Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

As I was going through my newsletter, realizing it had been neglected for some time, I decided to jot down a few thoughts here as well, touching on a theme related to life in the United States of America.

I suspect that most of the readership of BP is either based in the US or India (though I don’t have the exact numbers), with the exception of myself and our true Pandit (who, as a Sanskrit scholar, adds a unique perspective).

As I munch on a rather ordinary banana (I usually freeze my fruit, and frozen bananas in the UK are usually bursting with flavor), I reflect on my experience of what would be an academic year in the United States and offer some observations:

  • The competitive nature of the United States is palpable, especially in the Boston-Cambridge area. People here work *extremely* diligently, which contrasts with the less intense “rat race” of the Old World.

  • The Puritanical influence of New England is evident in the lack of a vibrant late-night culture. Even Cambridge, UK, which was until recently a quiet university town, boasts a livelier late-night café scene than Boston-Cambridge. The relatively new Madras Dosa Company stands out as one of the few places to grab a late-night snack near Harvard Square.

  • The United States seems to lack the same appreciation for aesthetics that characterizes the United Kingdom. This is a perpetual observation (or perhaps complaint) of design-conscious Dr. V, who is a Londonphile.
  • That lack of appreciation for aesthetics extends to food (not to mention just how ludicrously expensive food is here); my gripe with the local Bahá’í community is rescheduling our lunch to my preferred Nepalese restaurant from the staid Indian one chosen.
  • London undeniably holds the title of the South Asian capital of the world outside of South Asia itself. It’s the destination where Indians and Pakistanis, from the home countries, flock to unwind (it seems like half of Bollywood summers in London). In contrast, the “Desi-Brown” culture in the United States feels somewhat disconnected, with assimilationist tendencies prevailing strongly.

  • These are merely observations and anecdotes, not hard facts, but I must admit my fondness for the United States is also because we have a dual identity as both Trans-Atlantic (Ye Old Cambridge) and Trans-Asiatic (with India rapidly becoming another anchor) so it doesn’t feel like I’m rooted here. My roots are in Asia, my nest in the UK but I come to perch in the USA.
  • America exudes wealth and opulence, but it often comes at the price of everyone being caught in the relentless pursuit of keeping up. The depth and richness of life, even its decadence, seem somewhat overlooked. In some ways, Americans resemble the Chinese in their relentless drive to be number one. Few other nations and ethnicities seem willing to make such drastic sacrifices.

These musings serve as a prelude to what will be explored further in my next newsletter, written amidst the backdrop of a beautiful Raga.

Is Brahmin a controversial word

I was discussing the concept of Brahma but I wonder if it is controversial?

My fundamental belief rests on the equality and equity of all individuals, yet I recognize the capacity of British culture to reform and modernize outdated institutions while preserving their traditional essence.

I fail to understand why Hindus cannot adopt a similar approach, acknowledging the flaws of the caste system while reforming it to retain its beneficial aspects, such as buffering against the isolating effects of globalization.

These are just scattered thoughts, and I’m keenly aware of my position as an outsider in the immensely exquisite world of India, Bharat, and Hinduism. I am always willing to listen and learn.

Reinforcing Caste Boundaries in Everyday Social Interactions

I stumbled upon a thought-provoking but rather “vitriolic” thesis during my search. While I haven’t fully read it, it discusses the role of upper-class Bania women in reinforcing caste boundaries. The thesis suggests that while these women are subject to patriarchy, they actively contribute to upholding the caste system, benefiting upper castes. Through interviews with seven Bania women, the study explores their influence on everyday social interactions, including food practices, dating, marital relations, and interactions with lower castes.

The thesis requires significant trimming due to its excessively exaggerated and offensive language, but one statistic stands out prominently:

Statistically, 46% of people in Corporate boards in India are Banias, followed by 44.6% of Brahmins, while the lower castes collectively make up only 3.8% (Patel, 2009).

