For those of us NRIs who live in Canada, we’re often asked by family and friends back home how life here is different than it is for our confreres in the United Kingdom or the United States, two large countries with large South Asian communities. Now I don’t know much about the scene in the U.K., so let me stick to the Canada and U.S. comparison. The first thing is that we’re saddled with the peculiar moniker of being “East Indians” here. Apparently, the fact that there are a lot of people here from the West Indies is the reason. Someone once told me this usage was imported from the U.K., along with chicken tikka masala, but I believe we’re called South Asians there — so what gives? In the U.S., at any rate, we’re generally called Indo-Americans. I’m not sure if I like hyphenation either, but I prefer it to a gratuitous geographical tag.
As another difference, the demographic mixture is more heavily tilted towards Punjabis here than in the US, where there are a lot of, say, South Indians in the IT industry, Gujarathis running small businesses (the ubiquitous “Potels” for instance), Bengalis in academia, and so on. Here, it’s mostly Punjabis, many of whom have been here for ages. As a result, the old stock Canadians (read: Anglo-Celts and French-Canadians) think that all of us are Punjabis. They’re not entirely to blame, of course, since there’s been a “Punjabicization” of Indian culture back in India itself, noticeable in Bollywood films and music. Still, it’s a tad annoying when someone here assumes that you must eat samosas and naans every day just because you come from India. At least, they know what samosas and naans are, I’ll give them that.
Of course, these are all superficial features of life here. At a deeper level, when I compare myself and other Indians in Canada to the people I know in the U.S., I sense a greater degree of confidence and pride in being Indian there than I do here. I think this owes a great deal to successful and high profile Indians in the US, whether in IT, investment banking, academia, or in politics. You know the names, so I won’t trot them out. By contrast, Indians here are generally more low-key. It’s true that we’re starting to find a greater presence in the mainstream, most notably in government and the media, but we haven’t had, in my judgement, a breakthrough of the sort achieved by Indians in the US, whether it’s becoming CEO of a major multinational or breaking into US politics in a big way.
Now, someone’s sure to point out that we do have prominent Indians in politics here. While that’s true, the fact remains that most of them pursue parochial political agendas that don’t resonate with the larger Indian community, to say nothing of the rest of Canadian society. To take a noteworthy recent example, one backbench Liberal M.P. of Sikh descent is pursuing reparations for the Sikhs, referring to an incident in 1914 in which a ship, the Komagata Maru, was turned away from Canadian shores, carrying Sikhs hoping to migrate to Canada. While I don’t deny that there might be merit in this, you can see why it doesn’t become a major national issue on the order of, say, fixing our broken health care system or failing schools.
There’s a deeper paradox at the root of this, in my opinion. The Canadian model of multiculturalism has, in fact, become a form of de facto ghettoization, in which the true levers of power rest firmly in the hands of the old stock. Let me give you a striking and illustrative example, again taken from the government city where I live. Go and walk the corridors of the foreign ministry and the Prime Minister’s office, if you can make it past the guards: these are where the mandarins sit, the real powers behind the throne in our Westminster-style democracy. Almost without exception, the upper echelons of the civil service in these powerful ministries are drawn from old stock and well-connected elites who went to the right schools and play golf on the weekend at the same clubs. Now when, someday, we have an Indian (or a Chinese, or an African) sitting and whispering into the Prime Minister’s ear, or, God forbid, becomes the Prime Minister herself, then I’ll say that we’ve made some progress here. Until then, I’m not putting my suitcase down, not just yet.
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