Posting after a while, as this topic is very BP and I managed to write a rather long Twitter thread on it. So just compiling it all here in a neater format. May revisit and clean it up further later.
A short piece on why the Islamo-Turkic colonialism in India is not the same as the experience of the English who were colonized at roughly the same time by the Francophone Normans. Note Mahmud Ghaznavi died in 1030 / William Duc de Normandie was born in 1028.
Indian cultural influence is remarkable in present-day Mainland Southeast Asia (MSEA), and it may have stimulated early state formation in the region. Various present-day populations in MSEA harbor a low level of South Asian ancestry, but previous studies failed to detect such ancestry in any ancient individual from MSEA. In this study, we discovered a substantial level of South Asian admixture (ca. 40% – 50%) in a Protohistoric individual from the Vat Komnou cemetery at the Angkor Borei site in Cambodia. The location and direct radiocarbon dating result on the human bone (95% confidence interval is 78 – 234 calCE) indicate that this individual lived during the early period of Funan, one of the earliest states in MSEA, which shows that the South Asian gene flow to Cambodia started about a millennium earlier than indicated by previous published results of genetic dating relying on present-day populations. Plausible proxies for the South Asian ancestry source in this individual are present-day populations in Southern India, and the individual shares more genetic drift with present-day Cambodians than with most present-day East and Southeast Asian populations.
No surprise to readers of this weblog. South Asians obsess about possible admixture/contact with West Asia and Europe for obvious reasons, but it’s been pretty clear for a while that the “Indian cultural influence” on Southeast Asia was also demographic. Mainland Southeast Asia and the western part of Maritime Southeast Asia have minor but consistent levels of Indian ancestry. It showed up decades ago in Cambodian males who carried R1a Y haplogroup. And it showed up in a 2012 methods paper that detected gene flow from Pakistanis to Cambodians (no Indian samples in the dataset):
Genetics is basically done now. You can observe, for example, that lowland Thai populations have Indian ancestry, while highland tribes don’t have it.
We now know that the influence of Indian culture of a southern flavor to Southeast Asia was mediated by large numbers of humans. Indian genetic imprint on Burma can be chalked up to being Bengal’s neighbor, but you can’t say the same about Cambodia or Bali. Who were these people? Well, in a way, you could say that they were the “Brown Rajahs” for ancient Sarawak…
I arrived in Houston because of an email. I had just gotten done with my USMLE step one in July 2016 and was furiously emailing people in the U.S. for possible observer-ship opportunities. I did not get a lot of replies. Almost a week after I had started this process, I got an email from a famous pathologist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center (MDA) in Houston. It was brief and to the point. He wrote that he can accommodate me next year in April. I was over the moon. Prior to this episode, I had never been to Houston or known anyone from the city, except a professor of history at Rice University.
I arrived in Houston in April 2017 after spending some time doing observer-ships and studying for USMLE step two, in West Virginia and Miami. It wasn’t as hot as I had expected it to be and in my initial encounters, I found people to be generally friendly and warm. Houston wasn’t culturally impenetrable as Miami or as distant as West Virginia. It was a city teeming with people who looked like me, with huge hospitals and endless roadways. I had booked an Airbnb for my first two weeks of stay and then moved to a private room I had rented from a very interesting character named Gustavo (Gus). I met Gus through a random mutual friend on Facebook, a Pakistan-American girl who had added me as a friend after some of my work on environmental issues in Pakistan. She was renting from Gus at a different location and got me in contact with him. I spent two months at MDA, left for three weeks to visit Pakistan, and returned to the Houston area. While I was at MDA, I met a resident from the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston who got me intrigued about the program and I met the Chair of the program who was welcoming. Afterward, I was in Galveston for the next three years, firstly to do research or get observer-ship at the medical school there (didn’t get either) and later, for residency training at the same medical school. Two years into my residency (total of four years), we moved to the clear lake/NASA suburb of Houston, and another two years afterward, out of Houston for good, for my fellowship.
It was a tough decision to leave but after a lot of brainstorming and weighing options, I felt it best to leave the area. There were many things that I like in Houston and a lot more that I disliked. Following is a brief discussion of both.
