Appropriately Indian: Gender and Culture in a New Transnational Class

Appropriately Indian: Gender and Culture in a New Transnational Class

by Smitha Radhakrishnan

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Appropriately Indian is an ethnographic analysis of the class of information technology professionals at the symbolic helm of globalizing India. Comprising a small but prestigious segment of India’s labor force, these transnational knowledge workers dominate the country’s economic and cultural scene, as do their notions of what it means to be


Appropriately Indian is an ethnographic analysis of the class of information technology professionals at the symbolic helm of globalizing India. Comprising a small but prestigious segment of India’s labor force, these transnational knowledge workers dominate the country’s economic and cultural scene, as do their notions of what it means to be Indian. Drawing on the stories of Indian professionals in Mumbai, Bangalore, Silicon Valley, and South Africa, Smitha Radhakrishnan explains how these high-tech workers create a “global Indianness” by transforming the diversity of Indian cultural practices into a generic, mobile set of “Indian” norms. Female information technology professionals are particularly influential. By reconfiguring notions of respectable femininity and the “good” Indian family, they are reshaping ideas about what it means to be Indian.

Radhakrishnan explains how this transnational class creates an Indian culture that is self-consciously distinct from Western culture, yet compatible with Western cosmopolitan lifestyles. She describes the material and symbolic privileges that accrue to India’s high-tech workers, who often claim ordinary middle-class backgrounds, but are overwhelmingly urban and upper caste. They are also distinctly apolitical and individualistic. Members of this elite class practice a decontextualized version of Hinduism, and they absorb the ideas and values that circulate through both Indian and non-Indian multinational corporations. Ultimately, though, global Indianness is rooted and configured in the gendered sphere of home and family.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Appropriately Indian is a wonderful book, which provides crucial background about India’s rising image in the world and at home. Smitha Radhakrishnan covers notions of caste, class, and prestige, as well as the transnational character of the privileged knowledge workers she discusses. At the same time, does not portray these professionals only in terms of privilege. Her intimate descriptions of people’s lives are full of dilemmas and heartaches. The passages on traditional marriage expectations and modern individualistic drives are particularly illuminating.”—A. Aneesh, author of Virtual Migration: The Programming of Globalization

“With her soberly critical ethnographic eye, Smitha Radhakrishnan proves a delightfully judicious guide to what happens when class and culture get transnationally stretched. Refusing both the hype that surrounds the world of India’s global IT class and a simple ideology critique, she gives us a vivid portrait of everyday lives lived at a leading edge of globalization.”—William T. S. Mazzarella, University of Chicago

American Journal of Sociology - Jaita Talukdar

“This book is a strong rebuttal to the popular argument that neoliberal economic policies have opened the doors of opportunity for all. Instead it offers important insights into how local cultures and internal hierarchies shape the nature of cultural and economic globalization.... [T]his is an exceptionally well written and theoretically rich book that will be a great addition to graduate and upper-level undergraduate courses on transnationalism, globalization, culture, development, sociological theories, or South Asian studies.”
Contemporary Sociology - Indermohan Virk

“Smitha Radhakrishnan gives us a textured account of members of a new transnational class represented by India’s skilled knowledge professionals who have indeed played a leading role in the global IT industry. Her wide-ranging interviews reveal the ways in which they craft their identities by bridging Indian cultural practices with Western work practices and values.... I find this book to be timely, engaging, and a valuable insight into a group that belongs to a growing class of transnational professionals.”
International Social Science Review - Unna Lassiter

Appropriately Indian is a highly readable, richly detailed, and insightful contribution to the literature on transnationalism and contributes to the social sciences in moving the referent from the state to everyday strategies of identity.”
International Review of Social History - Carol Upadhya

Appropriately Indian is an innovative sociological study of Indian IT professionals, mainly women, and the cultural and social changes in post-liberalization India that are revealed by their narratives about their work and personal experiences…. the monograph is a must-read for scholars of contemporary south Asia, globalization, and the sociology of work, class, and gender.”

