By Barbara Kantrowitz and Julie Scelfo;
changed the way we eat, dress, work and play. South Asians
come here from many places, and they succeed by blending East
above Times Square, in a bare rehearsal studio, the sun is
rising on Bombay. At the center of the room, a slender middle-aged
woman chants softly. She's surrounded by two dozen young performers
playing beggars and peddlers who rise from slumber in the
intricate ballet of an urban morning scene. Their dance moves
become ever more energetic as the pianist in the corner pounds
harder on the keys. The woman is Madhur Jaffrey, the actress
and cookbook author who has made a career of introducing the
tastes of her native India to the West. But this time she
is serving up an enticing mix of Indian and Western rhythms
called "Bombay Dreams," a Broadway musical that
Andrew Lloyd Weber and his creative team hope will hook mainstream
America when the show opens next month.
The timing couldn't be better. "Bombay Dreams,"
which has been playing in London since 2002, tells the story
of a young man from the slums who rises to film stardom. It's
an apt metaphor for the growing visibility of a new generation
of South Asians in the United States—some immigrants from
India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and others
born here—who are making their mark everywhere from Hollywood
to Wall Street. Politicians here may be in an uproar about
outsourcing jobs to India, but India has also been exporting
tremendous talent to this country. Young South Asians are
transforming America's cultural landscape, setting the pace
in business, the arts and media as well as the traditional
fields favored by their parents' generation, medicine and
technology. Many have spent time on several continents; they're
multilingual, and comfortable mixing cultures. They're also
often children of affluence; the 2 million South Asians here
are wealthier and better educated than almost any other immigrant
The stars of this breakout generation include directors like
M. Night Shyamalan, 33 ("The Sixth Sense," "Signs"),
and artists like the critically acclaimed Pakistani-born painter
Shahzia Sikander, 34. Or writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, 36, the
Pulitzer Prize winner whose recent novel about a second-generation
Indian-American, "The Namesake," shared the best-seller
lists with "The Da Vinci Code." Or bankers like
Anshu Jain, 41, raised in India but now head of global markets
and a member of Deutsche Bank's group executive committee
in New York. Or politicians like 32-year-old Bobby Jindal,
who last fall narrowly missed election as governor of Louisiana
and is now running for Congress.
These high achievers are only part of a much larger phenomenon.
"Since I've been here, I've never seen so much attention
to my culture," says Sreenath Sreenivasan, 33, an associate
professor at Columbia Journalism School and cofounder of the
South Asian Journalists Association. From Los Angeles to Miami,
partygoers of all ethnicities are shaking their hips to the
beat of bhangra, which is based on Punjabi folk music. (In
the season premiere of "The Sopranos," Meadow jammed
to Indian rhythms as she cruised in her car.) Video stores
across America stock selections like "Lagaan: Once Upon
a Time in India" from Bollywood, India's prolific film
industry, along with hits by South Asian filmmakers working
in the West like "Monsoon Wedding" and "Bend
It Like Beckham." Designers like Donatella Versace are
crafting saris. And in a true test of acceptance, suburban
supermarkets are stocking frozen saag panir (spinach and cheese)
next to pizza and chili.
It's a shift that surprises even some members of the South
Asian community who have been waiting years to get more visibility.
A decade ago, when casting director Sonia Nikore held an open
call for South Asian actors for the Disney feature "Jungle
Book," only about 50 people tried out, recalls Nikore,
now an NBC vice president in charge of casting prime-time
shows. But just recently, Nikore, 35, held an open call for
"Nevermind Nirvana," a sitcom about an Indian-American
family, and more than 250 South Asian actors showed up. The
changes are also clear to Ajay Sahgal, the 39-year-old writer
who created "Nevermind Nirvana" and pitched it successfully
to the network. "You can get a chai at Starbucks,"
says Sahgal, a novelist who's starting a new career in TV.
"People are wearing kurta pajama tops at Barney's in
Beverly Hills, and they have yoga studios on every corner.
You know you're going to have a hard time selling a show about
Tibetans or an Inuit family, but for Indians, the time is
It's the most visible ethnic breakout since Ricky Martin let
Americans know that Latinos were living la vida loca. In this
case, having money has helped. According to the Census Bureau,
the median income in Indian-American families is more than
$60,000, compared with the national average of $38,885, and
experts estimate that more than half of the 2 million South
Asians in this country are college graduates. South Asians
are highly visible on all of the nation's most elite campuses
and are garnering an impressive share of the top academic
prizes. They were critical to the Silicon Valley boom, and
now many are resettling in cities like Bangalore as entrepreneurs
in the booming outsourcing industry. Parmatma Saran, a sociologist
at New York's Baruch College who studies South Asian immigrants,
says they succeed because they balance modernity with old-world
values. "South Asians are following in the footsteps
of Jews," says Saran, who came from India in 1967 at
24. "They're following the Jewish model of penetrating
the structural arrangement of society—economics, politics—without
losing their cultural identity," he says.
many young South Asians in this country—who casually refer
to each other as desi, a Hindi term that's roughly the equivalent
of paesano—often feel like they're straddling two cultures.
