NAMASTE Madison to Celebrate
Contributions of Indian Americans to the
Greater Madison Area
Cultural and Community Introspection
Event Organizers - Neeta Saluja (l-r), Lakshmi Sridharan,
Anjali Sridharan, Pratibha Antani and Amitha Domalpally;
(Below Right) A panel from the exhibition
By Jonathan Gramling

Ever since the first individuals from the subcontinent of India began coming to
Madison during the 1960s as students, there has been an Indian American
community presence in Madison, at first very small and relatively invisible
and then more visible with events on the Capitol Square celebrating India Day.

And while Indian Americans have always welcomed non-members of their
community to their celebrations and the Indian American community has grown
significantly over the years, the community has never taken stock, as a
community, of the Indian American community here and its impact on and
contribution to the broader Madison community — until now.

On May 8-15, members of the Indian American community — through a Library
Takeover Grant — will inform the Madison community and themselves of what
is the Indian American community is through large posters placed throughout
the Madison Downtown Library and will end with a symposium that will reflect
on the identity of Indian Americans, from perspectives within and outside of
the community through an initiative called NAMASTE Madison. Namaste id a friendly greeting given as one slightly bows with hands pressed
together.

In many ways, a key feature of the Indian American identity is the ability to adapt to cultural movements and to borrow the best elements of all
cultures while still maintaining an Indian American identity. And it is all an integrated sense of being.

“I feel like I am an Indian American,” said Anjali Sridharan, a second generation Indian American who is an electrical engineer by education
and now works as a project manager. “Working in Madison is nice because in general, the environment is very tolerant of differences. I feel
you can be yourself whatever that might be and be able to pursue your career and dress the way that you want to dress and feel free to do extra-
curricular activities with your culture. My life is absolutely a blend of the two cultures.”
Madison does, although we didn’t have that in India. Thanksgiving is something commendable, so why not celebrate it. That’s the type of
flexibility we have in our culture. And that has sustained us and it will sustain us forever.”

Anjali also appreciates that flexibility.

“I would say that the whole Indian culture itself is more like a philosophy,” Anjali said. “You don’t have to do things a certain way to be
considered doing them the right Indian way. All of us, I am sure, are doing things differently in our households and that is acceptable. Some
people go to the temple regularly. Some people pray in their house. And some people pray in their head. All of those are acceptable ways to be
Indian and you are directly connected to the religion.”
Indian Americans have always felt very welcome in Madison, feeling the freedom to be who they are while also enjoying the best that Madison
has to offer.

“I came here from Australia and I came in the middle of the winter,” said Neeta Saluja who teaches Indian cooking. “And I thought it was going
to be tough. But coming to a university town, there were people from all walks of life. We lived in University Housing, which was a wonderful
experience. And I never felt any different than the rest of the people who lived there. I feel very comfortable talking to people and listening to
them. It was a very easy transition for me. But I did come from Australia. Things have changed over the years, certainly. But I still feel that
Madison is such a community where people just come together very nicely. Whenever I go outside of Madison, I can feel the difference in
people and their behavior. But it was easy to adjust in Madison. My kids grew up here and they loved it.”

“I came to the U.S. in 1977,” said Pratibha Antani who retired from WPS. “From 1977-1985, we lived in different parts of the country. However,
after coming to Madison, I felt this was a different city because I never had any problem here. People are nice. Even though it isn’t a big city, it
is very close to Chicago and Milwaukee and so, I never missed anything. And like Lakshmi said, although we love to go to India, this is our
home. I don’t say the U.S. is our home. But Madison is our home. I always look forward to coming back. Even though I go and visit LA, I still
say that I want to go back to Madison. I have wonderful neighbors. I have lived in that neighborhood for the past 23 years. We get together a
lot.”

Amitha Domalpally, an ophthalmologist by training who is the director of a research lab, has always lived in Madison and has never been
made to feel like a foreigner. And if her difference is recognized, it is in a positive way.

