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Observing ‘Modi’fied Indian Americans

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An electronic billboard at Times Square displays Narendra Modi's picture. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

An electronic billboard at Times Square displays Narendra Modi’s picture. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India addressed the Indian American community at Madison Square Garden on 28th September, 2014. Indian media erupted in a frenzy – covering the program and his every move during the visit to America. “Rockstar Modi” and his performance was seen across TV channels and described elaborately in print publications.

Indian youth living in America hold the banners of a 'Modi'fied India. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014

Indian youth living in America hold a banner of a ‘Modi’fied India. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014

One prime player in the speech and the coverage was the Indian American – professionals who had left their homeland for better jobs and opportunities. With over 19,000 people who had travelled across the United States to be there, I agree that the Indian American should be the centre of the discussion. It is an important community when it comes to skilled labour and at the same time are potential investors and change makers for development and economic growth. It is also the community that raised more than $2 million for this event that is estimated to cost around $1.5 million.

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People on the left are in a queue for theatre tickets. On the right is mostly the Indian crowd. Picture Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014 (Location: TKTS pavillion at Times Square)

As the media circus followed, the crowd followed. Near the TKTS pavillion at Times Square, NDTV, Doordarshan and Headlines Today were reporting live about the fever that had gripped Indian Americans. The observation that I made during the few minutes that I spent there was that it took the pressing of a record button to start chants of “Modi! Modi!”. What made it stop? Yes. Either switch off the camera or move it in a different direction. At 11 A.M. EST several Indians could be found speaking to their relatives on the phone. It was mainly asking them to switch on their TV sets as they could be be seen live on NDTV or Headlines Today pretty soon.

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Headlines Today anchor Gaurav Sawant interviews people at Times Square. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

One block down, below the iconic Coca Cola sign played a video of Modi’s address from Madison Square Garden. With no sound, members of the Indian community dialed a toll free number to hear his speech. People gathered in groups putting their mobile devices on loudspeaker. Some also sat in pairs, sharing an ear-bud each of their headphones. Few jumped up and down in front of the cameras, few did that to attract the cameras. The Indian flag was a common sight, and Gujarati made quite a regular appearance in the sound waves.

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Crowd gathers to watch Modi’s speech. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

 

Indians use a toll free line through their mobile phones at Times Square to hear Modi's speech. Photo Credit:  Gurman Bhatia/2014

Indians use a toll free line through their mobile phones at Times Square to hear Modi’s speech. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014

It is common knowledge that Indian gatherings are incomplete without food. Rajbhog foods, an American chain owned by members of the Gujarati community attempted to bridge that void by distributing free food packets with a “Modi Mix” and two pedas. The Indian American rushed to grab a pack, often grabbed one or two extra, placing them in the backpack. 

Distribution of packets by Rajbhog Foods. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

Distribution of packets by Rajbhog Foods. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

Modi Mix anyone? Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014

Modi Mix anyone? Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014

Within this space of ‘Modi’fied India, some things weren’t modified at all. Irrespective of the country they live in, Indians love free food and happen to be extremely media savvy.

Young Indians pose for a picture with the Indian National flag at Times Square.

Young Indians pose for a picture with the Indian National flag at Times Square.

Most of the things that I speak of might obvious or apparent in the media coverage that you saw back in India. However, one aspect that few covered was a group of few hundred people across the street from Madison Square Garden. These were anti-Modi protestors, bringing voices that continue to be tormented by the Gujarat riots of 2002. Clearly, apart from Rajdeep Sardesai being manhandled, there were other negative elements in the air as well. In a country where we claim to respect difference in opinion, Indian media ignored a differing one. Fortunately, what you didn’t see on Indian news outlets, was looked at by international and alternative media. I made it to Madison Square Garden after Modi’s speech and was able to photograph as the protesters left.

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A Sikh stands with an anti-Hindutva banner outside Madison Square Garden. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

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Protesters at MSG towards the end of Modi’s speech. Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014

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Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014

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Photo Credit: Gurman Bhatia/2014.

Here are links to selected news stories and blogs covering the Anti-Modi protests:

Some user contributed pictures of the protests can also be seen in this post on Quartz.

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