Influence of the Indian community grows in Mason

Kendall Davis  | The Chronicle
Akshay Vadlamani | The Chronicle
Srinidhi Valathappan  | The Chronicle

As Mason grows over time, it continues to evolve as a hub of multiculturalism. This has led the Indian community to flourish alongside it, building a sense of home in a new country.

In recent years, there has been an uptick in the Indian population of Mason. According to Mason City Schools, Asians make up the highest minority enrollment (30.3%) in the district. This can be attributed to many factors, whether it’s the major companies like Procter and Gamble (P&G) based in Mason, or the notable school district. But for many, reasons for coming to Mason stretch further than a job, adding to the complexities of the community as it continues to grow and establish itself as a local powerhouse.

Incentive for Immigration

One of the heads of the Sai Baba Temple of Greater Cincinnati and an elder member of the Desi community Prasad Lalgudi has lived in Mason for over two decades. Desi is a term those with South Asian ancestry use to refer to themselves, originally meaning ‘native’. Lalgudi said that the move to America for most immigrants is seen as a mark of success.

“When you live in India, coming here is the American dream,” Lalgudi said. “The glamor in going to Hollywood is like the glamor for them in coming here.”

Lalgudi said that part of that explosive growth in Masom was attributed to the companies’ desire for sustainable overseas hiring, leading them to put attention on India. Lalgudi himself moved after P&G brought him to their headquarters in Cincinnati, much like many other immigrants who sought job opportunities during that time. Lalgudi said that is what ultimately was the initial beginning of modern-day Indian migration.

“When we first moved here with around 12 other families, that was our first support system,” said Lalgudi. “We didn’t have many Indian groceries, we didn’t have many Indian restaurants, but we had our community because of P&G.”

Harini Radhakrishnan is an entrepreneur who moved to Mason in 2019 after her husband received a job offer at Fifth Third Bank. She is the co-founder of Showkalis Events, an organization dedicated to creating events for Desi members to bond. Coming from New Jersey which also boasts a large Indian population, Radhakrishnan emphasized the need to find that Indian community once again, this time in Mason.

“When we were deciding to move to Cincinnati a few years ago, we asked people where exactly was the best place to live,” Radhakrishnan said. “They said Mason because there’s such a large Indian population already. So for me, having a community here was a big part of deciding to move to Mason.”

Nithya Rajarathnam is an entrepreneur who owns a small Indian jewelry boutique called Yashni. Rajarathnam said that though she did not originally live in Mason, she found that the ease of access to Indian commodities and the familiar people were worth moving for.

“I think many people who move to Mason move for the school, but for me, we moved [when] my kids are already in high school,” Rajarathnam said. “It’s because of the community sense. [Mason] is more convenient as we grow older. I wanted to be closer to my people.”

Rakesh Nemaani and his wife Soumya are a newly married couple who moved to the US recently. Nemaani said that while he moved to the Cincinnati area for the convenience of being near his job, he found a lot of value in moving to the US, particularly Mason.

“You can learn some new things [in the United States],” Nemaani said. “The United States is completely different in terms of culture. It helps you in not just personal development but also changes the mindset, so that’s another reason I wanted to explore this side of the world.”

Rajarathnam said that when in the process of moving to America, people will help each other move within the Desi community.

“There are Facebook groups and WhatsApp groups that are created [to help people find somewhere to live in America],” Rajarathnam said. “So if someone’s moving in, I’ve seen people that reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m moving in from this area, in India, what’s a good place to live?’ Those communities have been really helpful in guiding them.”

Culture and Traditions in America

As the Indian population in Mason has grown, so have the cultural events and connections. Lalgudi said that being able to celebrate festivals and attend events together strengthens community bonds and keeps new generations involved in traditional culture. 

“The temple is like an anchor for all of us,” Lalgudi said. “As you come to a new place, the temple stays constant. It’s where you pray, but also where you meet people socially and understand what’s happening around you.”

Another co-founder of Showkalis Events and a Mason resident since 2011 Agalya Subramanian said that there is an impact of community on intergenerational immigrant families who are displaced from the origin place of cultural traditions and rituals.

“We used to celebrate Diwali, Pongal, all [the] holidays with our family back home,” Subramaniam said. “Now our kids here grow up with a slightly different experience but when we celebrate, community becomes family.”

Another co-founder of Showkalis Events Niranjani Mantheeswaran moved to the US a couple of years ago. Mantheeswaran said that the need to find that sense of community is not just for themselves, but for their kids who grow up in a different time and place.

