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July 24, 2000

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A predictable lament

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Ramesh N Rao

I reached for Vijay Prashad's The Karma of Brown Folk with some trepidation as I had read some of his partisan articles in the Himal magazine and a recent, rather juvenile piece on about Clinton's visit to India. I had also peeped into the 'Forum of the Indian Left' web site, one of whose architects is Prashad. The blurbs announcing the release of his book, as well as the publisher's review on also gave me a little inkling of what was in store between the rather stylish covers of this rather slim volume on the Indian presence in the United States.

The book is a breezy read, and I finished it at one sitting. That is its best strength. Prashad weaves his tale cleverly, a combination of some interesting research on the early presence of people from India in the US and the rather fashionable but facile "analysis" of the life and predicaments of the modern Indian immigrant. If the early reviews are any indication this book is going to be a bestseller. But is it a "fair" tale? Unfortunately, no.

He attacks Deepak Chopra, Dinesh D'Souza, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (an interesting combination of villains) for "forcing" Indians to "slither into inappropriate molds", and lauding the efforts of the left/secular forces in enabling the "fight to forge complex cultures of solidarity". The book is a predictable lament about "bourgeois immigrant culture", "orientalist attitudes of Whites", and "greedy global capitalism" to which Indian Americans have succumbed.

Prashad, with his chubby brown good looks, fashionable eye glasses, and a PhD in anthropology from the University of Chicago, pits good guys (complex, caring, intelligent, pro-women, pro-gay/lesbian, anti-racist and internationalist) against bad guys (cardboard caricatures and straw figures who peddle nationalism, racism, and spiritualism or a combination of all three). No doubt, this "sexy" analysis will appear on the reading lists of at least a hundred university courses this Fall. Can international fame for this young assistant professor at Trinity College be far behind?

Prashad seeks to forge unity among colored peoples so that they can fight White racism. Quoting Du Bois who, in 1938, bemoaned that Indians "stand apart from the darker peoples" and seek "affinities among whites", Prashad believes that at this point in time Indian emigres in the US still show that affinity for whites and still refuse to collaborate with blacks.

The only Indian Americans who do so, he proclaims, are the forces of the Left. But this black and white divide that Prashad perceives is not just passe but also false. How else would one account for a Ward Connerly, an African-American member on the California University Board of Regents, supporting Proposition 209 outlawing racial preferences in state government in California, Representative Jim Watts of Nebraska being one of the most high profile of Republican Party members, Representative Henry Towns, a Black Congressman from New York who recently accused India of slaughtering 36 Sikhs in Kashmir to "jog" Clinton's elbow during his visit to the subcontinent, as well as the Martin Luther King hospital in Los Angeles which denied an Indian doctor the directorship of the lab that he had nurtured and brought back to health, because they wanted a black doctor on the job?

The first two examples that I use show that the black community in the US is not a "single" black community but a complex of groups and interests and classes. Ward Connerly, in his latest book (Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences), provides a wonderful portrait of those communities and of his own struggle to fight the forces of division within and outside the Black communities. Rep Watts has sought to wean Blacks away from the "persecution mentality" that has hobbled the community for decades, and away from those leaders like Jesse Jackson and hucksters like Rev Sharpton who have diverted the attention and distracted the energies of blacks from some of the real problems they face in the community -- familial, interpersonal, drugs, criminality, etc. Rep Towns is an India-baiter, and he is no different than the redneck Representative Dan Burton, who is similarly positioned.

Why should Indian Americans be not aware of such activities and proclivities of some black leaders? Finally, the Indian doctor who was denied the directorship of the lab in the Black-managed hospital is another indication of why the Indian presence in administrative positions is so meager, and that it is not just due to white racism.

Prashad chooses his examples carefully so that he can push his thesis. But that makes his work a polemic, not a scholarly study. Given the "pie in the sky" romanticism of the Left, especially in India, their long history of jumping on a variety of fashionable bandwagons, and their ignoring of the human disasters engineered by the Left around the world it is not surprising that this new generation of leftists continues those traditions. This book is full of holes, but the gullible reader will walk right past them.

The diatribe against Deepak Chopra is part funny, part in poor taste, and part puerility. Sure, if one has seen Chopra on 'Larry King Live' more than two times, one may be a little troubled by his "smooth talk". But that doesn't mean Chopra is all smooth talk and that what he advocates is "a freedom that says good riddance to the real world". Prashad wants every Indian American to be like Prashad -- the good activist, willing and ready to take on the bad guys. All others are suspect and weak or manipulative.

Dinesh D'Souza is darker than Vijay Prashad and so, while Prashad may worry about the karma of brown folk, D'Souza is the one really concerned with black issues! And D'Souza doesn't really speak for Indians or reflect their attitudes: he speaks of Judaeo-Christian values, of the American spirit of emancipation and freedom and, on a recent visit to our campus, left the group of black students among the audience waiting to challenge him tongue-tied. But does that mean D'Souza is "liked" by most Indians and that they support him and his causes? I don't believe that he even registers on their sub-conscious.

In a chapter titled 'Of Yankee Hindutva', Prashad blatantly resorts to lies, exaggerations, and falsehood. He says the "Hindu Right" has come to power through a virulent campaign against Muslims, Christians, the Left, and women, and accuses them of butchering Muslims and Dalits after tearing down the Babri mosque in Ayodhya. This version of modern Indian history has been so assiduously disseminated by the Left that it has become "official" history. That Prashad finds a way to tie in this version of the events with the Indian immigrant life in the US is just pure mischief.

Prashad fails to acknowledge that what he decries of Christian proselytization efforts in India is what the VHP also condemns. He ignores the work of the VHPA and affiliated organizations in collecting monies for running schools, conducting medical camps, and rendering help when natural calamities strike in India. He claims that the VHPA seeks to separate "Hindu" from "American" and so segregates Indians in the country. This kind of psycho-social babble is par for course among some angry academics in this country, and surely The Karma of Brown Folk will whet the appetite for more such "soul food" among the perpetual malcontents in India and the US.

There is more to be said about this book but I will let the curious reader find out for himself or herself about its worth. As I said in the beginning, there is quite a lot of material that is interesting and fascinating, and I do agree with Prashad that the American policy of body-shopping for workers, whether poor farm laborers or highly qualified high-tech workers, is odious, that there is a glass ceiling that has kept many qualified desis from achieving their true potential, and that racism is present and dangerous in the US. But for me, the book is marred by the moral posturing, the devious dissemination of half-truths and falsehoods, and the rather facile "analysis".

When I told my friend, a PhD in Sanskrit from the University of Chicago, that I was reviewing Prashad's book, he exclaimed, "That arrogant p****!" Seems that Prashad, when at the U of C, bad-mouthed those scholars who were studying Indian philosophy, religion, and Sanskrit as "orientalists" who wished nothing but to spread their version of India to the West. Not much seems to have changed since his days at that elite American institution of higher education.

Prashad still claims to know best about villains and heroes.

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