Devan Kalathat exemplified all stereotypes. Until he allegedly gunned down his entire family in Santa Clara. It seems to be an unfathomable tragedy.
He was the "good boy" software engineer that personified the brain drain from India. Jobs at Yahoo and Microsoft. A nice family in a tidy suburb in Santa Clara. Kids at the high-performing Challenger School. Regular family vacations to India. In an old photograph published in The San Jose Mercury News, Kalathat and the brother-in-law he allegedly shot even look the stereotype. It's from Kalathat's wedding reception but the men are not smiling. Their faces are serious. Their glasses are oversized. The men all have mustaches as if it is part of a uniform. I cannot read the sign behind them. I imagine it says plainly, "Devan weds Abha." I can imagine this because I come from the same stock as men like Devan Kalathat.
We are the H1-B engineers, the green card holders, the poster children of conformity. We follow the rules and naturalize as citizens and assimilate into condo complexes. We drive sensible cars like Honda Accords in such numbers we call them Hindu Accords. Our neighbors call us quiet and family-oriented but they rarely know much about us. We are the nice families with unpronounceable names. We host potlucks and the women wear gorgeous saris. The men still wear unflashy striped shirts and jeans.
The sheer numbers of Indians like Devan Kalathat have changed the face of Silicon Valley. Its strip malls now routinely boast Indian buffets and cash-and-carry Indian grocery stores. Novelist Bharati Mukherjee once wrote that when she came to the United States in the 60s, people would stop on Main Street and stare when she walked by in a sari. The Devan Kalathats who spread over cities like Sunnyvale in what Mukherjee called "an immigrant fog" changed all that. They normalized the Indian immigrant, gave him an identity beyond The Simpsons' Apu. They also became a stereotype - the model minority that played by the rules, didn't rock the boat and only took risks on the stock market.
Now Devan's got a gun.
Our whole world's come undone.
We will shake our heads and say it is a senseless tragedy. More details will no doubt emerge of family tensions and strife. The tendency will be to particularize this gory tragedy as the implosion of one immigrant dream story. We who are ever ready to claim the success stories of our community, the super-achieving scientists and writers and lawyers, as communal property, will be equally keen to isolate this horrible tragedy as the Kalathat's alone.
Poor family, we will tut-tut. We will commiserate with the elderly parents, twice bereaved, in India. We might raise money to send the bodies of the Kalathats and Poothemkandis back to India but will be loath to claim their tragedy as the dark twin of our own dream story.
But it's hard to escape the questions.
Why did Devan Kalathat, the quiet, level-headed engineer, buy two .45 semi-automatic handguns? I might be naïve but I don't know too many Indian Americans living in quiet suburbs who own (and know how to fire) handguns.
What is the link between Kalathat and Karthik Rajaram, the unemployed MBA in Southern California who killed his entire family in a murder-suicide last year?
And what does it mean that in cases far less extreme, we are unable to ask for help from American society or from our own South Asian organizations? We don't know how to access one and are terrified of losing face with the other. Back in India, we say proudly that we don't need counselors or therapists because the extended family acts as our safety net. That's true only in fragments. But here in America, in town homes in developments like Rivermark, even those fragments don't hold true. Instead we lead quiet lives of desperate conformity, hiding our demons from friends, neighbors, and members of the local Telegu Association. We are not allowed to have demons here.
In 2001, in a horrible bloodbath, the crown prince of Nepal gunned down his entire family. That murder was allegedly fueled by drugs, alcohol, thwarted love affairs and royal hubris. But the horror of the young prince wiping out his entire family destroyed whatever moral stature the royals had. Within seven years of that fateful family dinner party, the monarchy had unraveled.
The fallout of the trail of destruction Devan Kalathat left will probably be much less dramatic. He was an engineer, not a prince. But it might just explode the myth of the cul-de-sac in which the immigrant story is supposed to safely terminate - the shiny happy model minority nesting in orderly suburbs.
Devan Kalathat has smashed the stereotype.