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The Two Faces of America's Economic Collapse

New America Media, Commentary, Sandip Roy Posted: Oct 08, 2008

Editor's Note: Karthik Rajaram, the unemployed father and husband who recently killed his three sons, wife, and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself, has much in common with another Indian American, Neel Kashkari, who has been selected to head the Treasury's new Office of Financial Stability. When banks go bust, the American dream implodes -- not just in NASDAQ indexes, but also in tidy suburbs and quiet, gated communities, writes NAM editor Sandip Roy.

Neel Kashkari, 35, MBA. Job Experience Goldman Sachs, TRW, U.S. Treasury.

Karthik Rajaram, 45, MBA, Job Experience PriceWaterhouseCoopers, NanoUniverse, Azur Partners LLC.

In another life they could have known each other, traded business cards. Successful professionals with all the trappings of the model minority. The kinds that can own a home in a gated community with a Lexus SUV in the driveway. Indian-American median family income rose from $87,484 in 2006 to $92,925 in 2007. Kashkari and Rajaram should have been examples of those statistics.

But instead they have become the two faces of America's economic collapse the two horsemen of our apocalypse.

Kashkari is the $700 billion man the knight on the white horse heading the rescue of collapsing corporations. Except it was too late for Rajaram.

Rajaram, unemployed, his savings wiped out in the market collapse killed his three sons, wife, and mother-in-law before turning the gun on himself in a 2,800 square foot house in an upscale California neighborhood.

Two days ago no one knew either of them. And we still know very little about either. The South Asian Journalists Association posted two items about Kashkari. It wasn't much information but SAJA had its biggest day of web traffic. Soon I imagine Kashkari will be on the cover of every Indian American magazine. Already the Indian media is scouring his grandfather's rundown neighborhood asking the befuddled residents "Do you remember the Kashkaris?"

When Rajaram wiped out his family, the media didn't even know if he was an Indian citizen or not. His mother-in-law, we are told, was an Indian national. His children were named after Indian warriors and gods. But soon we will find out the neighborhood in India where his roots are. Soon the media will be asking some old man standing on his porch - "Do you remember the Rajarams?"

I hope we will remember the Rajarams. I hope we will remember that the same pride that allows us to celebrate the Kashkaris and anoint them "Indian American of the Year" in glittering ceremonies in New York hotels also keeps the Rajarams of the community from seeking help, from talking about their financial meltdown and its mental toll.

Did Subasri Rajaram know her husband was spiraling into a desperate blind alley? Did she reach out to anyone? Friends, counseling services, domestic violence organizations. I don't know. They seemed okay, said an Indian friend who had seen them at a party a few days ago. But then, she added, Indians don't like to talk about their financial problems.

We would rather save face. And Karthik Rajaram no doubt thought that his family was better off dead than losing face as the sons of a failure. Even in death we read the honor roll of his family. One son was an honors student. Another was a Fulbright scholar.

Obviously Karthik Rajaram had his own mental problems. A business associate has called him emotionally unstable. But if we are to embrace Neel Kashkari as our own, we should think twice before turning our faces away from Karthik Rajaram because he's a "bad apple." When SAJA posted the news about Rajaram's death, SAJA founder Sree Sreenivasan noted, "Every time we write about a crime in the U.S. involving South Asians, we get criticism from some on our mailing lists." No one, he added, complained about news items about the ascent of Indian American CEOs.

I hope as Kashkari tries to bring financial stability to the country, he will remember Karthik Rajaram. When banks go bust, the American dream implodes -- not just in annual reports and NASDAQ indexes, but also in tidy suburbs and quiet, gated communities.

The only clue it leaves of how an American dream turned into an American nightmare an unread newspaper lying in the driveway.

Barack Obama and John McCain stood in a townhall on Tuesday night and squabbled over the economy and the middle class and vied with each other to feel the pain of the economic collapse. And they talked about the American dream.

But neither brought up Karthik Rajaram. Or Neel Kashkari. American nightmare and American dream in a strange twisted way they will be forever linked together.

You toss a coin into the air and you never know how it will land.

Sometimes it lands Neel Kashkari. Sometimes it's Karthik Rajaram.

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