Dressing up for India

October 26, 2007, 6:03 PM UTC

Well, we hit a nerve with “Money v. meaningful work,” and there is more still to say. But it’ll have to wait till next week, because I’m writing this from a gate at JFK, heading to India for this year’s Fortune Global Forum.

This week, I found myself rushing around Manhattan in search of a new suit and cocktail dress for the event. And somewhere around the tenth conservative black Hillary-esque pantsuit, it dawned on me that — despite all my bluster about us (Yers) being quirky and bold — here I was driving myself crazy trying to dress myself in legitimacy.

Why all the fuss? Simple, though it took me a while to realize. It’s because this conference is in India. And from the days of my babyhood in Guyana, where almost half the population is of Indian descent, I — like so many others in the Indian diaspora — have felt the overwhelming need to defend and represent and sometimes exalt all things Indian.

I didn’t get to be this way on my own. When we were small, my siblings and I used to joke that when we were bad, we were American, and when we were good, we were Indian. At least to our mom. This wasn’t so much about any bias against the U.S. — after all, she’d chosen to bring us here because it meant something better to her — as it was about an implicit belief that our Indian “culture” offered something deeper: a sense of history and obligation and decorum.

And everyday, it was under attack — from our friends, and McDonald’s (MCD), and Britney Spears (or whoever was hot back then — Debbie Gibson?). Of course, to the four of us, India wasn’t any of that; mostly, it was something we watched every Sunday on “Namaste America.”

And yet, as I attempt to be-suit myself, it’s obvious that Mom did her job better than I realized. In a lot of ways, it’s not unlike what’s being done to India herself now. Not long ago, during the celebrations of India’s 60th birthday a few weeks ago, I chatted with Jehangir Pocha, the editor of Businessworld, an Indian business magazine.

And as we got to talking, I told him how amazing it was to see all the fanfare over this anniversary — the events and speakers and visibility and, to be frank, the Western-ness of it all. Because I remembered the 50th party, and that had been about what India was to Indians, not — as this one seemed to be — about what India meant to everyone else. Ten years ago, though, India hadn’t yet been hailed by everyone and his brother as the next big thing, and one was as likely to see a story about Mother Teresa battling poverty in India’s slums as one about a gazillionaire Indian changing the face of e-something.

Not so much the case anymore. In some ways, this shift is inevitable. As I said to Pocha, it’s much more important to a 16-year-old to demonstrate his adulthood than it is for a 60-year-old. And with the relatively recent warp-speed development that has transformed a country whose image was for too long all poverty and Bollywood, India has become that 16-year-old. So it makes sense that she wants to put on a suit, metaphorically speaking. (Let’s be honest, for a long time, our most visible representatives were Apu and Ms. Universe).

But there is such a thing as being too packaged. And when I listen to conversations about India that are all glow and no light — as in, shed on the myriad other issues that face a country still facing rampant illiteracy, poverty and discrimination — I can’t help but be concerned. It’s wonderful to represent ourselves well, but it’s also important to remember that representing oneself well is not synonymous with representing oneself as “good.”

We represent ourselves well when we support great art — art that shows every Indian’s reality, good or not-so-good — and when we speak out about the disparities that persist in our communities, whether they’re in India, the U.S., the U.K., or the Caribbean. And while I’m all for celebrating milestones, I hope that excitement doesn’t keep us from recognizing how far we have to go.

Or maybe I’m just getting old, and these things just bother me more now than when I was small and didn’t even really understand concepts so abstract as race and ethnicity. I can’t say for sure, and maybe I’ll feel differently once I’m back in the motherland (or not running on 10 minutes worth of sleep). I’ll let you know, and in the meantime, tell us what you think…