The India Within

A look inside the homes, hopes, and dreams of Knoxville's Asian Indian community

They think of it as the land of opportunity. Not Knoxville, or even the U.S., but their home country—the Republic of India, established 1947, home to 1.1 billion, 15 percent of the world's population. It could be an educational mecca, they think, an economic hub, a society where the poor pull themselves up and all are fulfilled.

But that will take baby steps, decades, generations. Meantime, these hopeful Asian Indians have left their native land to tap the advantages in this one. Some arrived in the United States more than 30 years ago, when there were few other options; others applied for grad school or a work visa just months ago. Of those who have landed in Knoxville, all are seeking, or have sought, better education, financial ease, a better life for themselves and their children. But they've never lost sight of the end game: an improved India.

And though they are physically among us, friendly, helpful, enjoying the sights and studies here in our area, make no mistake about it. "We will love cornbread, iced tea, the Vols... while being desi—Indian—deep down," says Harishwaran Hariharan, a doctoral candidate at UT from Coimbatore in the state of Tamilnadu.

There are no precise statistics on how many Asian Indians make permanent or temporary homes in this area. The University of Tennessee may have as many as 150 students; the Hindu Worship Center says it serves 300-500 families; the Sikh Gurdwara another 20 or 25. But many are here on work visas; others have no ties to an organization that might count them.

What is known, at least from all first-hand reports, is that those who live here remain an intrinsic part of extended families in their home country, duly observing religious rituals that date back hundreds, thousands of years. All the older couples, and many of the younger, had their marriages arranged for them; and all still adhere to India's caste system to some degree, though it no longer involves the concept of "untouchables"—in either country.

We see them as they go about their high-profile engineering and medical jobs, or as owners and workers in the service sector—hotels, gas stations, a restaurant. Some note their skin color, darker than most in East Tennessee; others their lilting accents, or their Indian clothing.

But behind those surface commonalities are individuals worth getting to know, ones willing to share insights about the American way, and the Indian way, how both are changing with the onset of a global economy... and how some things will never change.

Out of India, for Education

Bespectacled, with a smooth, short haircut, a conservative suit, and a studious air, Dr. Narendra Dahotre could be picked out a mile away as an engineer. Now 50, and in the U.S. since starting a graduate degree at Michigan State in 1981, he cannot even remember if he liked science as a school boy, or had a particular knack for it. "Back home, engineering and science would bring good jobs locally," he says. "That's how it was, always better to push kids to go for engineering or medicine. It's not like the kids don't like anything else. But in those days, not listening to your elders wasn't possible."

The emphasis on being an engineer in his country naturally led to a career path in the states for Dahotre, who is a professor with joint appointments at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at UT. He holds 15 U.S. patents in laser materials processing.

"During those days, there wasn't good quality higher education in India," says Dahotre, who came from Pune in the Western part of India, where he spoke Marathi and the national language of Hindi. "The only way was to go abroad. The U.S. was the place to target for higher knowledge."

In Knoxville since 2000, Dahotre feels like he's sacrificed close contact with his beloved culture to be in the U.S. In the ‘80s, he was only able to visit India once every four or five years. "But I would not have had this budget back home," he says. "I would not have learned or accomplished educationally what I have here. I've had a good time. I don't feel that I'm in a foreign land."

He does, though, keep to the traditional Indian ways. A Hindu, he goes with his family to the Hindu Worship Center in Lenoir City on occasion, and makes daily worship part of his routine. "Every morning I get up and spend about half an hour following the rituals I have since childhood," he says. "After I take a shower—we do not worship without taking a shower—I sit down and worship before heading out for my work."

When he heads home, his wife Anita and his three American-born teenagers, who attend Farragut schools, join him for a family meal. "We sit down and eat together as they do back home—Indian bread, curry, rice," he says.

But most of his friends are not from India. "My wife and I are very active in the school, and in our Farragut neighborhood," he says. "We go to pot lucks. Twice a year we invite neighbors for dinner and treat them with our food. It makes life exciting."

Dahotre says that the "brain drain"—where all India's best and brightest science students are compelled to settle in this country—is starting a slow reversal. "The technology, economics, and education in India are improving a lot. The gap's becoming narrower and narrower between the situation in the Western world and in India. In the past seven-eight years I've been going to a conference and to do some collaborative work in India once a year, and there has been a massive change each year compared to the last."

