An exhibition on Indian Americans strives to present the community’s story on its own terms

IN JOHNSON CITY, Tennessee, in 1982, an Ethiopia-born, India-trained medical resident named Abraham Verghese coveted Dr Steven Berk’s doctor bag. He saved enough money to purchase one for himself, then rubbed it with neatsfoot oil to approximate the well-worn, talismanic quality of his mentor’s bag. Verghese then filled it with his kit—eye drops, calipers, prescription pads—and his hopes of assimilating into the American medical establishment.

Three decades later, ‘The doctor bag of Abraham Verghese’ sits in a glass case in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, in an exhibition on Indian Americans in the United States. In that time, Verghese has enjoyed a successful medical career—he is now a professor of medicine at Stanford University—and authored three books, including the celebrated memoir My Own Country (1994) and the bestselling novel Cutting for Stone (2009). The back of the display case features snippets of Verghese’s recollections of his early days: “I had to ask someone how to tie my tie with a thinner knot so I could fit in. And the only way I could eat the bland hospital food was to put Tabasco sauce on everything.”

Verghese’s words capture the familiar dual imperative of immigrant life: on the one hand, fitting in, with a tie knot of appropriate girth; on the other, maintaining one’s tastes, through the strategic application of chilli-approximating Tabasco. His story reminds us that even blue- and white-collar immigrants have to negotiate resistance to the perceived “Third World invasion” of the United States, whether through neutralising accents or by softening the stiffness of difference with neatsfoot oil.

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    Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a PhD candidate in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, USA. She has written for publications including Public Books, Women & Performance, South Asian Review and openDemocracy. She was formerly the editor of India Currents, for which she writes an award-winning syndicated column.

    Keywords: Bollywood exhibition USA identity Indian Diaspora stereotypes popular culture citizenship cultural history