The Twice Blessed Indian-American Elite
Oct 18 2013
The Indian diaspora faces questions of assimilation, identity and success in an unfamiliar world
Raghavan, an acclaimed journalist who worked for the Wall Street Journal and contributed to Forbes, wades through vast research and conducts interviews across continents to paint a fascinating picture of the twice blessed Indian emigres and children of these emigres. She also traces the life paths of Galleon Hedge Fund’s billionaire, the shrewd and flamboyant Sri Lankan Raj Rajaratnam and other prominent Asians caught up in his web. Raghavan raises valid questions of identity, assimilation and success in a still unfamiliar world.
Q. Though you moved to US at age 8, you carry enough Indian imprint. How would you characterise yourself?
I was born in Malaysia, studied for a few years in Chennai, lived in the US for 3 years and went to boarding school in the UK. My father was admitted into the PHD programme in Princeton and my mom followed a year later and worked as a librarian. I grew up believing that reading, writing and thinking was the way to be. When I was in my 20s, I went to Penn and then to Columbia. While at Penn, I got an internship that would eventually lead me to Wall Street Journal.
Q. What did you want to convey through this book?
As tragic and heartbreaking as the story of Rajat Gupta is, the message of hope if you will, is that we have come to a point where we are no longer too small a number to be ignored. We are now a large diaspora that makes significant contributions to the economy. Interestingly, these cases against prominent South Asians were being pursued by Indians, Sanjay Wadhwa of the SEC and Preet Barrara, who oversaw the trials.
Today, young Indian Americans don’t have to limit their choices to doctors, lawyers and IT. We have achieved a certain status in the American economy that is why we shouldn’t push the story of Gupta under the rug. We are where we are because of the trailblazing of the generation before. It is precarious because in the comments on the stories, you also get comments like “What do you expect from Indians?” Such comments really sadden me to paint a broad brush about an entire community.
Q. When did you realise you wanted to write this book and how long did it take?
When Gupta was arrested in October 2009, I started getting a lot of calls, not so much about him but about McKinsey’s Anil Kumar. Kumar is many things: arrogant, condescending, but not a crook. Three months later, he pleaded guilty. I had been wrestling about writing about the Indian diaspora ever since 2006 when I went to Doon School for a story for WSJ. In this story, I had all the elements. The journey, the success and ultimately the downfall as the result of their own hubris and over reaching. I started writing the book in 2011.
This is a story of much promise and hope to me. This is a case that involves and is prosecuted by Indian Americans. While they had misstepped, they had also arrived in a way that had been unimaginable. What you have today is a very assimilated group of Indians in the US. And it is not a lip service assimilation, they embody American ideals of truth and justice.
Q. Wealth, influence and power is everywhere. This is also a great cautionary novel. How do Indian Americans cope under duress?
This is an interesting question. When the cases were brought up against Gupta, I was struck by the fact that he believed he was innocent. If he had not fought, he would probably be in the same boat as Kumar who walked away with a probationary sentence. I think there is a naiveté about the Indians regarding the American system. Here, you go from a hero to zero overnight without middle ground. One of Gupta’s closest friends, Bill Clinton, a decade ago was impeached and he was President of the US. He went through the process. Possibly the next generation of Indians will be able to address challenges like these more easily as they will understand the US better. For Gupta, it has been sobering affair.
Some Indians are unwilling to accept the book as it shines an unwelcome light on the society. But it showcases how the community has evolved. The Indian diaspora is also globally connected, business savvy and astute. Indians have achieved, in one generation, what other immigrants have taken several generations to reach.