Vinay Lal

[A slightly abbreviated version is forthcoming in The Encyclopaedia of Chicago, ed. Jan Rieff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).]

Though a few thousand Indians were congregated on the West Coast by the early part of the twentieth century, the first major influx of Indians into Chicago did not take place until the arrival of graduate students and professionals in the 1960s eligible under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. As with many other immigrant groups, the men arrived first, followed some years later by their families. The Indian population has grown steadily, though the increase owes less to the arrival of new professionals and more to the extended family system prevalent in India. Chicago has the third largest concentration of Indians in the U.S. The 1980 census recorded 33,541 Indians in the Chicago metropolitan region; in 1995, according to informal estimates, their number had grown to 80,000, scattered throughout the suburbs with concentrations in the western and northern suburbs. A majority of Indians are professionals, particularly prominent in the sciences, medicine, computer industry, and management. The number of Indian students at universities remains large, but a working-class population is also emerging. As in other metropolitan cities, Indians are visible as taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and gas station owners.

Despite their affluence and professional status, Indians have never had the slightest presence in Chicago politics, and they remain relatively isolated from the social life of the city. Many are, nonetheless, employed by the city and the state. Nor do they lack organizations: a pamphlet released in 1995 by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organization that advocates pride in Hindu culture and the political ascendancy of Hinduism, lists nearly 70 Indian associations in the Greater Chicago area, not including those catering to Muslims. Several temples serve the Hindu community; there are two gurudwaras for Sikhs and one major Jain temple; and Indian Muslims frequent several mosques. Indian Christians and Zoroastrians (Parsis) are also well organized. The ethnic, linguistic, and cultural divisions that prevail in India have been carried over with organizations such as the Bengali Association, the Bihar Cultural Association, the Tamilnadu Foundation, the Telugu Association, the Punjabi Cultural Society, the Maharashtra Mandal, and at least three Gujarati associations. Other organizations strive to evoke a more comprehensive notion of ‘Indianness’: prominent among these are the Indian Classical Music Circle, which sponsors recitals by major Indian musicians, and the Chicago chapters of various professional organizations of Americans of Indian origin. Until the 1980s, no organization addressed adequately the problems encountered by Indian women, many of them unacquainted with social and legal services. Apna Ghar was set up in 1989-90 to meet this need as a shelter for battered Indian women and counseling service.

A section of Devon Street, near the northwestern suburbs, provides a glimpse of Indian life; it is, barring perhaps Jackson Heights, the busiest Indian “neighborhood” in the United States. Indian restaurants proliferate, as do Indian grocery stores, boutiques, electronic stores, video and entertainment shops, and jewelry shops. Here, as elsewhere in the Indian diaspora, commercial Hindi films are extremely popular, and may well be the element that cements Chicago’s diverse Indian population into a more cohesive identity. The growing strength of Indians is indicated by the fact that in 1991, the ‘Little India’ stretch of Devon was also designated Gandhi Marg [Way], which in turn prompted Pakistanis to press for the redesignation of an adjoining stretch to Muhammad Ali Jinnah Way in memory of the founder of Pakistan.

Chicago’s Museum of Natural History was one of the arenas where the Festival of India was staged in 1985, and the University of Chicago’s renowned program in South Asian studies has made Chicago one of the prime destinations for visiting Indian academics, intellectuals, and performing artists. The Art Institute of Chicago, the premier art museum in the city, hosted a Guru Dutt retrospective in fall 2001, and in fall 2002 has, following a worldwide trend, turned its attention to classics of the commercial cinema. These are some signs of what some Indians would like to think is their growing presence in the cultural and intellectual life of the city.

[See also Hindus in Chicago.]

Articles (The HINDU)

Reflections on the Indian Diaspora.
Freedom in Chains.
At Home in Trinidad.
The Future of the Indians in the Diaspora.