"Being the son of an immigrant is almost like being a convert to Americanism," says Jindal, sitting behind his desk in his handsome, high-ceilinged fourth-floor office in the state capitol building in Baton Rouge. Jindal is slight and fine-featured, with an aquiline nose and a heavy, beetling brow, and he speaks with a pure southern accent, humid and twangy. He's talking about a subject he broaches so infrequently that some critics say he evades it: his cultural roots. "As a kid, I would roll my eyes at my dad when he'd say 'Be grateful you are an American,'" he says. "I'd think, 'What else would I be?' But I think I'm close enough to my father's experience now that, no matter what happens in life, I think, 'Boy, I'm lucky I'm here.'"
Amar and Raj Jindal, the governor's parents, emigrated from the Punjab, in northern India, to Baton Rouge so that Raj could pursue graduate studies in nuclear physics at Louisiana State University. Amar was an engineer. Piyush was born June 10, 1971, and remained Piyush until he was 4 years old. That's when he renamed himself Bobby, after his favorite character on The Brady Bunch. It was his first step toward ingratiating himself into the local culture—a fitful process that would involve his rejecting his parents' religion and politics.
But not their work ethic. Amar was a strict taskmaster, and Bobby was expected to excel. "When my father would say 'You have great potential,' it wasn't a compliment," Jindal says. It meant there was room for more effort. Effort, however, is something Jindal has never failed to give. He entered high school at the age of 13, and in his spare time he launched a local computer newsletter, a retail candy business, and a mail-order software company. "He was very precocious, as you can imagine," says Mary Lee Guillot, his principal at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. "What you see now is what you saw then—focused, feet on the ground, always knew where he was going."
When Bobby Jindal was 12, a Southern Baptist friend named Kent gave him a paperback Bible for Christmas. Jindal was disappointed, not least because the Bible was engraved with his name and thus unreturnable. "I was raised in a strong Hindu culture, attended weekly pujas, or ceremonial rites, and read the Vedic scriptures," Jindal wrote in a 1993 article in America, a Jesuit magazine, one of many religious essays he published in the early nineties. "I considered myself anti-Christian," he wrote in another piece; elsewhere, he confided that he thought Christians worshipped fish ("in the same way that many Westerners think Hindus worship cows"). The Bible went into a closet, and might have remained there had Jindal not sneaked away with a girl from a high-school dance at a Baton Rouge hotel.
Jindal and the girl, Kathy, slipped off to the rooftop and talked about their futures. She aimed to be a Supreme Court justice, she told him, so that she could stop people from "killing babies." Her passion astonished Jindal. "While she could not reply to any one of my arguments for abortion," he later wrote, "I could not help but be amazed by her genuine compassion and innocence. . . . Kathy's sincere convictions showed me an aspect of Christianity I had never encountered before."