KHANPUR, India — When Bobby Jindal was elected the first Indian American governor in U.S. history, residents of his father’s village here set off firecrackers, passed out sweets and danced in the streets. Many had spent three days praying at a local temple for his victory.
They had hoped that having such a powerful ally in the United States would bring good fortune to their community of sunbaked narrow lanes and modest homes ringed by undulating rice paddies. But the Jindal family, which stopped visiting in the 1990s after Jindal’s grandparents died, has never returned.
When Piyush “Bobby” Jindal rises Wednesday to declare his candidacy for president of the United States, the conservative Republican will probably tell the story of his family’s immigrant journey to the United States, where his engineer father and his mother, a state employee, worked hard to give him a typical American childhood.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for my parents’ background,” Jindal said in a recent telephone interview. “My dad was one of nine. He was the only one who got past fifth grade. Part of what drove his determination and success in life was his education. My parents put a strong emphasis on education, hard work, an unshakable faith. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your last name is. You can be anything in America.”
Jindal’s status as a conservative of color helped propel his meteoric rise in the Republican Party — from an early post in the George W. Bush administration to two terms in Congress and now a second term as Louisiana governor — and donors from Indian American groups fueled his first forays into politics. Yet many see him as a man who has spent a lifetime distancing himself from his Indian roots.
As a child, he announced he wanted to go by the name Bobby, after a character in “The Brady Bunch.” He converted from Hinduism to Christianity as a teen and was later baptized a Catholic as a student at Brown University — making his devotion to Christianity a centerpiece of his public life. He and his wife were quick to say in a “60 Minutes” interview in 2009 that they do not observe many Indian traditions — although they had two wedding ceremonies, one Hindu and one Catholic. He said recently that he wants to be known simply as an American, not an Indian American.
“There’s not much Indian left in Bobby Jindal,” said Pearson Cross, a political science professor at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who is writing a book on the governor.
Bobby Jindal’s father, Amar, was born and raised in Khanpur village, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, in an open-air, two-room, yellow brick house with a clay stove and a courtyard. Stairs led to the roof where Amar, a studious boy, built a small shed so he could study by lamplight, away from his boisterous family. His father ran a small grocery store nearby.
“Every time I saw him he was reading a book,” recalled a local Hindu priest, Sudama Ram Sharda, 84, who performed Amar’s marriage ceremony. “Either lying on the cot reading or in the shop.”
He walked five miles to school until fifth grade, when his father bought him a bike. Amar Jindal went on to become the only one of his siblings to attend college, according to his sister, Satya Bansal, 72, who still lives in the area. The other boys had some schooling, but the five sisters had none at all. “I wanted to go, but it was not my destiny,” Bansal said.
In Punjab’s capital city, Chandigarh, the aspiring engineer Amar fell in love with a classmate’s sister, Raj, a doctoral physics candidate. The two — both from the bania, or “trader” caste — married in 1969, a rare love marriage at a time when arranged unions were far more commonplace.
They were among India’s brightest young minds, but they had dreams wider than their country’s shores. In 1971, they sold Raj’s wedding dowry and moved to the United States, where Raj had gotten a scholarship to Louisiana State University. About four months later, she gave birth to her first son.
Eventually, the family — including Bobby’s younger brother Nikesh, now 37 and a lawyer — moved into a three-bedroom ranch home in a new subdivision called Kenilworth populated by professors and oil-industry engineers, with trimmed lawns and mailboxes out on the street. Raj went to work for the state of Louisiana as a data processor while Amar worked as a civil engineer.
The Jindals were part of a small community of Indian families in Baton Rouge at the time, many who had come to Louisiana for university jobs. There was no temple then, and Bobby Jindal remembered that they gathered at someone’s home most Sundays for Hindu religious ceremonies known as pujas, with potluck curries afterward.
Otherwise, the boys spent time reading and playing video games, or outside with neighborhood friends.
“My mom was fully committed to raising us as Americans,” Jindal said. “That was a conscious decision. We ate food that would be familiar to other families in south Louisiana. She wanted to raise us like other kids in the neighborhood.”
