Friday, July 03, 2009

Vinay Lal, "The Other Indians"

We finally have a pedagogically useful introductory book on the history of the South Asian American community, Vinay Lal’s The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America (see an earlier post on Vinay Lal by Abhi here). Lal’s book covers some of the same topics as Prashad's The Karma of Brown Folk but is much more heavily factual and closely researched -– it’s a work of history rather than a political polemic –- and it’s rich with useful and well-sourced statistics. If I were to ask students to read something about the history of South Asians in the U.S., say, in conjunction with a segment of a course relating to Indian immigrant fiction, I would probably assign this book.

In lieu of a comprehensive review, below are a few highlights and interesting tidbits from The Other Indians that I picked up on: Elihu Yale, early Immigration/Legal issues, Religion, and the old terminology question.

Elihu Yale

Lal's chapter on the early American relationship with India was interesting to me, specifically the account of Elihu Yale (i.e., the Yale who gave Yale University its name):

Well before Indians first began to arrive in some numbers in the United States a little before 1900, trade had brough the products of ‘East India’ –tea, spices, silk, muslin, opium—to New England homes. Salem owed its greatness to the commerce with the East . . . It is the ‘magnificent Oriental plunder’ accumulated by Elihu Yale in India, who served as a lowly clerk in the East India Company’s offices before he rose to assume charge of the Madras Presidency, that lifted a New England college founded in 1676 from the doldrums and prompted its founders to rename the college in honor of the wealthy donor. As a young boy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, later to be known as the ‘Sage of Concord’ and the leader of a group of writers and thinkers who would be characterized as the ‘Transcendentalists,’ often visited Boston’s ‘India Wharf’ which had by his time becomethe leading center of trade with China and India. Emerson confided to his journal in 1836 that everything in ‘this era’ had been made ‘subservient’ to ‘Trade,’ and ‘On us the most picturesque contrasts are crowded. We have the beautiful costume of the Hindoo and the Turk in our streets.’ (Lal, 8)

I have sometimes wondered whether folks at Yale today ever stop to think about the colonial legacy of Elihu Yale. (Is there anyone reading this who went to Yale, who's looked into it?)

The Dark Years: Bhagat Singh Thind, 1920-1940

I also found Lal’s account of the legal history of Indian-American citizens following the Asian Exclusion Act informative. After allowing a first wave of immigrants from India around the turn of the century, U.S. immigration authorities started to tighten restrictions on Indian immigrants by 1910, rejecting more and more applicants, in part because of fears about the Ghadr movement, and in part because of rising general xenophobia about immigrants from Asia. Still, prior to 1923, many Indians could get around racial restrictions by claiming to be ’Caucasian.’ In 1923, this was reversed, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Bhagat Singh Thind needed to be ‘de-naturalized’:

In early 1923, the Supreme Court heard on appeal from the Immigration Bureau the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, whose application for naturalization had been granted in the face of the Bureau’s opposition. Thind, a Caucasian of ‘high-caste Hindu’ stock ‘of full Indian blood,’ enterd the U.S. through Seattle in 1912, enrolled as a student at Berkeley in 1913, and was one of a handful of Indians who fought in World War I under the U.S. army. . . . Thind’s lawyers rested their case on the two-fold argument that, on the anthropological evidence, north Indians were Aryans and thus Caucasians, and, secondly, by judicial precedent Caucasians were to be construed as whites. Justice Sutherland took the contrary view: in the ‘understanding of the common man,’ . . . ‘white’ clearly denoted a person of European origins. ‘It may be true,’ wrote Sutherland, ‘that the blond Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable profound differences between them today.’ The ‘Aryan theory’ had been ‘rejected by most, if not all, modern writers on the subject of ethnology,’ and the word ‘Caucasian,’ Sutherland argued, ‘is in scarcely better repute.’ (Lal, 37-38)

Funny that Judge Sutherland, in 1923, was casting doubt on the Aryan invasion theory even then. (Isn’t it strange that some people still want to believe it’s true, even today?)

Another surprise in Lal’s account is of the years subsequent to the Thind case: despite the fact that the U.S. had decided it could de-naturalize Indian immigrants who had achieved citizenship, in practice, it happened to very few people. A lawyer named Sakharam Ganesh Pandit, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen, successfully went to the Supreme Court in 1927, to defend his naturalization as valid, and after that de-naturalization was quite rare. The real impact of the Asian Exclusion Act and the Thind case was that Indians no longer immigrated to the U.S., and many who had already settled here decided to leave. According to the U.S. census, there were 8000 Indians in California in 1917, but only 1,476 by 1940 (Lal, 40). Throughout the entire country, there were only 2,045 self-identified Indians present in the U.S. in 1940. (Just forty years later, in 1980, the Census recorded 387,223 Indians in the U.S., and that number has of course jumped again in both 1990 and 2000.)

Religion: Hindu Temple Architecture

I also learned from Lal’s treatment of religion as it is practiced by Indian Americans. He does not ignore some of the radical religious groups, like the VHP-A. But he doesn’t obsess over them either, and he makes space for a detailed account of the complexities of Hinduism as it is actually practiced in the U.S. by ordinary people. He has, for instance, interesting details on houses of worship, referring to some of the new temples that have been built with strict adherence to architecture stipulated the Shilpa Sastras, as well as the more syncretic temples that are structured very differently than they would be in India. I thought the following was interesting, along these lines:

A large metropolitan center such as Los Angeles is home to a Murugan temple, at least two Radha Krishna temples, a Kali Mandir, a Devi Mandir, a Sanatan Dharma Mandir, a Lakshmi Narayan Mandir, a Sri Venkateswara temple, and close to a dozen other temples. The nondescript Valley Hindu Temple of Northridge, where a sizable Indian community has developed over the last two decades, is representative of the other, nonsectarian tradition of Hindu temples in the United States, insofar as the temple houses a diverse array of deities—Shiva, Ram, Krishna, Durga, Lakshmi, to name a few—and welcomes Hindus in the diaspora of all persuasions. It has sometimes been suggested that Hindus in the diaspora may be less attentive to distinctions which hold sway in India, such as those between north and south, Vaishnavites and Saivites, and so on. Whether this is partly on account of their own minority status in the U.S. is an interesting and yet unresolved question. Whether this phenomenon is as distinct as is sometimes argued is also questionable. While images of both Vishnu and Shiva are not usually housed under one roof in Hindu temples in India, and the mythological works known as the Puranas—where the history, genealogy, and worship of these gods is articulated—are exceedingly sectarian, the Puranas are less exclusive than is commonly argued. Thus, a Vaishnava Purana usually elevates Vishnu as the supreme God but still has ample room for Shiva; a Saivite Purana inverses the order. A Devi Purana, dedicated to the Goddess, will similarly render secondary the male Gods. (Lal, 73-74)

I wonder if any readers who have been to different temples around the U.S. (and perhaps also in India) might have any comments on temple construction in the U.S. vs. India. (It might seem like an obscure topic, but actually I think architecture of houses of worship says a lot about the way people practice their faiths.)

The Old Terminology Problem: Desi, South Asian, etc.

Though I think very highly of Lal’s book, his discussion of terminology did raise some questions for me at certain points. Lal eschews the word “desi,” and settles on “Indian-American,” and explains carefully why he’s doing so. I can’t reproduce all of Lal’s arguments along these lines, but the following paragraph stood out to me as an interesting (though not necessarily compelling) critique of “desi”:

Though there is no gainsaying the fact that many proponents of the term ‘desi’ similarly seek to invoke its widest and most pluralistic meanings, calling forth the shared lives of many South Asians, the term operates on many different and disjunctive registers. As I have often been reminded by an old friend from Jaisalmer, in Western Rajasthan, words such as ‘country’ mean quite different things to people from metropolitan centers and those who earn their livelihoods in India’s tens of thousands of villages and smaller towns. When my friend chances to remark ‘Hamare desh me aisa hota hai’ (‘This is how it happens in our country’), by desh he clearly means his part of the country. The observation invokes not so much the nation in the abstract, much less Bharat, but rather a frame of mind and a set of habits. The word ‘desi’ also calls to mind home-grown products: thus, for example, no that liberalization has opened the Indian market to a whole array of foreign goods, including Western/hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables, one hears often of the contrast between foreign vegetables and those branded ‘desi’—the latter being small and (in common belief) much more palatable to the taste than foreign varieties. There is, it appears to me, something unsettling and certainly odd about the fact that the most enthusiastic proponents of the word ‘desi’ are precisely those diasporic Indians who, in many ways, have least claim to the word and its multiple inheritances, considering their location in metropolitan centers of thought and their immense distance from local and vernacular knowledge systems. For these reasons among many, I have, except in a few particular instances, eschewed the word ‘desi’ when speaking of Indian Americans. (Lal, xi)

I understand Lal’s reasoning, though I don’t think it’s necessarily always a mark against "desi" that many people who use the term are diasporic, and perhaps less connected to South Asian culture. I don't think the variations in the way "desi" (and videsi and pardesi) is used within northern India necessarily make the diasporic deployment of it less true within its context. Language can change.

Later, Lal also addresses the term "South Asian American," and introduces some concerns about it that will be familiar to readers of the endless debates over terminology that have taken place on Sepia Mutiny over the years (to wit: the problem of tokenizing or ignoring ‘smaller’ countries in South Asia; the fact that few people outside of secular/progressive communities would actually identify themselves primarily as “South Asian”; the confusion of South Asia with Southeast Asia; the difficulties of limiting South Asia geographically, with Afghanistan on the west and Burma on the east, etc.).

[Incidentally, I also address the terminology question in this published essay.]

Again, while the problems with the term "South Asian" (or "South Asian American") are real, they are not insurmountable, and Lal’s reasons for electing not to use the term were not entirely convincing to me. In the end, he seems to settle on "Indian American" because, "it appears to me to best do justice to those people who are the subject of this book." In effect, it seems to me that Lal may have decided for practical reasons to focus primarily on immigrants from India in particular as the subject of his book, and some of his arguments about the problems with the term “South Asian” (or “South Asian American”) might be beside the point.

That said, The Other Indians is a great read and a very helpful book overall.

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Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Intellectually Black and Socially South Asian": Michael Muhammad Knight

Michael Muhammad Knight, who had a pretty rough childhood in upstate New York, converted to Islam as a teenager. He came from an Irish Catholic background, but partly under the influence of Malcolm X and black nationalist Islam, and partly simply as a result of his own idiosyncratic spiritual leanings, he took the Shahadah at age 16, and changed his name to Mikail Muhammad. He traveled to Pakistan to study Islam at the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, under the guidance of Muslim intellectuals he first knew in the U.S. With a convert’s enthusiasm and zeal, he was as a teenager on a course to militancy –- perhaps not so different from John Walker Lindh (and Michael Knight acknowledges some similarities at certain points in his memoir, Blue-Eyed Devil). But Knight soon became disillusioned with that life and the rigidity of the teachings he was being exposed to, specifically as it seemed to inculcate a negativity in himself he didn't like.

When Knight returned to the U.S. after a year in Pakistan, he continued to identify as a Muslim, but with a dimension of non-conformist punk rock theatricality. Starting in the early 2000s, Knight became a fixture at Muslim American conferences like ISNA, where he posed himself as a dissenting, outsider kind of figure, next to the well-groomed second-generation Muslim-Americans from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds.

Also, starting around 2003, Knight started circulating a photocopied version of a novel he had written about an imagined community of Muslim punks in Buffalo, New York, called "The Taqwacores" ("Taqwa" means piety in Arabic). Eventually the book would be formally printed, most recently by an established independent publishing house called Soft Skull Press. Since 2004 Knight has become a bit of a publishing machine, putting out several other books. A documentary has been made about the Islamic punk movement his book helped inspire, and a feature-length film version of "The Taqwacores" is in post-production.