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Duke University Press Books
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Read an Excerpt


By Smitha Radhakrishnan

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4843-6

Chapter One



Indian it professionals are privileged through their ability to imagine and live out personal and professional lives in multiple places. This privilege stems from their dominant position in the global economy as well as their material and symbolic privilege within India. The privilege of India's new transnational class is embedded in national/domestic hierarchies, global capitalism, and India's class structure. In this chapter, I examine the multiple layers of it professionals' privilege and power, paying attention to symbolic, material, and economic privileges, while always remaining attentive to the role of geographic mobility in establishing and reinforcing those privileges. The logics of individuality and respectability produced within this matrix of privilege enable the project of culture making analyzed throughout this book.

Locating India's Transnational Class

Bangalore, 2005

Thirty-three years after my father packed his bag in Bangalore, I am seated in a comfortable home in a new suburb of Bangalore, eating a meal with a young family in surroundings not unlike those of my childhood in the United States. Around the perimeter of the large dining table are seated Ram, Shreya, their two children, and Shreya's mother. We eat lentils, vegetables, and rice from Corningware plates as Ram's and Shreya's son angles for his parents' attention as they speak to me. Ram had left India for the United States in 1992, with a degree from a top Indian university in hand and a lucrative job offer from a company in Virginia. He worked for two years, came back to India to marry Shreya in 1994, and returned to the United States, where his career eventually took both of them to Silicon Valley. Like my parents, Ram and Shreya maintained ties to India through their families and their friends. They raised their children to have a strong sense of Indianness and Hindu values but never had any intention of moving back to India. On a trip home in 2003, however, Ram sensed that things in India had changed. Indeed, he began to sense that the better opportunities in terms of career, economic mobility, and lifestyle were not to be found in the United States at all, but, surprisingly, in the very place he had left. More importantly, it seemed to him that he could offer his children a more secure cultural identity in India, rather than the delicate balancing act between "Indian" and "American" he felt they were forced into in the United States.

Bangalore is the beating heart of India's it industry, the most visible city in a short but growing list of Indian it cities that includes Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune, and Gurgaon. Most large multinational technology firms have operations in Bangalore, and the success of multinational capital has dramatically transformed the landscape of the city. In Bangalore, more than practically any other Indian city, the positive effects of the it industry seem pervasive, whether in the crowded mall or the mushrooming tech parks, in the innumerable engineering colleges or the new high-end international airport (see figures 5–7). All of these trends have also made Bangalore the prime location for non-resident Indians (nris) to relocate after several years in the United States.

Ram's and Shreya's decision to relocate to Bangalore stemmed from recognition not only of a changing India, but also of a transformed Bangalore in particular. Once they arrived in Bangalore, they went about making their American-turned-Indian dreams a reality. At the time I spoke with them, they had almost finished constructing their brand-new five-thousand-square-foot home in a residential enclave outside of Bangalore (see figure 8). Their new home is luxurious—far beyond anything they might have afforded in Silicon Valley. Indeed, the move back to India was not, as it might have been in a previous generation, a sacrifice or a step down; rather, it was a step up in every way. In his Bangalore-based job, Ram earns in dollars but spends in rupees, thus converting what would be an upper-middle-class salary in the United States into an even more elite lifestyle in India. Shreya, who had been working a lucrative biotech job in the United States, could afford not to work in India. She took time off to spend with her children before starting a part-time teaching job. Both felt that life in Bangalore took them out of the U.S. "rat race," allowing them more time with their children and extended family. For them, the move back to India underscored their family and cultural values, even as it afforded them a larger house with a more luxurious lifestyle.

Ram's and Shreya's story has become exemplary of India's transnational professional class and unfolds during a distinct moment in the history of India and in the history of the global economic system. My parents were their predecessors—converting a technical education acquired in India into social and geographic mobility that allowed them to live comfortably in the United States while maintaining ties to India from afar. Unlike my parents, however, Ram and Shreya have helped to transform concerns of "brain drain" during my parents' generation into hopeful narratives of "brain circulation," allowing them to participate directly in India's new development trajectory (Saxenian 2005). Indeed, Ram is one among an estimated sixty-thousand transnational Indian professionals who have returned to India since 2000 (Ray 2007). In the Bangalore office or his California-based multinational, he is joined by other transnational colleagues—experienced it professionals like him who have chosen to move back to India after a long stint abroad, or younger folk, who aspire for the opportunity to leave India, even if only to return.