When he was a teenager, he began exploring his religious faith in conversations with Christian classmates. He hid his initial conversion from his devout Hindu parents, huddling in the closet to read the Bible by flashlight.
“At first they were angry about it,” Jindal recalled. “Then they wanted to understand: Was this a fad? Was it something I was serious about? Was I doing this for a girl? Why was I doing this? They questioned the motivation behind it. They asked me — and I thought it was reasonable — to read Indian books, Indian texts as well. It took time.”
When Jindal launched an ambitious campaign to become Louisiana’s governor in 2003, the Indian American community rallied behind him. He lost narrowly to his Democratic opponent, Kathleen Blanco, a defeat staffers blamed on concerns in northern Louisiana, a conservative Baptist stronghold, about his background.
Jindal would overcome that early defeat spectacularly in the coming years — he was elected governor in 2007 and reelected in 2011 with two-thirds of the vote — in part by positioning himself as a buttoned-down bureaucrat who could clean up the state and by learning how to cultivate the “Bubbas for Bobby.”
He began wearing cowboy boots more often and got a hunting license. In December, he and his wife, Supriya, were pictured on their Christmas card with their three kids decked out in camouflage. The governor said he started hunting regularly more recently in life and can’t recall much about his first kill.
“The first time I killed something — it’s got to be sometime roughly in the last 10 years,” he said.
As the years went by and Jindal’s political star rose, many in the Indian American community became disillusioned with their native son.
A longtime family friend named Sumir Chehl recalls how, before attending Jindal’s primary-night victory party in 2003, she received a phone call from Jindal’s father asking her to wear Western dress for the event.
“He said that’s what his political advisers were saying,” said Chehl, who nonetheless wore a flowing top and pants common in Punjab. “It gave me the feeling that he was trying to disassociate from his heritage.” She said Indian dress was also discouraged for his 2008 inauguration.
Jindal says that message did not come from his camp: “People were welcome to wear whatever they wanted.”
Discouraged by a lack of engagement, some of Jindal’s early donors have faded away, according to Sanjay Puri, chairman of the U.S. India Political Action Committee. Jindal’s top-contributors list now includes such recognizable names as cosmetics mogul Georgette Mosbacher.
Suresh C. Gupta, a Potomac, Md., doctor, gave a fundraiser for Jindal’s first gubernatorial bid. But he said Jindal has actively tried to disassociate himself from the Indian American community in recent years.
“So what if he’s Republican? So what if he’s Christian? I don’t care about those things,” said Gupta, who is a Democrat. “But you can’t forget about your heritage. You can’t forget about your roots.”
When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to the United States last September, a host of politicians attended his rally at Madison Square Garden. Jindal did not. When Jindal’s name was mentioned, he was booed by the crowd.
Varun Soni, the dean of religious life at the University of Southern California, who is Jindal’s contemporary and close with several of his cousins, said he believes that Jindal’s perspective of cultural assimilation is similar to the attitudes shared by the older generation of immigrant Americans who arrived in the 1960s and ’70s. Their children — the first generation of ethnic Hindus born in the United States — have embraced their two worlds and hyphenated identities with greater ease, he said.
“When Bobby started his political career, perhaps it made strategic sense for him to downplay his Indian heritage, but in this day and age, I don’t think of his ethnic identity as a political liability,” Soni said. “President Obama showed how one’s diverse and global experiences and identities can be a political asset, specifically among millennial voters.”
Jindal will join a Republican field crowded with candidates, such as Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), who have immigrant family experiences central to their campaign biographies. Jindal brushes off criticism that he has not made more of his own family story.
“What I see today happening in a way that hasn’t in a long time, or at least from what I remember from my childhood, is that America appears to me to be much more divided,” he said. “I think that’s a bad thing.”
His parents remain proud of their heritage but still made the decision to raise their children as Americans, he said, and “there’s nothing contradictory about that.”
Bridges reported from Louisiana. Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.