Los Angeles Times, Sept. 27, 2015
Six dancers stood on stage, arms bent at the elbows, elbows hoisted chin-level.
They stood for thirty seconds, broad, nervous smiles on their faces, barely blinking. Thirty seconds turned into a minute, then two. No one wanted to lower their arms in case the music started again. But as the clock inched toward the third minute, this started to seem unlikely.
Nearly 19,000 people in San Jose, Calif.’s SAP Center watched on.
A photographer sighed: “Oh boy.”
Event co-host, Indian-American comedian Rajiv Satyal, jumped on stage, microphone in hand, to offer comic relief.
“Don’t worry!” he assured the crowd, his polished head glistening under the stage lights. “With 17,000 Indians here, we have some tech support.”
The crowd, mostly Indian Americans and Indian nationals here to see visiting India Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak, laughed and applauded. More than 89,000 Indians live in Silicon Valley, another 86,000 in San Francisco and Oakland.
The music didn’t resume, but an iPhone text message notification played through the speaker.
The crowd erupted into cheers.
Another photographer looked up from his laptop: “Wait, what?”
The dancers were still standing on stage, now arms akimbo. Satyal tried to pass the time until someone could resolve the SAP Center’s technical troubles.
“So, how many people have a ‘droid! An Android!” he shouted.
“Woooo!” the crowd cheered.
“How about a Blackberry?”
The roar of cheers was deafening.
“You know what my favorite app is?” Satyal said. “My favorite app is Shazam, it’s an app where it recognizes any song after five seconds. I wish there was an app that does it for human faces, where…”
The music started playing, and Satyal took it as his cue to dash off stage.
The dancers remained still. The speakers were playing the wrong song.
The music stopped. Moments later, it started again. Still the wrong song.
Bollywood actress and co-host Ashvini Bhave, radiant in a traditional red and gold Indian dress, took the stage, asking the dancers to take take a seat until the music situation could be resolved.
Satyal returned to the stage to finish his Shazam joke, which received a lukewarm response.
Then: “Where are the Punjabis?” he yelled.
The crowd erupted.
Again: “Where are the Punjabiiiiiis?”
The crowd sustained its cheers.
Just as quickly as he’d gotten on stage, Satyal got his cue to get off stage again.
A Bollywood number followed, with dozens of men, women, boys and girls taking the stage in turns to move like tastebuds that had tasted fruit juice for the first time.
Musician Kailash Kher, whose glittery blue shoes dazzled the stage, then performed with a live band. The crowd sang along.
An hour and a half into the program, with the exception of the occasional chants for “Modi! Modi! Modi!”, it was easy to forget who the audience was here for.
They got on their feet and danced during an upbeat Kailash track. One man danced with such intensity a security guard asked him to move away from the stairs.
Sure, they were here for Modi, the prime minister who had won the hearts of Indians around the world for representing himself as a layman, a nationalist, and a lover of tech. But they were, in a sense, also here for themselves.
“Modi works very hard, he’s very ethical,” said Neeraj Kashalkar, 43, of Irvine, who had brought his whole family up to San Jose for the event. “He speaks my language. Previous prime ministers did not. Modi was very poor. He used to sell tea. So to go from nothing to this… he understands our problems.”
Kashalkar had taught his children of the virtues of Modi. Put on the spot, his daughter Apoorva, 12, spoke of ethics. Modi worked hard, she said. He wasn’t from the upper class, she said.
“And he doesn’t take bribes.”
Kashalkar and his friends also wanted to hear what Modi had to say about the Digital India initiative, and what he would do to reduce the red tape around doing business in India – the kind of thing he’d been discussing with Silicon Valley leaders during his current visit. Whether he would address such things on this evening to such a diverse crowd in such a festive environment was unclear.
But really, said Kashalkar, smiling ear to ear, he just wanted to hear what Modi had to say, anything at all.
“He has given his whole life to the nation,” he said. “I have goosebumps just talking about it. This is the guy saying what I’m thinking. He speaks to me. He speaks to all of us.”
Before Modi made his entrance, before the audience sang the Indian national anthem with the force of a church choir, before Modi spoke of the courage and ingenuity of Indians, of the work he promised to do for his country, of the Indian “brain drain” being more of a brain deposit, and before the SAP Center’s subtitle writer garbled most of Modi’s impassioned speech with missing words and typos, Satyal the Shazam comedian and Bhave the Bollywood actress brought the audience’s energy seemingly to a peak:
“I am Indian!” Bhave yelled.
“I am American!” Satyal yelled back.
“We. Are. Indian. Americans!” they chanted.
Pointing their microphones at the audience, the crowd chanted back.
“WE. ARE. INDIAN. AMERICANS!”