One interesting thread in Knight’s story is the role South Asian Americans play in his books, especially Bangladeshis and Pakistani Americans. At one point early in "Blue-Eyed Devil" (and I can’t find the exact passage for some reason), he describes his engagement with Islam in America as "intellectually black and socially South Asian," (quoting from memory) and the phrase has stuck with me.

1. Blue-Eyed Devil

Blue-Eyed Devil: A Road Odyssey Through Islamic America began as a series of columns Knight wrote for the website Muslim WakeUp! between 2003 and 2005. Some chapters are personal accounts of hanging out (and sometimes hooking up) with Bangladeshi American girls he meets in environments like ISNA. These chapters alternate with travel experiences and encounters, all loosely structured around resolving the identity of the figure who inspired the founding of the Nation of Islam in the 1930s, a figure known as W.D. Fard (or sometimes Wallace Fard Muhammad).

One of the major threads in Blue-Eyed Devil is the thesis, which Knight investigates at length, that this pioneering figure in black Islamic theology, W.D. Fard, may have actually been from South Asia, rather than the Middle East, as was originally thought. There is at least some evidence uncovered by Knight and others (none of it overwhelming) that Fard may have come from India via Fiji. After 1934, Fard disappeared for awhile, and officially no one knows what happened to him. However, the successor to Elijah Muhammed in the black Muslim community in the U.S., Warith Deen Muhammed, claimed that Fard re-appeared as a "Pakistani" Imam in the Bay Area named Muhammed Abdullah starting around 1959, and died in 1976.

The prospect of W.D. Fard as a South Asian immigrant is a thesis not so much proved as explored in Blue-Eyed Devil. But it presents an interesting image: this founding figure in black nationalist Islam may not have been of African, but South Asian, descent.

Knight’s narrative involves contemporary desis to a considerable extent. One passage, which gives a strong indication of Knight’s complex relationship to South Asian American peers, is in a section where he talks about going to a Muslim Summer Camp in the U.S.:

Often I’d try to boost my Muslim cred by wearing the right kind of hat but only ended up looking like a crazy convert with something to prove. Which I was, of course. I had taken a decent religion and made it real crazy, crazier than any of the good normal kids at my Islamic summer camp back in Rochester. All those desi teenagers would go out between lunch and Zuhr to play basketball or soccer or man-hunt and I’d sit in the office pouring through Bukhari with the imams telling me that it was okay to go outside and play, that even Prophet Muhammad enjoyed sports. I had soon read enough to teach kids my own age who had been raised with Islam around them all their lives. I remember one summer-camp afternoon when all the kids sat in a circle in the mosque and the imams asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up. I said that I wanted to be an imam or an alim and assumed that everyone else would say the same thing, but one after another it was all doctor, engineer, computer programmer. It blew me away; I thought we all wanted to live in mosques and read the Qur’an all day. (3)

Michael Knight’s approach to Islam often seems contradictory, not just slightly, but intensely. As a young man, he studied Islamic theology obsessively, and tried to shape his life to follow a pretty rigid interpretation of that theology. But there’s also a punk, anarchist, and non-conformist side of his personality which can’t help but rise to the surface. The two sides of himself seem to battle one another in the pages of his books, and he neither turns away from Islam (as the non-conformist side of himself might require), nor does he finally suppress all of his own rebellious tendencies under the banner of an undivided, respectable approach to Islam. Instead, you see passages like the following, again from Blue-Eyed Devil:

ISNA speaks for the Islam of Uplifting Hygiene: a vision of smiling professionals in cotton white hijabs, community-minded role models, politically moderate doctors, teenagers who keep their genitals clean and a perfectly sound way of life that all Americans will inevitably flock towards, or at least concede an enlightened admiration. In paying my $100 registration fee online I had to click ‘Agree’ on the term that if any member of a group caused a disturbance, my whole group would leave. I had no group. "Judgment of term ‘disturbance,’" it said, will be determined solely by ISNA officials." The convention’s official website also provided a list of behaviors for Muslims to avoid and discourage while at McCormick Place: things like fuhsh (‘indecency, obscenity, atrocity and abomination’), fuhsha (‘shameless deeds, adultery, fornication and whoredom’), munkar (‘ignorance, detestable behavior and reprehensible action’) and bagha (‘rebelliousness, outrageousness and wrongdoing’). I figured that in my time at ISNA I’d have no problem hitting each at least once. My friend Sara told me that while ISNA usually had cool programs, it could often become a big hook-up place for horny young Muslims. 'I guess they’re not all there for speeches and stuff,' she said. (8)

Knight almost seems to take pride in first, knowing the Arabic terms for what is forbidden at an Islamic event, and then deliberately flouting those rules. (If it’s haram, it’s sexy.) A committed individualist (that is to say, a liberal) would reject the institution as a whole, or at least argue for a "progressive," softened version of the institution, while a devout Muslim might do his or her best to follow the rules as given. But Michael Muhammad Knight seems happy being in both places at once: he prefers the most conservative version of Islam, specifically because it’s more thrilling to disobey it.

Admittedly, some of the people who figure in Michael Knight’s story as friends do call him on his idiosyncratic approach to the Muslim community in the U.S., leading to a fair amount of internal debate within the books themselves. A revealing example might be the following passage:

Then I imagined a voice in my head that sounded like Khalida’s telling me, 'It’s not about being white or not white, Mikail... you’re in no shape to tell the story of American Muslims because you think that only weirdos are worth writing about, you and your Wally Fords—'

I don’t know why it sounded like Khalida in my head, maybe Khalida’s just my conscience but I knew that she was right—because I couldn’t bum all over the country sleeping in my car or sleeping on Greyhound buses for the sake of writing on lame Progressive Muslims and I don’t know that I could if I wanted to. Give me Noble Drew Ali with a Cherokee feather in his turban, selling Moorish Healing Oil for fifteen cents a bottle—and W.D. Fard in his mug shot looking like he could slit your throat with a thought (83)

Indeed, Knight is mainly interested in the weirdos and marginal figures in American Islam, people who are in some way like himself. He finds the new, respectable authority figures in the Muslim community –- people like Ibrahim Hooper and Asma Gull Hasan -– insufferable.

2. Taqwacores

I didn’t really enjoy reading "The Taqwacores," certainly not as much as the two memoirs, Impossible Man and Blue-Eyed Devil. In large part the book just seemed too abrasive and gratuitously provocative, though I recognize that it wouldn’t be “punk” if the writing was too pretty and well-considered. The protagonist, Yusef Ali, is supposed to be a Pakistani-American interested in both conservative Islam and punk rock, but the novel isn’t really convincing on that score. There’s no real acknowledgment of Yusef Ali’s family, and very little discussion of Pakistan itself. Though most of its main characters are from South Asian backgrounds, it seems like "The Taqwacores" subsumes that part of their social identity to "Islam."

Still, there are some great dialogues, which might have been inspired by Knight’s conversations with immigrant and second-gen Muslims at various conventions and summer camps. Below is part of a dialogue between Yusef and a white convert named Lynn, who has been struggling with her identification as a Muslim after being given grief by orthodox Muslims about her lifestyle:

The conversation paused for us to take a few bites of our respective slices. 'You know,' I mentioned after swallowing, 'I imagine it’s a lot easier for you.'

‘What is?’ she replied with her mouth full.

‘Separating the good stuff from the bad. You weren’t raised in a Muslim family so you can just take things on your own terms. For me it’s hard because I got all this tuff in one big lump package. Some of it’s worthwhile guidance that I would like to hold on to for the rest of my life, some is just culture that’s a part of who I am and then there’s a lot of traditional things that I can’t understand and I don’t know why people follow them, but they always have. I think that’s why you have something to your Islam that I don’t have.’

‘What do you mean?’ she asked with half-smile of pleasant surprise.

‘I can’t separate spirituality from my family, my heritage, my identity as a South Asian; it’s inextricably connected. You reject an aspect of one, to some extent you’re rejecting all of them.’

‘Yeah, my family didn’t seem too disappointed when I started celebrating Christmas again.’

‘You celebrate Christmas?’

‘Just with my family. It has nothing to do with religion.’

‘Well, it is Christ-mas.’

‘No, no it’s not. It’s see-my-family-that-I-don’t-ever-see-mas.’


‘But who cares anyway, right? It’s like Attar said, ‘forget what is and is not Islam.’ (86-87)

The novel is a young person’s book –- at its core, it seems to be about how the protagonist’s sexual coming of age comes into conflict with his religious beliefs. The book has a series of graphic sexual encounters and a general uncensored sexual candidness that’s likely to turn off some readers (especially, one thinks, the conservative Muslims to whom it seems to be addressed).

But most of all, it’s the novel’s conclusion, which involves a graphic sex act performed by a woman in a Burqa in a public place, that is likely to be shocking to many readers. When the film of "The Taqwacores" comes out later this year, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a pretty major controversy, specifically relating to that scene... (I’m told the filmmakers are fully expecting that controversy to occur.)

Overall, I think readers will find Knight’s books to be worth their time, especially the two memoirs written by Knight in maturity, Blue-Eyed Devil and Impossible Man. Impossible Man is a highly compelling conversion narrative, which includes both the rise as well as the decline of Knight’s religious fervor (and, oh yeah, a couple of chapters about wrestling). Blue-Eyed Devil is more of a road narrative, focusing on Knight’s engagement with African American interpretations of Islam, including the NOI, the 5% Nation of Gods and Earths, as well as the movement of black Islamic communities towards orthodox Sunni Islam after the death of Elijah Muhammed.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

"Imagining South Asia" Special Issue Now Available

A long time ago, Prof. Kavita Daiya and I started working on a special issue of the journal South Asian Review, with the topic "Imagining South Asia." After several delays, the issue is finally out. Hopefully the cover should give you some idea of what we were after in the issue:

The source of the image is here.

Here is the table of contents:

Fakrul Alam: "Imagining South Asian Writing in English From Bangladesh"

Savitri Ashok, "Battering Ram, Bruised Nation: Postcolonial Nationalism and the Forsaken Promise of Secularism"

Rajini Srikanth, "South Asia and the Challenge of Intimacy in the Global War on Terror"

Alexandra Schultheis, "Reading tibet: Area Studies, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Human rights"

Bidhan Roy, "From Brick Lane to Bradford: Contemporary Literature and the Production of Asian Identity in Britain"

Lavina Shankar and Rajini Srikanth, "From Multan to Maine: A Conversation with Ved Mehta"

Henry Schwarz, "Resolution, Revolution, Reaction: Reimagining Conflict Transformation Through Art"

Makarand Paranjape, "Imagining India: Aurobindo, Ambedkar, and After"

Kailash Baral, "Identity and Cultural Aporia: Globalization and the Tribes of Northeast India"

Amardeep Singh, "Names Can Wait: Misnaming the South Asian Diaspora in Theory and Practice"

I am putting my own essay online as a PDF if anyone is interested, here. (Needless to say, I would love to hear feedback on the essay if anyone has the time to read it.)

Also, if any of the contributors would like their essays also available online, please let me know.

You can order just the special issue by sending $15 (payable to South Asian Review) to the office of the editor, Professor Kamal Verma, at the University of Pittsburgh. The address to send it to is at this page. For just a few dollars more, you can get an annual individual subscription.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

"Yankee Hindutva": What is it?

Though I was an early and vocal participant in the Great Sonal Shah Internet Debate of 2008, I am done arguing about it. This post is not about that directly.

Instead, I'd like to focus on some of the bigger issues behind the controversy, specifically issues like: 1) how South Asian religious youth camps work and what they do, and 2) whether Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu organizations in the U.S. send large amounts of money to South Asia to support communalist organizations over there.

As always, I would love to hear personal testimony from people who went to religious youth camps, or who have been involved in any of the organizations I'm going to be mentioning. An ounce of personal testimony is better than a pound of theorizing, generalizing, and blah blah blah argument.

1. What's at issue

These two issues are the central themes of a chapter in Vijay Prashad's book, The Karma of Brown Folk, called "Of Yankee Hindutva." They also feature in Prashad's essay in Sulekha, "Letter to a Young American Hindu."