At 27, Alpana Singh presides over the wine cellar at Chicago's
Everest restaurant. Her accomplishment is remarkable considering
that she grew up in a Hindu home where wine was not consumed.
Although her parents stressed academics, Singh wanted to work
in the restaurant industry because it seemed glamorous. Her
immigrant parents, who ran an Indian grocery in California,
weren't onboard until, at 21, Singh became the youngest person
ever to pass the Court of Master Sommeliers' advanced exam.
Singh, in turn, is proud of her heritage and the fact that
she speaks Hindi, English and Spanish. "We have this
amazing ability to adapt to the surroundings," Singh
says of her fellow South Asians. "We become doctors and
golfers, but we never forget where we came from."
The first major influx of South Asian immigrants to this country
arrived in the 1960s, after a change in the law made it easier
for non-Europeans to enter as long as they were well educated.
As a result, many in this first wave were physicians or scientists.
"These people came from a middle-class and educated section
of Indian society, so life in America was not entirely new
to them," says Madhulika Khandelwal, 46, director of
the Asian American Center at Queens College in New York. "They're
operating with people in the same class and income level."
They also spoke English, a result of years of British rule.
By quickly fitting into white-collar America, the children
of this first wave of South Asians earned "model minority"
status, which could be a mixed blessing. "People said,
'We think of you as white'," recalls New York filmmaker
Nisha Ganatra, 29, of her suburban high-school years in Pasadena,
Calif. "It was meant as a compliment." Now, she
says, "when I walk down the street, people assume I'm
a doctor or lawyer, that I'm exceedingly nice, that I'm either
a virgin or an expert on the Kama Sutra. They're not stereotypes
that will prevent me from getting jobs." Since 9/11,
however, the image has become more complex. "For every
person who thinks I'm smarter and better," she says,
"there's someone who thinks I smell bad and I'm about
to blow up a building."
While many young South Asians have followed their parents
into science and medicine, others have chosen the nonprofit
world or the arts. Manu Narayan's father was an engineer in
Pittsburgh, but Narayan, now in his early 30s, says, "I
was someone who had different dreams." Although he says
he was admitted to the engineering program at Carnegie Mellon,
he majored in theater instead. His parents backed his choice,
and that support paid off this fall when he won the lead in
"Bombay Dreams." His costar, Anisha Nagarajan, 20,
a New York University student, also grew up in Pittsburgh—a
coincidence that has already earned them headlines in the
local paper even before their Broadway debut.
Even for South Asians who embrace new paths, the pull of tradition
is strong—especially when it's time to get married. In Indian
shopping areas like the New York City neighborhood of Jackson
Heights, Queens, young women buy elaborate red saris and go
to special salons to get their hands decorated with henna.
Some wealthier couples choose to have two weddings, one in
India for the relatives there and one here. While the ceremony
may be traditional, the reception often mixes new and old:
curry for dinner, American wedding cake and bhangra mixed
with hip-hop on the dance floor.
Although the first wave of immigrants tended to settle in
just a few communities, particularly the New York area, there
are now vibrant South Asian communities all over the country,
and the demographics are increasingly diverse, encompassing
everyone from ABCDs (for American-born confused desis) to
FOBs (those fresh off the boat). In Houston, new immigrants
typically settle in the southwest portion of the city, where
there are dozens of Indian grocers and clothing stores. The
goal for many is to ultimately move to the upscale suburb
of Sugar Land, where Sunil Thakkar, 36, and his wife, Sandhya,
34, run their en-tertainment company, Music Masala. The enterprise
includes a weekly radio show featuring fast-paced Indian and
Western beats, a moderately successful independent film about
a recent Indian immigrant in Houston called "Where's
the Party Yaar?" and cruises with a South Asian flair.
"This truly is the American dream for me," says
Sunil, who quit his job as a Shell Oil engineer in 2001 to
work on the business.
As success stories like these become more common, some South
Asians worry that those who haven't made it will be overlooked.
"Not everybody who came over early was a doctor or a
lawyer or an engineer or an accountant," says comedian
Aladdin Ullah, whose Bangladeshi father started his American
journey as a dishwasher. Ullah, 29, grew up as one of the
few South Asians in New York's Spanish Harlem, where he still
lives. More recent changes in immigration law have allowed
a wider range of South Asians to come here, including many
who are less educated and take lower-paying jobs. But their
chances for achieving the American dream should improve as
the overall South Asian community continues to gain visibility.
The stage is set for a long-running hit.
With Vanessa Juarez, Lorraine Ali, Jen Barrett, Mary Carmichael,
Joan Raymond and Vibhuti Patel; Karen Springen in Chicago;
Anne Belli Gesalman in Houston, and Sudip Mazumdar in New
© 2006 Newsweek, Inc. Newsweek
[March 22 issue]