The India Day parade at Oak Tree Road, Edison, New Jersey
July 9, 2010
hat a strange time it is to
be Indian in America.
First, we hear South
Carolina might soon have an
Indian-American governor. (One
endorsed by Sarah Palin!)
Then a Californian company,
Zazzle, popped up selling skate-
boards with Hindu gods on them.
And then Joel Stein decided to
make a joke about Dotbusters in
No wonder our gods have multi-
ple heads. This is a mindboggling
lot to keep up with. And I’m not
even pondering if Ganesha
mousepads violate any sacred cows.
Dotbusters, for those who missed
the ’80s, were street gangs who
attacked South Asians in places like
Jersey City where many immigrants
had moved. Their goal was simple
—kick the immigrants out.
Literally. One of those immigrants,
Navroze Mody, died after being
bashed with bricks. Another,
Kaushal Saran, a doctor, was beaten
and left unconscious on a busy
street corner. Homes were robbed.
Women were harassed.
Joel Stein, in his essay about his
old hometown of Edison, New
Jersey, has this to say about that lit-
tle bit of history. ‘In retrospect, I
question just how good our schools
were if “dot heads” was the best
racist insult we could come up with
for a group of people whose gods have mul-
tiple arms and an elephant nose.’
Of course, Stein will plead satire. And ask
Indians not to be so thin-skinned. And any-
way Ganesha has an elephant head, not just
a nose. And anyway what are Indian
Americans going to do if they don’t like it?
Challenge him to a spelling bee?
Of course, Stein doesn’t mean he is in any
way in favor of Indians having their heads
bashed in. Why, in the piece he says he
actually liked some of the Indians that
moved in. At least the smart ones, the
dorky ones who liked to play Dungeons and
Dragons. The problem was the smart ones
brought in their less smart cousins (‘
merchants’) and the merchants brought in
‘their even-less-bright cousins, and we
started to understand why India is so damn
poor.’ This is immigration reform in a nutshell. Give us your engineers, but not your
cabbies and Dunkin Donut-wallas. Except
those cabbies and 7/11 owners and motel
proprietors work damn hard for their little
piece of the American dream.
I think in a way the Indian community is
also so obsessed with its presidential schol-
ars and spelling bee champs, with its Indra
Nooyis and Dr Sanjay Guptas, it gives short
shrift to the little guys, the ones that run
gas stations on baking highways in the
We hear you, Joel Stein
American anxiety about its browning will not change
middle of nowhere, take classes during the
day and work graveyard shift at the 7/11.
They are the muscle and sinew of our community. But to Joel Stein, they are just so
much litter strewn all over his old hometown. That’s his problem — too many
His Pizza Hut is an Indian sweets shop.
His old multiplex shows Bollywood films.
The town is now ‘a maze of cheerless Indian
strip malls.’ I thought he had a point there.
Indian restaurants are not known for their
decor. Tacky Omar Khayyam style prints
and bad Taj Mahal replicas do not substi-
tute for interior decoration. And those all-
Indian strip malls do look rather dreary.
(But I’ve seen a lot strip malls, in New
Jersey, with nary an Indian shop that look
just as dreary. Come on Joel, it’s a strip
mall!) The problem is not really the strip
mall. The problem is the foreignness of the
strip mall. ‘Whenever I go back, I feel what
people in Arizona talk about: a sense of loss
and anomie and disbelief that anyone can
eat food that spicy.’
Whoa, Stein, are you saying the road to
SB 1070 is paved with too many lunch
Sandip Roy hosts Up Front, a culture radio
program on KALW 91.7 in the San
Francisco Bay Area. He is associate editor
with Pacific News Services and New
California Media. He has won the Katha
Prize for Indian-American fiction