The reason Prashad is so focused on Sonal Shah is pretty clear: to him, she seems to represent exactly the "Yankee Hindutva" he has been talking about for years. As I see it, the major things Sonal Shah is accused of are 1) being a part of the leadership of an organization called the VHP-A, which has a clear communal bias (no one seriously disputes this), and 2) speaking at HSS-US youth camps like this one (from the website, HSS-US appears to be considerably less extreme than VHP-A, though they do prominently advertise a new book they've published on M.S. Golwalkar). Ennis has also suggested that what is really worse than this might be 3) the fact that she waited so long to clarify her former affiliation: the cover-up is worse than the crime. I do not agree with him on that, but I do agree with people like Mira Kamdar that (1) and (2) are concerning.

But what exactly does an association with the American branch of a Hindu nationalist organization tell us about a person? How much do we really know about the American branches of these organizations? How bad are they really?

Below, I'll raise some questions about the accounts Vijay Prashad has given of VHPA and the Hindu Students Council in his book, The Karma of Brown Folk. For now, let's start with a personal testimony, from a person who actually disagrees with me overall on this issue. As I was browsing people's various blog posts relating to Sonal Shah, I came across a great post and discussion thread by a blogger named Anasuya. In the comments to Anasuya's post is another person named Anasuya (Anasuya Sanyal), who attended VHP camps years ago, and had this to say about her experience of them:

I too remember attending VHP conferences as a teenager growing up in the US and I had no idea of the political affiliations until I lived for a bit in India around age 17. Naturally, I was not in any kind of agreement with the VHP platforms, philosophy or actions and I even wrote a small piece about the American “face” of the VHP for The Telegraph!

And as a second generation Indian American, Indian politics were not a topic in the home and VHP conferences were a parentally-approved weekend outing since we were with other Indian friends. The fun part was our more responsible friends would drive us all to the place and we’d take over a cheap motel and party. Otherwise at that age, a weekend away would have been strictly forbidden.

I don’t remember too much about the conferences themselves–there were a few interesting group discussions/breakout sessions. I didn’t see any political content. If anything, the parents saw it as a way to participate in a big somewhat religious gathering, seeing as how more established religions in the US had youth events, whereas Hindus did not. (link)

As I say, Anasuya Sanyal disagrees with me overall, so this account shouldn't be taken as a tailor-made version of what happened to support the "pro Sonal Shah" side of things.

Anasuya (the blogger) also has a great string of questions that follow from this:

Why is our analysis not able to convey the slippery slope between VHP summer schools and the genocide in Gujarat? Have we, as activists for a progressive world, so denounced a middle ground of faith, religiosity and associated ‘culture’, that we have ended up allowing the fascist right to take over that space? Is a VHP summer school the only option that a young Hindu growing up in America has for learning about her heritage, whatever this might mean? How far are we committed to having ‘youth camps’ about syncreticism, pluralism, and that most particular aspect of Indian heritage: secularism as both the church-state separation, as well as a respect for all faiths? With histories that include Hindu and Muslim worship at Baba Budangiri, or the Hindu and Christian celebrations at Velankinni? (link)

These seem like great questions, and unfortunately I don't think there are any solid answers. Things like "Diwali Against Communalism" come off as a little weak. Inter-faith conferences and events are also great, but groups that are targeted by people like Prashad (like HSS-US) regularly particpate in them, so how much work does the "Inter-Faith" movement really do?

2. Looking at Prashad's "Yankee Hindutva"

The only person I know of who has spent any energy investigating the American branches of South Asian religious organizations and youth camps is Vijay Prashad, and I don't find his account to be sufficient. I don't say that he's wrong, per se, but rather that I wish there were other people investigating these groups and filling out the gaps in our knowledge of them.

My first problem is with the narrow way Prashad defines his subject. Prashad explicitly states that he's not going to look at Sikh or Muslim camps or organizations, because in his view the "VHPA is far more powerful (demographically and financially) and is far more able to create divisions within the desi community than to draw us toward an engagement with our location as desis in the United States" (KoBF 134).

In fact, I don't think that's true even on the face of it. Khalistani groups (now mostly defunct) and conservative Muslim groups historically have done as much to encourage self-segregation within second generation desi communities as the VHP-A. It may be true that the VHPA is more "powerful," but without seeing membership numbers or financial statements, I don't see why we should assume that. With his exclusive focus on Hindu organizations, Prashad seems to be employing a double standard.

I'm also disappointed in Prashad's narrow focus on the VHP-A because, as a moderate Sikh, I'm curious to know more about how he sees Sikh youth camps and Sikh American organizations. (I attended Sikh youth camps as a child, and was even a counselor/teacher at a now-defunct Sikh youth camp in central Pennsylvania, in 1998.)

Prashad's chapter has many long paragraphs of political commentary, as well as several pages on a figure from the 1920s, named Taraknath Das. He gets to the topic at hand about 10 pages into the chapter, when he connects the VHPA to the Hindu Students Council:

The VHPA acts multiculturally through its student wing, the Hindu Students Council (HSC), which champions a syndicated Brahmanical Hinduism (of Hindutva) as the neglected culture of the Hindu Americans. The HSC subtly moves away from the violence and sectarianism of related organizations in India and vanishes into the multicultural space opened up in the liberal academy. The HSCs and Hindutva flourish in the most liberal universities in the United States, which offer such sectarian outfits the liberty to promote what some consider to be the neglected verities of an ancient civilization.

Notice something familiar here? It's the exact same rhetorical move that's been made with Sonal Shah: though HSC appears to be more tolerant, accepting, and reasonable than the VHPA, that is only a front -- in fact, they are really just the smiley, tolerant-looking face of a Global Hindutva Conspiracy. Actually, I am far from convinced, by either Prashad or the Campaign to Stop Funding Hate, that the HSC is a problematic organization at all. They insist that they have been an independent organization since 1993, and I have seen no real evidence to doubt that.

[UPDATE/CORRECTION: Several people have suggested to me that the links between VHPA and HSC probably were more sustained than this. I have also been told that some HSC groups — Cornell especially, before 2002 — and some of the leadership have said things with a communal bent. Those are important qualifications, but it doesn’t really alter my basic point, that HSC for its members is primarily a social organization for second generation college students, while VHPA has a firmer communalist focus, and remains more oriented to, and driven by, politics in India.]

Another problematic assertion arises a few pages later in Prashad's chapter, when he finally starts to talk about money:

Between 1990 and 1992, the average annual income of the VHPA was $385,462. By 1993 its income had gone up to $1,057,147. An allied group of the VHPA, the India Development and Relief Fund, raised almost $2 million in the 1990s (some of it via the United Way). This money is discreetly transferred into India. It is common knowledge that during the way of Shilapujan ceremonies across the globe toward the erection of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, millions of dollars in cash and kind reached India. It is also common knowledge that VHP and BJP functionaries carry huge sums of money in cash or kind from the United States to India.

First, it's nice to see some dollar amounts here, though it would be even nicer if a source for those dollar amounts was given. Second, it may well be true that the VHPA has sent money to the Indian VHP, which was used for nefarious purposes. As I hope is clear, I have no interest in defending the VHPA or (and this should go without saying) the VHP/RSS in India. But it is simply not enough to say "it is common knowledge that X is occurring." Some direct evidence is important. Again, if we don't have it, it doesn't mean a progressive ought to write these organizations off as harmless.

But what that lack of direct evidence does require is a different tone -- we don't know how much money is involved, so it's misleading to write as if we do. It could be a lot, or it could be very little. It is a real possibility that the supposed financial might of "Yankee Hindutva" might be, in the end, somewhat overblown. The Indian branches of these organizations are huge structures, with plenty of independent ability to raise money.

Towards the end of the "Yankee Hindutva" chapter in The Karma of Brown Folk, Prashad makes a point that I think is very valid -- the way in which second generation South Asian youth are taught their religious traditions via religious organizations and youth camps is often rather distorted. He quotes the great C.M. Naim quite appositely along these lines:

[C.M. Naim:] "The religious heritage that is being projected here and sought to be preserved and passed on to the next generation . . . is closer to an ideology than a faith or culture. IT has more certainties than doubts, more pride than humility; it is more concerned with power than salvation; and it would rather exclude and isolate than accommodate and include." [Prashad:] In the United States there are mosques and temples but no dargahs (shrines), "not the kind where a South Asian Muslim and a South Asian Hindu would go together to obtain that special pleasure of communion or that equally special comfort of a personal intercession with god." [C.M Naim, quoted in Prashad, 149]

I completely agree with this, though it seems necessary to also point out that this process of religious consolidation that occurs in the diaspora has also been occurring in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The utopian vision of religious syncretism and blending is largely, now, a vision of the past. It is important to remember it and understand its legacy (Amitav Ghosh has often done that beautifully in his writings), but "strong" religion has largely displaced it in the Indian subcontinent in the present day.

As a Sikh growing up in the U.S., I have first-hand experience of the religious consolidation Naim is talking about. What we were taught about the Sikh tradition at Gurdwara and Sikh youth camps was often very different from what my cousins were learning back in Delhi and Chandigarh. Even the way it's practiced -- the actual ritual of visiting the Gurdwara -- is a little different. (In the diaspora, most people go once a week, and spend several hours. It's "like going to Church." In India, the devout tend to visit the Gurdwara every day, but they only stay a few minutes. Religious practices are more concentrated here in the U.S., and also more isolated from everyday life. Ironically, through subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways, this process of Westernizing means that the relationship to religion can become more intense, and perhaps more extreme, than it is for most people in the Indian subcontinent.)

Of course, all this is a bit beside the point -- as it's a phenomenon that is interesting sociologically, but it isn't really evidence of a rising tide of "Yankee Hindutva." The first wave of second generation children who were raised with this uniquely diasporic version of South Asian religions are now in the their 30s and 40s, and for the most part they outgrew what they were taught in those religious camps as teenagers.

Some quick conclusions:

1) Not everyone who attends or speaks at an HSS youth camp is a fanatic, as evidenced by the example of the blog comment I quoted above.

2) It would still be nice if there were more options for exposure to moderate forms of South Asian religion in the diaspora.

3) Prashad's decision to focus only on Hindu organizations and youth camps is overly limiting. It's not just because it produces a political slant and a double-standard; it's also analytically limiting, because there might be parallels and patterns among Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims (and Christians? Jains?) that this limited scope doesn't allow.

4) I am not convinced that the HSC should be lumped in with the VHPA. The former seem to very clearly by oriented to ABDs on college campuses -- and serve primarily a social function. The VHPA is, by contrast, clearly tied to a communalist concept of Hinduism.

5) I agree that second generation South Asian Americans often get a somewhat distorted (more monoculturalist) image of South Asian religions because of what is taught by religious organizations and summer camps. But I am not sure this is really our most pressing problem.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Upcoming Talk at U-Penn

I am mining some of my experiences at Sepia Mutiny in a talk for the Asian American Studies program at U-Penn this coming week. If any readers are in the area, it would be nice to see you.

