American Karma: Race, Culture and Identity in the Indian Diaspora

Author:   Sunil Bhatia
Publisher:   GRFDT
Reviewer:   Tasha Agarwal
Designation:   Research Scholar, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA)

Bhatia Sunil, American Karma: Race, Culture and Identity in the Indian Diaspora, 2007, New York: New York University Press (ISBN 978-081-4799-581)

The book provides an account of Indian Diaspora’s struggle with their identity in The United States. In their tryst with America, the book explores the journey of the Indian diaspora community in maintaining, resisting and reinventing their identities.  The process of negotiating with identities have been used by the author to ascertain whether the Indian Diaspora’s fit in the model of acculturation proposed by Berry and Colleagues, which talks about the fourfold effect of acculturation i.e. assimilation, separation, integration and marginalization.  To study the process of acculturation and formation of identity, the author has relied on the concept of voice rather than using some static parameter. The concept of voice was used to capture the ongoing simultaneous dialogical movement between the voice of feelings that are at once assimilated, integrated, privileged and marginalized.

The negotiation of identity by Indian diasporas has been studied using the dialogical approach in the construction of otherness. Three ways of construction of otherness has been used i.e. generic otherness where voice appropriated by the participants confirms to the feeling of being different; marked otherness where certain objects, behavior, appearance etc are the markers of the difference such as thick Indian accent, bindis, sarees, turban etc; and disruptive otherness, which is associated with the deep feeling of alienation and marginality as a result of racism and ethnic bias. These markers of otherness have been used to detail out the instances in personal as well as professional lives of the Indian diasporas. Several respondents provided contradictory views with respect to the experience of racism when interviewed at different time span. Moreover the respondents view their professional life to be resistant of racism as compared to their personal life where several instances of racism were narrated by them. Scientific work environment based on meritocracy was seen as the probable reason for the same.

Author thus explores the experience of racism by situating the voices of assignation and assertion in the model minority discourse of the diaspora.  The Indian Diaspora under the effect of being called as a model minority by the American society asserts the incidence of racism as that of a universal nature, which is present in some form or the other. Hence, differentiation rather than discrimination is something, which they believe, exists. Moreover, since the respondents held the belief that merit transcends color, hence as per them, merit in the American society has rewarded them better.

The author challenges the model of acculturation and concludes by asserting that the Indian diasporas do not fir in any of these watertight compartments of assimilation, separation, integration and marginalization. Their voice represents their shifts from being both privileged as well as marginalized at different circumstances and marks towards their continuous negotiation with their hyphenated identity. This calls towards the need to redefine the development of migrant identity as a negotiated and contested process rather than a static and singular one.

The book is based on ethnographic study, which was carried on for a period of 16 months in New London, Connecticut where the author himself resides along with several other Indian Diasporas, thus was a participant observer in his study. By making extensive use of interview data and narratives, the author has very well documented the account of the daily life of the respondents in America. The questions posed for interview from the respondents were quite innovative and could cull out the maximum information.

The chapter which elaborates on the methodology adopted in the study, the author has provided a detailed account of interaction with the respondents, meeting with gatekeeper, positional dilemma of the researcher and issues confronted by the respondents; hence affecting the observation of the ethnographer. The blurring of the boundary between the field and home has been very well captured in the book. The study was conducted using thirty eight samples from Indians working in white collar jobs who belong to the elite group with high salaries and regards in the society, while other Indians working as cabdrivers, cooks, mechanics etc were excluded from the sample. Thus, the study is representative of the experiences and narratives of only higher class working Indian professionals and not the complete set of Indian Diasporas.

Although the contents of the book were enriching and informative, there seemed to be a repetition of the ideas back and forth. The author also tried to connect to the context of individual respondents in later part of the text by making use of their pseudo-names. As a reader, it would have been beneficial if a tabular representation of the names of the respondents with some basic information could have been elaborated in the appendix of the book in order to refer to it, in case the name reappears in the text again.

One of the important aspects, which were missing in the text, was the role of gender and the simultaneous elaboration of the account where gender, race and culture are interwoven in the diasporas in American Society. Though the author accepts the lacunae in the existing literature on Diaspora studies which ignores the role of gender in the process of acculturation, the author ends up contributing just few paragraph on the role of gender, whereas it would have been more informative and interesting had a separate chapter on gender been included.

Similarly, the title of few chapters does not completely justify the content in it. The last chapter titled Imagining Homes had just few pages which were in sync with the title of the chapter. Similarly the third chapter titled Des Pardes in the American Suburbia had contents which departed from the message invoked by its title.

Overall the book is highly informative, rich in contents and interesting to read. It is especially helpful for the research scholars and academicians in the field of migration and diaspora as it successfully links the empirics with the theoretic. With extensive use of literature and a detailed review on the different form of ethnographic study, which is being used in the contemporary periods, the book can also serve the purpose of the academicians in the field of research methodology. 

Tasha Agarwal, Research Scholar, National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), Email: a[email protected]


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