Historically, diasporas reflect a unidirectional cultural transmission: the Motherland gives, expatriates receive. Bollystan is different. South Asians’ penchant for technology has created a new diasporic model: a two-way street in which one can be as confidently Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi whether abroad or at home.
In other words, Bollystan is globalization desi style, the universal consciousness of a Subcontinent, seeping into and usurping the culture, spirit, and even politics of more narcissist civilizations. With globalization, the second generation of the diaspora has become its own core: confident, creative and productive—an engine of the new empire. Bollystan’s import-export marketplace of literary genius, spiritual essence, cinematographic border crossing and, increasingly, political savvy, have done for South Asia what nuclear weapons have not: They have made it a great power.
Indeed, Bollystan has the power to redefine geopolitics. But can the new maps of power capture the subtlety of Subcontinental stardom, stock markets and sex appeal? Cartographers beware: no longer should the Subcontinent be cleaved vertically, jettisoning two halves to opposite sides of office walls. In place of questions, “Who is Indian?” or “Who is Pakistani?”, Bollystanis replace the logic of the collective tribe. Like the Anglo-Saxons, Jews and Chinese, desis are building a networked civilization, an archipelago of nodes linked by mutual trust and a belief in knowledge and the virtues of technology.
How It All Started
It all came together while roaming the seedy alleys of Tangiers and contemplating the illicit charm of Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook. I stumbled across a solitary cinema with a single feature: Amitabh Bacchan’s Rishtaa. Lurid thoughts kaleidoscoped in my mind. Desi MBA dropouts, thuggish Bollywood mafia types, shady arms dealers and a lot of laptops: A coup in India — at the hands of its own diaspora ... I recalled Sun Yat Sen, who while touring the United States over a century ago to raise money for his nationalist party, declared, “The diaspora is the mother of the revolution.” The seed of Bollystan was planted—and of course, it had to be captured on film.
But was it a movie plot, or reality in the making?
In a world where tribes can become violently tribal, Bollystan is nothing if not a role model. What more appropriate civilization to reinvent the “topology of political space,” in the words of James Bennett, than that of the Indus entrepreneurs who have shrunk the world byte by byte? Together in Bollystan, Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Bangladeshis rail against Western agricultural and textile subsidies, play cricket, and make movies. India’s trajectory exemplifies Bollystan’s cosmopolitan virtue. With a female, Catholic Italian elected prime minister—a position now filled by a minority Sikh—a Muslim president, and an 85 percent Hindu population, India is the “clash of civilizations” that wasn’t. It should quell the fears of those who think that Bollystan could become a political Pandora’s box: a fraternal civil war, defying the predictability of any Bollywood script yet potentially as gory as any Greek tragedy. The concept of Bollystan, like a Platonic ideal, challenges sociologists like Ashis Nandy, who once wrote, “In India the choice can never be between chaos and stability. It is always between manageable and unmanageable chaos, between humane and inhuman anarchy, and between tolerable and intolerable disorder.”
What is needed to amplify Bollystan’s hard wiring is to involve the successful economic priests of the community, those who throw money around in quantities worthy of the labels “new Arabs” in London and “new Jews” in New York. These very success stories can contribute more to South Asia’s global potential than its own governments, and bring out the best of Bollystan in the process. Indeed, unable to justify either the caste system or other fundamentalisms overseas, the diaspora directs its energy to stonewall perilous populism in favor of charity, social development, health and education. The diaspora celebrates when the Nobel prize in Economics is awarded to Amartya Sen, who shames India’s militarism in the face of staggering poverty and illiteracy. And it shudders when India and Pakistan flex their nuclear muscles as they did in 1998.
For every student who leaves Karachi to study at Stanford, every engineer who waves goodbye from the Air India plane leaving Delhi, and every philosopher who arrives from Dhaka, the diaspora returns with presents befitting the scale of countries. India’s Tycoon Sam Pitroda, whose WorldTel pioneered the ubiquitous STD/ISP booths, is now laying fiber-optic cable in Tamil Nadu and Gujarat. And Zia Chisti, the dashing Pakistani entrepreneur who was one of People Magazine’s 50 most beautiful people a few years ago, has planted new roots in Pakistan with a new string of call centers. The brain drain’s out-of-place self-orientalization has morphed into an enthusiastic brain exchange.
Bollystan could plausibly lead to a silent, but surefooted global insurrection. Western diplomacy won’t work anymore without plugging into South Asians’ knowledge and networks. Boasting several British Lords (of all tribes), chief justices across post-colonial Africa, the president of Guyana, a dozen Canadian MPs and increasingly high-level federal appointees in America, Bollystanis are poised to capitalize on the diversity of Western democracies. In London, colonialism is being reversed, with Jack Straw convening minorities to discuss the “domestic echoes of foreign policy.” In Washington, USINPAC is using power lunches to become a power broker, recruiting the likes of Hillary Clinton for the Senate’s growing “Friends of India” caucus. Crossing party lines, dozens of South Asians had formal roles in the recent Republican and Democratic national conventions, and have raised millions on both sides of the American political aisle. Arnold Schwarzenegger supports a constitutional amendment to allow immigrants to run for president—Bollystan’s present could even be America’s future.
Ultimately, however, it is culture, not politics, which lies at the heart of Bollystan. If anything, it is South Asia’s culture that has become a pillar of global presence. In America, part-time pundits balance legal and medical careers while performing Hindu rites and seminars on weekends. Globally, literary awards and bestseller lists are acknowledging the presence of South Asia scribes. On every street corner, in every major city worldwide, high-end Indian restaurants are popping up, boasting the “most authentic” of Indian cuisine. The Bollystan stamp is ubiquitous but subtle, expropriating and morphing Indian-ness at every turn. Bollystan is on sale at Selfridges and Macy’s, at spas and salons. ABCD, Tanuja Desai boldly claims, should stand for “American Born Creative Desi.” As New York über party queen DJ Rekha has observed, Bollystan’s cultural dynamism is being led by the second generation, which is both preserving old traditions and “reinscribing tradition(s) which may or may not have existed back in India.”
But one menacing question remains: does Bollystan threaten the centrality of South Asia itself? Salman Rushdie has claimed that in the relationship between identity and space, a diaspora needs a geographic locus and point of reference. He should know. His post Satanic Verses estrangement lasted over a decade. Pulitzer Prize winner Jhumpa Lahiri has expressed similar ambivalence. “In the eyes of Indians who never left, I'm not an Indian at all,” she recently lamented to The New York Times. But still, Bollystan promises a future by moving beyond the either/or identity proposition. With the potent cocktail of culture and technology, Bollystan is cosmopolitanism’s inversion: instead of one person being at home anywhere, it is re-rooting desis everywhere in a real and imagined shared cultural space. A coup, perhaps—but of history, hearts and minds, not a country.