Last week I visited the nation’s capital. The last time I was there was a good two decades ago when I was a tourist visiting from India and not a decade old naturalized citizen, and when the world was a substantially different place (nowhere near as different as it had been years before that, though, as I learned on this visit. But more about that later). For one, back then I couldn’t have imagined there being an exhibit at the Smithsonian about Indian Americans and the history of their migration and assimilation into America. It was a time when being asked how my English was so good was a regular occurrence and being asked where India was wasn’t uncommon either. It was a time when being Indian in America sometimes felt a lot like being invisible.
So of course when I heard that there was now such an exhibit I went in search of it. Ironically enough, the exhibit, aptly named Beyond Bollywood, wasn’t easy to find. Much like the information it housed. After trudging in from the rain, my friend and I made our way to the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History where the website told us the retrospective was housed. After three rounds around the exhibit area searching in vain and finding not one sign for it on any map or signage, we broke down and asked for assistance. One of the kind staff members led us through several exhibit areas to the very back, past the museum shop and corridors almost as metaphorically complicated as finding your way around a foreign land and there we were, finally, outside the exhibit we sought.
Our first greeting was a display of shoes on a shoe rack, a fairly accurate symbol of the entrance to most Indian homes. There was a nice big sign explaining this and yet a few of the other visitors, adorably eager, bent down to remove their shoes.
It was in this state of half amusement that I entered into the exhibition space, an old Raj Kapoor song piping in through speakers. Jina yahan marna yaahan, iske siva jaana kahan, he sang in Mukesh’s signature nostalgia-inducing voice. Here we live and here it is we’ll die. Where else would we go now? The lyrics, which I’m pretty sure refer to making the best of our lives here on earth, there in that space took on the form of an ode to migration and had me reaching for a tissue.
You see, I’ve always fancied being a first generation immigrant as somewhat cutting edge. Like a wayfarer, an adventurer, leaping into the great unknown, choosing to leave behind the comfort of home in search of a bigger life or at least one that I myself got to make from scratch. I’ve always thought of people as falling into two categories: the nomads, turtles who carry their homes on their back to wherever they go; and the landlords, trees, who are rooted in the earth. My brother, for instance, is a tree. He is so of his soil and hearth I cannot imagine him ever being uprooted. I, born to the very same parents, want to have bits of me scattered all over the world and bits of the world imbibed into every corner of me.
So here I was, at the very first display amused and marginally thrilled with myself, staring into a mirror flanked by pictures of mundane-enough Indian immigrant life and a sign asking quite simply, ‘Indian Americans. Who are we?’ I thought I knew the answer to that question. Just like the sign says, we “are as diverse as America itself” including “students, farmers, artists, cab drivers, businesspeople, and technology pioneers… Some trace their roots here to the late 1800s, arriving with other immigrants who came to build, and find, the American Dream. Others came in the 1960s, arriving at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, to join and shape a “new” America.”
It was the part about some of us tracing our roots back to the 1800s that stopped me in my tracks.
I had always assumed that Indians who migrated here in the sixties and seventies had been some of the earliest immigrants. And I am well aware of how different their immigration experience had been from mine given how different both countries were from their current avatars at the time and how vastly disparate in terms of culture when compared with each other. My father’s brother came here in the sixties and growing up I always thought of him and his family as a ghost of a presence in our lives, almost like lost relatives who might as well live on a different planet and visit every so many years. Over the almost twenty years that I’ve lived in America, I’ve spoken with my brother and my parents almost every day thanks to Whatsapp, Facebook and Skype. And our lives aren’t all that different from each others.
So, yes, my uncle’s immigration experience was very different from my own. One I always think of as much more isolating- more an amputation when compared to my far more painless transplantation.
But compare that with someone who made the passage a century before that.
Walking through the exhibit was like stepping through time and finding battles I was embarrassed to learn I didn’t even know had been fought on my behalf. Indians who worked the railroads in the late 1800s, farmers from Punjab, fleeing from British oppression, who worked alongside Chinese immigrants to support the nation’s industrial boom. The horrific attacks on Indian mill workers in Washington and California in the early 1900s to force them out and the lack of legal action and public outrage. The ban on the migration of Asian women so the men would not settle and procreate. The indefatigable fights for citizenship. A Sikh US Army combat veteran who was granted citizenship in 1920, only to have it revoked in 1923 because he wasn’t white. He continued to apply again and again until he was granted citizenship in 1936. A young woman who applied for citizenship and was denied it over and over again between the years 1910 and 1969. That’s a 60-year long battle.
And one that shattered all sorts of glass ceilings.
For me the retrospective was about learning about these pioneering struggles, but really it spans the century from those to the racial violence of the ‘Dotbusters’ in the 1980s and along the way visits the reality behind the stereotypes of the taxi drivers, the motel owners, the doctors and tech workers. It goes on to pay tribute to the contributions of Indian Americans to the arts, science, sports and politics in the wake of those early struggles that brought us to a place where you don’t have to be Indian American to be appalled by this cartoon that was published in the San Francisco Call.
I might have entered with no idea what to expect from the barely marked exhibit tucked away at the very back of the museum, but I left feeling pretty confident that inaccessibility and a circuitous path would not stop those who had the will from finding their way there. And I sincerely hope that you will find your way there too if you can.
Beyond Bollywood will be at the National Museum of Natural History until August 16, 2015 after which I can only hope it will travel to other cities so more people can see it. More information at http://smithsonianapa.org/beyondbollywood/