These statistics predate the Modi era, so it would be intriguing to examine the extent of change over the past decade. Additionally, as an observational note, I’ve noticed that Indians often socialize within cliques based on caste, consisting of relatives and old friends, whereas Pakistanis tend to be more class-based, with a notable tendency towards incessant social climbing. While these observations are subjective and the usefulness of such generalizations in the era of extensive globalization is debatable, it’s worth considering whether the underlying structures of society endure despite such shifts?

Corporate Boards in India. Blocked by Caste?

An examination of the caste diversity of Indian corporate boards of a thousand top Indian companies – accounting for four-fifths of market capitalization of all companies listed in the major stock indices in India – measured by the Blau-index shows that their median score for 2010 is zero, indicating that there is no diversity at all. Indian corporate boards continue to remain “old boys clubs” based on caste affiliation rather than on other considerations (like merit or experience).

The Ambani Wedding & the Modern Face of India

The recent Ambani wedding has undoubtedly captured the attention of those within the Indian community. The extravagant details, such as the staggering cost exceeding $100 million and Nita Ambani’s necklace possibly valued at around $50 million, have been widely discussed.

These exorbitant figures represent a level of opulence unparalleled in many other cultures. Reflecting on this with Dr. Lalchand, I pondered whether Hindu culture, having endured centuries of conquest, finds solace in displays of wealth and material abundance.

This stands in stark contrast to the Persianate tradition, where luxury is revered but with a strong emphasis on restraint. In my own Baháʼí upbringing, luxury has typically been met with guilt.

Without significant historical political power, mainstream Hindu society often sees wealth and its ostentatious display as a form of security. The Ambanis, with their immense wealth, power, and fame, have become emblematic figures within the Desi community, and to some extent, beyond.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that the Ambanis could redirect their resources towards bolstering India’s STEM legacy or preserving its architectural heritage. Eventually, excessive opulence may lose its allure and succumb to hedonic inflation.

Iranic-origin dynasties of the Christian Caucasus

Saint Shushanik – Ardēan Store

The histories of Armenia and Georgia are intricately intertwined with Greater Iran, as evidenced by several dynasties with Iranian origins. Georgia shares a similar historical profile, indicating close ties between the two regions (I won’t even touch on Azerbaijan, which to my mind is simply Russified Iran). With regards to the North Caucasus, notwithstanding Russian ethnic cleansing & genocide (apparently what inspired Dune), there is heavy Persian-Iranian influence (though of course I don’t know nearly enough of the history of the region).

All three of the Great Houses of the Kingdom of Armenia (331 BC to 428 AD) were Iranian origin.

  • Orontid Dynasty (potential ancestral ties to the Achaemenians): Dating back to the 6th century BCE, the Orontids were influential rulers in ancient Armenia during the Achaemenid Persian Empire’s reign.
  • Artaxiad Dynasty (descendants of the previous Orontids, the clue is in the Iranian-loaded name Arta): Succeeding the Orontids, the Artaxiads governed the Kingdom of Armenia from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE, overseeing its territorial expansion and cultural flourishing.
  • Arsacid Dynasty (Armenia): A branch of the Parthian Arsacid dynasty in Iran, the Armenian Arsacids ruled from the 1st to the 4th century CE, with periods of Roman influence interspersed with periods of independence.

There are many other dynasties like the Chosroid, Mihranids, Bagratid (the clues are so obvious in the names) and then even in the Kingdom of Cilician Armenian (the region & inhabitants suffered genocide under the Young Turks) the RubenidHethumid Dynasty had Iranian-links even in the Middle Ages. There is an exotic dynasty, the Mamikonians, who apparently had Chinese-origins but even they intermarried with Iranian nobility eventually.

However, the case of St. Shushanik (pictured above & below) highlights the tension between Christianity in the Caucasus, with its Eastern roots but “West-facing” orientation, and Iranianism, particularly Zoroastrianism.


