Indian-American Journeys Together

“Indian-American Journeys Together,” remarks by U.S. Ambassador to India Richard R. Verma at the Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, VA

President Rao, members of the faculty and student body, it is a great pleasure to be back in Virginia and addressing you here at VCU. First, let me wish you good luck tomorrow against Oregon State, it should be a good game. I left New Delhi this past weekend and arrived back in the United States on Monday after a long flight to which I am growing increasingly accustomed. On that flight, as long and tedious as it seems today, I was reflecting on other journeys, much more arduous, by generations of Americans and Indians who have gone before us. Travelers motivated by curiosity, ambition, or belief that the unique affinities that unite India and the United States hold immense potential for the benefit of humankind.

The discovery that has impressed me most deeply since arriving in India more than one year ago is the profound depth of the bonds between the peoples of our two countries. At almost every turn in India, I am faced with reminders of those bonds, not just today, but stretching back centuries, on the shoulders of great, but also sometimes nameless individuals. These bonds were built through journeys – hundreds of audacious, farsighted and sometimes risky journeys – by visionaries who recognized that something shared by our two peoples was special and unique. I want to talk about several of those travelers today, some of whom may be familiar to you, but also others whose important achievements may be less well known. The legacy of these intrepid travelers continues to inspire the formation of new bonds between our countries every day, and is one of the reasons I am so confident that this relationship holds such immense promise for the future.

Imagine for a moment setting off on a journey by sail, to a destination halfway around the world. A months-long journey across perilous seas to a place of which you had only heard the briefest mention. There would be no guarantee of success, or that you would ever return to your home and family, yet something in what you had heard about that distant land spoke to your belief in the possibilities of human cooperation. A man from the Indian city known today as Chennai took such a journey, over two hundred years ago. Paying for his own passage on a British clipper, he set out for America to promote the idea of trade between the world’s newest democracy and India. He would have set out from Madras, probably stopped in Madagascar and was likely already weary before rounding the Cape Horn several weeks later. What dreams kept him going during the tedium of the voyage up the Gold Coast of Africa, and as he approached the pirate-filled waters of the Barbary Coast? He could have easily ended his journey to pursue opportunities in Rotterdam or London, but something pushed him to sail onward, across the Atlantic, to a new country less than two decades old. His name is lost to us in history, but archival records tell us that in 1790, he arrived, alone, in Salem, Massachusetts, one of the crucibles of the new American republic. We can only marvel at the sheer audacity of such a visionary mission. When I consider the $100 billion in U.S.-India trade today, and the likelihood that it will continue to grow exponentially, I think back to that nameless traveler and remember that our trade relationship began with a spark of belief and a certainty that a journey could bring our peoples closer together.

Countries Growing Together

The United States and India both have our own profoundly rich historical and cultural traditions. But one need only scratch the surface to find examples of how our peoples have embraced and influenced each other. From the figure of the Indian deity Ganesh that President Obama carries in his pocket every day for good luck, to the 19th century visits to Pennsylvania factories by industrialist J.N. Tata that helped inspire his creation of one of the largest business houses in the world, our ideas and cultures have inspired some of our peoples’ greatest achievements.

It has been a privilege for me to be in New Delhi during this time of increasing strategic alignment between the United States and India. Our militaries are training and operating together more closely than ever before, our scientists are working on new treatments for tuberculosis and advances in neonatal and maternal health, American-designed locomotives will soon be plying the fabled Indian railways, and NASA played an instrumental role in the recent launch of India’s Mars probe. The extraordinary personal connection between President Obama and Prime Minister Modi has certainly helped propel these remarkable developments, but the amazing speed and scope of the expansion of our ties would not have been possible without a foundation of centuries of friendship and shared values between our peoples.

The thousands of individual journeys that together make up this mosaic of friendship are not limited to statesmen or multinational executives. It is composed of the daily efforts of countless Americans and Indians working in their adopted communities to advance the values our countries both hold dear. In Delhi, I see them every day, for instance through the efforts of James Thurston, who is working with governments in India to help ensure that mobile phones include applications for the visually impaired. And here in the United States, we are fortunate to have among us Indian-Americans like Pradeep Kaleka, who, since his own father’s murder in an act of hatred at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin,‎ has worked tirelessly, through his organization Serve to Unite, to turn despair into hope by teaching America’s youth that the redemptive power of tolerance and acceptance transcends race, religion, or national origin.

Even those areas that on the surface seem most uniquely Indian or American, on closer examination can sometimes show mutual influence in surprising ways. Those of you from California will know that the surname Gil is common among the Chicano community in the western United States. You may be surprised to learn that the origins of this name lie in the Punjab region of India and was the result of a confluence of waves of Indian Sikh and Mexican immigrants who arrived on the west coast in the first decade of the 20th century. As they sought to build better lives for their children by working in the orchards and farms of the west coast, these two communities gradually merged and produced a vibrant Punjabi-Mexican patch in the quilt of American diversity.

