Tag Archives: Indian Diaspora

An idiot’s guide to dating Indians

If you have an India and an internet connection, you’ve probably seen Andrea Miller’s Huffington Post article “How to date an Indian (advice for a non-Indian)”  based on her relationship with a man from New Delhi. An excerpt:

Before getting to “how,” let’s start with “why.” There are obvious reasons one would want to date an Indian, such as how successful and professionally desirable they are. Indians dominate as engineers, doctors, lawyers, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. They make up a large proportion of our graduate students — just walk around the campuses of Harvard, Columbia or Stanford or and you will see these incredibly attractive brown people all over the place. Which leads to point number two. Indian people tend to be really good looking. According to Wikipedia*, “India holds the highest number of Miss World winners, only to be tied with Venezuela.” (*That feels a little like citing The National Enquirer but I am going to go with it.)

Most Indians are innately gracious, social creatures; they highly value friends and family and have a calendar filled with various holidays and occasions to celebrate, which they typically do with gusto. Those endless jubilant dance numbers in Bollywood movies pretty much channel the Indian soul. Moreover, Indian men love to dance. If for no other reason other than you want someone to dance with you (or without you for that matter), date an Indian.

Oh yea, I almost forgot to mention: one more big bonus when it comes to dating an Indian: communication with cabbies. Think I’m kidding? New Yorkers: Just imagine if you could stop a taxi during the 4pm transition time and your date could say, in Hindi, “Hey brother, will you please take us to Spring and 6th?” You’d find Laxmi did indeed smile upon you.

Read the full article here, and please, read the comments too.

I’m pretty amazed that The Huffington Post would provide a platform for such a piece. (Like all Huff. Post pieces, this one has reaction tabs to click on; why isn’t there an  “offensive crap”  category?) And I am amazed that the author of the piece is the CEO of a (hopefully, soon to be bankrupt) relationship advice site and magazine. This kind of writing would be problematic whatever the ethnicity of Miller’s partner. As commenter emj1983  says,

I’m just an undesirable [not!] and culture-less white guy, but I agree that this article is reductive, cringe-inducing, and condescending. If someone tried to “woo” me straight out of the gate by taking a superficial and homogenizing interest in my culture, I’m sure my (thick) skin would crawl. Humorous generalization can be a laugh riot if done well– in a non-cliche or particularly insightful way– but this really misses the mark.

It could have been funny or provocative if it had not employed so many cliched generalizations, or had done so with a self-parodying sensibility. The author is married to an Indian guy, and finds him and his cultural interests desirable, even charmingly different from her own– fine, great– but it was misguided to try and draw from her experience a bogus, predictable field theory of fool-proof Indian seduction strategies. Who would ever use this as a guide?

Writing a satirical send-up of any group’s generalized habits (Indians, white people, black people, whatever) requires a deeper, more nuanced perception of stereotypes, a fresh intelligence which provokes both thought and laughter. This article lacks that freshness.

And here’s an Indian-American woman’s perspective (commenter Amita Swadhin):

This is the most racist thing I’ve read in a long, long time. I’m shocked that you thought it appropriate to publish on Huffington Post. If you really believe you can make a generalization about a people that number well over a billion (if you count the diaspora), you are incredibly ignorant. This isn’t dating advice; it’s an example of how to take one’s own personal experience and apply it to an entire culture and ethnicity. I’m Indian-American, and I can safely say that a) my own experience differs greatly from what you’ve written above, and b) I would describe every aspect of my culture that you’ve arrogantly written about QUITE differently than you do.

And I am amazed that a number of people (including many many Indians) seem to find nothing wrong with this piece.  One (Indian) commenter says:

Andrea, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It’s a nicely written and funny article. As someone who moved to the United States in ’03 I totally understand a lot of things you wrote about.

For other people who disagree with her, RELAX. She shared her experience, thoughts, opinions, in a very nice manner. Disagreeing with her shouldn’t equate to blasting her and making a mockery of the person or their thoughts. Or else someone might stereotype Indians as having no sense of humor or tolerance!!

This is perilously close to being grateful that the article cited  “complimentary” stereotypes about Indians.  Wake up!  That the stereotyping in this case happens to be (mostly) positive is of little consequence; exoticizing a people in this manner is to make them the Other (versus “ordinary” people). A mindset that is ready to label a billion Indians “gracious, social creatures” is just as capable of labeling them smelly beasts.  Stereotyping  robs a person of his individuality; does it really matter if the mugger is smiling or spitting as he’s relieving  you of your valuables?

