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March 25, 2000

The Rediff Special

Making Peace With Oscar
By Sreenath Sreenivasan
Sreenath Sreenivasan [], a journalism professor at Columbia University in New York, is co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association [].

"GAN-DEE, Gan-dee, Gan-dee," they chanted. "Cow lover," "cow ****er," "Hin-doo schmuck."

The words spewed from the lips of eight boys in Catholic school uniforms gathered outside their junior high school in New York City. Their spite was directed at a fellow seventh grader, a brown kid with metal braces on his teeth and a clip-on tie on his neck. He was the only Indian boy in a school filled with whites, blacks, Hispanics and a few Asians. There was one Indian-looking girl in the sixth-grade, but he'd seen only her from afar.

The chanting continued as the boys circled the Indian kid, yelling, laughing and taunting him. One of the bigger boys reached out and shoved him. Someone caught the Indian and pushed him back. He looked nervous, his face bordering on fright. The taunting continued. "Hin-doo Gan-dee."

A teacher happened to wander by and ordered the boys to "break it up." And just like that, it was over.

That was 17 years ago, and I was the Indian boy.

I had gotten the attention because the previous night at the Oscars, two movies my schoolmates were cheering for -- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Tootsie -- were almost shut out. You see, that evening in 1983, Gandhi won eight Academy Awards and made a few ignorant little Americans very unhappy. Their little brown alien had been silenced by a little brown man. For a couple of minutes that distant day, my Indian-ness was not my strongest asset. But no lasting harm was done me.

These many years later, I have made my peace with Oscar. On Sunday, I will help my students host a big-screen Academy Awards party for 200 people. And for the second straight year, I will be cheering the work of desis. Last year, it was Shekhar Kapur and his Elizabeth. This year, M. Night Shyamalan and the six nominations for The Sixth Sense ($600 million in worldwide box office), and Deepak Nayar, co-producer of Buena Vista Social Club, a nominee for best documentary.

Once upon a time, my classmates were upset over a movie that was not even made by an Indian. This week, I will toast two desi film-makers, wondering how many of my peers know they were born in India. Plus, there's Caravan, a French-Nepalese co-production in the category for best foreign film and Nepal's first nomination for an Oscar.

It's not just Hollywood -- South Asiana has been more in the American media spotlight than ever before.

Just look at the last 10 days. President Clinton's subcontinent trip has meant front-page stories in dozens of daily newspapers, never-ending footage of the president on his little excursion and articles about desi Americans.

Peter Jennings, one of the biggest names in American journalism, anchored his evening newscast live from Delhi's India Gate. When was the last time we saw that kind of link other than at a funeral for someone named Gandhi or Teresa? Surf through the news stations on cable and you'll encounter packages from South Asia. Even the comedy channel's "fake news" show had a lead item about India, making a predictable joke about starvation and poverty.

WNET, New York's public television station, aired an hour-long documentary on a subject never covered in a similar fashion: Desi: South Asians in New York. They ran it four times in three days, even bumping a show about multi-Grammy-ed Carlos Santana. During breaks in which the station appealed for donations from viewers, it pulled in more than $127,000 in three hours.

This week, Victor Menezes, an Indian Institute of Technology grad, became CEO and chairman of Citibank. And a 15-year-old Chicagoan named Rishi Bhat, who recently sold his start-up to a Canadian firm, appeared on several television shows. Within an hours of his interview on a national breakfast program, the company's stock soared 20 per cent.

Stories about desis in dot com deals are common. But if you're carried away by the hype, you'd think every Indian is a stock-option millionaire. The influence of South Asians is -- at least during these few days -- vastly disproportionate to their numbers. Most of the 1.5 million or so desis toil away from the spotlight, whether they are cab drivers or medical personnel, Wall Street bankers or Capitol Hill lobbyists. Their unsung work helps, in a small way, make this country tick.

My own identity will soon be tallied with those numbers. A US Census form landed in my mailbox this week. Under the race designation, there's a category called "Asian Indian."

Asian Indian. It's an odd, made-up word, but it allows us to stand up and be counted. You can be sure that in that old school of mine, there are more than a few Asian Indians today. Or as they used to say, "Hin-doo Gan-dees." > stories > oscar commentary: rediff