Things I will miss about Houston/Texas
Houston has been ranked as the fourth most diverse city in the United States. According to some data that I’ve seen, there are more Pakistanis living in Houston metro area than anywhere else in the US. A lot of Vietnamese refugees during the 1970s settled there and the Hispanic community has always had a foothold in the city. I remember once interacting with people from nine nationalities in a single day while I was at MD Anderson. As with other diverse places, I didn’t find many regional/national ghettos in the metro area. However, there are places with more people of one ethnicity than another; with an abundance of Desis in Sugarland, same in the Chinatown area but you can find different ethnicities almost everywhere in the city.
Mahatma Gandhi district/Hillcroft Avenue offers some of the best Indian/Pakistani restaurants in the country. I will certainly miss the Halwa puri, chaat options, and Indian vegetarian food available in the area. A year or so ago, I found out about a food service where you can order home-cooked food from local chefs, called “Shef”. I availed myself of that service every week and had some delicious food without having to cook it myself. Shef is available only in a few cities in the U.S. (NYC, San Francisco, L.A, Houston, and D.C. as far as I’ve checked) and I will sorely miss the time it saved me and the variety of Indian food that I could taste at a great cost.
There were also many “fusion” foods that chefs created because of diverse cultures. Halal southern hot chicken sandwiches and Texan-Vietnamese tacos were just two examples.
Another example of diversity was a halal grocery store in the same shopping plaza as “battle rifle company”.
One of my friends in Miami told me before I arrive in Houston that Texas is a great place for doctors to live and work. I did not know what she meant and didn’t press her to explain why. Many years later, I understand what she meant. It was not just about average salaries or jobs, both of which are plentiful in Texas. It has to do with tort reform in the state that was enacted in the early 2000s after long-term advocacy by Texas physicians. I had the unique opportunity to interact and work with some of the people who worked behind the scenes at the time advocating for tort reform.
I got my first taste of organized medicine through the Texas Society of Pathologists (TSP). I started off as a liaison from TSP to my program and eventually ended up being Chair of a committee and being on other committees. TSP is the oldest pathology society in the US (established 1921) and is also the most active state society in the field. TSP works under the umbrella of the Texas Medical Association (TMA). TMA has more than 55000 members including medical students, trainees, and licensed physicians. TMA was responsible for getting tort reform enacted in the state because residents were leaving the state after training in droves because of high liability insurance rates in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
TMA is a behemoth with millions of dollars in assets, lobbyists in Austin, a liability insurance trust, and a foundation that gives away millions of dollars to deserving medical students across the state. TMA also gives out educational loans to medical students and residents at very low-interest rates. I was part of the Resident-Fellow section and served on the board of the TMA foundation for a year, followed by a year of the TMA board of trustees. During my time on the board of trustees, physicians in Texas faced unprecedented challenges such as Texas laws S.B. 6 and S.B.8 and a national dispute over the “No Surprises Act” for which TMA sued the HHS.
The house of medicine is under assault from many sides. Right-wing assault on reproductive care, private equity eating up hospitals, encroachment from extender services like physician assistants and nurse practitioners (called “scope of practice”), and Medicare cuts are some of the highlights. TMA is involved in fighting all of these, on a state and national level.
Things I will NOT miss about Houston/Texas
Before I arrived in Galveston, my professor friend from Rice had warned me about hurricanes. Galveston Island was decimated by “The Great Storm” of 1900 and the whole city had to be rebuilt. Since then, other hurricanes have affected Galveston, the most recent being “Ike” whose storm surge flooded the island, at some points reaching six feet in height. My friend’s prophecy almost came true in August 2017 with Hurricane Harvey, but instead of Galveston, it caused massive flooding in Houston. Since then, I became an amateur meteorologist between June 1st and late October (hurricane season) every year, trying to discern which tropical disturbance could affect us when. We had some near misses in the last few years until there was a snow storm in February 2021, which caused blackouts, reminding me of Pakistan.