Whatever improvements in lifestyle they might be experiencing, however, Ram and others like him do not choose to be in India solely for economic reasons; rather it is their identification with India as a cultural and spiritual "home" that motivates the decision to return. Ram explained that he wished for his children to experience what he had experienced as a child, growing up in a small semi-rural town in South India. Ram explained that there is something unchanging about India that persists despite all the changes he sees: "The beauty of India, what I have seen with my own eyes, is that it does not change. It does not ... You may allow certain changes to happen. Top one or two layers of people keep changing newer cars due to it ... [But] it is given that not everybody can achieve the same goal ... Being contented with what comes is one of the greatest things here. People's expectations are not high; nobody is on a fast track. In India, the fast track is not on."

Ram's beliefs about Indian society are rooted in his own class history. Born into an "ordinary middle-class" family, Ram became a knowledge worker whose savvy and skills led his family from the American dream in California to another kind of dream in the land of his birth. The privilege of his transnational status allows him to view India and Indian culture from a distance, even as he lives within it, producing an Orientalizing view of life in India that allows him to romanticize India from a position of power and privilege. In this way, Ram and his family influence and participate in a "new" idea of what it means to belong to India, but they also reinforce resonant notions of India as a space of cultural stability.

Santa Clara, California, 2005

A warm, smiling woman of thirty welcomed me into her comfortable suburban home in the heart of Silicon Valley one sunny day in August. Her new baby daughter, just three weeks old, was sleeping in a cradle in the family room. Aarti invited me to be seated at the dining table, overlooking a spacious kitchen flooded with light. Indian immigrants like Aarti and her husband have played a critical role in the production and sustenance of the American it industry, and this influence has been most pronounced in Silicon Valley. Most graduates of the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (iits) who left India for the United States in the 1960s and 1970s played an active role in bringing the American it industry to maturity, particularly in California's Silicon Valley. Graduates of these schools helped to found nearly every major Silicon Valley firm, including Microsoft, Intel, and Sun (Saxenian 2005). Since then, talented educated immigrants from Asia, like Aarti and her husband, and before them, Ram and Shreya, have found Silicon Valley to be something of a promised land, offering high salaries, good weather, and a generation-old Indian community with its own temples, community centers, and shops. At the same time, this affluent minority group has also become more and more mainstreamed in American politics and society. This history, as well as Silicon Valley's continued dominance in the global it industry, continues to attract large numbers of the best Indian talent to northern California, but increasingly, these migrations seem to be short-term, as more and more Indian immigrant couples decide to return "home" after a long stint in the United States.

Aarti met her husband while working in a particular kind of environment in India—a sphere of life in which going abroad to the United States was a logical, presumed option: "My husband and I used to commute together. The profile of people from that area was all kinds of young graduates—mostly engineers—who used to travel together. There were computer science people too. We all had a lot in common, and that's how we met. Half those people went to the U.S. [My husband] was trying to go to the U.S. to do mba. He got admission to a good school in Bombay, but he wanted to come here. I got the visa [first]." Unlike most of the women in Silicon Valley I interviewed who came to the United States on a spousal visa, Aarti traveled to the United States for her master's degree on her own, even though her mother would have much preferred that she get married first. Because her chosen mate had not yet secured admission in the U.S. school of his choice, marriage prior to migration was not possible, but Aarti stuck to her decision. Soon, her intended husband joined her in the United States; they courted briefly and were engaged. After finishing their respective degrees, they headed west to California, where they had been living for several years at the time that I met her. Having achieved upward mobility and the American dream of homeownership in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the United States, Aarti and her husband appear to be quite settled, especially with the new daughter asleep in the cradle.

