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Indian-Americans in Atlanta: Carving a Niche in 30 Years
BY SUPRIYA DG
The Statue of Mahatma Gandhi at the visitor entrance to the Martin Luther King Historic Centre is testimony to the link between two worlds that seek to inspire and learn from each other. Closely following the civil rights movement, is the story of the growth and influx of immigrants of Indian origin to Atlanta. But also important is the ground work laid by a handful of Indian families that were part of early migrants. The survival of their identity depended on the creation of a community that recreated and zealously followed its customs in a new land. From this was born an Indian American Organization.
Established in the 1975 the Indian American Cultural Association (IACA) started in a modest church building and is currently housed at Symrna. The center acted as a uniting force in a multi religious and multi cultural community.
Subash Razdan, Chairman, The Gandhi Foundation of USA, explains, “the IACA originated as a dream in the hope to develop an institution that could serve as a bridge between the emerging Indian American community and the host society.”
The Indian Club of Georgia in 1970, the Gujarati association in 1979 and the Telugu association in 1981, existed as an attempt to create a sense of belonging for specific communities. Explaining the initial zeal of establishing a cultural identity, Dr Ravi Sarma, a well-known Oncologist says “We were all in our early thirties and trying to stand on our feet. Such associations allowed people to come together. This was the third dimension of our personality.
The first is who we were, second what we did and thirdly, what our heritage was.” This association of families became instrumental in turning the attention towards the Indian community from mere curiosity to one of interest. A Ramayana Ballet was presented under the auspices of the IACA, prompting the state to even declare a Ramayana Day. According to Dr PV Rao, Professor of Physics at Emory, “organizing such events, it attracted the attention of the society and we came to be known as a viable community.” Dr Rao also reminiscing about the Piedmont Festival says that the Indian community was invited to participate and set up a stall and sold samosas to the visitors. “That was before the Indian Restaurants arrived. We taught the people here to eat samosas” he recalls. This attempt to potray an international and diverse society in Atlanta was a consequence of the civil rights movement.
Both Rao and Sarma maintain that the Indian Community was in the margin, somewhat immune to the racial discrimination that was the order of the day and yet not completely immune to it. Dr Sarma remembers Grady Hospital having a corridor that separated and divided the two races. He admits that even though he was not allowed to work as an Intern in Emory Residency rotation, he worked under the best in the field during his stint at Grady and the Veterans Affairs (VA).“The initial generation paved the way for the ones that came later” he says.
This cultural expansion saw the creation of a number of other associations that contributed to the growth and sustenance of a unique cultural identity. This also included the rise of a media focused on Indian American issues and several organizations and festival to give a platform to voice the specific nature of the immigrant community. Even as a proposal of naming Gandhi Street was tabled at the Atlanta City Council meeting, in 1983, the IACA jointly celebrated Gandhi’s Birth Anniversary with the Martin Luther King Centre and subsequently a Gandhi Room was created in the Freedom Hall at the Martin Luther King Centre. In 1998, the statue of Mahatma Gandhi was inaugurated, the first of its kind on federal property (the other Gandhi Statue was installed in front of the Chancery in Washington DC.)
It was the southern climate and the opportunities that opened up that saw an explosive growth of immigrants. The state allowed engineers followed by other professionals. There was a brief halt in this influx when the number of professional immigrants that came in was reduced. Eventually Indian refugees fleeing the dictatorial regime in Uganda brought with them entrepreneurial expertise to England, Canada and the United States. The small business communities took over lower level motels and revitalized them. They pooled their resources and kick started the economic growth for the community. John Cherian, co owner of Cherian International Groceries echoes “the beginning was challenging but we have had loyal patrons over the years and are grateful for their support.” His brother and co owner George Cherian is credited with the idea of establishing such a store in Atlanta. From humble beginnings, Cherians now operates in a 30,000 sq ft facility on Dekalb Industrial Way as well as another in Alpharetta. The store operates both as a wholeseller as well as a retailer. There are today a number of such stores diversifying and providing the south Asian community with local delicacies and condiments.
To consolidate trade and commerce, the need for an economic institution was deemed necessary. The Indo American Chamber of Commerce (IACC) for Southeast USA, pioneered by Ram Sidhaye in 1992. This institution along with the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce was responsible for initiating business relationships between India and Georgia. In 1995, along with several ethnic organizations, the Georgia-Indo American Chamber of Commerce (GIACC) largely facilitated by Ani Agnihotri came into being. The end of the decade saw rise in banks, community centers, restaurants, and the Global Mall –all owned by Indian Americans. In 2008, a historic India- Georgia (USA) Friendship Resolution was passed in the Georgia Senate as a Resolution 1248 by senators Hill of the 32nd and Pearson of 51st District and Ambassador Ronen Sen formally accepted it in a ceremony at the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol in Atlanta on October 28th, 2008.
The history and growth of the Indian Community in Atlanta while having a connection with the society at large has also seen the prominence of values that are more closer to the home country.
A number of community members see the presence of the mushrooming temples, gurudwaras and jamat khanas as an assertion of the cultural identity. They are also a reminder of the larger values of living that are embodied in the Gandhian Ideals that has always been a connecting force between the Indian & American communities. Dr Sujatha Reddy a well know philanthropist claims that her work is a tribute to Dr King and Mahatma Gandhi. Dr Reddy took her zeal for social service by starting health fairs in 2002 and organizing two or three a year. According to Dr Reddy “ It has always been my dream to serve the community. I saw a number of people who were not insured or unable to access healthcare facilities, particularly the older generation that accompanied their children here.” The health fairs allow the local population to seek medical help and meet specialists. A number of people have been given timely help. Dr Reddy stresses on the need to give back not only to the Indian Community but also the mainstream American Community.
This idea of working side by side is poignantly stated by Dr Seshu Sarma, professor of Obstretics & Gynaecology “we come here trying to plan and control our future only to find that many things work out differently.”
Dr Sarma observes that we start out by trying to preserve our cultural identity in isolation and thereby do not listen to our children who have different experiences growing up in another culture. While this reflects a universal conflict of generations, Dr Sarma feels that the undue pressure among the Indian community to excel and yet retain remnants of a culture that came with another generation leads not only to “cookie cutter kids” but also a sense of isolation within the community as well as with the mainstream community. Dr Rao opines that participation of the youth in community affairs will strengthen their connection to their external world. He also believes that there is much to be gained by a cultural exchange. Subash Razdan however clarifies that the Indian Americans have always risen to the challenges confronting their community whether here in the United States or back home in India by raising funds or speaking out in support of various ethnic communities. He argues that the community has been in the forefront in clarifying misrepresented or false facts to promote a correct perception about India.
For Dr Sarma and Dr Rao, agree that Indian Americans today have a much better profile while retaining ties with the home country. The dynamism of the community is reflected not only in its participation in the economic growth but also the presence of many Indians in the present government. Dr Rao calls for a long term vision for the community that needs to cement its presence further. “We are lagging behind in so many ways” rues Dr Sarma. He opines that the community needs to leverage its business acumen as well as invest in education. Dr Rao further agrees that the presence of a department of Indian Studies, funded perhaps by the community would contribute to its future well.