We were sitting around one night, pretending to be a family in the American way, watching TV, when a guest character on the show, supposed to be an Indian from the mysterious East, was discovered propped on his head against a wall, explaining this mystical practice in a comical singsong voice. Horrified, I turned to my stepfather: “Omee, what is it like to see things like that? Aren’t you offended?” No, he said, they’re just silly. “I am a little hindoo/I do what I kin do,” my Scottish-Norwegian mother chanted. Om laughed uproariously.
Any repetitive motion will result in muscle memory; pretend to be a family long enough and you’ll become one. At the time, I thought my stepfather was being thick-skinned, but I didn’t realize that he was just choosing his battles. Fifteen years ago, things weren’t much different from the way they are nowthe last two subsets of brown-skinned people it’s OK to be racist about are still fair game, thanks to the Gulf War and a curious cultural revolution in which aesthetics far outweigh politics. Middle Easterners, who all used to be called Arabs and got caricatured as towel-heads, are now all called Iranians and caricatured as camel-jockeys; subcontinental India is undergoing a rapid absorption by the West that takes much trickier forms.
We were done with India as the target of cultural covetousnessa combination of guilt, entitlement, restlessness, and certainty of one’s own inherent superiority25 years ago, when the last of the estimated 30,000 barefoot American and European kids quit the Madras ashram for one in Connecticut, or more likely for a split-level in Connecticut. India-the-spiritual-mother had nothing more to teach us. Since then, precepts of Hinduismdharma, tantra, karmahave become at best meaningless, at worst jokes. America is on a quest for spirituality that is self-contained and self-sustaining. The struggle to define our unique brand of faith is a miniature of the ongoing process of American self-definitionunwieldy, exciting, at once wildly disparate and all-encompassing.
But if we’re handling the big questions ourselves, the more frivolous ones are free to be jobbed out; any good CEO knows how to delegate. And right now India’s in charge of lending its enormous aesthetic appeal to the jaded American palette. While our search for the new black (eggplant, last time we checked) has become Diana Vreeland-flavored camp, Vreeland’s immortal observation that hot pink is the navy blue of India is being treated as seriously as the truth of that statement (for once not facetious, regardless of the spirit in which it was said) demands.
So Michelle Kwan lands on her butt in a sari-styled skating outfit more graceful than its wearer; Goldie Hawn, inspired by trips to see to “her” adopted blind elephant, wears an actual sari to some Hollywood event; stars and semistars from Prince’s wife Mayte to Mira Sorvino to Gwen Stefani (who can be blamed for much of this) to nobodies in the New York Times Sunday Style pages are seen sporting mendhi, decorative henna stains on their hands and feet; Vogue highlights the international jet set’s favorite little gem shop in Jaipur; National Geographic celebrates 50 years of Indian independence with a cover story and photo spread; Granta waxes highbrow with an all-India issue (worth saving for the Phillip Knightley piece); and the New Yorker dabbles disastrously in a fiction issue as misguided as it is racist. And don’t get me started on Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a musical giant pestered by the attentions of wee Western gnats like Eddie Vedder.
India is a country without a sense of surface irony: Its lies aren’t fatuous ones; cynicism there is a type of belief. But like a disease carrier itself free of symptoms, it engenders massive ironies elsewhere. Hawn may find saris exotic in the States, but the TV special on her work with the elephant proved her adept at cross-cultural style: With the sleeveless, bosom-baring blonde disrespectfully ill-clad in the back seat, her taxi driver couldn’t ask enough questions into the rear-view mirror. National Geographic’s photographs were far below the magazine’s usual standard. In fact, the Coca-Cola commercial about things red set in India is a thousand times more beautiful, on top of the lovely fact that they don’t sell Coke in India. (Coca-Cola makes a lime soda called Limca that is more widely available than bottled water; to many foreigners, Limca, not coriander or turmeric, is the taste of India.) And believe me, any little gem shop in Jaipur is like any other.
But wholesale co-opting of aesthetic novelty on its own is harmlesseven stereotypes with depth, like the Simpsons’ Apu, the Kwik-E-Mart owner with theatrical ambitions and a quirky dignity, have their uses both educational and entertaining. But the weirdly stubborn misapprehensions that go along with it create a cultural dissonance large enough to lose a team of elephants in. Vogue’s blurb described Jaipur as another crowded, polluted, Third World dump before pulling back the curtain on its secret, good enough even for us! It’s in the eye of the beholder and all, but Jaipur is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, rightly called the “Pink City” because of the glowing rose stone used to build everything there, including the spectacular Amber Fort. The very next month, the same magazine sported a long fashion spread starring a young Indian and Kirsty Hume as a Sikh cabdriver and his fragile blond fare escaping for a wild desert adventure. Combining harmless rough trade with titillating exoticism, the spread was grotesque enough without the photographer’s oafish comments, in which she refers to the male model as a “sheik.”
What Vogue does out of ignorance, the New Yorker does out of blind, running-on-automatic elitism. There’s no other excuse for Mark Singer’s Shouts & Murmurs humor column, which caps off the supposedly diligent (but actually scattershot and poorly thought out) Indian fiction issue of June 23 and 30. Just in time for independenceeven more properly, just in time for Partitionhere’s a superfunny mock New York City Taxi Commission quiz, including answer choices like, “Shortcut to dharma,” “Turn front wheels to left, shouting ‘Vishnu! Siva! Brahma! Here I come!’” and “Driver must not sell anything in his taxi…unless it is of the highest highest best finest quality.”
It is curious that India can be treated as a vast trinket playground and its citizens as the butt of infantilizing, not to mention out of date, humor, when there’s so little of that kind of puerile objectification to go aroundwhen the people-with-poor-vision lobby insists on its right not to live in a world with Mr. Magoo. From a distance, India’s juiciness as a target looks obvious, but on closer inspection the country and everything that goes with it are prohibitively complicated. India may be the home of knee-jerk spiritual deference, but it takes bizarre shapes. On a stop in Agra, I asked my stepfather if Varanasi isn’t forbiddingly filthy. British-trained and American-made, he looked uncomfortable for a while before reverting to articleless speech and the city’s ancient name: “Benares is holy city.”
As with anything, there’s no harm and not much real interest in such niceties of perception unless the perceiver feels somehow proprietary about the subject. My post-’90s problem is that I’m not caught between cultures. That is to say, I’m not Indian by genetics or marriageI’m just borrowing cultural trouble for the fun of it, something people with a racial claim do not have the option of doing.
My stepsisters have their own methods: Keerty shrugs and ignores it, figuring that being half-British and half-Indian makes her as American as the next gal, and of course she’s right. Kavita, a poet whose name means “poem,” worries and works it out in her writing; she sends me fuming e-mails (“Gwen Stefani’s ex-boyfriend was Indian, but, you know, they broke up”) and suggests I look at Edward Said’s Orientalism for help with this piece. But I can’t get it up to read Said in order to make sense of Mira Sorvino; instead I look for a quickie definition: “[Orientalism] is a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts, it is an elaboration not only of basic geographical distinction…” There’s more. Typically, that’s as close to a quickie definition as this subject affords.
Teaching in Tuscaloosa, Kavvy has refused to de-ethnicize herself, the same way my mom, radiantly blond like a road flare, won’t go dark to fit in with the Indian side of her existence. Stupidly, I thought she must really be oblivious to how strange she looks; at an Indian wedding in May I asked if she ever thought about dyeing her hair. She looked at me as if I were crazy. “All the time!” she said determinedly. “All the time.”Arion Berger