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This story was published as part of a weeklong series produced by the WGLT Newsroom in March 2022.

Indians in B-N: Why the community grew — and what happened when it shrunk

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Charlie Schlenker
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Ramesh Chaudhary
A family altar at the home of Ramesh Chaudhary.

This is the first part of a WGLT series looking at the Asian Indian community in Bloomington-Normal. There are nearly 6,000 Indians who live in the community. They are a group whose traditions and lives are not often presented to the public by mainstream media. It's a rich tapestry of people with all the nuance and complexity you would expect of a culture thousands of years old.

For most, the Indian presence in Bloomington-Normal starts with employment.

“This was my first job and I never left Normal,” said Ramesh Choudhury, a retired Illinois State University professor and engineer who came to town in 1970.

“This town kind of grew on us. We liked it. It was calm. It was not crowded. It was welcoming. The school was good. It was close to home. I could walk my daughter to school,” said Mukta Pradhan, a paraprofessional who works with special needs children. Pradhan’s husband works in the IT sector.

“Actually, when the recruiter brought us over here to see the place. One attraction was among many others, that there was indoor tennis court, and our whole family plays tennis, year-round,” said Anita Deoskar, who ran a yoga studio before she retired. Deoskar came to the Twin Cities decades ago with her husband, Uday, who's a doctor.

Their stories are common. They came for a job liked the town and stayed and stayed. That's not the only theme though. There’s a sizeable population of people who are not citizens or not yet citizens or who have come temporarily. And there is now a multigenerational element to settlement of people with Indian heritage.

Waves of migration

The arrival of people with Indian backgrounds in Bloomington-Normal has happened in waves. In the 1960s and 70s there were only a few people of Indian heritage in McLean County — up to 40, according to some people interviewed. That wasn’t always easy.

“I had to go to Chicago to get groceries. Of course, there was no worshiping arrangement. There wasn't even a temple in Peoria at that time,” said Ramesh Chaudhary.

From the five to 10 families in the 1970s, Indian presence gradually grew. They came for university jobs. They came as part of the medical establishment. They came to the universities. Chaudhary said there were then enough people to start celebrating Indian holidays and to begin a rotating worship in houses.

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Charlie Schlenker
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Ramesh Chaudhary
Art owned by Ramesh Chaudhary of Normal.

“I think that had the biggest impact in terms of bringing the community together. There was a time when my wife knew everybody's kitchen so well, she could go in and make tea without having to ask questions,” said Chaudhary.

Fast forward to a couple of significant business developments in the 1980s and 90s: The construction of the Clinton nuclear power plant was one that brought nuclear physicists and engineers to town and commuted to work in DeWitt County.

“They stayed here. Matter of fact, they were staying in rental apartments because they had no idea how long this was going to last. They didn't buy houses or anything. I know a person who lived for 20 years in a rental apartment,” said Chaudhary.

And then there is State Farm. The insurance giant hired consultants to help prevent computer program crashes associated with outdated programming languages that were expected to glitch at the turn of the century. It was called Y2K.

“State Farm was disproportionately scared of the Y2K problem. And they wanted every piece of code to be looked through to fix the Y2K problem. India had this great supply of people who could fix the bug,” said Illinois Wesleyan University Professor Narendra Jaggi.

And many Indians were really good employees.

“And even after the Y2K craze was over, India and Indian Americans, or even Indian immigrants, began to be seen as a reliable source of high-quality work in programming and IT by many local corporations,” said Jaggi.

So, the trend continued. In a few years Anita Deoskar said there were thousands of people of Indian heritage and their families in Bloomington-Normal. And you began to see identifiable segments of the community: Tamil, Telugu, Marathi and so on.

“And then, because of the sheer number, different groups were formed, because of the languages,” said Anita Deoskar.

