The American Telugu Polarization

I’ve been living here in the United States for close to a quarter century, having arrived here less than a year into the Bill Clinton presidency. I was received at the Cleveland airport by a Bengali man, roomed up with a Mumbaikar for the initial few days and leased a rental studio with a Kannadiga.

Eventually, when we moved out of the studio apartment six months after, I had an all-Telugu set of roomies. The most amazing thing about the time that followed was the absence of that one social evil that plagues India more than anything else – casteism.

We never asked each other’s castes or made friendships based on last names. We were just a bunch of students away from their home country, come together for a common purpose – finish your Master’s, find a job and make it count.

Personally I have avoided caste like it was the plague. I was raised in a household that scowled at any discussion on caste, even though on occasion elders betrayed their preferences. Growing up in a cosmopolitan city like Hyderabad, and having friends that didn’t give a damn about my caste (or that of the others) laid a solid anti-caste foundation in me long before I landed on a Lufthansa 747 at Boston’s Logan on a chilly December evening in 1993.

Fast forward to 2017. Over the past 10-15 years there has been a massive influx of techie Telugus to the States. The inflow brought with it some much needed respite to India-starved long term residents: Indian grocery stores, restaurants, jewelry stores, temples, even specialty shops selling everything from furniture to beauty products to clothing. Some of the immigrants jumped into entrepreneurship, increasing the number of Indian-owned businesses. All in all, it was great for the economy in general, and fantastic for the Indian diaspora, which forms 1% of the American population.

Within the Indian Telugu community though, things soured. I’m not sure this happened with other Indian sub-cultures. Polarization based on region (Andhra vs Telangana) and caste (Kamma vs Reddy vs Velama vs You-Name-It) began finding its roots in cities with large Telugu populations. Multiple cultural organizations, split along caste lines, started dividing communities. The most vicious of these happened when a landmark split took place back in the homeland in 2014.

The formation of Telangana as a separate brought a cataclysmic change to the Telugu community in the US. Neighbors got alienated, friends grew apart and groups began to form contesting the merits and harms of the split. People that have lived in the US for ages, and that lost all connection with the home state began to fight for or against the split. Cracks appeared even in tiny, clean cultural organizations creating chasms that never existed.

I know. I’ve seen it first hand.

In a small city like ours, the lines have been drawn. Get-togethers are now parochial, conversations are petty and harmony has gone the way of the dodo. Mini-Andhras with all the evils are being formed, and cultivated, much to the community’s detriment.

It’s sad. But it’s true. And there’s no going back.

The only silver lining is that (hopefully) this evil will be contained amongst first-generation immigrants.

You can take an Indian out of India but you can’t take India out of an Indian.

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