The sole positive thing about this idiotic article is the hilarious How to date… responses it has spawned. Too many to mention here, but  this calculated-to-offend-everyone-on-the-planet piece on The Awl, titled “How to date a white bitch (advice for the non-white dude)” is a MUST.

Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi

Serving Crazy with Curry has one of those India-for-dummies covers. You know, spices! Dangly tinkly gold jewelry! A veil-draped golden-skinned, luscious-lipped woman! But when it comes to South Asian fiction, judge not a book by its appearance. The average publisher’s Pavlovian response upon hearing “India” and “woman writer” is to slap on this sort of empty exotica on the cover with scant  consideration for what lies beneath;  I usually just  read the book.

Serving Crazy With Curry By Amulya Malladi

Devi Veturi has lost yet another Silicon Valley job, is in debt, and can’t pay the rent.  She’s a serial failure when it comes to relationships, and she’s recently suffered a miscarriage. Devi decides to commit suicide, and she’d have succeeded if not for her mother Saroj walking into her apartment unannounced.

Devi’s family gathers around her in shock, but she refuses to explain her actions or speak a word.  Instead, she moves in with her parents and starts cooking, serving up a series of West-meets-India dishes such as rasam with puff pastry and Cajun prawn biryani. As the family waits for Devi to start talking, they begin to confront their own failures. Matters come to a head with Devi’s parents, who have been distant for years, while her sister’s married life begins to unravel. Even Devi’s grandmother Vasu isn’t spared the self-recrimination. Imagine the fallout when Devi gets around to speaking.

My main issue with Serving Crazy with Curry is that this book didn’t quite seem to know what it was. It’s written in a jaunty,  if occasionally labored, chick lit-ish tone  (“…Saroj watched, in wide-eyed horror, as her fridge and spice cabinet went from neat and tidy to something completely the opposite “), and borrows several elements from the genre. Chick-lit can be appealing–if the characterizations are detailed, if the stereotypes are kept to a minimum, if the predictable happy ending is served with panache, and, most vitally, if the author acknowledges the essential absurdity of the materialistic, self-obsessed heroines  dominating this genre. But Serving Crazy… takes itself seriously, seeking to explore themes such as the pressures of motherhood, the cultural scripts of Indian immigrants in America, and much more.  Malladi writes with sympathy and fluency, but doesn’t offer any new insights, and her prose is just not up to the task of providing the ballast these issues demand. And the mold for the secondary characters was cast a century ago. Melodramatic Indian mom looking to see her daughters happily settled. A distant father. The overachiever with an unhappy personal life. I mean, please.

There is a great story lurking in Serving Crazy…, but it’s not Devi’s. Vasu, Devi’s grandmother, was a doctor in the Indian armed forces;  how I wish Malladi had elaborated on this woman’s experience in a hyper-masculine institution. Vasu divorced her abusive husband at a time when most Indians believed that a divorced woman was the devil’s special friend. Vasu realized a forbidden love, and reckoned the social cost cheap in the process. Devi is just blah in comparison.

Furthermore, I questioned why, exactly, Devi found self-expression in cooking rather than any other medium.

“…There were no arguments here. This was sacred land. Her mind could wander on all sorts of possibilities here and she wouldn’t have to worry about where she ended up. Anything was possible and anything as acceptable, as long as she kept her mind confined to food and cooking.”

Substitute painting for cooking, and all this would still hold. Yes, Devi could have just as easily taken up bungee jumping or gotten a tattoo instead of turning to the kitchen, for there isn’t enough of a backstory to give her new passion enough credibility. Malladi’s explanation– that Devi had always been interested in cooking but Saroj didn’t like her kitchen messed up—sounded glib to me; after all, Devi has an apartment and kitchen of her own, and she hasn’t cared to cook there.

At the end of the book, Malladi includes an imagined conversation she has with the characters.

Amulya: I have to know, why the cooking?

Devi: I’d like to know as well. Since you wrote it in, why don’t you tell me?” [I wanted to kill Devi right here.  Just saying.]

Amulya: … I think you started cooking all that fusion cuisine because you wanted to do something that was different, yet you wanted to hold on to what was. You wouldn’t speak, so you used food as a communicating medium. You expressed your feelings though it, joy, fear, boredom, all of that.

Devi: You mean, since I stopped speaking as a result of my traumatic experience, I had to do something, and cooking was it?