Asian American Studies Program
University of Pennsylvania

Amardeep Singh

Identity Politics and Diasporic Pragmatism: Debating South Asia in Online Communities

Date: Thursday, September 18, 2009
Time: 4:30 - 5:30 pm
Place: Grad Ed Bldg 203

The concept of a pan-South Asian identity has been of only limited success as a regional marker within the Indian subcontinent, but it has emerged as a widely-used, if still controversial term in the South Asian diaspora. Conceptual debates over the term have occurred in academia, as part of ongoing debates about interdisciplinarity and "Area Studies," as we see in arguments by Vijay Prashad, Nicholas Dirks, and others. Versions of these debates have also been circulating outside of academia, in online South Asia-oriented forums such as, and on the weblog This talk explores the ways in which debates in these online environments parallel academic debates, and in some cases challenge social theorists to reconsider their approach to terminology surrounding ethnic identity, geopolitical regionalism, and transnational political affiliation.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Reading Comprehension, and the Nutty Generalizations About India It Inspired (A Guest Post)

I was talking to a Ph.D. student I work with, Colleen Clemens, about her experience working as a grader for the AP English exam. She had been assigned to work on a question about an Indian author, Anita Desai (the passage was from Fasting, Feasting), and she was shocked at how the students tended to use the passage as an excuse to throw out a series of flagrant generalizations about India and Indian culture. Incidentally, Colleen went with a group of first-year students to India last December, so she's seen parts of the country herself. The following post, then, is a one-off essay by Colleen:

Recently, I served as a reader for the AP English exam. Imagine a room with 1500 college and high school teachers sitting on folding chairs (with no lumbar support) for eight hours a day, seven days straight, reading the almost one million essays written by nervous, twitchy high school students hoping to test out of their first-year college English course. In a stroke of luck and irony, I was assigned Question Two on this year’s exam, in which students were asked to read a passage from Anita Desai’s Fasting, Feasting and do a close reading to glean insight into Arun’s experience as “an exchange student.”

As an AP grader, I read the same question all week (over 1100 essays.) In order to make us efficient grading machines, we spent a morning calibrating our responses to the 0 to 9 grading scale—we could see right away that we had much to learn about India from these high school students. Though reading 1100 essays has dulled my memory, I still know that several times I had to stop and mutter to myself comments such as “Yes, there are trees in India” or “No, India is not all trees.” I admit, after traveling there in December, much of India made little sense to my western sensibilities—I am still not sure why I saw an elephant walking in Hyderabad traffic or how people can cross the street with such confidence in Delhi—and I am certainly not an expert on India. But I know that there are bound to be trees in a country of over a million square miles.

I haven’t read the Desai book, but looked it up after I got home. The passage on the exam comes right at the end of Desai’s novel:

[FROM Fasting, Feasting]It is Saturday. Arun cannot plead work. He stands despondent, and when Melanie comes to the door, dressed in her bathing suit with a big shirt drawn over her shoulders, and stares at him challengingly, he starts wildly to find excuses.

Mrs Patton will not hear them. No, she will not. Absolutely not. So she says, with her hands spread out and pressing against the air. ‘No, no, no. We’re all three of us going. Rod and Daddy have gone sailing on Lake Wyola and we’re not going to sit here waiting for them to come home—oh no.’

Arun must go back upstairs and collect his towel and swimming trunks. Then he follows Melanie to the driveway where Mrs Patton is waiting with baskets of equipment—oils and lotions, paperbacks and dark glasses, sandwiches and lemonade. With that new and animated prance galvanising her dwindled shanks, she leads the way through a gap in the bushes to one of the woodland paths.

Melanie and Arun follow silently. They try to find a way to walk that will no compel them to be side by side or in any way close together. But who is to follow whom? It is an awkward problem. Arun finally stops trying to lag behind her— she can lag even better—and goes ahead to catch up with Mrs Patton. He ought to help carry those baskets anyway. He takes one from her hands and she throws him a radiant, lipsticked smile. Then she swings away and goes confidently forwards.

‘Summertime,’ he hears her singing, ‘when the living is eeh-zee--’

They make their way along scuffed paths through layers of old soft pine needles. The woods are thrumming with cicadas: they shrill and shrill as if the sun is playing on their sinews, as if they were small harps suspended in the tress. A bird shrieks, hoarsely, flies on, shrieks elsewhere, further off—that ugly, jarring note that does not vary. But there are no birds to be seen, nor animals. It is as if they are in hiding, or have fled. Perhaps they have because the houses of Edge Hill do intrude and one can glimpse a bit of wall here or roof there, a washing line hung with sheets or a plastic gnome, finger to nose, enigmatically winking. Arun finds the hair on the back of his neck begin to prickle, as if in warning. He is sweating, and the palms of his hands are becoming puffy and damps. Why must people live in the vicinity of such benighted wilderness and become a part of it? The town may be small and have little to offer, but how passionately he prefers its post office, its shops, its dry-cleaning stores and picture framers to this creeping curtain of insidious green, these grasses stiffing with insidious life, and bushes with poisonous berries—so bright or else so pale. Nearly tripping upon a root, he stumbles and has to steady himself so as not to spill the contents of the basket. [Anita Desai, From Fasting, Feasting]

Arun “cannot plead work” and must go on a Saturday excursion with Melanie and Mrs. Patton. Clearly, there is tension in the family (i.e., Melanie has an eating disorder, and Arun knows it), but Arun goes into the “insidious” wild though he would prefer to be back in town. The passage—though only a few paragraphs—evidently was all the students needed to make grand claims about India such as the ones that follow:

Arun cannot possibly speak English. He is so incapable, Mrs. Patton must speak in simple sentences (yes, they conflated the narrator with the character) so Arun has any chance of understanding her. And when she sings “Summertime…when the living is eeh-zee,” Arun doesn’t know the word “easy” so he mishears her (this is an example of “epizeuxis,” a word not one person at the table had seen before—lots of students gave us what we would call the “tour of literary devices,” i.e., “on your left you will see alliteration, on your right you will see pathetic fallacy”). Because he cannot speak English, he doesn’t want to go on the trip. In fact, Indians like to work so much, he wants to work on Saturday (missing the subtlety that he “cannot plead work”) instead of going to the beach, an all-American day that he does not understand because he wants to work; one must remember that Indians are very studious. He wants badly to go into town; India is so crowded, Arun is afraid of having the space available to him by being outdoors. But at the same time, India is a jungle (we saw this word so many times, we actually started a pool at our table, chipping in a quarter and the next person to see it would win the pot) full of wild animals such as tigers. Arun feared being in the wilderness—he couldn’t see the birds, so he didn’t know what else was lurking in the wild. And why go outside when he can be in town where he can enjoy the air conditioning, something he would not have seen in India (many students added this air conditioning detail though the passage does not mention it) even though India is REALLY hot? One student exclaimed “He actually got sweaty!” In fact, Indians live in deserts and are afraid of “woodsy” areas. Inside Arun wouldn’t have to see birds—a scary sight since there are no birds in India. Since India is a primarily urban country, Arun would not know how to be in nature, especially when people in India don’t go on picnics. How could they go on picnics? The women would have to walk behind the men and they would trip over their veils! That is, the few women Arun would have ever seen since Indian men don’t see Indian women, women who don’t wear makeup and are more “natural” than American women. Instead of picnicking, the Indian people who are mostly Muslim spend their time worshipping cows, which Arun would certainly have wanted to do on Saturday instead of going to the beach.

I wish I were making up or exaggerating in this pastiche, but I am sad to report I am not (and I didn’t even mention the students who read Arun as a Native American on the Trail of Tears). Ultimately, many students did note his “uncomfort,” “cultural electrocution,” “discomfortableness,” and “awkwardidity,” but of concern is how angry they were with Arun for not “getting on board” and enjoying an all-American day at the beach. Of when Arun trips over a branch, one student boldly stated "Finally Arun trips, putting a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae that is his misery.” The tenor of many of the essays was that Arun should see how lucky he is to be in the United States and get over his fear of the wild. Most kids saw that he felt uncomfortable, but the general attitude was he was just a spoiled brat—as our question’s skit writers put it, Arun is a “privileged little Punjab”—who doesn’t see the glory of the west. Scariest of all were the students who read Arun as an animal himself, so out of the range of human experience they couldn’t even see that he was a boy.

Some astute students did notice he is silenced by the overbearing Mrs. Patton, that the tension between him and Melanie may have been cultural and gendered, that he feels out of place because he is an exchange student, not simply because he is an Indian out of his “comfort zone”--“a stranger in a strange land.” In the end, the question writers did the students a disservice by writing “Indian writer Anita Desai” in the prompt: this subtle othering of the writer opened the door for students to make wild and unfounded claims about India using Arun—and Desai—as their vehicle. Those students who noticed the difficulty of negotiating between cultures scored well on the question and may perhaps be exempt from their first-year composition course. The others will be sitting in my class next year, and I will do all I can to debunk their repository of generalizations about India and the rest of the world.

[Amardeep here again.]
Even if you haven't read the novel, what do you think of the passage above? What does it tell us about the relationship between Arun, Melanie, and Mrs. Patton, and what is the author doing with all of the strange imagery about the "benighted wilderness"?

And -- would this passage by the "Indian writer, Anita Desai" lead you to comment on whether there are trees in India, whether or not there are cities, electric power, English-speakers or automobiles there?

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Review: Preeta Samarasan's "Evening is the Whole Day"

The situation for the Indian community in Malaysia has worsened in recent months, as many readers may be aware (see here and here, for starters). There were a series of major protests a few months ago, and as I understand it the situation remains tenuous (though I must admit I haven't been following the political situation there closely).

Most people in the west know little about Malaysia, and indeed, even in India, it’s really by and large Tamil communities that have a strong historical connection to the country (see Wikipedia here); the Indian diaspora in Malaysia is, by and large, a Tamil diaspora. Given the recent tensions and the general interest in different South Asian diasporic experiences, a novel like Preeta Samarasan’s Evening is the Whole Day will likely be of interest to many readers.


Evening is the Whole Day is a strong first novel, chewy with language and rich with intricate attention to detail. The book is structured as a series of out-of-sequence chapters, which do provisionally move the story forward even as the novel’s “present” skips back and forth – like that Christopher Nolan movie whose title I can no longer remember.

The story centers around a Tamil family in the Malaysian city of Ipoh, circa 1980, and the real emotional core of Evening is the Whole Day is a contrast between two young women along class lines. Uma Rajasekharan struggles to survive her teenage years in a dysfunctional family (a badgering, snobbish grandmother, a largely absent father with a dark secret, and a resentful, often cruel mother), but finally escapes, relatively unscathed, to attend college in New York. (I’m not giving anything away, incidentally; the first chapter of the novel is set a week after Uma’s departure.) By contrast, the servant girl, Chellam, is forced to bear the weight of the collective madness of her master, mistress, their respective children, and the master’s wayward brother (known memorably in the book as “Ballroom Uncle”). Chellam is in every sense ruined, first by her nuclear family (her father is a drunk), and then by her damaged employers. Meanwhile the children in the Rajasekharan family are able to continue to live their lives without directly confronting the shame and hypocrisy that should be their parents’ legacy.

There are, admittedly, limitations to Evening is the Whole Day. The style and the wordplay may strike some readers as too similar to Arundhati Roy’s style in The God of Small Things, though I personally wasn’t bothered by this. Actually, I think there are merits to building intensity and drama into the sprawling, challenging idiolect Samarasan uses – every sort of word is in here, including a number of Malay and Tamil phrases included without a glossary (most can be understood from context, though a few could not; people who know some Tamil might see things in this novel that I missed.). At the same time, I think there are considerable merits to rather different approaches, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s minimalism. (I recently read Lahiri’s new book, Unaccustomed Earth, and thought some of the stories were magnificent.)

What was more bothersome to me was the somewhat narrow focus on the internal drama of a single, affluent family. After a glorious first two paragraphs at the opening of the novel, my heart sank a little once Samarasan settled on a relatively static locale (the "Big House"). Though Samarasan is hardly inattentive to the divide between rich and poor in her book, I expected to hear more about the plantation-working Tamils of Malaysia, who, as I understand it, make up the majority of the Indian population in the country -– and who are generally far from affluent. Instead, all but two of the main characters are born into wealth (the exceptions being the mother, Vasanthi, and the servant, Chellam).

There is a back-story offered, showing how the Rajasekharan family came to be so prosperous while so many of their expatriate countrymen remained dirt-poor, but the origins of the wealth are to a great extent taken for granted by the younger members of the family. Finally, non-Indian Malaysians (specifically people who are ethnically Chinese and Malay) are also surprisingly few in number –- though perhaps that simply reflects the cultural and linguistic enclosures of Malaysian life. (If so, it’s too bad; it’s tragic to think that whole communities in such a diverse society could have remained nearly completely isolated from one another for so long.)