Even besides the hurricane season, Houston’s weather was frustrating at best. On January 1st, 2022, it was 80 degrees in the afternoon, dropping to 35 degrees at midnight. Houston weather resembled Lahore weather quite a lot, with humidity as the cherry on top. It could be 80 degrees with a real feel of 103 because of humidity. Even A.Cs don’t work above a certain temperature. Last year, between July and September, our central A.C. couldn’t cool off during the last few hours of the day and we were stuck between 73 and 78 degrees until late at night. The temperature started soaring in late May and days would be hot and humid till December. And it is only getting worse with climate change. A friend recently posted on Facebook that “Texas is that feeling when you open the oven to check on your cookies and you burn your face. Only there are no cookies and you can’t shut the oven door”. Just as I was writing this, saw this headline: “Extreme heat pushes highs over 110 in Texas as power grid nears brink”.
Harris County, with Houston as its main city, has a larger population than more than 30 states in the U.S. Houston is second only to Dallas in terms of cars per household in the U.S. as well. Combine these two facts with the never-ending expressways and you have a city in which you have to drive at least 30 minutes to go anywhere. I remember carpooling with a guy once who drove from his house in the Northern part of Houston to Galveston (almost a two-hour journey) starting at 4:30 am. He would leave Galveston in the late afternoon to get home by 6:30 pm. This is not a typical drive in the area but many people I knew (including myself) had long commutes every day. Texas is mostly flat so all you get along your drive are strip malls and gas stations. As a result, greenhouse gases generated on Texas roads account for 0.5 percent of total worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, even as the state accounts for 0.38 percent of the world’s population. The only good thing about roads in Houston are the feeder roads, so if you miss an exit, you can take the next one and turn around.
Texas is second only to California in terms of residents. As the saying goes, everything is big in Texas. That includes the disregard that politicians have for their constituents. The late great Molly Ivins, one of my favorite Texans of all time, once wrote this about the Texas legislature: “As they say around the Texas Legislature, “If you can’t drink their whiskey, screw their women, take their money, and vote against ’em anyway, you don’t belong in office”. A friend of mine from Lahore once called and asked how Texas treated people. He was intrigued because he had read in the news that a lot of businesses were moving their HQs to Texas. I told him that if you are not a straight, white, Christian man with a small business in the state of Texas, the state government doesn’t care if you live or die.
Texas lags behind on all key indicators of education, healthcare (despite it being so good for doctors), nutrition, and income inequality compared to other big states in the union. There are more uninsured people in the state than anywhere else because Texas politicians refuse to expand Medicaid and impose work requirements on the poorest people. Maternal mortality rates are even lower than the national average. Texas’s power grid is not connected to the national grid, which makes a great advertisement for “doing it all alone” but is a terrible idea in a state so prone to natural disasters. The level of corruption in Texas has been phenomenal over the years, regardless of which party was in power (another one of my all-time favorites, LBJ was an emblem of that). Because of constant gerrymandering, one party has been permanently in power for the last two decades and will be, for the foreseeable future. Even Beto (who has his faults) couldn’t defeat one of the most hated men in the country in Texas. While moving away from a place that has different politics than yours is not always possible or beneficial, I found the political climate to be smothering.
I could live with the monster trucks with “Infowars” stickers at our local grocery stores or people I played pickleball with wearing NRA shirts or our one-time neigAbdulhbors who stopped interacting with us as soon as they saw the color of my skin but I couldn’t live with S.B. 8 (the vigilante law) or the Billboards along highways congratulating Texas with a picture of multiple babies as soon as Roe was repealed or when a bigwig in TMA boasted about hosting Greg Abbot at their house for a fundraiser.
I have been asked this question by friends and acquaintances many times since I decided to leave. As of now, my answer is a firm “No”. I may visit occasionally for a conference or to visit my residency program but I don’t see why I would want to live in Texas if I have the choice. My life was changed completely while I was there and I am thankful for many things that happened when I was there, friends that I made and spent time with, meals that I cherished but also, heartbreak and forgettable memories.
P.S: The astronauts originally said: Houston we have had a problem.
