A nationalism of Sunita Williams

The headlines in Indian mainstream media over the course of June 6, after Boeing (finally) launched its Starliner capsule on its first crewed test flight…

… betray a persistent inability to let go of the little yet also false pride that comes with calling Sunita Williams an “Indian-American” astronaut. This is from the Wikipedia page on Williams:

Williams is a native of Needham, Massachusetts, was born in Euclid, Ohio, to Indian-American neuroanatomist from Mumbai, Deepak Pandya, and Slovene-American Ursuline Bonnie (Zalokar) Pandya, who reside in Falmouth, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of three children. … Williams’ paternal family is from Jhulasan in the Mehsana district in Gujarat, India, whereas her maternal family is of Slovene descent.

Williams’s national identity is (US-of-) American. She was born in the US and spent all her formative years there, studying and working within an institutional framework that had little to do with India. Why is she still “Indian-American” or even “Indian-origin”, then? By the simple, even facile, virtue of her father having left the country in search of greener pastures after his MD, the forced India connection reeks of a desperation to cling to her achievements as at least partly our own. India doesn’t have a woman astronaut and facing up to this and other impossibilities and eliminating them is an important way that every country has to grow. But keep thinking she’s partly Indian and you may never have to think about what could be stopping women in India from becoming astronauts in future.

This said, I know very little about Williams’ upbringing. According to Wikipedia, she’s a practising Hindu and has taken copies of the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads to space with her. But I fail to see why these features would make her national identity “Indian-American”. Like me, I imagine the people at large know little about her cultural identity considering her shared Indian and Slovenian heritage. I’d also be wary of conflating the social and political culture of India in the 1950s, when her father left the country, with that prevalent today. A close friend who grew up in India and now lives in the US told me in a conversation last year that pre-2014 India seems lost to her forever. I think even the recent outcome of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections may not change that: a lot of damage Hindu nationalism has wrought is irreversible, especially — but not restricted to — making it okay to aspire to inflicting violence on minorities and liberals. Thus, by all means, even the contrived “Indian” in “Indian-American” refers to another India, not the one we have today.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

— LP Hartley, The Go-Between

Yet in the eyes of those penning articles and headlines, “Indian-American” she is. They’re using this language to get people interested in these articles, and if they succeed, they’re effectively selling the idea that it’s not possible for Indians to care about the accomplishments of non-Indians, that only Indians’, and by extension India’s, accomplishments matter. It’s a good example of why beating back the Hindu majoritarian nationalism in India has been such an uphill battle, and why the BJP’s smarting win in the 2024 polls was so heartening: the nuclei of nationalistic thinking are everywhere, you need just the right arguments — no matter how kettle-logic-y — to nurture them into crystals of hate and xenophobia. Calling Williams “Indian-American” is to retrench her patriarchal identity as being part of her primary identity — just as referring to her as “Indian origin” is to evoke her genetic identity; to recall her skin colour as being similar to that of many Indians; and perhaps to passively inculcate her value to the US as an opportunity for soft diplomacy with India.