Perhaps in future novels, if she’s inclined to stay with Malaysia as a location (she’s lived in the U.S., but now lives in France – she might find inspiration elsewhere), Samarasan can take us further into the broader world of Malaysian life.

Having said that, several chapters in the middle of the novel do work though some of the ethnic and political upheavals in Malaysian society, starting in the late 1960s, and these were the chapters I tended to find most gripping.

Here is a dialogue between Appa (Raju Rajasekharan), who was born into wealth, and attended Oxford before returning to Malaysia to practice law, and Amma (Vasanthi), who comes from a lower-middle class Tamil family in the city of Ipoh. Amma doesn’t have much education, or understanding of the fragility of the political environment for Indian Malaysians:

[Appa] “The problem with their racial politics,” he began, “is that—“

[Amma] “Aiyo, all this politics I don’t know lah,” she said. “Whatever they want to do as long as they leave us alone it’s okay isn’t it?”

“Leave us alone? Leave us alone? You call this leaving us alone? Their bloody article 153 and their ketuanan Melayu, yes yes I know you’ll insist you can’t understand a word of Malay, so let me explain it to you, let me tell you what it means: it means Malays are masters of this land, do you understand? Our masters! With that kind of language—“

“Tsk, after all it’s their country, what, so why shouldn’t they be the masters? Just because you cannot sit at home and keep quiet means—“

“But it’s our country just as much as the bloody Malays’! Do you realize some of our families have been here longer than theirs? Ask the Straits Chinese—“

“Tsk, all these grand ideas…”

Grand ideas. The sin of which he’d always stood accused, by Lily and Nlini and Claudine, by others before and after them. The difference was that Amma’s own ideas really did stop there. Her very thoughts trailed off into nothingness, not just her sentences. (99)

It’s interesting for Amma to say, “all this politics I don’t know lah,” given that she’s a character who doesn’t know any Malay. (The Indians from poorer backgrounds are less engaged with the broader Malaysian culture or the Malay language, while the more affluent Indians are acutely aware of the dangers of that isolation.)

Again, though there are a few chapters that engage with politics along these lines, this isn’t truly a political novel. Tunku Abdul Rahman’s and Lee Kuan Yew’s names appear only once each (and you have to be looking). Here is another passage, with Amma and her eldest daughter Uma, traveling by rail on the brink of the ethnic/political riots of 1969:

For now he, a Malay man seated across the aisle and behind Uma and Amma, concentrated on correcting certain misperceptions. “Eh thanggachi!” he called out softly, leaning sideways in his seat, his teeth yellow under the black velvet of his songkok. “Thanggachi!”

Thanggachi meant little sister in Tamil, but Uma, six years old, in stockings and a smocked dress with a sash, knew two things without having to think about them: 1) the Malay man didn’t really speak Tamil; and 2) she wasn’t anyone’s little sister.

“I’m not thanggachi,” she said, and, by way of honest-but-friendly introduction: “I’m Uma Rajasekharan.” Only implied, but keenly felt by all present: And who are you, audacious songkok wearer with yellow teeth?

“Tsk,” said Amma, one hand flicking Uma’s knee, “don’t be rude.” She shut her eyes against the green glare streaming through the curtains and leaned against the headrest.

“Oh oh, so sorry lah thanggachi,” said the Malay man,” but I tell you something, okay?”

[…] “Keretapi Tanah Melayu mean railway lah thanggachi,” the man went on. “Meas Malay Land Railway.” Malay Lands means Malaysia lah, thanggachi, that also you don’t know ah? Looking at me with eyes so big, your own country also you don’t know the name is it? Aiyo-yo thanggachi, your own Na-tio-nal Language also tak tahu ke? No shame ah you, living in Malay Land but cannot speak Malay? Your mummy and daddy also no shame ah, living in Malay Land and never teach their children Malay?” (116)

If you find dialogues like these interesting (they are, I should say again, not fully representative), you’ll probably enjoy Evening is the Whole Day.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Fareed Zakaria's Latest: "The Post-American World"

Though I've often disagreed with Fareed Zakaria on specific policy questions, I've always been challenged and interested by his way of thinking about big issues. I found Zakaria's earlier book The Future of Freedom stimulating, if imperfect. Zakaria seems to be especially good at synthesizing complex issues under the umbrella of a signature "big idea," without choking off qualifications or complexities. He still may a little too close to the buzzword-philia of Thomas Friedman for some readers, but in my view Zakaria's book-length arguments are a cut above Friedman's "gee whiz" bromides. (Zakaria's weekly Newsweek columns do not always rise to this bar.)

Zakaria's latest big concept is The Post-American World, a just-released book whose argument he summarizes in a substantial essay in this week's Newsweek. The basic idea is, the world is becoming a place where the U.S. is not a solo superpower, but rather a complex competitive environment with multiple sites of power and influence. Even as China and India ("Chindia"?) rise, it's not clear that the U.S. or Europe will fall; rather, everyone can, potentially, rise together -- or at least, compete together. Zakaria argues that despite hysterical anxieties figured in the mass media regarding the threat of terrorism and economic crisis, the world has rarely been more peaceful -- and that relative peace and stability has created the opportunity for the unprecedented emergence of independent and rapidly expanding market economies in formerly impoverished "Chindia."

There's more to it (read the article), but perhaps that is enough summary for now. There are a couple of passages I thought particularly interesting, which I might put out for discussion. First, on India:

During the 1980s, when I would visit India—where I grew up—most Indians were fascinated by the United States. Their interest, I have to confess, was not in the important power players in Washington or the great intellectuals in Cambridge.

People would often ask me about … Donald Trump. He was the very symbol of the United States—brassy, rich, and modern. He symbolized the feeling that if you wanted to find the biggest and largest anything, you had to look to America. Today, outside of entertainment figures, there is no comparable interest in American personalities. If you wonder why, read India's newspapers or watch its television. There are dozens of Indian businessmen who are now wealthier than the Donald. Indians are obsessed by their own vulgar real estate billionaires. And that newfound interest in their own story is being replicated across much of the world. (link)

This last insight seems dead-on to me, and it's the kind of thing I think Zakaria appreciates precisely because he was raised in India (no matter how many times he says "we" when talking about American foreign policy, he still carries that with him). This is one of the spaces where Zakaria's status as an "Indian-American" is a real asset, as it gives him a simultaneous insider-outsider "double consciousness" -- he has the ability to see things from the American/European point of view, but also know (remembers?) how the man on the street in Bombay or Shanghai is likely to see the world. [Note: I did an earlier post on Zakaria's complex perspective here]

(As a side note -- for the academics in the house, isn't the narrative Zakaria is promoting in the passage above a "pop" version of what postcolonial theorists have been talking about for years -- what Ngugi called "The Decolonization of the Mind"?)

Secondly, another passage, which I think addresses what might be the biggest hindrance to the multi-nodal global society Zakaria is interested in:

The rise of China and India is really just the most obvious manifestation of a rising world. In dozens of big countries, one can see the same set of forces at work—a growing economy, a resurgent society, a vibrant culture, and a rising sense of national pride. That pride can morph into something uglier. For me, this was vividly illustrated a few years ago when I was chatting with a young Chinese executive in an Internet café in Shanghai. He wore Western clothes, spoke fluent English, and was immersed in global pop culture. He was a product of globalization and spoke its language of bridge building and cosmopolitan values. At least, he did so until we began talking about Taiwan, Japan, and even the United States. (We did not discuss Tibet, but I'm sure had we done so, I could have added it to this list.) His responses were filled with passion, bellicosity, and intolerance. I felt as if I were in Germany in 1910, speaking to a young German professional, who would have been equally modern and yet also a staunch nationalist.

As economic fortunes rise, so inevitably does nationalism. Imagine that your country has been poor and marginal for centuries. Finally, things turn around and it becomes a symbol of economic progress and success. You would be proud, and anxious that your people win recognition and respect throughout the world. (link)

Will resurgent nationalism turn out to be the biggest hindrance to the "smooth" globalization Zakaria is talking about? How might this play out? Will there be a new generation of wars, or will it be expressed in subtler ways (like, for instance, what happened with the nuclear deal within the Indian political system). In the Newsweek article at least, Zakaria doesn't really explore the downside of emergent (insurgent?) Chindian nationalisms in depth; perhaps he explores that further in the book.

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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Suriname's Linguistic Khichri

The New York Times has an article on Sranan Tongo, the creole language that is spoken by a majority of people in Suriname, in South America.

Suriname, like Guyana and Trinidad, has a large Indian diaspora population from the 19th century, people who came across originally as indentured laborers. For a country of just 470,000 people, the linguistic and cultural diversity is truly astonishing:

To get a sense of the Babel of languages here, just stroll through this capital, which resembles a small New England town except the stately white clapboard houses are interspersed with palm trees, colorful Chinese casinos and minaret-topped mosques.

Slip into one of the Indonesian eateries known as warungs to hear Javanese, spoken by about 15 percent of the population. Choose a roti shop, with its traditional Indian bread, to listen to Surinamese Hindi, spoken by the descendants of 19th-century Indian immigrants, who make up more than a third of the population. And merchants throughout Paramaribo speak Chinese, even though the numbers of Chinese immigrants are small. (link)

Is it just me, or is Suriname exactly like Queens? (The food options sound enticing.)

For the curious, there is a Sranan Tongo-to-English dictionary here (not many words derived from Indian languages, as far as I can tell), and a "Sarnami Hindustani"-to-Dutch dictionary here. (Of course, for the latter, you need to know Dutch!)

I would also recommend a reader comment on an earlier post by Vinod (where he mentioned the Surinamese Indians in Amsterdam).

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Kal Penn @ UPenn

This past Sunday I went down to the University of Pennsylvania for a rare, open Q&A session with Kal Penn. As readers may remember from Anna's earlier post on the subject, Penn is at Penn this spring, teaching a class on representations of Asian Americans in the Media. He's also shooting episodes of "House" (go, House), and stumping for Obama in his free time, though with that schedule I'm not sure how he has any.

As I understand it, there was initially some controversy about the class -- is this going to be a stunt, or a real asset to a the Asian American Studies curriculum?

If it were just about bringing a little glamor to campus, I would be skeptical too. But I think it's fair to say Penn is both an actor and a careful observer of the representation of Desis in both Hollywood and the Indie film world. If you listen to him talk, it's clear that he's thought carefully and self-critically about his experiences and choices (he's very aware that his role as a home-grown, Muslim-American terrorist on 24 might be seen as "problematic," for instance -- though he still defends the choice to take the role). He's self-conscious enough to know what a racist representation of a South Asian character is, and call it by that name. But at the same time, he's open about the fact that minority actors sometimes need to play ball to get an entree in Hollywood.

In response to one of the questions posed by a student at the Q&A Kal Penn effectively acknowledged that this was the dilemma he faced when he auditioned for his first Hollywood movie, "Van Wilder." Unfortunately, Penn also suggested, in response to another question, that things aren't all that much better even now, for actors who are just starting out:

"I think things for me personally as an artist have changed dramatically, but I know that overall, that change has been slow and incremental. There is no shortage of truly talented actors of South Asian descent in places like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and London. There are folks who majored in theater, studied film, and are experiencing the same struggles I went through when I was starting out. I think that was my main point: things for me have begun to change, but things for others are perhaps remaining the same." (Kal Penn, from an email)

For instance, Penn was asked not long ago to do an Indian accent for a small role he had in a big studio film, but the respectful rendition of an Indian accent he attempted on camera was found to be insufficiently comical by the studio. After the film was shot, the studio execs actually asked him to go back and re-dub his lines with a thicker, more comical accent. To his credit, Penn refused to do it -- and there wasn't really anything the studio people could do (the film was destined to flop in any case). As Penn put it in his answer to the question, "They were using racism to hide a bad script. Racism was their marketing strategy."