As soon as we began talking, Aarti explained to me that she had taken maternity leave from her job but planned to return to work within a few months. Before long, however, it became clear that the pause in her career was about more than just the sleeping infant. Within this "break," Aarti was assessing her career and her future, and perhaps most importantly, whether that future would continue in California or back in India. The birth of her daughter created a moment of professional confusion for her, in which she was reevaluating for herself what she really wished to do in her career, and, more importantly, it created an opening that could potentially propel her and her family back to India. Like Ram and Shreya, Aarti and her husband have become aware of the winds of change in India and want to be a part of those changes:

We were in India in January for a wedding. I kind of got the idea that India is booming. Got the feeling that "oh, my country is changing!" [And here,] I have lately been thinking—why am I consciously talking so much of money when I wanted to do other things? I am moving away from my roots. So it is definitely an option. A very serious option. But my husband wants to make sure. After living here for a long time, personally, professionally, and socially, it has to work out in India. He wants U.S. citizenship. If we are not happy in India, we need to get back. We need a plan B. Lots of people say, "Once you decide, throw your green card in the ocean." I do not think of it that way. We are too open to the whole world.

Like other Indian couples in Silicon Valley who are thinking through this decision, she is cautious about letting go of a hard-won life in the United States, even as she is excited about participating in the vibrancy of her home country. She wishes to make the decision in the most secure manner possible—U.S. citizenship for her daughter, her husband, and herself, and, thus, the perpetual possibility of returning to a life in California that they might be choosing to leave behind.

Aarti's ambivalence is a common sentiment among professional Indian couples in their thirties in the United States. With her concerns and hopes she sounds just as Ram and Shreya might have sounded a few years earlier. Like Ram and Shreya, Aarti says that she finds social life in California to be too formal, without the spontaneity of being able to drop in on friends without notice, a practice she believes to be common in India. She also is wary of raising her daughter in the United States. In India, her daughter would be raised to respect her school and teachers more. Also, because Aarti would be able to hire domestic help in India, she would be able to spend more time with her family when she returns from work, rather than having the responsibility of cooking and cleaning, as she would in California. Aarti's ability to effectively compare and contrast the possibilities of very privileged lives in two different locales stems directly from a position in the global economy that allows her to realistically imagine job prospects for herself and her husband in both India and the United States. At the same time, economic considerations seem to be only part of the story; her sense of "home" allows her to imagine a better, more meaningful life in a new and improved India—a life that she feels might bring her closer to "her roots" in the long haul. In contemplating how to bring together the lifestyle she enjoys in the United States with the sense of "home" and cultural stability she feels in India, Aarti is already putting into motion notions of a "new" India that resist binary categorizations.

Durban, South Africa, 2005

I first met Raneshni at her office, nestled in a large office park in central Durban. As she invited me inside, I noticed she wore a bindi on her forehead despite her otherwise Westernized attire of slacks and a blouse. Raneshni was extremely forthcoming about her love for and identification with India, even when I did not specifically ask questions about it. Over my many visits with Raneshni—at her home, over lunch, and on religious occasions, I came to understand her deep and abiding feeling of connection not only to India as a privileged site of "her" culture, but also to Indians elsewhere. Perhaps to an even greater extent than her counterparts in India and the United States, "being Indian" fundamentally constituted who Raneshni perceived herself to be as a person.

South African Indians have remained relatively isolated from a changing India, having emigrated over a century ago, first as indentured laborers and later as merchants. Since the end of apartheid, however, South African Indians, whose ties to an Indian identity were maintained through the isolation and insulation of colonialism and then apartheid, have invested significant energy in connecting with a larger transnational circuit of Indian meanings. Upward mobility for some South African Indians in recent years has made it possible for them to visit India in increasing numbers, a dream that was almost inconceivable for most of their parents. Although most South African Indians remain working class, the symbolic power of an upwardly mobile, mostly Hindu group has helped them to reimagine Indians as being at the cutting edge of the new South Africa.


Excerpted from APPROPRIATELY INDIAN by Smitha Radhakrishnan Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Smitha Radhakrishnan is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College.

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