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Nice Concept, Lousy Taste

The encounter with America has transformed us, whether we want it, or like it, or know it.

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The idea of substituting Vodka for pani in that classic Indian chat pani puri is likely to evoke disdain from some within the Indian American community. It is probably deemed extraordinarily innovative by some others. But most, we suspect, are just bemused by it, just as we are by hamburger dosa or bacon kachuri.

The range of reactions toward the Vodka twist to the pani puri, recently introduced at an Indian lounge in New York, is a telling window to the evolving Indian American identity.

Our encounters with America have been transforming for us, individually and collectively. They alter, to varying degrees, our looks, our accents, our tastes, our likes and dislikes, just about everything.

We have been transformed whether we want it, or like it, or know it.

Some Indians immerse themselves into America with a passion that even natives would have difficulty matching. It's out with Bollywood, Aishwarya Rai, masala dosa, and cricket. Say hello to Britney Spears, Steven Spielberg, quarter pounder with cheese and the NFL.

If their skin color, and ever so occasionally, at least for the first generation, the strain in the accent, did not betray them, you might never know they are Indian. Indeed, over the telephone you might well be deceived.

For some other Indians, the American encounter has been transforming in quite the reverse manner. They have discovered Ustad Vilayat Khan and Bharat Natyam. They find themselves soaking in dense encyclopedias on Hindu civilization and and ever so often organizing Diwali and Navratri celebrations.

Indians who might never have set foot in a mandir before coming to America, are now leading fund raising campaigns for temples, not to say holding classes on language and culture for their children.

Thinking outside the pani puri is the perfect metaphor for what we do at Little India. We see the magazine as the community's interpretive agent. We seek to make conscious the often unconscious process of identity transformation.

Over the years, we have been among the first to chronicle the community's expansion into new states, such as New Jersey and Georgia; the impact on Indian American health and diet; the fusion food, culture and entertainment; the shift in family life and gender and generational roles; the trend toward Anglicization of Indian names; the rise and fall and rise again of Indian techies, entrepreneurs and professionals. We peered into space with Kalpana Chawla and we went behind the sets of Broadway.

The most significant lesson we have hopefully celebrated in our role as the community peeping toms, is that Indian Americans have a multiplicity of identities. The only identity relevant and valid for you is that with which you are most comfortable.

You are uniquely privileged to feast on two great experiences and histories; pick whatever suits your fancy.  
 
If attending a baseball game with its attendant hot dog is a chore, drop it. On the other hand, if your kids forever seem pushing excuses for skipping those Gujarati classes, ease up on them, will you?

If you are wrestling with your identity, that is your biggest problem.

Abandon the struggle and your identity will discover you.

If you are like me, you don't quite go hunting for pani puri, and if you should encounter it, you likely prefer the pani to not be quite as spicy as you once did.

And yes, you might want to give that vodka pani puri a try for novelty's sake, although ....
Ugghh, it tastes real lousy.

Nice concept though, don't you think? 

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Commentary | Magazine | March 2005

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