(That last comment strikes me as dead on, but still distressing. It's not that racism or sexism sneaks into scripts by accident -- it might be that in some ways studios know this is exactly what they need to sell product...)

Penn pointed out that part of the problem is with the writers and studios that make this stuff -- and note that the alternative to unfortunate images of Asians in the media is often the complete erasure of all people of color from the fantasy world presented on TV and in the movies. "Friends" and "Seinfeld" were both shows with all white casts, set, improbably, in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world. In the Q&A, Penn asked, "How come there are no people of color in their
New York City?"

But of course, it's not totally irrelevant to this that most South Asians in the U.S. are professionally oriented -- there aren't many of us trying to be writers or media people. "We're too busy trying to be doctors and engineers," Penn suggested, to think of this as a serious career option. If more of us were in the business there might be fewer characters like Apu (or Taj Mahal Badalandabad), and more characters like Gogol Ganguli.

I also stood up to ask a question myself, about naming -- since this is one of the things that some readers at Sepia Mutiny have sometimes grumbled about vis a vis Mr. Kalpen Modi (not to mention, Piyush "Bobby" Jindal...). My question was this: I completely understand why you chose a stage name when you were first starting out. But now that you've achieved a measure of success as an actor, have you considered going back to your given name?

Some parts of the answer were expected. For one thing, quite a number of professional actors use stage names. Penn did recount that he had been advised by friends to adopt a more "Anglo-sounding" name when he was first starting out. But he also mentioned something I hadn't known about before, that "Indian uncles" had suggested that, based on Hindu numerology, it would be good luck for him to try and keep his real first name, but add an extra letter to it. And voila: Kalpen became Kal Penn.

As for whether Kal Penn might ever revert to his given name, not likely -- once you started getting credited under one name, he suggested, it's hard to change it. Still, on several of his recent films, he's lobbied to get his real name introduced on the credits somewhere, perhaps as production assistant. On "The Namesake," he was fittingly credited for Nikhil as "Kalpen Modi," and for Gogol as "Kal Penn."

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Desis Vote (And, Tooting My Own Horn)

SAMAR Magazine has a new issue up on its website on elections -- both within South Asia and here in the U.S. They have essays on the recent election in Gujarat, the Parliamentary elections in Pakistan, the upcoming elections in Nepal, a piece by an SAFO member, and a piece on the Desi vote in New York. There's also a short essay by myself, on "Skinny Candidates With Funny Names," which brings together points made in several of blog posts on Barack Obama and Bobby Jindal. In the piece I make reference to some Sepia Mutiny comment threads, and I actually quote directly from commenter Neal.

My own piece aside, I would recommend people start with the piece by Ali Najmi on the Desi vote in New York. It's informative, for one thing, and Najmi makes reference to a new organization called Desis Vote, which aims to mobilize participation in the South Asian community.

I would also recommend the piece by Luna Ranjit on the upcoming elections in Nepal. Ranjit explains why the planned elections last year were postponed, and explains why the upcoming elections will be historic for Nepal. In addition to addressing the Maoist question, she talks about some of Nepal's ethnic/tribal problems, with groups such as the Terai.

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Little on "Rotten English"

I've had Dora Ahmad's anthology, Rotten English on the shelf for some months, but didn't get around to reading the introduction and sampling some of the stories and poems it contains until now. The introduction is in fact posted in its entirety at Amitava Kumar's "Politics & Culture" online journal here. Also, a brief review of the anthology, by Mandakini Dubey, is here.

The introduction is quite strong -- it's a helpful foray into the issues one has to contend with when thinking about "vernacular literatures" from around the post-colonial world. Ahmad brings together everything from Macaulay's "Minute on Education" to the responses by postcolonial writers like Chinua Achebe, who were at first somewhat ambivalent about writing in English (though Achebe more than adequately defended the idea of African fiction in English in his essay "The African Writer and the English Language," also included in this volume).

Ahmad also makes the intriguing choice to include African-American vernacular writers (Charles Chesnutt, Langston Hughes) as well as writing by Scottish (Robert Burns, Irvine Welsh) and Irish (Roddy Doyle) vernacular writers in the anthology. The great advantage of this is the way it suggests that "Rotten English" is not necessarily a new movement, per se, or strictly limited to "postcolonial" concerns. But such inclusiveness also raises a question of historical relevance: what does it really mean to link a poet like Robert Burns to, say, Louise Bennett?

[UPDATED in DECEMBER 2009: In fact, the historical circumstances that lead Bennett to emphatically proclaim her affinity for Jamaican patois ("Dah language weh yuh proud o’,/Weh yu honour and respeck,” but, at the same time, the truth is “Dat it it spring from dialect!”) are actually similar, even across a significant historical divide, to the aesthetic and political framework that produced Burns.

In fact, one could very well use this anthology while focusing specifically on the strictly "postcolonial" authors -- Oonya Kempadoo, Derek Walcott, and Louise Bennett. Or it could be used with a broader historical lens. Some of the passionate feelings about language experienced felt by today's postcolonial writers were also alive for Irish writers 100 years ago, and for Scottish writers like Burns more than 200 years ago!]


I've been very interested to learn about some of the authors I was previously unfamiliar with in Ahmad's anthology, like the Northern Irish writer Frances Molloy, or the Papaua New Guinean John Kasaipwalova.

Rereading the excerpt of Gautam Malkani's Londonstani Ahmad has included reminded me just why I disliked that novel -- I can't really sympathize with, or even be very interested in, Malkani's Brit-Punjabi thugs. But I'm also not really convinced by the particular vernacular spoken by Malkani's characters; they seem to be trying too hard. One of the worst moments for me is this paragraph:

All a this shit was just academic a course. Firstly, Hardjit's thesis, though it was what Mr Ashwood's call internally coherent, failed to recognize the universality a the word Nigga compared with the word Paki. De-poncified, this means many Hindus an Sikhs'd spit blood if they ever got linked to any thing to do with Pakistan. Indians are just too racist to use the word Paki.

Here, as elsewhere in his novel, Malkani is pursuing some interesting lines of thought regarding problems of self-naming within the Desi diaspora. But it's simply not realistic that Malkani's characters would work through these questions in a vernacular idiom; I would rather expect them to code-switch between academic (sociological) terms in standard English, and their Punjabi and Jamaican patois-inflected street language, when lusting after Nike Air Force Ones and beating up "goras" who use the word "Paki."

Much better than Malkani is Rohinton Mistry, whose "The Ghost of Firozsha Baag" is one of my favorite short stories from Mistry's earlier work:

All the fault is of old bai who died ten years ago. She was in charge till her son brought a wife, the new bai of the house. Old bai took English words and made them from Parsi words. Easy chair was igeechur, French beans was ferach beech and Jacqueline became Jaakaylee. Later I found out that all old Parsis did this, it was like they made their own private language.

So then new bai called me Jaakaylee also, and children do the same. I don't care about it now. If someone asks my name I say Jaakaylee. And I talk Parsi-Gujarati all the time instead of Konkani, even with other ayah.s Sometimes also little bits of English.


While I'm being critical, I might also point readers to Evelyn Ch'ien's "Weird English" (also at "Politics & Culture"), which runs along the same lines as her recent book of the same title. I may have my issues with the rather broad scope of "Rotten English," but at least it has a very strong historical and intellectual justification in Ken Saro-Wiwa's novel (Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English). By contrast, calling the same body of writing (with some variations) "Weird English" doesn't do much for me -- largely because I don't like the word "weird." "Rotten English" can work as a subversive rallying cry for accented and vernacular speakers of English all over the world (though I think "Global English" is more denotatively accurate, if blander). "Weird English," by contrast, really doesn't have the same purchase.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Desi Food, in Theory

Through a posting on the Sepia Mutiny news tab, I came across an interesting "food tourism" type piece in the New York Times, featuring Krishnendu Ray, a Professor of Food Studies at NYU (can anyone think of a better discipline to be in? I can't).

Professor Ray is the author of an intriguing-looking book called The Migrant's Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households.

The Times has Prof. Ray go on a tour of a series of very different Desi restaurants around New York City, beginning with high-end fusion food in Manhattan (Angon), passing through Jackson Diner (a cross-over favorite), stopping by the Ganesh Temple Canteen in Flushing, and ending at a working class place in Brooklyn called Pakiza.

Ray's comments are really intriguing. First there is a general, theoretical comment about the function of the Desi restaurant as a space of cross-cultural interaction in American cities:

“The immigrant body is a displaced body — it reveals its habits much more than a body at home, because you can see the social friction,” Mr. Ray said. “The ethnic restaurant is one of the few places where the native and the immigrant interact substantively in our society.”

Interesting -- and possibly true. (Thoughts?) I think what Ray is getting at here is the fact that how we eat is both more intimate and harder to conceal than other aspects of cultural difference. In many other spheres, adaptation and mimicry can be pretty straightforward: you buy a certain kind of suit and shoes, and fit in at a workplace or school, more or less. But eating is closer to home, and the Indian restaurant in particular is a space where "old habits" (like, say, eating with one's hands) can come out safely. But, as Ray also points out, the rules are somewhat different when the Indian restaurant in question has a mix of Desi and non-Desi patrons.

On $6 for a tiny, pyramid-shaped mound of Bhel Puri at Devi, Ray says:

“We like this very clever insider joke,” Mr. Ray continued. “We are taking something cheap and from the street, and reducing the quantity, turning it into a pyramid, putting it on a big plate, and all these white guys are paying 20 bucks for it.” (link)

Heh. His bewilderment at the idea of veal at a restaurant named "Devi," as well as at the ingenious preposterousness of "Masala Schnitzel" is also worth a look. I also agree with him about the greatness of Saravanaas, on Lexington Avenue, and on a few other things as well.

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Mira Nair's "The Perez Family" (1995)

I enjoyed looking at some of the influences behind The Namesake last week, and I've started to look at some of Mira Nair's older films -- including one that I hadn't seen before, The Perez Family.

The Perez Family is a film adaptation of a novel by the same name by Christine Bell. It's the story of a family separated at the time of the Cuban revolution, which has the potential to be reunited because of the Mariel boatlift of 1980. The boatlift brought more than 100,000 Cuban refugees to the United States, with full approval of both Castro and the U.S. government.

Though Nair's Perez Family doesn't always work dramatically (there are some implausible elements in the story, and some of the actors struggle with their Cuban accents), the film does have some very smart moments, and a theme that resonates closely with Nair's other films, including especially Mississippi Masala and The Namesake. The connection is this: all three are in essence diaspora stories, about the trauma of leaving behind one life, and the excitement and ambivalence entailed in embracing a new culture. As with Mississippi Masala (and even The Namesake, to some extent), the moment of leaving is wrapped up in a historical (and personal) trauma -- a trauma named "Idi Amin" in one case, and "Fidel Castro" in another. In all three films (as well as Nair's adaptation of My Own Country, made for TV), that new country is United States, which is far less transparent to outsiders than Americans like to think.

In The Perez Family, the first film Nair made after the breakthrough critical and commercial success of Mississippi Masala, Nair does throw in some specifically South Asian elements as a running leitmotif in what is otherwise an essentially Cuban diaspora story. The most obvious of these is the immigration official in Miami, played by Ranjit Chowdhry, the actor who was also memorable as "Mundu" in Deepa Mehta's Fire. As a heavily accented immigrant himself, Chowdhry's INS official serves as a friend and guide to Marisa Tomei's Dorita Perez, as she learns how to adapt to American society -- a process that begins, of course, with navigating the immigration bureaucracy itself. There is something curious and strange about an Indian immigrant serving as the "model" for the Americanization of a Cuban ("I am going to have to tell you what to do!" he says, at one point), but it works quite well in the film, even when it's just there for comic relief. It's Chowdhry's character who has to reveal to Dorita (Tomei), for instance, that John Wayne, for Dorita the very embodiment of a sexy, heroic America, is in fact dead. It's also his "hint" that families will get sponsored more quickly than singles that leads Dorita to stick to Juan (Molina), and eventually also contrive a "son" (a street kid) as well as a "father" to move things forward.