Now many of the better students are staying back in India, and the trend will only continue to gain momentum, says Dahotre. "Earlier, almost 99 percent of the students who came here stayed. Now, some of the best ones aren't even seeking programs in the U.S., and many others are coming here, studying, and then going back. With the better economic conditions, it's not as big of a sacrifice to return."

Still, plenty of Dahotre's students hail from India. "Someone they know prior has usually come here already, so they end up coming here," he says. "I like to help people coming from a foreign country, and I try to go beyond academics. Because we're from different areas of India, which has 18 official languages, most of them speak a language which I don't speak, but we can always communicate with English.

"I like to have everybody's life easier."

Young Scholars in Love

Harishwaran Hariharan, who goes by "Hari," is one of those new wave of students studying at UT. Today, though, he's just puttering around the Sutherland apartment complex for UT graduate students in shorts, an oversize shirt, bare feet, his hair in tight braids. He says he's "a little more liberal than most," and he looks it. His apartment looks it, too. Dangling from an overhead light is... a skateboard. Full view from the front door, an oversize Batman insignia poster. But ask him about the poster and the India starts to trickle forth.

"I've always been into Batman, back as a kid, the comics were very big in Coimbatore," he says.

And his other prominently placed poster, that's an Indian guy, Superstar Rajnikanth, an actor from Hariharan's home state of Tamilnadu. "He's a symbol of my people ..." he says seriously, and then his wife, Archana "Achoo" Kumar, chimes in, " ...and the second highest paid actor next to Jackie Chan."

They know stuff like that, these two, a pair of doctoral candidates who are serious scholars and intent fun-seekers. They like to travel, kayak, swim, and cliff-dive.

But they're still Indian, all the way. Just turned 30, Hari is pursuing his Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering and working at the imaging robotics and intelligent systems (IRIS) laboratory at UT under Dr. Mongi Abidi. Achoo is 28, a stunner in white tank and India print skirt, with flashing bright eyes and a smile borrowed from Julia Roberts, part of an integrated degree program that allows her to earn a masters in statistics and a doctorate in retail management at the same time. He's been in the U.S. since 2000, she since 2002, and they haven't let go of many old ways.

They have a little room ("temple is an overstatement," says Hari) with statues of Hindu deities and a worship space, just off the front hall, for example. She serves tea, the real kind, with masala spices and strained leaves, to a new arrival at the apartment—or at least offers. "You have to, you ask someone to come in, and give them something to eat or drink, it's just the custom."

He speaks of his extended family as if they're in the next room, not on another continent. "My mom sky-dived at the age of 60," says Hari. "She was the first Tamil woman to sky dive, 15,000 feet. She was always the wild one!"

Unlike Americans, Hari says, Indians "want you to know we are completely attached to our family. It is totally cool, for example, for you to be staying with your mom. We're very closely tied. My elder brother Swahar still scolds me on the phone... it's like they're here, even though they're in India. My mom will even hit me... but it doesn't ache anymore!"

And these two, like generations before them, are very, very driven to succeed in education. "In India, after you reach the 10th grade, you're supposed to make a decision between science and the arts. If you make the wrong decision, you're kind of stuck with it," observes Achoo. "You don't see people like here, where they're juniors in college and undecided."

College attendance is a given in India, too, says Hari, new generation notwithstanding. "It would be very odd for a person there who has been to school not to finish college."

"If they do that it might be because they didn't have the money," adds Achoo.

"You won't find the ones who finish high school and take off 10 years," says Hari.

"...or backpack Europe," says Achoo, and they both laugh, but benevolently.

They don't exactly scoff at Americans, but sometimes they shake their heads a little. "We met a big bunch of kids where we were cliff-diving, and the only way I could make them understand my heritage was to reference Apu from The Simpsons," says Hari with delight.

Their attitude towards pets is another difference. "A lot of Indians love pets; we all know our friend Harichandra likes his dog a lot—the dog's back in India and he misses it so much he has its picture!" says Hari, but he's only poking gentle fun.

More puzzling to Achoo is this country's pet pampering. "We love pets, but we don't treat them like babies. We don't have dog salons, or dog outfits."