Dependent visas

A lot of South Asians in Bloomington-Normal make a pretty good buck — their family members, historically, not so much. Up until the Obama administration many couldn't work at all outside the home. It's about visas. H1B visas often go to tech workers. Family members get what are called H4 visas or dependent visas and they couldn't hold employment. When that limit ended things changed.

“We saw a lot of women who wanted to work in school districts because that worked for their children. They came in as recess supervisors. They came in as cafeteria workers, although it was a job which was less demanding. Not very good pay, but it was a pretext to get out of the house. And I still see that today,” said Pradhan.

Phani Aytam
WGLT file photo
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State Farm internal management consultant and community leader Phani Aytam.

A lot of dependent visa holders also went to State Farm and the universities and other professional places. Many had advanced degrees but had accepted joblessness for the sake of the family. More income for the family and more economic activity for the community at large is one thing. State Farm internal management consultant Phani Aytam said what's not talked about so much is the emotional well-being of the dependent spouse.

“What's so important for those spouses once those restrictions were lifted is they had their own way of life as well as their own identity beyond just being at home. And I think that has had a big influence on folks, in some of the families that we've interacted with over the years,” said Aytam.

It was also good for the kids. To see mom or dad engaged in the workforce when they had not done so before made a difference. Allowing dependent visa holders into the workforce may also have affected the stability of the Indian population in Bloomington-Normal and marginally lessened the transient nature of the Indian community.

“When you have two members of the household be employed by an employer in town, it's difficult for you to sever both those ties and walk away,” said Aytam.

This is at the margins though. Some of the Indian community is still in and out, here for a few years and then on to another company or another city.

“It remains very clearly still a floating population,” said Mukta Pradhan.

Not a monolith

As numbers began to grow in the 1980s. Ramesh Choudhury said the McLean County India Association formed and then the Hindu society of Central Illinois.

“India has so many states so many languages, so many cultures, it's like a little group, but our organization was like the European Union,” said Chaudhary.

There are religiously diverse and regional cultural differences in the way the groups view the world. But Mukta Pradhan said, just as in the U.S., societal mobility breaks down those differences.

“South India traditionally has been a little more conservative. And North has been a little more open, as far as perspectives and outlook was concerned. But you have to understand that the developing economy that India is, jobs are everywhere, people constantly move,” said Pradhan.

The community built a temple to worship, then another. There were four at one time, now three. You might think the many cultures, languages and religions would hamper the creation of a sense of community identity among people or Indian heritage. That’s not necessarily so because of the national language in India.

“The thing is, all that co-exists. If I were to speak to a Tamilian, I would speak in English or in Hindi. I would speak to a Telugu person in English or Hindi. I would speak to a Punjabi person in Hindi or English. That has always been the language that we communicated in,” said Pradhan.

This is not the universal view. Anita Deoskar said the proliferation of language-based community groups within the larger Indian community changes cohesion in parts of the population.

“You use your own language; everybody feels more comfortable definitely. And because the young generation, their activities were different,” said Deoskar.

The younger generation is also different regardless of language of origin. Many sources for this article say fondly, sadly, or even irritably the kids today don't have the same cultural background they did.

“They don't learn some of the fundamentals, things about our religion and culture. So just like any other younger people, they just go out for what is new,” said Uday Deoskar.

This might be a universal human complaint, by the way, not one from just one ethnic group.

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Charlie Schlenker
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Ramesh Chaudhary
Art in the home of Ramesh Chaudhari

The Asian Indian population is about 3.3% of McLean County residents, as of 2019 Census data. That's a third higher than Peoria and Champaign counties, and far above the percentage in other central Illinois counties like Sangamon, Macon and Tazewell. This higher-than-usual concentration in a midsized city has helped foster a sense of community identity. Bloomington-Normal is small enough, many people with Indian heritage know each other, and it's geographically centered so that people can get together, unlike the Indian populations of say Naperville or Schaumburg.

Ramesh Choudhry said that has resulted in a rich cultural life with classical Indian music and drama.