There are some highly memorable, symbolism-laden bits of cinematography in the film. The opening shot is a slow pan across a beach in Cuba, pre-revolution. Elegantly dressed men and women in white suits sit at tables, drinking cocktails, as a waiter (again, formally dressed) makes his way through. The music, traditional Cuban Son (the music for the film as a whole is done by the excellent Arturo Sandoval, incidentally), adds an air of "Old Havana" nostalgia. The pan ends on the headlights and grill of a Studebaker-type car -- symbolizing, without a single line of dialogue, the way in which the Cuban story was in some sense always about the United States, even before the Cubans left home (i.e., the Revolution was in some sense a reaction against the American economic exploitation of the island...). After the Studebaker, Nair cuts to Alfred Molina, who is watching as his young wife, Carmela, wades into the water with their daughter. She's leaving -- this is a dream sequence -- but he'll be left behind. The film doesn't provide too much by way of backstory, but there is a hint that Molina's character, Juan Raul Perez, was a sugar plantation owner who spent 20 years in Castro's prisons, while his wife and daughter were able to escape to Miami. (Perhaps Christine Bell's novel spells out in greater detail how they were originally separated. The only lines that makes their way into the dialogue of the film are things like, "I burned my sugar plantation, rather than give it to him [Castro]"; and "I sent her away for the weekend, and it turned into 20 years.")

The shot of the young Carmela wading into the water is echoed nicely a bit later in the film, as Alfred Molina and Marisa Tomei's characters, who meet one another on the boatlift to Miami itself, approach Key West. Tomei's Dorita is thrilled to be reaching the U.S. -- she is the kind of immigrant who embraces with gusto the new, while Molina is too traumatized by the past to let go of it -- and dives into the water, fully clothed. Molina, again, is left behind, watching.

I won't say too much about the plot of the film as it goes forward for fear of spoiling it for those readers who might not have seen it. Suffice it to say that it follows the drift of other diasporic/immigrant stories: Juan Perez (Molina) has to find his wife and daughter in Miami after 20 years of separation, overcoming certain obstacles, while also making sense of his new relationship with the sensual, adventurous "Marielita" Dorita (Marisa Tomei's performance is turned up to "11" in this film; she owns every scene she's in).

Though it tilts too far into melodrama at times, The Perez Family is worth seeing, especially for Nair fans, who will certainly appreciate the overlaps and parallels with her other films here. (I might also add that fans of Cuban music will enjoy the excellent soundtrack, as will fans of Marisa Tomei, who gives one of her best performances here.)

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Art Behind 'The Namesake'

I've been watching Mira Nair's Director's Commentary on The Namesake DVD, and it's been surprising to see how much of the film was inspired by other film directors and visual artists' work. This was a film I liked quite a bit when I first saw it, and it had the unusual distinction of being a film my parents also liked. (I also liked the book, though I know from earlier discussions that a fair number of readers did not.) Watching the Director's Commentary I realize there was a great deal in Nair's film I had missed earlier.

Despite the immense amount of craft that went into the making of the film and the strong performances by Irfan Khan and Tabu, I doubt that The Namesake will get much attention come Oscar time. Why not is an endless question; one might point out that the Oscars don't really award the year's "best" films so much as the films the major studios feel are at once somewhat "serious" and "commercially viable."

Still, the nice thing about writing for a blog is, you can pay tribute to the films that caught your attention from a given year, even if no one else agrees with you.

In the post below, I explore some names from among the large array of people who inspired Nair and collaborated with her as she put together the visual and aural elements of the film. The artists are both Desi (mostly Bengali) and American, though it's really the former group that makes the biggest impact on the film aesthetically.


Like Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake is in a sense a "milieu" film. In the first film, Nair used many members of her own family in the smaller roles; in her adaptation of Lahiri's novel, it's Jhumpa Lahiri's family, for the most part, that gets the bit parts -- Jhumpa herself shows up, at one point. Nair does use her niece, who was raised in the U.S., to play Gogol's sister.

Nair also uses an Indian film critic named Jaganath Guha in one bit part, and the famous historian Partha Chatterjee, in another.

One surprise: I didn't know that Irfan Khan (who plays Gogol's father, Ashoke) had actually had a small role in Mira Nair's earlier film, Salaam, Bombay, when he was just eighteen years old, and a student at the National School of Drama.

Bengali Artists and Filmmakers

At one point Ashima's father is seen painting while sitting back, with his knees up. This apparently is an homage to Satyajit Ray, who painted in a similar posture. Nair also mentions that the sequence where the relationship between Ashoke and Ashima starts to develop (i.e., after they get married and move to the U.S.) is inspired by Ray's Apur Sansar ("The World of Apu").

Nair also uses Bengali actress Supriya Devi in a bit part, as another homage to Bengali art cinema (Supriya Devi acted in a number of Ritwik Ghatak films, including Meghe Dhaka Tara).

Asian Underground Musicians

The film's music is done by Nitin Sawhney. It's really pretty, understated music that has some powerful moments. Nair also uses State of Bengal's "Flight IC 408" at one point as the Ganguli family is en route to India.

Baul Singers

In addition to cutting edge Brit-Asian musicians, Nair brings in traditional Baul singers, Lakhan Das and Bhava Pagla.

Indian photographers and Design Artists

The idea for the changing fonts (where the lettering goes from Bengali calligraphy to Roman) in the opening credits comes from Mumbai-based design-artist, Divya Thakur. In her commentary, Nair calls the idea "brilliant," and I tend to agree (it produces an interesting visual effect, and the symbolism of a transition from one font to the other parallels the idea of cultural transformation that is at the core of both the novel and Nair's film).

The photographs of the famous Indian photographers Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh inspired a number of the Calcutta shots, including the image, early in the film, of Durga being carried on a wagon on the street in the early morning.

The Taj Mahal

The greatest work of art used in Nair's film is, of course, the Taj Mahal, and Nair films it from some unusual angles. The most interesting might be her use of the interplay of arches and domes (as in, the view of the splendid domes of the Taj through the arches of an auxiliary building).

Western Artists

The look of the paintings used in the opening credits are to some extent inspired by Mark Rothko. Nair says she wanted a "handmade" look, and the paintings do work that way -- the texture of the canvas is visible, as are the brush strokes of the paint within the big swaths of color filling up the screen.

Nair used an installation by Diller and Scofidio at JFK ("Travelogues"), which features images relating to travel using a neat optical effect (produced by "lenticulars").

The visual style of the whole sequence where the Ganguli family is at the beach in winter is inspired by Chris Marker's art-house classic, La Jetee.

Quite a number of Nair's shots at the airport were inspired by photographs by Garry Winogrand.

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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Documentary: "I For India"

I recently got a chance (thanks, Kate) to see an excellent documentary called I For India. It's a kind of family documentary that spans nearly forty years. When Yash Suri moved to England, in 1965, he decided to buy two Super 8 film cameras, two tape recorders, and two projectors. One set he kept, the other he sent to his family in Meerut. He filmed and recorded his family's life and growth through the 1970s and 80s, and his family in India did the same -- and they sent each other the tapes, as a way of staying in touch. The result is an amazing archive of what happens to a family when one part of it goes abroad. Yash's daughter Sandhya Suri assembled and edited the material into a unique 70 minute statement. Here is a brief clip:

(You can also supposedly see a clip from the film at the BBC, though when I tried it I couldn't get the video to play.)

For me, I For India captured a lot of the strangeness of the diasporic experience, including the parents' constant and nagging sense of displacement, the parent/child generation gap, and above all, the difficulty in returning home -- even when "home" might be all you think about. The Suris aren't the only family to keep planning to return home, only to keep delaying the plan by a few years (my father, for instance, used to say this for years; eventually, he dropped the plan). In the late 1980s, the family actually did try to move back to Meerut; Suri, a doctor, thought he could set up a clinic there, but it didn't take. (There's no ruby slippers; home always changes when you leave it.)

On the purely visual register, it's interesting just to compare what the Suri family in Darlington, England chooses to film against what the Suri family in Meerut films. In the English footage, you see the nuclear family, various tourist excursions, snow, railroads, the Buckingham Palace guards. In Meerut, the footage Sandhya Suri uses is almost entirely of extended family gatherings. The family in England is effectively alone, which means it is sometimes painfully isolated -- but it also enables them to go off and have certain kinds of adventures. The extended family in India has a very different kind of experience.

Often, in diasporic novels like The Namesake, for instance, the center of the story is the part of the family that leaves -- usually because the writer comes from that background herself. What's unique about I For India is the way the old film footage allows the director to in some sense tell both sides of the story at once: we have the point of view of the family that left (and constantly mourned what it had left behind), but also that of the family that stayed behind (and mourned the loss of the ones who left).

I For India has been reviewed positively by virtually everyone who's seen it, including The New York Times and The Guardian. One company is distributing it on DVD in the U.S., though it's very expensive (you might be able to track down a copy from Amazon Canada). If anyone knows of other ways to get access to this film, I'm sure readers will be grateful.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Review: Nikita Lalwani, "Gifted"

The debut novel by Nikita Lalwani, Gifted , makes for quite enjoyable reading. It's about an Indian girl's coming of age in Cardiff, Wales, as a math prodigy pushed and prodded by an overly controlling father.

The father's obsession with having his daughter achieve a very rigid kind of academic greatness should ring a bell with second gen/ABD readers, especially given the apparent desi fascination with things like Spelling Bees and World Records. For most middle class desi kids growing up in the west, childhood is often (whether you like it or not) all about "studies" -- and Lalwani's book shows a case of that parental obsession taken to an extreme.

That said, Lalwani's Rumi (short for Rumika) is in fact genuinely interested in math and numbers from an early age, and Lalwani does a good job of taking us into her head without drowning the reader in math problems. Though I'm not particularly mathematically inclined myself, I do remember there being a certain luminosity to math problems as a child/teenager -- something beautiful in algebraic abstractions, or the spiraling concept of infinity in calculus. (Unfortunately for me, I tended to be more enthusiastic about the aesthetics of the math than in actually solving the problems at hand...)

Here's a short passage from early on in Gifted, where Rumi (age 8 at the time) is chatting with her relations while on a trip to India. They are discussing real-life math prodigy, Shakuntala Devi, who was able to multiply two thirteen digit numbers in her head:

Rumi and Jaggi Bhaiya talk about world records, in particular about Shakuntala Devi, the maths genius who multiplied tow thirteen digit numbers in twenty-eight seconds the year before. Rumi has seen Shakuntala Devi on TV, her kindly smile gracing the airwaves like the most favorite auntie you can imagine, big red bindi shining out from the center of her forehead with the super-force of blood. Rumi has a funny feeling when she sees Shakuntala Devi on the screen. It is as though she is related to her. Or something. Even her mum and dad are charged and excited when they see her on the box, thrilled by the contradictions of cotton sari, center parting, blond hair-sprayed host and acrobatic maths.

'But why did they treat her like that? In itself, it is proof of the superiority complex that the West has over us,' Jaggi Bhaiya is saying.

'What is superiority complex?' Rumi asks.

'When a culture thinks they are better than us, that we are dirty, cheating scoundrels. That is why they insulted Shakuntala Devi in this way. You cannot deny it!'

He is referring to the text added next to the entry in The Guinness Book of Records. Rumi knows the words, having Jaggi recite them and having read them in her own edition: 'Some experts on calculating prodigies refuse to give credence to the above--largely on the grounds that it is so vastly superior to the calculating feats of any other invigilated prodigy.'

Gifted is somewhat different from other Brit-Asian fiction by writers like Hanif Kureishi, in that the social context isn't especially politicized. In Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia and My Beautiful Landerette, the central subject is the tension about race and identity -- with the rise of the National Front on the one hand, and the emergence of the racially self-conscious British Black Arts Movement and the Southall Black Sisters on the other.