A new paper on Southwest Indian genetics highlights the Toda sample from Genomes Asia. People in the comments of this weblog have asserted this small southern tribe may have the most “Indus Valley Civilization” ancestry in the subcontinent. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but, looking at the admixture plots the Toda clearly have hardly any steppe ancestry, but a lot less “ASI” ancestry than their tribal neighbors, with the balance being something like the IVC ancestry.
Genomes Asia doesn’t make it’s data public, and for ancestry purposes I don’t think they’ve done the best job.
ArainGang, has posted a pretty interesting map of various ancestry components in the subcontinent by population. It’s pretty good, especially for the south and west of the subcontinent. But, there is something weird going on in the northeast: a lot of these populations have “Ancestral Indian” (Andamanese) ancestry but hardly anything else East Asian. This seems wrong. In fact, the Khasi are on a cline to Bengalis. I ran a few analyses on samples with the Andamanese and I just don’t see that Global 25 is doing this right.
In the Global 25 model above the Khasi are 33% Ancient Indian, proxy for AASI, who are most closely related to the Andamanese. But you see in the analysis here the Khasi are along the India cline, but very shifted to the Han Chinese.
I ran a three-population test with a bunch of populations. You can see here that though the Andamanese are in the data set, the Khasi are best thought of as a mix of Han Chinese with an on-elite North Indian population.
What does this mean? I don’t think it’s a big deal. If the population does not have East Asian ancestry to a great extent the plot by Araingang looks fine. But, obviously, Global 25 has some kinks that people need to consider. This is important because people often come to me with Global 25 as if it’s authoritative. It’s not. It’s just another way to reduce genetic variation in a human consumable fashion.
So I was talking to a friend, a Guju bania who visits their “family temple” now and then. This person is from a very tight-knight community. We were talking about whether I am “upper caste,” and their point was that most of my ancestors were from the bhadrolok literate elites of Bengal. It seems I’m mostly Kayastha, with a recent Bengali Brahmin in the mix, and reputed Iranian (Pathan and Persian) ancestry on both sides a very long time ago.
But, as I thought through the issue and reflected, I realized why the appellation annoyed me. There is no community of people of Muslim background who are mostly Kayastha with some Brahmin and ashraf ancestry. Yes, there are Muslim cates groups, like Ismailis who are clearly from banias or literally Muslim Kayasths (though most now intermarry with other Muslims). But that’s not me or my family; we are from a well-off background, but our identity is that of generic Bengali Muslims. Our origins are upper caste, but caste is irrelevant to our social reality (class though, is).
This is worth a post because I think this is going to be the case with later generations of Indian Americans. Because of the class and caste backgrounds, Indian Americans descend from ancestors will tend to be upper caste and upper-middle class. But their identity will be a new one, unrelated to the solidities of the Indian subcontinent. In this way, Indian Americans may have upper-caste privilege, but caste as a social institution just doesn’t function as it does in the subcontinent. The privilege is carryover, not operational.
So when a lot of Lefty commentators accused me of defending upper caste people because I’m an “upper-caste Muslim” I didn’t even know what to say. That’s just not part of my identity, or that of my family, though in a heritage sense that’s true. In the near future young Indian Americans who are half-Khatri and 1/4th Iyer and 1/4th Reddy would be verbally abused as “upper caste” and be just as confused as to what that even means.
Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on Libsyn, Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!
In this episode Gaurav chats with Khalid Baig – an Indian Nationalist on a wide range of topics – Indian nationalism, Hindu-Muslim relations, Hindutva and bright future of India. Khalid Baig and Amana Ansari Begam also run a very popular Youtube show called India This Week By Amana & Khalid – YouTube.
The reaction to my piece on caste by the Indian and Indian American Left has been interesting, and fraught with confusion.
First, the reaction by this Indian (now in America) Leftist is to accuse me of being an upper-caste Muslim. This is not that far from how Hindu nationalists react to me, which illustrates that certain mentalities are general, and the specific instantiations simply flavors on top of the common base. Most Indians are “identitarian” in such a deep way, whatever their ideology, that Americans would have to be impressed (if they are cultural liberals and racialists). If you scratch an Indian Leftist they aren’t that different from a Indian Hindu nationalist in their cultural presuppositions.