“It’s really important for the kids to get that sense of community and a sense of how we grew up with our culture so they don’t forget their roots,” Mantheeswaran said.

Radhakrishnan said that the temple has helped build intergenerational interest in traditional Indian culture, specifically with her daughter.

“After seeing Holi celebrations in the temple last year, my daughter became curious about its origins and stories,” Radhakrishnan said. “Because of the temple, because of the festivals celebrated here together, it opens up opportunities to learn more and engage with our culture.”

Subramaniam also said that there is a unique sense of upholding the Indian culture when practicing traditions in America.

“Even in India, I don’t know if we’d be able to or if we would attend as many festivals and traditions,” Subramaniam said. “But now that we’re here, there’s a responsibility to preserve our culture.”

Lalgudi said that the need to carry on those traditions passes on to future generations so that youth today in the US are more involved culturally and spiritually than those living in India.

“A lot of Desis in their 30s and 40s are focused on making their kids follow the traditional culture, like spirituality, which I’m not sure if they would’ve been able to do back in India,” Lalgudi said. “Even in India now, that spiritual and cultural learning doesn’t happen that frequently in kids of the same age group.”

Cultural Impact on Students

Mason High School (MHS) senior Herambh Chakravarthy, secretary of the Hindu Student Association (HSA), said he and his peers formed the HSA after learning about world religions at school and feeling that Hinduism was misrepresented. This inspired them to start the HSA to make sure Hinduism was more properly represented and to connect with the diverse people of MHS.

“I think HSA brings a greater awareness to the diversity that’s within Mason,” Chakravarthy said. “I think with HSA, I’m able to reach out to people that don’t know that much about us. We’re able to form that connection.”

Freshman Hari Tadpatri said that there is an importance of these customs and traditions in maintaining that cultural connection. 

“Being a part of these cultural activities just continues to enrich the experience I already have at Mason,” Tadpatri said. “It serves as a way to reconnect with my heritage and my family.”

Senior Neel Godbole said he believes having such a large Indian population is important, as it helps people feel more comfortable with openly expressing their culture.

“[Living in an area with a large Indian population], it’s amazing. If I went to a school that was very limited in Indians, you can see the difference in even the way their house is set up,” Godbole said. “They might not have as many Indian gods [in their house] as someone in Mason does.”

Misconceptions and Stereotypes

However, several Mason residents report experiences of discrimination, whether that be based on the language barrier or their skin color.

“We look different, talk differently, and that could be a reason for them to have treated us differently or for the natural feeling some may have had, like ‘Hey, that’s another competitor in the fight for a job,’” Lalgudi said.

Rajarathnam said that bias is an everyday phenomenon, and occurs everywhere from the workplace to the grocery store. 

“[Discrimination] is all around you,” Rajarathnam said. “It’s unconscious bias, like they have already decided how to react to you.”

Rajarathnam said that stereotypes and misconceptions of the Indian diaspora, such as believing they only immigrated here to escape the widespread poverty of India, can be harmful to the progress we make as a society.

“I think a very common misconception is [that] everybody back home is terribly poor,” Rajarathnam said. “I think when they think of India, they still see the country as being a poor country and everybody in the country is so poor and that’s why they come here. I don’t think that’s the case.” 

Godbole and senior Vikrant Chachare, co-founders of the HSA at MHS said that they also saw these misconceptions taught in elementary and middle school textbooks. Godbole said a common misconception was “that Hinduism was part of the caste system rather than religion”.

“As we listened, we realized, ‘Okay, some of these are correct’, but it’s not just all about Holi and Diwali,” Godbole said. “Talking to the Board of Education made us realize it’s only taught for one or two days out of the few weeks allocated to world religions.”

Chachare said that in younger grades, minority students can feel isolated in terms of their food or their attire, something that can contribute to feelings of loneliness and segregation. However, Godbole said that opportunities to connect with students of similar heritage can help ease these feelings.

“It creates a family outside of India, a safe space for us to talk and open up,” Godbole said. “But it’s also just games and fun and it’s like a ginormous family that shares one culture.”

Rajarathnam said that as an immigrant, many struggles are faced when trying to accomplish the same things as other Americans.

“There’s path A for white people, people who are born and raised here who are not of color,” Rajarathnam said. “Then we have paths B and C which have all of these hurdles that you have to pass through.”