Amulya: …the kitchen had always been Saroj’s domain and your trying to take that domain away from her was a subconscious effort on your part to tell her that you can control your life since you can control her kitchen…

I found the above damning–it’s almost a tacit admission that Malladi didn’t explain her characters’ motivations sufficiently in the text itself. And it still doesn’t tell us why she chose cooking rather than another medium; I’m left to believe that the author picked a hook she knew would be popular and easy-to-market. That said, the recipes (provided for the dishes Devi cooks) are interesting. I’m going to make Malladi’s apricot-ginger-mint chutney,  which I plan to have with baked brie. Sadly, I’m pretty sure the meal will be the best thing about this book.

Serving Crazy with Curry by Amulya Malladi

Random House 2004

Genre: Fiction

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins

secretkeeper.jpg

If I had to use just one word to describe Secret Keeper, it’d be “unputdownable”. The other time I locked myself into a bathroom so I wouldn’t be disturbed while reading, I was thirteen and clutching a Sidney Sheldon between damp palms.

1974: Engineers are getting laid off in India, and America’s doors have recently opened to well-qualified immigrants from around the world. When Asha Gupta’s father decides to look for a job in America, the rest of the family moves from Delhi to Calcutta to live with their relatives till they can join Baba in New York. While Asha, her older sister Reet and their mother wait for word from Baba, they must learn to cope with living as dependents in a house already bursting at the seams with an aunt and uncle, three cousins and a grandmother. The one place where Asha finds some privacy is when she writes in her diary, which she calls “Secret Keeper.”

Sixteen-year-old Asha is the sort of girl anyone would want as a friend—spirited, courageous, and dependable. And oh, fun, the sort who’d invent games and make up great stories. Asha loves to read, is a champion tennis player and cricketer, and dreams of being a psychologist. Reet is sensible and good and gorgeous, Meg to Asha’s Jo, as it were. And there’s an interesting boy next door too…

Perkins, an award-winning YA writer, knows how to construct characters so real you can see them breathe and laugh and cry and fight. She hurls you right into their lives, and you come up for air only when you turn the last page, and then only just, for this book has an ending that few YA novels match for heart-stopping poignancy (or Bollywood-style drama). Weeks after reading, I’m still thinking about the characters, wondering where they ended up five years hence. In fact, Perkins, I’ll do your dishes and your laundry all of next year if you’ll promise to write a sequel to Secret Keeper. Yes, I’ve got it baaaad.

Asha’s primary struggle is with the gender expectations of the time and place. Girls from “good Indian families” aren’t supposed to go outside unescorted, or play sports, or want to be psychologists. They’re supposed to value looks over intelligence, place obedience above freedom. And this brings me to my sole problem with the book.

The draconian gender roles and hidebound traditions Perkins describes would be the norm in a rural setting, but appear a tad extreme in the context of the family’s socio-economic category—Asha belongs to an educated, urban, middle-class family. For instance, there’s an incident where seventeen-year-old Reet gets a proposal. I found it strange that the family gives serious consideration to the suit even though there’s no pressing economic or social necessity for such an early marriage. Moreover, the girls’ mother married at eighteen–surely things have changed for the next generation? Perkins’s portrayal of Indian cultural norms isn’t inaccurate by any measure, but it could perhaps have been more nuanced. The theme of poor-brown-women-needing-to-be-saved often pervades fiction set in India, and while Asha does her part, I’m afraid it might not be quite enough to kill that bogeyman.

Furthermore, Asha wants to go to America because “in America, where women were burning bras and fighting for equal rights, they didn’t need curves to snare a husband.” Umm…there were plenty of liberated women in India in the seventies, and Asha wouldn’t have had to look far for Indian role models. The real–life Kiran Bedi, for instance, won the Asian Tennis championship in 1972 before going on to join the federal police force, the prestigious IPS. India’s national airline had a woman pilot back in 1966. Although Asha’s later actions do go some way in undermining her intial simplistic notions of American versus Indian women, I found this aspect insufficiently developed for my satisfaction. Now, I’m the first to agree that the examples I’ve cited earlier weren’t the norm, and my point is not to deny the truth of Perkins’s observations about gender roles in India–I just wish an author of Perkins’s giant talent had fleshed out her Indian scenario with a few more strokes, especially because this is the rare book that truly inspires readers to learn about another culture. One reviewer on Amazon mentions that by reading this book, she learnt “what it means to be a woman in India.” Just what I feared.

Anyway—enough whining! The bottom line: Secret Keeper is excellent story-telling, and the fact that it’s YA won’t stop you passing this book on to your mom—or your grandmom, for that matter.

*********

A much shorter, and much less India-centric version of this review appears in the current issue of Eclectica.

Perkins has written many other equally readable YA novels, and I recommend them all, especially The Not So Star-Spangled Life of Sunita Sen. Visit her website http://www.mitaliperkins.com/ ” a safe place to chat about books between cultures” for a generous list of writing resources.