I am not an upper-caste Muslim in a literal sense, because a quick scan of my genome will show I’m a generic eastern Bengali, and more concretely caste is not a thing in Bangladesh anymore. I do have ancestors who are Hindu, as all people of subcontinental Muslim background do, and all I know is that most were Kayastha (on my mom’s side) and my paternal grandmother’s father was from a lineal Bengal Brahmin family (her father was very young when his father converted the family from what I recall, so he did not remember being a Hindu, though he did pass on some Hindu customs to my grandmother like the utilization of separate dishes). My paternal lineage, from where I get “Khan,” were landholders in their region of Bengal for a long time, and traditionally provided the ulema for the villages in the locality. We also funded the construction of many of the oldest extant masjids in the area.
It’s hard to deny that I have class privilege, given that my family was present in the professions or owned land for centuries. This, despite the fact that partible inheritance means that my “ancestral desh” (which I have never physically been to, I was born in Dhaka, and my mother’s ancestral village was far closer) is populated by many poor relatives who barely have any land-holdings to speak of left. People in my family who are economically advantaged all migrated to Dhaka in the 20th century. This migration was enabled by privileges accrued from the past, as we were literate, and had some assets that we could presumably turn into cash to finance a move to Dhaka. But once we got to Dhaka no one cared we were big shit in rural Comilla. Arguably, to a mild extent, we were second-class citizens, being migrants from a rural area, though this is the norm in Dhaka so I don’t think it was a big deal.
The migration to Dhaka from rural Comilla anticipates later migrations, as branches of my family on both my maternal and paternal side reside in the US, UK, Japan, Northern Europe, and the Middle East (with sojourns in Latin America; hi cousin Pablo!). The reason we were able to make these journeys was due to a combination of financial means and educational qualifications. These emerge from our class background. But once in the US, UK, let alone the Middle East, no one gave a shit that we were “Khans.” I am socioeconomically an upper-middle-class American, but that’s not because anyone gave me privileges because I was an “upper-caste Muslim.” Most of the people who were in a position to advance me happen to be white, and to them, I was just another brown person. Perhaps it was even a demerit that I was an “upper-caste Muslim,” since that just meant I was a brown person.
This truth is generalizable. 99% of Americans do not care at all if you are an Iyer or a Mehta or a Reddy. They don’t even know what that means. You are just a brown person to them. Suhag Shukla once told me that when she went to Congress in the 2000’s to lobby for Hindu American rights, hill staff asked if they were “Sunni or Shia.” This is to illustrate that Americans don’t give a shit about what your background is and barely understand it. Malcolm X’s quip about a black man with a Ph.D. isn’t totally applicable, as America isn’t that racist anymore, but it gets to the heart of the fact that in America brown is brown, caste no consideration.
Second, there is the issue that people who are brown in America often do benefit from caste privileges and hierarchy ancestrally. This is a problem and confusion, because it seems obvious, but it gets conflated with the situation in America. The American immigration system is not caste-conscious because Americans barely understand this, but 80% of Hindu Indian Americans are from the 25% of Hindu Indians who are upper-caste. I personally get annoyed with Indian Americans whose families were elite back in India who bring up their stories of discrimination and penury in the US, because their experience is distinct from the social, cultural and human capital they inherit to various degrees from their families. On some level, caste does matter who gets to America, but that is not because the US is caste-conscious, but because Indians are. The US immigration system values particular education and skills that are not equitably distributed among Indians. There are also “push” factors like reservations that mean some upper-caste professionals have far better opportunities abroad, so they leave (this is, for example, a much bigger dynamic in medicine than software engineering, from what I have heard).
Third, the trend now is to argue that Indian caste dynamics are replicating themselves in the US. I don’t think this is true, and I explained why in the UnHerd piece. The minority of Indian Americans raised in the US barely understand what caste is beyond an abstraction. One of the contributors to this weblog proudly asserts their “sudra” status half-seriously, but Indians have told me that usage of that term is somewhat taboo in the subcontinent. The difference here is context, as varna categories are mostly academic, and outside of a few communities (Jats and perhaps, some Patels) jati doesn’t really exist as lived experience. Caste isn’t really a serious matter in America, so who cares if you are a sudra? No one else really does who matters.
