Obviously most college students would know Kal Penn from his role as Kumar on the Harold & Kumar movies or from the TV show House. Personally, I remember him from the wonderful adaptation of Jhumpa Laihiri’s incandescent novel The Namesake, a story about Indian immigrants and the constant struggle to assimilate. But, as I’m sure we’ll discover today, there’s so much more to this young, enterprising man from the Indian-American community.
Who gives up Hollywood for the White House—again and again? It’s easy to wax eloquent about politics and social issues from a movie or television set, as so many actors do, but it takes the courage of one’s convictions, a feeling of true patriotism, and a highly-developed sense of social justice to roll up one’s sleeve and really get involved in policy-making at a time when politicians are viewed with suspicion and the electorate is fractured, contentious, and belligerent!
Kal Penn is an Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement. He is one of those young people Barack Obama galvanized with enthusiasm and a desire to return the favors this country handed them. When the history of this presidency is written people may talk about healthcare or financial crises, etc., but beyond history lies mythology and it is the mythology of the times that provides the substructure upon which the success of any society must rest. History is often written by those with the loudest voices and is still the domain of white males, although that is changing; mythology, like an overflowing river, streams into those corners that history ignores—it is where we find, if we can read its clues, the aspirations, hopes, and fears of a nation and its people; it is in the mythology of the Obama presidency that we will read the legends of young heroes and heroines who spread themselves throughout this land in search of ways and means to make a positive difference. Kal Penn is one such hero; in some ways, a leader in this movement. Perhaps his presence here today will inspire some of you to join that march towards a better Union.
The modern story of this country has always been told through its immigrants—from the first waves of enthusiastic European settlers through the reluctant hordes of imprisoned Africans to the steady influx of South and Central Americans. Kal Penn is the son of immigrants from the Indian state of Gujarat, the home state of Gandhi. His background has imbued him with an interesting view of such questions as identity and stereotypes, particularly as he found his way to Hollywood, the hotbed of racial profiling and typecasting. He has brought to a national stage that perspicacious lens to focus on matters of race and immigration, fearlessly taking on even the leaders of his own party, like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton for their albeit mild and lighthearted racial jokes. And he does this with disarming good humor.
Most Indian-Americans, according to one poll by the Wall Street Journal, find themselves in the top ten percent of the income bracket. I’ve always believed that they sent me here to keep the statistics favorable! Many of you or your families have been to an Indian doctor, thus leading to another stereotype. Our science and business departments are sprinkled liberally with brown faces from the South-Asian subcontinent. I’m keeping the Indian tricolor flying bravely in the School of Theatre and Dance. Kal Penn started out in the wings as a theatre and film student, which promises only dreams and a life of penury. From there he made his way onto center stage, fulfilling even the wildest of those dreams. As Indians have settled into the fabric of American life we are increasingly finding ourselves represented in the performing arts—on TV and Film and in the theatre. Just this weekend some students in our theatre department produced Gruesome Playground Injuries, a play by Rajiv Joseph, an Indian-American playwright from Cleveland, whose brilliant play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo had a successful run on Broadway two years ago. Two decades ago there were no Indian students in our theatre department; this year several auditioned for our program.
Kal Penn and actors like him make it palatable for traditional Indian families to allow, or at least to mitigate their objections to their children’s fine arts ambitions. It’s great to cure stomach ailments or plan financial portfolios, don’t get me wrong, but only when a community can venture fearlessly into artistic realms can it fully participate in the life of a nation, because it is only then that its stories and mythology will be displayed and questions of race and identity dissected and probed. Of course, Kal Penn has demonstrated that the performing arts may also lead to the corridors of power in a nation’s capital, thus offering schoolchildren of all races another avenue of aspiration. He has proved time and again that we don’t have to be one thing—that there are many conduits into the national discourse; that this variegated country embraces multifaceted individuals; that we can and should change the minds of those who would stereotype us; that we can shrug off the mantle of Immigrant and don the cape of Citizen; that, like a biryani (which you just ate), in which all the ingredients and spices have blended perfectly, we don’t have to isolate within us what is Indian and what American—we can be loved, accepted, and celebrated in our wholeness as Americans. This may well be the legacy of such people as Kal Penn. Please welcome him to this podium.