Seventeen and Sikh after 9/11: Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger

Buy now from Amazon!Seventeen-year-old Samar has never thought about “Isms,” but 9/11 changes all that. When Samar’s long-lost uncle visits her New Jersey home a few days after the attacks, the two are pursued by racist taunts and shouts of “Osama” from boys who’ve known Samar since kindergarten. For Samar is Sikh, from an Indian community whose religion (Sikhism) requires its followers to not cut their hair; Samar’s uncle hence wears a turban.

Samar’s mom Sharan, an atheist who has long been estranged from her family, has always taught Samar that race and religion are inconsequential—good grades and good decisions lead to success in America. But 9/11 rams Samar’s “happily assimilated Indian-American butt… into the cold seat of reality.” Samar no longer believes Sharan’s wisdom, but wonders about her too-convenient ignorance of her roots. Is she a coconut—a wannabe white person, brown on the outside but white inside?

As Samar tries to explore her Sikh heritage, her social circles come undone. Mother, BFF, boyfriend—every relationship seems to sour as Samar wonders what her ethnicity could mean to her. Samar’s boyfriend Mike, for instance, pretty much tells her to pass as Hispanic:

“When I first met you, I thought you were Mexican.”

My voice comes out as a gravelly whisper. “But I’m not. I’m Indian-American, just like my mom… and Sikh, like my uncle.”

“Who has to know?” he says.

I look out the window on my side.

“Me. I know.”

What is the cost of assimilation? What are the penalties for not conforming with the norms of the majority culture? Is there more than one way to be American? Meminger spells these questions out in as many words, and her clean prose and unfussy approach are perfect for Shine, Coconut Moon’s weighty themes. When Samar decides to learn more about her religion, she doesn’t go to some generic wise crone, but Google. She finds answers to her questions about Sikhism in a chatroom (her handle is JerseyCoconut). I can hear hundreds of Indian-American teens sighing in gratitude as they read this book. Someone out there actually understands! All adults aren’t idiots!

Meminger’s agenda for her work is evident from about the fifth page. In no way is my observation a criticism—I’m glad, glad, glad to see a YA novel tackling this topic head-on. And for all its apparent simplicity, this tale is beautifully nuanced. Sharan is a single mom, a self-confident rebel who turned her back on her heritage for understandable reasons—uber-controlling, parochial parents. When Samar starts looking to her past, Sharan is bewildered, and cannot help viewing her daughter’s actions as a betrayal of her hard-won independence. (Yay, an Asian mother who isn’t an arranged marriage-promoting kitchen goddess of spice!)

The novel has too many layers to unpeel in this review, but I must mention the author’s quiet rebuke of those who refuse to ‘see’ racism because they consider themselves color-blind. Shine also has many interesting subtexts. For instance Samar’s class is reading The Great Gatsby, and the reader can’t help but compare that story of the failure of the American dream against the present moment, notably Samar’s realization that her own American dream—the assumption that race does not matter—may not be completely true.

I cannot stress strongly enough that Meminger never champions the primacy of religious identity over other loyalties or affiliations. Sharan’s rejection of her heritage is presented as a reasoned and hence valid decision; Samar is now making a similar informed choice. Meminger’s ultimate vision is for Samar to possess the knowledge and the courage to choose her identity—whatever shape that might take.

And what could be more American than that?

(This review appears in the current issue of Eclectica magazine.)

The Canadian Dream Deferred: Stealing Nasreen by Farzana Doctor

stealing100Every immigrant to the western world knows, or knows of, a cabdriver who was a brain surgeon or fiscal economist in his homeland. The narrative of the underemployed migrant goes something like this: lured by promise of fluid upward mobility and unfettered capitalism, professionals move west, only to find that their prior work experience doesn’t count. The educational qualifications earned in their homelands via sweat and blood (and sometimes an organ donation) aren’t recognized. Their alien accents and unfamiliar cultural codes further solidify entry barriers into the workforce.

Toronto-based writer and therapist Farzana Doctor takes a long hard look at this depressing phenomenon in her debut novel Stealing Nasreen. And yet, I was chuckling as I read, for Doctor’s clear-headed, witty narrative is never overpowered by the weight of the issues tackled. The novel’s other running theme-the (non-)acceptance of LGBT  South Asians by this community-is again a profound topic treated in a knowing, humorous manner.