It might be somewhat different for the majority of Indians who migrated to the US in the last few decades, as they grew up in a country where caste does matter, and some of their attitudes do replicate. I do assume that most of these people are prejudiced against Muslims and “lower castes” to some degree like the Leftists Indian Americans say (who are usually upper-caste Hindu by background, and so are aware of what things are said “behind the veil”), but these people rarely operationalize their biases because the American racial and social context is totally different from India. When I go to buy alcohol at Indian-owned mini-marts sometimes I get mild third-degree from the owners when they see my last name on the ID, and sometimes it gets to the point I have to tell them I’m an atheist and stop bothering me (this seems a problem during Ramadan in particular, but I often don’t know when it’s Ramadan so don’t blame me). But this is only an inconvenience, and guess what, I can buy alcohol from places without overly curious Indian aunties minding the counter.
Finally, there is the issue of caste discrimination in Silicon Valley, the one place where people argue Indian cultural dynamics are replicating due to the critical mass of immigrants from the subcontinent. People bring up the Cisco case as is if it’s case-closed, but it’s a single case, and the reality is that we don’t really know everything about the dynamics of the case and there’s been no verdict. Believe it or not, not all allegations of discrimination are found to be valid.
But many non-Indians (white people) now routinely tell me there is caste-discrimination in Silicon Valley, this is just a “truth” that is “known.” I’ll be candid that I think some prejudices naturally imbibed from high school, where the caste system is widely taught as constitute to Indians, along with Leftist media narratives about Indian American caste discrimination, are coloring peoples’ perceptions. The reason I wrote the UnHerd piece is that this is becoming the standard narrative and accepted truth for third parties who don’t have any biases or priors on the issue.
For example, when people say there is pervasive discrimination against Dalits in the Valley, I have to ask, whatDalits? Dalits are 15% of Indians, but 1% of Hindu Indian Americans. It could be possible that this 1% is suffering pervasive discrimination from the non-Dalit majority, 25% of whom are Brahmin and 80% as a whole are upper-caste, but there are opportunities in the US to work for non-Indians who won’t care or know. Indian American society, when it is caste conscious, is overwhelmingly upper-caste and privileged, so they’d have to discriminate against each other!
Yes, there is a level of nepotism and clannishness among Indian Americans, but this is not unique to them. Mark Zuckerburg famously recruited from his dorm and Harvard, and if you are not part of particular elite educational or professional circles you are on the “outside” in the startup world. The same seems true of Indian American entrepreneurs, but their particular ingroup preferences are always reified as “caste.” Though I”ve heard of the “Telugu mafia,” this seems to be the exception, not the rule. And, it is not uncommon for Indian Americans to have some affinity for each other (the majority born and raised in the US still marry Indians), but often this cross-cuts region and caste, rather than reinforcing them.
Additionally, what caste consciousness there is going to be transient. If you are an Indian immigrant to the US, and you are raising children here, there is a 50% chance your grandchildren will have non-Indian ancestry. There is a far lower chance that all four of their grandparents will be from the same jati-varna, in large part because a lot of Indian immigrants themselves are couples in “mixed” marriages (I put the quotations there because in the US Census the marriage of a Tamil Brahmin and a Punjabi Khatri is endogamous).
I will end with an exhortation: the US is a country where you can be reborn anew. Do not buy into the regnant narrative and recreate yourself as a victim. Grasp the world with both hands and make of yourself what you want to be. Some Leftists are trying to replicate Indian dynamics with oppressive upper-castes and oppressed lower-castes in a racial and ethnic context where it’s irrelevant. But some upper-caste Indians are also embracing victim status, whether because they were persecuted in Tamil Nadu (Brahmins), or because they were subject to racial discrimination in the US. I know it’s easy. But I don’t believe it’s the path of honor. Sometimes you do the right thing, even if it’s the harder thing, the socially less acceptable thing. Whatever your caste, religious or regional background, you’re American now. You are now part of a different, great, national project. Make your own narrative, don’t recycle old ones or adopt new ones.