Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s shooting in US has raised questions which point back at us, Indians

No dream comes without risks.
Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s shooting in US has raised questions which point back at us, Indians
Srinivas Kuchibhotla’s shooting in US has raised questions which point back at us, Indians

Grief is a deeply personal journey. After the killing of Indian engineer Srinivas Kuchibhotla at a Kansas bar in the United States (US), his wife, parents, close and extended family and friends will have to find ways to cope with this tragedy. Witnesses said that the gunman yelled “get out of my country” at Kuchibotla and Alok Madasani before he opened fire. Ian Grillot, the American who tried to save them is in hospital with multiple injuries, some very severe. There’s too much hate – let us try to help each other as human, he has been quoted as saying.

After giving this very sensitive subject serious thought, I feel compelled to address some of the questions this issue has raised drawing from my own personal and professional experiences. The facts are sensitive as they stand at the crossroads or jobs, religion, xenophobia, human ambition and insecurity, all of which make for an explosive mix.

Beyond the grief and despair, my focus is riveted on suggestions offered by Indians, including Indian associations. Some were sane – stay safe, avoid trouble spots, remain calm and leave when provoked, etc. Others were insane, especially those that encouraged Indians to speak only in English in crowds or move to parts of America considered more cosmopolitan. The first one shocked me. Cut to bone, it shows that we look down on people who do not speak English or even worse, English is our safety differentiator in a country of immigrants many of whom do not speak it.  

We do this while calling ourselves immigrants. Where is our solidarity with people in a country we have freely picked to be our home? When I was looking for housing as a student at Stanford in the early eighties, I was advised to stay within a certain limit beyond which there were ‘blacks, chicanos and philipinas’ – those are the exact words. More recently, I have heard parents boasting about their children studying in Stanford and living in Palo Alto. They make it a point to say ‘not east Palo Alto’, which has a large black population and people living in economically precarious conditions. How different are we when we tell African students in India to go home, or even closer home, ask students of the north-east of India to return home? Racist, anyone?

At the heart of the matter is the confusion between integration and assimilation. I will come to this in a minute.

Following the Kansas tragedy, I have also read commentary on how ‘these people attacking Indians are blue collar workers’. That puts the ‘workers’ in the same category as the millions of Indians who work in Gulf countries, living in sub-human conditions including in construction site cabins. They remit valuable foreign currency into India’s coffers. How much time and energy do we spend worrying about our people in these countries?

Freeze frame. The Kuchibotla family was a modest one. Parents worked hard and saved every penny to put children through school and college and sent them to America to catch the American dream. The children merged into American suburban life where life revolves around work, sleep and standard leisure activities over weekend – moving the lawn, home repair, grocery shopping etc. Most dinner parties are confined to Indians, sometimes even regional sorting – Tamils, Bengalis, Punjabis, etc. The odd foreigner who gets invited is white, blacks are rare. Bollywood movies are common entertainment, grandparents are invited when babies arrive and daily immediacy creates ‘false’ communities. Rarely do Indians participate actively or drive community action in America.  Despite all we hear and see, Americans are community oriented. Indians are not.

Unfreeze frame. There’s nothing extraordinary about the Kuchibotla family’s struggle. Most Americans work hard to put their children through undergraduate degrees. My friends repaid student loans for years after they graduated. The last President and First lady of the United States are shining examples of the American dream. Rags to riches, garage start-ups to billion dollar companies are all part of the American dream. We have to stop thinking that there is something special and heroic about us. Human aspirations are normal and standard and fairly predictable.

No dream comes without risks. And gun violence is a 24/7 risk in America in ways it is not in any other country in the world. Many families with children shun fancy jobs in secure and gated communities in the US for this very reason. Kuchibotla was unlucky. He went out to watch a game over a beer with his friend. He was shot by a random guy who tried to be a hero by asking two hard working Indians to leave his country. 

That public story ends there. Now I turn to the larger issue of why it is important to appreciate and live the difference between integration and assimilation. They are not synonyms – far from it. The former is an amalgamation, a blending-in that speaks to homogenisation and even loss of identity over a period of time. The latter – assimilation – is to absorb the new and the unknown without annihilating one’s identity. It is to be informed and aware without losing one’s roots.

The trouble begins when we try to have our cake and eat it to. We want to be Americans, but not quite. We want to acquire an American accent, but not quite. We think America is a dream, but discover not quite as millions have reached the same spot with the same dreams. We think we are different and superior only to find that the competition is stiff and truly free. So what do we fall back on? Racism which we didn’t quite see in India because of the rat race and because we are all people of colour. As for English, more and more of us speak it poorly but we poke fun at other Americans who have accents while we think we do not.

Like all others, I pray for the Kuchibotla family and hope his widow can return to Kansas to complete her husband’s dreams. That dream comes with random gun violence in a society which is passing through an extremely restive phase, where the 'other' is seen as an enemy and violence can degenerate into deaths in a split second. As for racism, violence and hate in India, we really do not have lessons to give others. A dose of modesty will help. Try it. 

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