“Being an Indian in Madison, most of the time, I don’t realize and don’t remember that I am an Indian and I am different,” Amitha said. “I think
that is because when I am at work, my colleagues are scientists and there are three surgeons surrounding me. I never get the feeling, ‘I’m
different. I’m Indian.’ When I am on the soccer field with my son and daughter with the other moms, I’m just another soccer mom out there. It
never comes up that you are different, that you are Indian. I think the only time that it ever comes up that I am different, that I am an Indian, is
when people ask for restaurant reviews and want to know which Indian restaurant I go to or they are admiring my beautiful jewelry or clothing
and say, ‘I could never go with that yellow, but it looks so pretty on you.’ At that time, I am an Indian. If it ever comes up, it is always in awe
and fascination for this country that is a different culture.”

Lakshmi Sridharan was struck by the friendliness of the people when she first came to Madison as a student in the 1960s.

“I just fell in love with the city,” Lakshmi said. “The very first day when I came, I woke up at 8:50 a.m. and I had an English test to take at 9 a.
m. I was on one side of campus and I didn’t how to get to Bascom Hall. I asked someone how to get there and a gentleman was standing next
to me and said, ‘You will never be able to walk down there in 10 minutes. I’ll take you there.’ That was my first day in Madison. A few years
later, I went for my driver’s test. I got in the car. Shree had taught me how to drive. I was sitting outside waiting to take the test. I never
changed the gear from neutral to drive. I hit the gas and the car wasn’t moving. Later, Shree said, ‘I knew you were going to fail.’ This
gentleman who was sitting next to me said, ‘Don’t be nervous. You’ll do fine. I know you Indians. I have friends and they are all very smart
people. You are a smart woman. You can do it.’ That relaxed me and I got it into gear. I drove and he passed me even though there is the
expectation that no one gets through on their first try. I did make a mistake in the beginning, but he had confidence in me and he told me I
should have confidence in myself. Those are the kinds of people whom I have come across in Madison. I just love being here. We have
wonderful neighbors and wonderful school teachers. Everyone has been so nice to us. I never feel that I left home. When I go back to India
now that I am retired — Shree and I go back to India every year — I love visiting India, but I feel this is our home.”

But she did feel a difference when she worked at the DNR. But it could have been that, especially when she started there, the DNR was a good-
old-boys club.

“I was one of the very few women working there,” Lakshmi said. “And I was certainly the first Asian woman there. It was not easy. They didn’t
discriminate against me, but I was just different for them. It was harder for them to consider me an equal to other candidates when it came time
for promotions and all of that, not because they didn’t trust me, but because they felt it would be difficult for the public to interact with me. Over
time, I won them over.”

The members of the committee are very conscious and proactive about keeping their ties to India to keep that cultural connection alive even
as they also adapt to their adopted home.

“After we moved here, we had to make trips to India, have them connected to their grandparents and other relations,” Neeta said about her
children. “Today, both of my kids are very close to both sides of our family and their cousins. When they go back to India, they don’t feel out of
place there. And they are well-fitted here. When they go back, they are like any children there and they fit in with the food and the dancing or
joking. They have sustained it that way, going there and being part of the family.”

Anjali who is second generation continues the tradition.

“We actually do travel to India,” Anjali said about her family. “We take the kids there so that they get exposed to the culture. I’m lucky enough
that my husband restricted me to live by my parents or his parents if we were going to have children. So by being by my parents, we have a lot
of culture exposed there too.”

Next issue: Big India and India in Madison
Her mom, Lakshmi Sridharan, talked
about how the Indian culture has
survived and has been nourished over
the centuries.

“Indian culture is very flexible,” said
Lakshmi who is a scientist who retired
as a regional manager for four DNR
programs in southeastern Wisconsin
and is leading the committee hosting
the event. “I think it comes from our
history in India. India was invaded by
the Islamic religion, Muslims. And then
they faded away and the British came.
They spent 200 years with us. Indian
culture survived all of that. They didn’t
let go of what they had and then
accepted whoever came and
whatever they offered. That’s partially
because we absorbed the best of the
other culture. Indian Americans in
Madison do the same thing. We have
our own culture, our one foot in
everything, but we are also willing to
try out what other people have to see
what is better. And we accept it if it is
better. For example, we celebrate
Thanksgiving just like the rest of