Continue reading Iranic-origin dynasties of the Christian Caucasus

Podcast explores advances in gender equality in India

I highly recommend checking out this podcast as it delves into gender equality advancements deep in rural India (Bihar- site of an upcoming temple). It sheds light on grassroots efforts, including how the birth of a girl child is perceived differently from a boy child, and the barriers girls and women face in education and beyond. Continue reading Podcast explores advances in gender equality in India

Unraveling an Unequal Night in Boston

In a charming North End Italian café, DLV and I encountered an odd closing time scenario. The white presenting waitress told us that the cafe was closing in 10 minutes on our arrival, but when a white couple entered roughly 6 or 7 minutes later, she mentioned that the cafe would be closing in 15 minutes within our clear earshot.

Amid Boston’s historic charm, I noted the waitress, seemingly “ethnic white,” spoke Spanish (until that moment I hadn’t assumed Hispanic but rather Italian), which somehow dissuaded me from leaving a review as this lent an additional complexity to the matter.

Upon deeper reflection on the encounter, it became apparent that the white adjacent waitress was navigating her internalized racial preferences, manifested in a slightly delayed service (though I did not skimp on the tip). In the diverse context of Boston, where overall demographics show 44% white, certain historic neighborhoods like the North End and Beacon Hill exceed 90% white, revealing profound and unspoken hierarchies.

This incident sparks an intriguing discussion on privilege and its intersection with race. I chose not to make a fuss or challenge the matter, a decision that might have differed in a high-end restaurant in central London, where such disparities would have been much more conspicuous. I observe that the restaurant and hospitality industry in the United States resembles a glass of beer, with white supervisors overseeing teams predominantly comprised of black and brown individuals, so it’s not as straightforward to challenge.

Racial microaggressions (immediately post the pandemic was terrible as hospitality staff were just annoyed to be back at work) within the British restaurant industry have notably diminished as South Asian students are becoming a large part of the workforce. These individuals demonstrate an immediate understanding of how to navigate Desi clientele, although I cannot speak to their interactions with other demographic groups of customers.

New England’s terrible Desi Food scene

As I prepare to return to the Old World later tonight, I find myself reflecting on one of the most challenging aspects of my time in New England this past month—the notably subpar quality of Indian cuisine in the area (I also tried Desi Pizza).

With the exception of Madras Dosa Company in Harvard Square, the local culinary landscape is disappointingly lackluster. While some restaurants may boast high Google ratings, they fall short of meeting the standards I’m accustomed to in the UK.

London, in contrast, offers an exquisitely diverse Indian food scene that allows enthusiasts to explore various regional cooking styles, with places like Fat Pundit leading the way in innovating Indo-Chinese fare.

In any case, I’ve encountered difficulties with the flavors in the USA. Ingredients seem oversized, yet their flavors often appear muted. I’ve come across information suggesting that chicken in the 1960s was smaller but possessed more distinctive flavor (as evidenced by Julia Child’s recipes, which apparently assumed chicken to be inherently flavorful).

I’ve also observed that white Americans, or those not of Indian descent, don’t seem to embrace Indian cuisine in the same way that the British do. In the United Kingdom, Indian food is almost a culinary religion, even if the takeaway options may not meet the standards of native Desis. This fervor has created an environment for Indian food giants like Dishoom to flourish. On the other hand, Americans appear to have a stronger affinity for Chinese and Mexican cuisines as their primary choices of ethnic fare.

I’ve heard that Manhattan and the West Coast offer a more diverse and satisfying array of Indian food options, likely due to the critical mass of desi communities. I also suspect (Dr. Lalchand smirks at this last residue of ethnic chauvinism) that Pakistani restaurants might offer more tantalizing experiences in the US, which is the opposite of the situation in the UK, where Indian-owned and run establishments tend to excel as a rule.

Two Zacks meet in New Cambridge

Zack & I met in real life for the first time (in Cambridge USA) on the 10th of October even though we have known each for nearly two decades.

Dr. V is an Eric & Wendy Schmidt postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard so she’s relocated to the United States (as of this month) and we’re now going to be doing trans-Atlantic hops between Old & New Cambridge, with of course Chennai in the mix.

Since Brown Pundits seems a bit moribund these days; I thought I’d share this update here. I don’t look my best as it was the end of Phase 1 of moving (I’d just returned the rental car after a fortnight and went off to meet Zack).

Brown Pundits