Today, much of the world knows India through Bollywood and its marvelously imaginative films. However, few people realize that an American director played an important role in the development of Indian film traditions. In 1935, film director Ellis R. Dungan departed for India at the suggestion of his Indian cinematography classmate at the University of Southern California. Dungan worked as a film director in India for fifteen years, making many successful Tamil and Hindi films. In fact, his 1936 work “Sathi Leelavathi” helped make a name for South Indian cinematic superstar M. G. Ramachandran (or MGR as he is commonly known), who would go on to become a household name in India and the future Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

As the story of Ellis Dungan shows, the United States and India, perhaps more than any other two countries, admire visionaries. What is more remarkable is that we have always welcomed each other’s visionaries and integrated them into the fabric of our societies. It is this characteristic, more than any other, which has propelled the relationship between our countries to flowering that we see today.

US/India Relations Today

I have been saying to people that 2015 was one of the very strong years in US/India relations, and we are working hard to ensure 2016 is even better. I could go through all the categories and data that shows a record-breaking year in two-way trade (over $100 billion), number of Indian students in the US (over 135,000), the number of Indian visitors to the US (over 1.1 million) and so on. But perhaps, I can better demonstrate the increasing closeness between our two countries through a few illustrations of our work together.

In the closing weeks leading up to the historic agreement reached in Paris to combat climate change, President Obama and Prime Minister Modi utilized their new secure telephone lines on three different occasions, discussing and negotiating key aspects of the agreement, and ensuring a comprehensive deal was reached. India’s Defense Minister landed on a US Aircraft Carrier in the Atlantic Ocean, with our Secretary of Defense, to confer on advanced carrier and fighter operations as part of cooperation in the maritime domain. As I noted, NASA provided navigational support to India’s Mars mission, and now both our countries are discussing a possible second joint mission to the Red Planet. Our health researchers and medical professionals are working together to help end TB in India, they’ve set up advanced surveillance and detection efforts as part of the global health security initiative, and they are now working in several African countries to promote child and maternal health. GE was selected to make hundreds of advanced locomotives in India, Boeing will make parts of the Apache attack helicopter in India, and Indian companies invested over $15 billion into American cities and states as well. Your Governor led a successful trade mission to India, and President Obama was the first US President ever to be invited as the Chief Guest to India’s Republic Day, and the first US President ever to visit India twice during his term.

These examples just barely scratch the surface of our current work together. Our future cooperation is even brighter. We are well aligned as the world’s largest and oldest democracy to forge even stronger ties ahead. President Obama has said we aim to be India’s best partner, and Prime Minister Modi has encouraged us to think big, beyond the transactional nature of the relationship, to the global impact we can have on peace and prosperity. Fundamentally, our two countries our stronger when we come together.

Now, underlying and facilitating all of this government to government cooperation are the remarkable stories of our people. These are the ties that bind us together today and in the past, even when our government cooperation may not have been hitting on all cylinders. We have to continue to recognize, celebrate and prop up these amazing people – and you have so many examples right here at VCU. You are as much a part of the US/India success story as we are in government, and I want to congratulate you for all that you’ve done to promote students, faculty, studies and programs that continue to link our countries together.

Let me give you a few more examples that I’m proud to highlight.

A Journey into Indian Hearts

Imagine for a moment the journey of a young woman in the early 1970s setting off alone from Detroit to New Delhi. From the time she was a little girl, she had been captivated by rhythms and intricacies of Indian dance. Now she was traveling to a country where she knew almost no one, based only on an invitation to study the art form she loved. These were the days long before e-mail or TripAdvisor, and letting your family know you were safe and had a place to stay involved making an appointment, days in advance, to go to the post office to place a scratchy international telephone call, or mailing a letter that would take weeks to arrive. Sharon Lowen took such a journey in 1973, moved by her passion for Indian dance, and the potential of the arts to connect people across cultures and borders. Sharon studied for years under some of India’s most learned practitioners of its performing arts traditions. As she studied and performed, her mastery and love of India’s ancient dance traditions caused the Indian people to adopt her in their hearts as one of their own. Today, she is one of India’s foremost masters in several traditional dance forms and it is hard for Sharon to walk down a Delhi street without someone stopping to take a selfie with her. What is more, Sharon, an American, is credited with reviving and preserving some of India’s most precious traditional dance forms. Among her many accolades, Sharon was the recipient of the prestigious Parishad Samman award for her outstanding individual contribution to Indian arts. Today, in addition to regular performances for her legions of Indian fans, Sharon helps my own kids, and hundreds more, appreciate Indian culture as the director of Indian Studies at the American Embassy School in New Delhi.

What is it that makes our countries so mutually receptive to new ideas brought to us through journeys from Chennai or Detroit? Why do our visionaries seem to instinctively perceive India or the United States as welcoming and fertile ground for their creativity and innovations? I believe it has everything to do with our kindred identities as diverse, multicultural peoples – an identity that has led our peoples to see ideas from abroad as exciting building blocks to incorporate into our national experiences, rather than threats to our traditions.