Though Gifted is also set in the 1980s, politics and race isn't really an issue. Lalwani's characters are in a more isolated, "mainstream" context, and the story is really about the internal dynamics of a single, deeply dysfunctional nuclear family. If anything politics enters in obliquely in passages like the one above, where the question is really whether and how respect is given by the world to "gifted" Indians. Like Jaggi Bhaiya, Rumi's father smolders with a simultaneous pride and insecurity about his image as a middle-class Indian in British society, and his neuroses are partly what drive him to treat his daughter as he does.

I tend to suspect that this book will be slightly more popular with women than with men, though it is (thankfully) a far cry from those deeply irritating Chitra Divakaruni type books, where the goal is for the desi woman to "find herself," usually after extricating herself from a bad marriage with a bad desi man. Dating and boys do play a role in Gifted, but again, the story is really about Rumi's fraught relationship with her father and mother, and all those familiar clichés of 1st/2nd gen Indian fiction (i.e., involving arranged marriage) are fortunately absent.

Nikita Lalwani's Gifted is available at

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Torn About Bobby Jindal

I should start by saying this: I know, if I lived in Louisiana, that I wouldn't vote for Bobby Jindal. I just disagree with him too strongly on the social issues -- intelligent design and abortion rights, for starters -- to let my sense of ethnic loyalty get the better of me.

But I can't help but be somewhat torn when I see photos like this:


The rest of the very interesting New York Times profile explains what this represents: Jindal is slowly winning over the rural white voters in northern Louisiana, staunch Republicans (can anyone say David Duke?) who couldn't bring themselves to vote for him when he ran for governor four years ago. He's also learning how to avoid giving the impression that he is an overachieving policy wonk (which he undoubtedly is), so as to better connect with ordinary Louisianans.

For me, Jindal's growing success at this (again, encapsulated in the photo above) taps into an anxiety I myself have had as a child of immigrants -- who became the first (and only) person in my extended family to earn a Ph.D. Even if your tastes and cultural values are profoundly "Americanized," as mine are, there remains a sense that you don't quite "fit," which tends to be exacerbated (for me, especially) every time some a-hole on South Street (in Philly) mutters something about "there goes Bin Laden" when I walk down the street. Part of the anxiety comes from the ignorance and xenophobia of some Americans, but a good part of it comes from myself, an internalized sense of remaining not-quite-pukka despite everything.

If Jindal wins, his victory will suggest to me he's somehow overcome both sides of the immigrant's anxiety syndrome: the part that comes from others' mistrust, and also the part that comes from himself -- his own sense of being something different, something other than a "normal" American, or in this case, a representative Louisianan. If he wins, I won't cheer, but I will, I expect, quietly feel a certain sense of pride at his accomplishment despite my strong disagreement with his kind of politics. Not just because he's a fellow desi -- it's actually more complex than that. Rather, the pride will be because he's a fellow desi who's evidently achieved, after a struggle, something I've long aspired to do: shake that dude's hand.

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Coolies -- How Britain Re-Invented Slavery

On, the BBC has itself posted a complete one-hour documentary, exposing the 19th-century British practice of Indentured Labour, through which more than 1 million Indian workers were transported all over the world -- only to be told there was no provision to return. They were effectively only slightly better off than the African slave laborers they were brought in to replace. The latter had been emancipated in 1833, when the British government decided to end slavery and the slave trade throughout the Empire.

The documentary is brought to you by... who else? The BBC!

Some of the speakers include Brij Lal, an Indo-Fijian who now teaches in Australia, and David Dabydeen, an Indo-Guyanan novelist who now teaches in Warwick, UK. I've watched about 25 minutes of it so far, and it seems to be pretty well designed -- some historical overview, but not too much. Most of the focus is on the descendents of Indian indentured laborers, who are now trying to work out the implications of their history.

Incidentally, it looks like this video can be downloaded for free to your PC -- in case you're going to be sitting in a train or an airport for an hour sometime this weekend, and wanted a little "light" entertainment. (You will also need to download Google's Video Player application.)

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Sunday, April 15, 2007

Russell Peters' Deaf Jokes

Here are some thoughts about Russell Peters, who I presume needs no introduction; Sepia Mutiny has had many posts on him, and you'll find a fair amount of his stuff up at YouTube. (Also, see Manish's recent post on Peters' show in Bombay from earlier this spring. I saw him last night in Philadelphia.)

At his best, Russell Peters airs out some intra-community dirty laundry. He plays with the mixture of embarrassment and pride that tends to circulate amongst members of various ethnic groups, especially immigrant ethnic groups. While many people might feel isolated within a particular ethnic niche, Russell Peters manages to draw people out, and create a certain amount of cross-ethnic solidarity.

Because he has a fair amount of "insider" knowledge about South Asians, the Chinese and Chinese Americans, Jamaicans, Arabs, and Persians, Peters can usually pull off humor that works with ethnic stereotypes. It also helps that he has a good ear for accents, and usually sets up his jokes with shout-outs to members of the audience: "You in the first row, are you Chinese? [Yes] What's your name? [Tim] Tim, what's your real name? Anyway, thanks for coming out tonight... You know, the thing about Chinese people is..."

Of course, all of that doesn't quite work the same way when Peters makes deaf jokes, as he did for quite some time at his show last night in Philadelphia. There are, presumably, going to be very few (if any) deaf people in the audience at a show like this -- so the sense of talking to people rather than just about them isn't there. Also, in my view humor relating to a disability by someone who doesn't have it doesn't work the way ethnic humor works coming from a brown comic. Some of Peters' deaf jokes were a bit corny and stupid (i.e., wouldn't it be nice to be deaf, because then you wouldn't have to listen to your girlfriend/wife nagging you), while others were flat-out mean.

What was interesting about the end of Peters deaf-joke routine was the way he brought it back to ethnicity. He pointed out that in American Sign Language (ASL), the signs for people of different ethnic groups were, historically, based on pretty offensive caricatures. According to Peters (I haven't been able to confirm this), the official sign for a Chinese person involved a pulled/flattened eye, and one sign for a Jewish person involved a big nose. Even today, the official ASL sign for a Jewish person involves making the shape of a long beard -- though apparently the sign for "Chinese" has changed. Also, to sign "Indian" one makes a "dot" on the forehead with the thumb -- like a bindi. It's not really a "stereotype," but it's also not exactly a neutral or arbitrary symbol. (See The ASL browser for video representations of many ASL words.)

The point behind this being, presumably, that even deaf people are capable of ethnic stereotyping -- it was even built into the fundamental structure of ASL as a language. Of course, if that's what Russell Peters was saying with this whole routine, we could easily respond that the history of offensive signs in ASL (most of which have been replaced) doesn't say anything about whether the people who used those signs believed in the caricatures.


With the new wave of self-consciously "offensive" comics (Sarah Silverman, George Lopez), it's often said that can they get away with it because their audience doesn't really believe, in a literal, non-ironic way, in the stereotypes that are being played with. But I sometimes wonder if the extensive reliance on these stereotypes -- this is Russell Peters' whole career, in a nutshell -- really helps people understand each other better. Sometimes it feels more corrosive than cathartic.

At this point I have a bit of a bad feeling in my mouth about Russell Peters, though I do recognize that he's a very talented comic, and I admire much of his earlier material. Who knows? Perhaps he'll have a version of a Dave Chappelle moment, where he takes it as far as he can go, and then stops to rethink what he's doing. Given what just happened to Don Imus after he said something not so different from Russell Peters' comedic bread and butter, I would have to say that's within the realm of possibility.

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Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Namesake

When you have a five-month old at home, you watch most of your films on DVD.

This weekend, though, we were able to arrange in-family babysitting (thanks, Abhit) so we could go see The Namesake.

We enjoyed it. I don't have too much to add to what Cicatrix and Sajit have already said at Sepia Mutiny, except that it makes sense to shift the center of the story from Gogol to his parents, as Nair does. For one thing, it fits Mira Nair's profile a bit more: she herself is a first-generation immigrant and parent whose kids grew up primarily in the U.S. (Indeed, she talks about how she only heard about the actor Kal Penn through her children, who had watched Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.) But possibly the greater emphasis on Ashoke and Ashima also just makes the story more broadly appealing -- and it certainly doesn't hurt to have really talented actors playing the parents. Tabu and Irfan Khan are both terrific; they've left bollywood far behind in this film.

As for the commercial prospects of The Namesake, I'm not sure. I do think it could be pretty broadly appealing, though it's not quite as much fun as Nair's own earlier hit, Monsoon Wedding, nor does it have the same warm and fuzzy vibe of Gurinder Chadha's crossover, Bend it Like Beckham. The Namesake is great, but in my view it is more strictly an art film.

See my earlier comments on Jhumpa Lahiri's book, The Namesake, here.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007


Back in 2005, I mentioned, with some excitement, the advent of MTV Desi, a channel geared to NRIs and Second Generation South Asian American youth. Now there are news reports that MTV Desi is getting axed, along with its sister diasporic channels MTV Chi and MTV K, as Viacom is undergoing a restructuring. Hollywood Reporter has an MTV executive making the following statement:

"Unfortunately, the premium distribution model for MTV World proved more challenging than we anticipated in this competitive environment," the company said. "As a result, MTV has decided to shut down its linear MTV World operation. However, we remain steadfast in superserving multicultural youth, and we are continuing to investigate ways to integrate the MTV Desi, Chi and K brands online and on our other screens." (link)

Well, duh, if it's only available on premium channels on from one Satellite TV company (DirecTV), you can bet people aren't about to go out of their way to get it. I'm actually the only person I know who subscribes to the channel -- and it's only because my in-laws came to stay with us for a few months, and the channel came packaged with the channels they really wanted -- Star One, Star Plus, Star News, and NDTV. Still, I've actually spent some hours watching the channel, so it might be worth doing a mini-elegy.

First, the positive. The best thing I ever saw on MTV Desi was the following inspired rant by Parag Khanna.

There are some statements he makes that miss the mark (India isn't the poorest country in the world by the indices I've seen), but I appreciate the energy. Instead of being the embarrassed, cautious ABCD -- do we really know enough about India to comment on corruption? shouldn't we stay "positive"? -- he's taking a strong stance. (Parag Khanna might make a good blogger.) If MTV Desi is really dead, it's too bad we'll get less stuff like this.

But it should also be admitted that the channel currently plays far too much repetitious programming. The repetition factor can be especially bad when the old programs are tied in with a particular holiday -- as of last week, you would still see the occasional VJ wishing you a "Happy Diwali!" That's pretty lame, considering it's February.

Second, while I love having a TV channel that plays both cool Bollywood and Bhangra tracks and bands like Jahcoozi and M.I.A., far too many videos on the regular playlist are crass booty-shaking exploitation. I have a kid at home now, and while he's too young to understand why there are all these scantily clad blond women shaking their hips while a brown guy lip syncs about his adoration of "Paisa," it's still faintly embarrassing. In an ideal world, I would take the Kailash Khers and the sweet A.R. Rahman songs, and leave the Bollytrash out.

Third, MTV Desi has some pretty lame skits. The "F*#@ing with Eames" skit never made much sense to me -- why is it Desi? Who cares? The parody "Deep Throat" commercial was funnier, and it's too bad Viacom has had it pulled from Youtube.

Most of the music videos one finds on MTV Desi can readily be found on Youtube. And they aren't likely to be pulled for copyright reasons, since most of them derive either from Indie bands like the brilliant King Khan and BBQ Show, who actually want the potential for free publicity online, or Indian music companies, who simply haven't been putting very much effort into that sort of thing.

So really, at the current moment there isn't truly a need for a channel like MTV Desi, especially if you have to pay for something a dedicated blogger/video podcaster could do in her basement for free. Most of the music content could be aggregated, and original content (like the Parag Khanna rant above) could be generated by enterprising college students with video cameras, again for free.

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