One area in which they did veer from tradition: They made what's known as a "love match," not an arranged marriage. "It was Western dating, but all secret, you did not tell your parents," says Achoo, who started seeing Hari in 1995; they were married almost a decade later. "It was always ‘I have to go to the library' and Hari, ‘I'm going to work on my project, mom.'"

Now love matches are much more common, but they still rely on parental approval, albeit after the fact, and the two know plenty of local couples in their age bracket who had arranged marriages.

"Our way was much more fun," says Hari. "The secret meeting spots, eye signals. And we didn't have the cell phones, so you really had to coordinate."

Marriage Made in India

Each morning after Renu Contractor wakes up, she takes a bit of red powder and forms an Indian "swastika" (the reverse of the hated Nazi symbol) on the entrance to her two-story, full basement, suburban West Knoxville home. "We do that to invite the god to our home," says Contractor, a wide-eyed, warm woman of 33 with luxurious dark waves of hair, a spritely purple Indian top and a bindi—ceremonial dot—on her forehead.

"Your home's entrance is the witness to your work," says Contractor's friend Harsha Ved, slender and bright in slacks and a conservative, vested American top. "The god will witness your entrance, check the purpose, what kind of people or prosperity are you inviting? Are you going to hug somebody or rob somebody?"

Ved manages a medical laboratory, and with her smooth cap of hair and slight build looks decades younger than the 50 she claims. The two women finish each other's sentences, and speak of their core beliefs as freely as they discuss making flat bread and the merits of certain hair treatments.

"We were brought up that way," says Contractor. "We pray to our parents, as the first god before the gods, because they brought us into this world."

They are just as comfortable with the topic of arranged marriage—both have one. "Thirty years is a long time," muses Ved, who came to the U.S. in 1989. "But you must understand it is arranged, but not forced. The parents, when looking for a bride or groom, not only look at the finances, but emphasize the candidate's family values. Do they emphasize love and respect? Is the person capable, willing to sacrifice when he needs to take care of my daughter?

"It's not just, ‘I have this bag of goodies, who will bid?'"

Married to Hamang Contractor in 1995, when she was 20, Renu was selected by him from among more than 30 candidates presented to him by his family. Hamang has lived in this area since he was 14, coming with his parents from Baroda, where he first spoke Gujarati and Hindi—and played cricket, a lifelong love. He attended Central High School, but he and his parents all traveled back to India to make the arrangements for his marriage. "At my work, my co-workers were very interested, asking questions," he says humorously. "I had five-six photos here and one day I took them to my job and said, ‘Here, pick one!'"

Kidding aside, Hamang's approach, and that of his parents, yielded a comfortable, loving partnership with Renu. The two have an easy rapport with each other and their two sons, both elementary students at A.L. Lotts. The younger boy calls his brother by a courtesy title that shows his respect for his elders; they play cricket with their father and carry their mother's vegetarian cooking for school lunch.

"When I came to this country and first went to Wal-Mart with my mother-in-law... I remember the smell, the meat, I had never smelled it before... and those live lobsters," mourns Renu. "My father always told me, ‘Don't make a cemetery in your stomach. When you eat animals, your stomach is like that.'"

Of course, says Renu, some Americans have a similar point of view toward her sons' lunches. "My older son came home one day saying my friends make a comment, ‘You eating throwing up stuff,'" she remembers. "It was my brown beans and rice."

Renu works three days a week at Hair, Etc. and also performs traditional beautification for members of the Indian community, including eyebrow threading, herbal facials and henna tattoos, some of them the customary henna patterns that often cover a bride's hands.

She also does the mother's hair and makeup for the traditional first-baby shower held at seven months. "Every caste is different, but most go to the mom's house to live after the shower and until the birth—if their mom lives nearby," says Renu. "After the birth, traditionally the woman has one and a half months of total bed rest, with lots of baby and body massage."

She herself, though, doesn't habitually wear the full sari or traditional Indian make-up in public. "Now they do, ‘Cool!' about nose piercing, but it's different now than it was 12 years ago when I first came here," she says.

During her 12-year stay in Knoxville, Renu and her husband have tried to relocate to their home country no fewer than four times. "It just hasn't worked out," she says.

She absolutely must get back to the homeland occasionally, she says. "I have this attachment to my country, where if I don't go every three years, I feel something... like I have homesickness. And the children go each time, too, so they get to know the world culture."

