In the TIME magazine blog, “My Own Private America,” Joel Stein voices his feelings about the changing demographics of the town he grew up in: Edison, New Jersey. The piece has ignited an aria of outrage in the Indian-American community, and is being denounced as “racist.”
Were one a resident of a New Jersey township, especially, one that’s in and around Edison—not to mention Edison itself—it’s easy to take umbrage at Mr. Stein’s reminiscences. Whether or not they’re intended to, they somewhat bruise the sentiments of a certain segment of Indian “merchants.”
That said, Mr. Stein’s observations can be compared to a similar scenario, one from a different time and a different place.
Beginning in the 1950s and continuing well into the late 1990s, Kolkata saw a steady migration of traders, who hailed from the semi-arid Marwar region of the Indian western state of Rajasthan as well as an assortment of workers from the eastern province of Bihar.
Along with their sharp business acumen, the new settlers brought with them their gaudy taste in colors and tawdry commerce in a city best known for its aesthetic sobriety, quiet intellectual pursuits, and a surfeit of culture.
Rows of stores and a raft of small-scale industries, employing the natives, exploded. In time, the Marwaris became the economically-dominant class in Bengal.
The Bengalis felt invaded, exploited, and dominated. A sense of displacement gripped them. Bengali writer Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay gives vent to such feelings in an essay that remarkably resembles Mr. Stein’s in tone and ideology.
But while the Indian-American community has been up in arms over his column, Bengal’s astute Marwari and Bihari community never accused the Bengalis of deliberately spiting them. They took the mild social tension, if any, to be intrinsic to the very nature of population flows.
Back in the U.S., did any of the Indians, who’re quick to scream “racism” at the drop of a hat, object to the stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans as Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas in the odious “Forrest Gump” remake, “My Name is Khan?”
No, they preferred to keep mum. Yet, they’re deeply chagrined when painted in a less than glorious light in which they’ve come to see themselves.
What saddens me further, is the emergence of a few self-appointed brown cops, who believe it’s their duty to ferret out a speckle of mockery anywhere, perceived or real, and then whip it into a fluffy meringue of xenophobic prejudice against Indians.
In all honesty, the sight of a poster of a garish Bollywood blockbuster, plastered on a posh multiplex wall makes me shed a briny teardrop. Why chastise Mr. Stein alone?
“My Own Private America” isn’t an exhortation to restore Edison to its original “white” landscape. Nor is it a veiled invitation to the “dot-busters” of the 1980s to go on a rampage. It isn’t about inciting hatred, just as the Waspish discourse on the advent of Jewry into New Jersey cities after World War II isn’t redolent of the holocaust.