Godbole also said that there can be difficulties within the community, as competitiveness in academics and extracurriculars, while motivating, can be stressful.

“[A competitive environment] has a negative impact on mental health,” Godbole said. “You’re constantly thinking about comparing yourself to other people”. 

However, Chachare said that the comparisons stem from a desire to see their kids succeed.

“They made it out of the rat race in India by doing well enough to achieve a better life here,” Chachare said. “And so they drive us to do better, for them and for future generations.”

Lalgudi said that apart from discrimination, it is also an adjustment to get used to different cultural customs in a new country.

“Fortunately, we didn’t feel many direct effects of racism that prevented us from opportunities, but we made sure to be aware and well informed of the changes we needed to adapt to,” Lalgudi said. “When you are here in a new country, you realize there are very different values and ways of living. We learn, we have to learn, over a period of time, how to assimilate [with sociocultural norms].”

Lalgudi said that he thinks things will hopefully be better for future immigrants, as there is already an established Indian population in Mason.

“For those coming now, I see a big advantage,” Lalgudi said. “They have a huge Desi population to support them.”

Indian Businesses By, And For, The Community

After moving to Mason, numerous residents felt the need to grow those cultural opportunities further – something many did through the spirit of entrepreneurship. From starting jewelry boutiques to arts nonprofits, they aspired to bring traditional goods and services to their new home in the US.

As the owner of Yashni, Rajarathnam said she started her business because she wanted to be an independent entrepreneur and showcase her passion through selling Indian cultural items.

“I’ve been doing [my business] for almost ten years now,” Rajarathnam said. “There are so many new places that have popped up since then, but when I started doing it, [it was] because there was a need.”

Subramaniam, Radhakrishnan, and Mantheeswaran along with Induja Rajagopal, started Showkalis Events in April 2023, to organize cultural parties and events on a quarterly basis for the Indian women of Cincinnati. They said that there was an unmet need – available events were either family gatherings or very religiously based, and Showkalis wanted to create an avenue for these women to connect and enjoy a night off.

“We were looking for events that were both cultural and fun, but we couldn’t find any like that,” Mantheeswaran said. “So we thought, ‘Why not just start it ourselves?’”

Subramaniam said Showkalis Events helps people become more involved in the community.

“People who don’t get other opportunities to meet new friends or other Desis get this event as a chance to do that, and build their own groups,” Subramaniam said. “It helps them feel like they’re back at home because it’s so easy to connect.”

Mantheeswaran said Showkalis Events also works to connect with other Desi-owned businesses in order to give back and support the Indian community.

“We’re also trying to uplift entrepreneurs in the community by ordering food from home cooks over restaurants, and hosting their businesses in booths at our events,” Mantheeswaran said. ‘It’s our way of giving back to the community that has supported us.”

Owner of Pushkar Silks, Vijaya Murali said she started selling sarees as she found it very difficult to get authentic silk sarees in the US herself, and wanted to help others with doing so.

“My passion is to bring pure silk sarees to the community of everyone in the US,” Murali said. “That was my main goal. I really love doing this.”

Prabha Nair, dance teacher and owner of Archana Arts, said that bringing the traditional arts helps connect the future generations to their past and engage them in their heritage.

“The younger generation has not been exposed to Indian mythology and traditions because they were born here, so their lifestyle is very different,” Nair said. “Participating in traditions such as dance is definitely helping with that exposure.”

Aashish Jha, owner of Rangmanch Cincy, a local Indian theater company, said his company’s debut performance last year was met with unexpected high praise, as he believes it was something that was missing in the community.

“[People] appreciated the fact that we are coming together and bringing Indian culture over here in Mason,” Jha said. “People appreciated what we presented and how we are getting our culture in our community using the local talent.”

Jha said that since India is such a rich and diverse country in terms of culture and tradition, his theater helps bring people together from many different backgrounds.

“[In India] everything changes in a few kilometers; you drive a few kilometers and your clothing changes, your tradition changes, your language changes, the food changes,” Jha said. “Getting different cultures together and forming a team is the spirit of our organization.”

Rajarathnam said that although India is her native country, it is still possible to weave Indian culture into American life, to carry on the traditions so the community can flourish.

“[America] is a second home for sure, but whatever you do, you always have [your heritage] in the back of your mind,” Rajarathnam said. “You try to infuse that into your kids as much as possible so they learn what your roots are; what your culture is.”