Chicago: One of the most striking scenes at the India Independence Day parade in Naperville, an affluent Chicago suburb, was watching the Mayor Emeritus leading the parade resplendent in a Rajasthani ‘pagdi’ (turban).
At the ‘mela’ (fair) that followed the parade, American elected officials could be seen digging into delicacies like ‘pav bhaji’ and ‘vada pav’.
Naperville hosted its first India Day, with an estimated crowd of over 10,000 spectators, sizable for a first-time ethnic event.
A colourful procession with 16 decorated floats sponsored by various community organizations, businesses and restaurants wended its way along the half mile route.
Several dance groups representing the diverse dance forms and music of India were part of the procession.
Among the local dignitaries attending were the chiefs of the police and fire brigade, city council members, aldermen (equivalent to an Indian municipal corporator) and elected representatives of the Illinois legislature.
Illinois Lt. Governor Evelyn Sanguinetti, the first Latino to hold the office, hailed the diversity that was being celebrated, adding that there was a need for more diverse cultures in state leadership so that all races and colors were adequately represented.
Other elected officials said they were pleasantly surprised to note the overwhelming response to the parade given the fact that this was the first such event by the Indian American community in Naperville.
Krishna Bansal, chairman of the Naperville Indian Community Outreach (NICO) which was the primary organizer of the event, said that the parade celebrated the integration of the Indian American community and was the successful culmination of an idea mooted a couple of years back and actively encouraged by the then mayor and the Naperville City Council.
He said that the parade this year was only a beginning and would be surpassed in both magnitude and participation in the coming years. He made a strong plea for greater participation of the Indian American community in the political process.
American spectators and Indian Americans born in the US appeared to be fascinated by the sheer riot of colours with dancers representing various Indian states performing to traditional folk music.
Spectators lining the route waved Indian and American flags.
The parade on Chicago’s Devon Avenue has till today been the major such event in the Midwest.
The Naperville parade signals a dramatic demographic shift in the Indian American population. The area near Devon has traditionally been the first stop for immigrants from the sub-continent, looking for community networking, Indian restaurants and stores and accessible public transport. These immigrants later moved to the suburbs as they prospered.
But in recent years the vast majority of Indian immigrants have skipped Chicago entirely, instead settling near jobs at high-tech companies in the suburbs, including Motorola in Schaumburg, 3Com in Rolling Meadows and Lucent Technologies in Lisle, all Chicago suburbs.
Most of them are information technology or medical professionals who choose suburbs like Naperville for the highly rated school system.
For long, the biggest Indian Independence Day parades in the US have been held in New York and California, the states with the largest number of Indian Americans. But as successful Indian professionals have moved inward, these events have become a regular feature in even smaller cities.
Local administrations have quickly adapted to the special needs of South Asian immigrants. Naperville, for instance, has set up three cricket pitches, for a game not traditionally played in the US.
The Naperville event organizers made a special effort to project the India Day as a celebration of the contribution and assimilation of the Indian American community into the mainstream, as much as a celebration of their Indian heritage.
Now that months of preparation have culminated in an event lauded by the local community, the organizers said they are hoping for an even more elaborate affair next year.
Meanwhile, the neighboring suburb of Aurora, known as the City of Lights, has officially sponsored the Diwali celebrations in October-for the second year in a row.