“The couple is so talented, they produce Marathi plays and the plays were good enough to be invited to play in St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and other places so the whole team would go,” said Chaudhary.

There are places in Bloomington-Normal where in the parks three-quarters of the children playing are of Indian origin. Indian language groups are the second largest group in Unit 5 schools in homes in which English is not the first language. This sense of identity has created benefits for the community as a whole. With less exoticization, Narendra Jaggi said, this normalization of the Indian presence has done good things for non-Indian and Indian kids alike.

“Oddly that plays a role in how comfortable than Indian origin kids feel in interacting with the rest of the people. Because if they don't feel insecure, it gives you a certain kind of confidence and comfort that bleeds into their interaction with their other friends,” said Jaggi.

According to government data, there were around 5,700 Asian Indians in McLean County in 2019. That’s down somewhat from a peak of more than 7,000. The change came, in part, when State Farm expanded in southern and western states and moved jobs and families out of Bloomington-Normal.

Narendra Jaggi
Illinois Wesleyan University
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Illinois Wesleyan physics professor Narendra Jaggi.

Illinois State University professor Archana Shekara said her brother-in-law had spent 32 years in Bloomington-Normal, and then had to move to Phoenix.

“And that was so hard on them because they didn't know much. My sister-in-law was very displaced. This was home for her for 32 years. It was hard for us too. Your family is moving away and the main reason we came here was for family," said Shekara.

Ask the kids and you might get a slightly different answer.

“I just feel like it's harder on grownups than it is on the young people," said Phani Aytam. "I think the young people are more resilient than the grownups. But your social circle just changes, and you adapt."

Those who have stayed said that has changed the cohesion and richness of the Indian community in some ways.

“We don't have a music school that is as active as before. We don't have a dance program like that was as active as before. It's not the same,” said Shekara.

Diverse employment

Here's another strand in the rich tapestry that makes up the various Indian communities in Bloomington-Normal. The conventional wisdom is that the population is largely made up of higher-level professionals, doctors, scientists, IT workers professors, and so on. To some extent that's true, but retired Dr. Uday Deoskar said that interpretation ignores a variety of other forces in play.

“There is a stereotype that every Indian here is doing well. But Indians in America have the same problems as many other people,” said Deoskar.

There are second- and third-generation families in the Twin Cities who have diverged in profession. Not every child is going to be an academic star. And like any other immigrant group, Indian families may have histories in certain kinds of businesses. That makes employment diverse.

Several liquor stores in the community are owned by South Asian families. Hotels too. There are food service people, gas station attendants, restaurateurs, and not every health care worker of Indian heritage is a full-on doctor. Some are mid-level professionals.

“There have been a good number of nurses who migrated stateside over the years, and it's multi-generational as well. It has been happening since the ‘60s. And I believe there is a good number of nursing staff who are of Indian descent here in our community as well,” said Phani Aytam.

With the ups and downs of employment patterns, the rise and fall of social and worship groups, the departure of young adult children for other places, Uday Deoskar said the Indian origin community is just like any other immigrant presence in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

“It's continuously changing,” said Deoskar.

People of Indian heritage in Bloomington-Normal are neighbors, friends, colleagues, and part of the overall fabric of the community.

ABOUT THE SERIES

Why we did it

Bloomington-Normal has more Asian Indians than any other downstate metro community in Illinois. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children have shaped Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways, and that's worthy of attention. WGLT's Newsroom aimed to measure that impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.

How we did it

Bloomington-Normal’s Indian community is not a monolith — socioeconomically, politically, culturally — and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT Newsroom interviewed over 30 people from various backgrounds. We acknowledge these sources do not represent every Indian in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves, and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.

Feedback

We want to know what you think of the series, and what future reporting we should consider. You can send our Newsroom a message at WGLT.org/Contact.

Community support is the greatest funding source for WGLT. Donations from listeners and readers means local news is available to everyone as a public service. Join the village that powers public media with your contribution.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.
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