait of a desi as an American wannabe
In 1968, the year India's first tech house Tata Consultancy Service (TCS) was launched, Hollywood released a riotous comedy called The Party. Starring Peter Sellers as Hrundi Bakshi, a bumbling Indian actor who runs amok at a chic Hollywood party, the film caricatured desis as gauche buffoons, unable to hold their own in a western social setting. Back in India, the movie enraged many filmgoers and there were demands to ban it even as thousands of Indians, including a certain Amar and Raj Jindal from Punjab, were making plans to migrate to the United States. Decades later, when Piyush (the son Jindals had conceived in India and delivered in US) was a young man (who had changed his name to Bobby), Indians in the US were still the butt of jokes, caricatured by such accented figures as Apu in The Simpsons.
By the turn of the century however, Asian Indians in the US, commonly known as Indian-Americans (to distinguish them from "American Indians," the term used to describe Native Americans) had graduated to become a smart, savvy, successful bunch, the wealthiest and best educated among all ethnic groups in America. Still, their representation in professions ranging from medicine to engineering to academia to finance to even public life in the first decade of the 21st century was totally disproportionate to their numbers. The Simpson's Apu the storekeeper had been supplanted by Raj Koothrapalli, the astrophysicist in Big Bang Theory. They were the gifted geeks.
As far back as the late 1990s, a dotcomwallah had told me only half in jest that if one ran up Sand Hill Road (the venture capital headquarters) in the buff and had a brown arse, VCs would be throwing money at you. The butt of jokes had become the joke of butts. In the 2010s, the US was ready to bet its bottom dollar on Indian-Americans. The Karma of Brown Folk — to paraphrase the title of a breakthrough cultural study of ethnic Indians — was to be successful in whatever field they entered.
Politics is often considered the last frontier, and indeed, for the better part of 15 years now, Indian-Americans have been making a splash in this sphere without having to disdain their race, ethnicity, or color. Three Congressman of Indian origin, two state governors (Bobby Jindal featuring in both), a US attorney, a state attorney general, a federal court judge, several state legislators and assistant secretaries of state, numerous CEOs and administrators all entered public service without any need to disown or disregard their origins. In anything, they wore their Indian-origin as a badge of pride and honor. Except for Piyush "Bobby" Jindal.
Last week, as reports surfaced that a portrait of Bobby Jindal had been painted in lighter tones to make him appear white Caucasian, the Louisiana governor's struggle with his ethnicity was once again the focus of attention. Why would he disdain his brown, Indian origins in a country that joyfully elected a mixed race African American with the unlikely name of Barack Hussein Obama?
To many critics, this was illustrative of the need on part of many Indians to scrub their ethnic identity in an effort to be "accepted" in white American society, although the United States itself was becoming increasingly mixed, and on its way to becoming a white minority country by 2042, possibly earlier. The portrait inspired a new meme and a hashtag (#JindalPortrait) and jokes flew thick and fast. Jindal is so white, said one snarky tweet, "he cuts his roti into little squares and tops it with cucumber and mayo."
Jindal's office protested the skewering, saying he had nothing to do with the portrait. Apparently, the portrait was painted by Louisiana artist Tommy Yow Jr., who said he had never met the governor and had used a photograph. The portrait was then bought by a Louisiana businessman who in turn loaned it to Jindal's office in 2008 to be hung in his office. A journalist then took a photo of the portrait (Yow claims the photo made the portrait look lighter) and before long it was making a splash in twitterverse.
Meanwhile efforts by Jindal's office to control the damage by putting out the governor's official portrait (with the message "Thx for your race-baiting tweet") backfired. Although, he looked several shades darker in the official portrait, Jindal was still far from brown. The official portrait showed him to be almost orange — like he was sunburnt. And indeed, another round of flaming followed.
The grotesque makeover, at a time when America is celebrating its diversity, has brought scorn on Jindal. Many commentators harked back to the continued "whitewashing" of America, particularly in the entertainment industry, where figures ranging from Michael Jackson in the past to actress Gabourey Sidibe more recently have been presented in lighter tones to make them more "acceptable" to the general public, although the public itself is getting darker. ''Rather than championing diversity, stereotypical images such as these systematically erase our differences. Hollywood is one thing. The fact that this alarming trend is seeping into politics is truly horrifying,'' noted Nicole Dahmen, a visual communications educator at the University of Oregon.
None of this would have made such flaming headlines but for Jindal's disdaining last month of the term Indian-American, an appellation Indians in US embrace almost universally. Combined with his ultra-conservative record, arising from converting to Christianity in high school after changing his name to Bobby, a character in the serial The Brady Bunch, his pursuit of "white credentials" is widely seen as part of his political game plan in pursuit of higher office, to make himself a more viable Republican candidate for the voting public.
To many Indians, increasingly connected to their homeland because of collapsing distances, crossover cultural ties, and economies tied at the hip, the Jindal portrait flap is a throwback to the desi caricature of yesteryear — the desperate immigrant who learns the intricacies of American football, aces Trivial Pursuit full of American minutiae, and boasts about how many white American friends he has. Remains to be seen whether this gambit will take Jindal all the way to the White House.
Portrait of a desi as an American wannabe - The Times of India
The man really is a fruit.