Journeys of the Spirit

A country’s spiritual traditions are among the most dearly held symbols of national identity. Yet even in this area, the United States and India have shaped the ways we worship and regard our fellow human beings. India’s Mar Thoma Syrian Church is one of the most ancient branches of Christianity, tracing its origins back to the journey to India of Apostle Thomas in 52 AD, centuries before the advent of European Christendom. Yet, when the Metropolitan Joseph, the head of the Mar Thoma Church, chose to begin his divinity studies abroad, he chose Virginia Theological Seminary, where he was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity. Swami Vivekananda, who visited Chicago in 1893 to address the World Conference of Religions, had a profound impact on American religious thought, as did the visits of religious poet Rabindranath Tagore, perhaps inspiring Americans like President Woodrow Wilson’s daughter Margaret, who spent her final years at an ashram near Pondicherry.

My Own Family Story

I’d like to say a few words about my own family’s journey. Let me take you back to the year 1947, a time when South Asia was undergoing significant upheaval and experiencing the largest mass migration ever recorded. My grandmother and mother were living in the city of Jhang, which is today in Pakistan. In the partition of India that year, my grandmother and mother – just a young girl in middle school at the time – would undergo the difficult journey from Jhang, resettling in Jalandhar, Punjab, starting over, and rebuilding their lives. This theme of starting over is one my mother would experience again when she came to the US many years later. The other theme that helped them endure these difficult times was education – my grandmother was a schoolteacher in Jhang. She would go on to be school teacher for economically disadvantaged girls in Jalandhar, at a school that is still teaching young women today and a place I had the great privilege of visiting last year.

My grandmother was a strong and smart woman – an incredible role model. I had the good fortune of staying with her in the summer of 1974 when I was just a small kid, but old enough to remember her two room flat down a long alleyway in a crowded Punjabi neighborhood – a flat with no stove, refrigerator or flush toilet. This was also a place I got to visit again last year. Not only was it so gratifying to go back, but so many people came to meet me saying that they knew my grandmother and mother, and a few women in particular told me it was my grandmother that helped set them on the right track, and they never would have been educated but for her insistence, guidance and mentorship.

And, that was exactly what she required of my mother – a commitment to education. So my mother would go to college, become a teacher and social worker, at a time when very few women were making it past the 8th grade. My mother would become the head of a girl’s school in Jalandhar. That’s where she met my father, who similarly was the head of a boys’ school there. My father’s story is also one of overcoming odds and also one grounded in education. My father was the oldest of 11 children. He grew up in a small village in Punjab, and he was the only one in his family ever to be formally educated. He had a talent for math and for literature, and he would pursue both subjects, getting degrees in both, and going on to lead a teacher’s training college there.

And in 1963, a new journey stared again. My father would get an academic scholarship to pursue his master’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa. My dad tells a classic immigrant story. He left my mom, and at that time my brother and three sisters behind, and as he describes it, he landed in New York City with $24 dollars and a Greyhound bus ticket to Northern Iowa. He didn’t know a single person, but like millions of other immigrants before and after him, he was so warmly welcomed here. It doesn’t mean things were easy; far from it. My mother and siblings would join him two years later, and he would go on to get his doctorate in English literature. He would get his first teaching opportunity in Pennsylvania in the University of Pittsburgh school system. That’s where I grew up, that’s where he retired as Professor Emeritus of English Literature just a few years ago, that’s where my mom would become a special needs teacher, and that’s where they built a new life for all of us.

I’m pretty certain I could have done what they did. The bravery, strength and fortitude that they displayed day after day, year after year, all the while singularly focused on ensuring their children would have a more secure and stable future. I can assure you it’s not lost on me how unlikely it is that I am serving as the American Ambassador to India, as the son of these fine people who worked so hard, overcoming so many odds along their journey. It makes me extra committed to ensure we live up the high standards they have set, and also ensure that we continue to give people the opportunity to pursue their dreams and fulfill their aspirations, as my parents did. Immigrants from all over the world have helped make this country great, including the 3.5 million Americans with roots in India, and that is something we must never forget.

A Future Journey

Imagine for a moment setting off on a journey that will take place, not too far in the future. Young Americans and Indians, maybe kids in elementary or middle school today, preparing to launch together on a perilous but historic exploration of deep space, perhaps as part of the first manned mission to Mars. It will be a journey fraught with peril and uncertainty, yet on it, may hinge the future of human civilization itself. I have no doubt that this journey will take place, and that American and Indian visionaries will be among those that go forth into the galaxy carrying the future of our species with them. And, driven by that spark of belief in the possible, our future will be secure in their hands.

I can think of no other two countries whose thoughts, ideals, and aspirations for the betterment of humankind are as intertwined as the United States and India. We are different countries and will not always see eye to eye on every issue, but the journeys by our visionaries, thought leaders, and everyday citizens looking to serve their fellow human beings will continue to increase, laying the groundwork of the most promising relationship for the future of the planet and the human race.