Happily, says Renu, global travel is more within reach for families like hers. "The world is getting so much smaller. In the past, my mother-in-law was not even able to go to India when her dad passed away. Now, though, my parents travel here to stay with us six months at a time."

Kumar Comes to America

Drawn to the U.S. as a hospitality worker, Ramesh Kumar, owner of Sitar restaurant, originally from Punjab, knows what it's like never to see the sun. "For three years when I started this restaurant, I worked a seven-day week, 100 hours a week, morning to night, before sunrise to after sunset," he remembers, with a voice that manages to be solemn and teasing at the same time. "In between, I'd go shop for groceries."

That was almost a decade after Kumar, now 54, came to Cincinnati from his native Punjab. Since 1992, he's spent time at restaurants in Chicago, New Jersey, and Virginia Beach, and failed with a gas station in Delaware. From there he moved to Nashville, and then to Knoxville 10 years ago to start the Indian restaurant with a partner.

"I've had all kinds of happiness in Knoxville—it has changed my life," he says. "I've never had any problems; no one giving me a hard time. All the people are friendly here. Fifty percent of the customers come hug you before they sit down to eat or are asking, ‘Where is he?'"

The answer is, probably talking to someone. "I worked all my life in the kitchen, where you never get to talk to people," says Kumar. In 2001, when he could afford more kitchen help, he started talking to customers—and at age 47 began learning the English he's now fluent in. "Now, my customers teach me everything. We go to the movies together. I have so many friends."

He can do those things, now that he works "only" 50 or 60 hours. "It's not hard work," he says. "Sometimes I go home during the day."

Most of his customers are not Indian—as a chef, Kumar has tweaked his cooking methods and menu to more American tastes. But all his workers come from his native country, applying for work visas, staying a while, then returning for the requisite time before applying for another visa. "Almost all the same people have been working here the past six years," he says. "When one is gone, so I don't have to hire new people, I fill in myself."

It's a good fit for Asian Indian employees, says Kumar. "Anyone else doesn't like to learn Indian cooking, and there's too many weekend hours for workers who aren't Indian."

He's Hindu, and has a small shrine for worship right at the restaurant, but he soaks up anything he can about other religions, too. "I like to go everywhere," he says. "I've been to the Muslim church, and the Sikh Gurdwara... I have a friend who takes me to church on the night of Dec. 24, and again on Dec. 25. I want to learn them all. I trust in God. I trust in my religion. I don't care who is Muslim, Christian... if someone respects me, I give him respect, too."

He likes to watch TV, Bollywood and Hollywood, but not fights. "Movies are just for fun," he says. "If you're not laughing, why watch television? I like the all-Indian channel; I understand it easier. I'm poor in English, you know," he says with a half-kidding smile.

Kumar says all Indians in business work too hard, "wanting to go slowly up, up, up," he says. But he still hopes his two children, a daughter in Johnson City and a son in Alabama (another daughter is still in Punjab) stay in the restaurant business. "The food business is always good. People always have to eat. And the restaurant is a family. That is always better than a job."

Friendly Folks In These Parts

On the whole, Asian Indians find Knoxville to be a friendly place, kind to strangers. "They do sometimes mistake me as a Mexican because of my brown skin," says Dahotre. "Sometimes someone thinks I look like a Pakistani. I think that's only because of my skin color. I don't have any apprehension about it. I myself sometimes mistake a Chinese for a Korean..."

Renu Contractor had a negative experience early on, with a Food Lion manager ripping up her employment application 12 years ago. Though a microbiologist in India, here her three-year degree didn't qualify her for professional work as a scientist. "I dressed how I would have dressed at home, the sari and all, and went to apply," she remembers. "All was well until the woman saw me, then, even though the sign said ‘Hire" she said, ‘Honey, we are not hiring,' and threw my application away."

That is absolutely the exception to the rule of "really nice" Knoxville people, says Renu, and Hariharan agrees. He and his wife had one incident at an Old City club where they felt they were being singled out and made to leave earlier than other patrons at closing, but in five years that's been the only negative. "That was the only time it felt like a racism thing," he says. "In five years in Knoxville, that's still a really good track record."

The talkative, Southern culture blends very well with Renu's values, her goals in life, she says. "The bigger your heart is, the more people talk to you. The more people talk to you, the happier you are."