Shaffiq Paperwala and his wife Salma have moved from Mumbai to Canada in search of the proverbial better life–Shaffiq, an accountant, felt his (Muslim) religion clouded his career prospects in India. Salma, a school teacher, was more sanguine, but was eventually persuaded to emigrate. The only employment Shaffiq finds in Toronto, however, is a janitor’s post in a hospital. Salma meanwhile works at a dry-cleaning outlet, and teaches Gujarati on the side.

In moving countries, Shaffiq has moved down the social ladder; as a janitor and a new immigrant of color, he is invisible to most eyes. Attempts to assert his former class or position are met with indifference or suspicion. In one scene,  Shaffiq, while taking out the recycling, finds a budget sheet with an accounting error. When he points out the error, the administrator informs him that the documents are confidential.

“…I’m not sure that cleaning staff should be scrutinizing them.”

“You see I am not really a janitor. Well I am here, but back in Bombay I did this kind of thing in my job-”

“Oh, well, I suppose I should thank you for noticing my mistake. But please, for future reference, you really shouldn’t be-” She frowns, not able to hide her irritation.

“You see I am an accountant,” Shaffiq adds, wanting her to understand. “That’s what I really am. I guess my eyes were just drawn to what used to be so familiar to me.”

“I see,” she says, with a frozen smile that tells Shaffiq that she doesn’t…”

Canada looked far better from far away; now, Shaffiq longs to crowd into “a city bus with a hundred Indian men” again. But just as he’s questioning his move to Canada, he encounters Toronto-born Nasreen Bastawala, a therapist in the same hospital. As a contemporary of Shaffiq’s ethnicity and a successful Canadian professional, Nasreen appears to be the Canadian migrant’s dream gone right. Shaffiq develops a fascination with Nasreen, and starts purloining small objects–a dropped earring, a discarded travel itinerary-from her workplace.

Nasreen is initially too preoccupied with her troubles to notice Shaffiq. She’s just lost her mother to cancer, her father seems increasingly needy, and her girlfriend (now her ex) cheated on her. But when Nasreen enrolls for Gujarati classes with Salma, her intersection with the couple takes on a unforeseen dimension. Salma is attracted to Nasreen, and the discovery that Nasreen is lesbian opens up a world of sexual possibility inconceivable in conservative India. All kinds of complications-all touching, all believable, mostly hilarious-ensue when Salma impulsively acts upon her feelings.

Doctor’s book is driven by the issues of the day, and such books, by their very nature are perishable. But Stealing Nasreen is first a novel, and only then a social manifesto. The book is energized by its characters, and Doctor has a real gift for crawling into her protagonists’ heads and recording their emotions. I was nodding in recognition as I read, finding echoes of myself and people I know in almost every character– Nasreen’s dietary habits, for instance, uncannily matched my own weakness for Jalapeno kettle chips followed by Nutella followed by more chips… The book thus engages the reader in a very personal way even as it indicts some of Canada’s (and immigrant communities’) failings. The story’s denouement, while featuring a too-long exposition by a secondary character, is as farcical and delirious as a Noel Coward play. And as in these plays, comedy is the leavening force for exploring serious issues such as marital discord, the repression of homosexuality in “polite” society, and class conflict.

Stealing Nasreen is published by Inanna Publications, a small Canadian non-profit feminist press. (Inanna, by the way, is the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility, and warfare.) Stealing Nasreen reminded me anew why I love small presses so much. These folks are willing, even eager, to address the issues nice people don’t talk about.

****

This review appears in the current issue of Montreal Serai magazine. Do check it out–the theme is “Why Literature Still Matters”, and contributors include Jaspreet Singh and Rawi Hage.

(Indo-)Canadian book news

A Place Within, M.G. Vassanji’s story of his exploration of his Indian roots, has won Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Nonfiction.  Vassanji was born in Kenya, studied theroretical physics in the USA, and moved to Canada in his late twenties.  Here’s an excerpt from his award winning book: 

I was not born in India, nor were my parents; that might explain much in my expectation of that visit. Yet how many people go to the homeland of their grandparents with such a heartload of expectation and momentousness; such a desire to find themselves in everything they see? Is it only India that clings thus, to those who’ve forsaken it; is this why Indians in a foreign land seem always so desperate to seek each other out? What was India to me?

Vassanji has won The Giller twice already for his fiction (The Giller and The Governor General’s Awards are Canada’s most prestigious literary prizes).  A Place Within marks Vassanji’s nonfiction debut.  Just give him the Nobel already.

You can read more about the book here. Also: my review of Vassanji’s last novel “The Assassin’s Song.”  

Update: And Kate Pullinger won the GG Fiction award for The Mistress of Nothing. My review of her last book “A Little Stranger” is here.