I remember reading the following lines in Chetan Bhagat’s national bestseller, One Night @ the Call Center: “Remember … the brain and IQ of a 35-year-old American is the same as the brain of a ten-year-old Indian … America is stupid, just accept it,” and staring at them incredulously. Was this kind of crude anti-Americanism, where an entire culture’s IQ is reduced to a formulaic stereotype, for real? Then I recalled that Indian mass-cultural products, especially Bollywood, have abounded in stereotypes of the decadent “white” world, shown to be full of greedy, family-valueless, sexually permissive men and women (remember Subhash Ghai’s Pardes?) against whom the true Indian defines herself as traditional, pious, and sexually conservative. But of late, coinciding perhaps with the shrill narrative of India’s ascendancy in the globe as a superpower nation of the near-future, the attack has become especially crude and aimed at a particular part of white-America’s social body—its brain, the seat of its intelligence. In the patriotic fares of filmmaker Manoj Kumar, we were told that white folks are immoral; today, an youth icon of a brashly confident nation tells us that white folks are “stupid,” moronic enough to be blind to the fact that they are a spent force in the world while India is the emergent one.While the “white moron” remains invisible in Bhagat’s novel, present only as a digitized voice of America screaming racial epithets at Indian customer service operators in a call center in Gurgaon, in writer/diplomat Dasgupta’s graphic novel Indian by Choice, he appears in person, in the guise of Mandy, the young hero of the novel. Technically, Mandy is not “white;” he is a second-generation Indian, born and raised in Chicago, and one assumes that his parents are immigrants from the “brain-drain” era. Mandy, however, has seemingly imbibed all of the moronic traits that are ascribed with routine mindlessness to Americans by writers who relish stereotyping. Dasgupta makes no effort to differentiate between Mandy’s Indian-Americanness and Americanness; Mandy is “as American as they come—hot dogs, French fries, baseball, and the love of all things American, especially blonde.”
Stereotypes happen when artists seek to represent other cultures, not through a direct and dynamic experience of them, but through second-hand knowledge. Perhaps Dasgupta’s idea of life in contemporary urban America is mediated by Bollywood? The stereotype of the putative “America” is brazenly perpetuated throughout the novel and Mandy is reduced to being a blubbering mouth piece for Dasgupta’s comically anachronistic vision of the cultural potpourri that is today’s Chicago.
When Mandy goes to India to attend a family wedding in New Delhi, he takes a tour of the famous Jawaharlal Nehru University; he meets politically conscious students on campus and tells them that on American campuses students typically are apolitical as they worry about “when the next game is going to be, when should we have our next dance get together … Politics? That’s not a student thing, I’d say.” This is not a case of anachronism, but sheer ignorance and misrepresentation, for who can deny the role that American campuses have traditionally played in shaping political events?
Dasgupta recreates his unsuspecting hero in the mold of the “ugly American” that in European writing of the 1930s through the 70s would walk imperiously into foreign lands as a tourist, throw his weight around and annoy the natives with his preconceived notions of people and place. So, predictably we find Mandy expressing shock at his cousin’s arranged marriage. He is all for “love” marriage, and—I wasn’t expecting this from a 21st-century Indian American youth—even asks his cousin if his marriage has been prearranged since he was a child. Child marriage? Even a Texan redneck wouldn’t think of that, let alone an urbane Indian American kid who probably attends an elite school in Chicago and mingles with a diverse crowd! What next? Questions about sati?
From the moment Mandy boards an Air India flight from Chicago to New Delhi, he is constantly badgered about his name. Why not his Punjabi Indian name Mandeep, he is asked and his choice of an Americanized name is made fun of and judged. Mandy insists that he is happy in his Mandy skin, and nothing he says, does, or thinks in the novel, suggests otherwise. But the writer, who also operates as a propagandist of sorts in his novel—dwelling on the virtues of Indianness (of a strictly Dasgupta kind) and the vices of Indian Americanness—has decided very early on that Mandy is a bad name for an Indian American, for it signifies a betrayal of the Indian’s root culture and heritage; for as long as the hero remains Mandy he risks being chastised by the “real” Indians who choose to reside in India and choose to embrace their Indianness proudly.
Dasgupta is in no mood to deprive Mandy of a freedom of choice and abandon his hero to his hapless American fate; he decides to rescue him. The crux of the novel’s rather pedantically crafted events is the story of the hero’s conversion from Mandy to Mandeep. The conversion takes place as Mandy experiences India first-hand and realizes that his mind was full of nonsensical notions of an India derived from biased Western representations of it. The real, 21st-century India is modern, powerful, rich, diverse and full of a history of a magnificent past and a promising future.
At the end of the novel, with his mind brimming with this new knowledge of what it means to be a true/real Indian at home or abroad, our hero takes his flight back to Chicago and introduces himself as “Mandeep” to his fellow passengers, a Mandeep who lives in India and is on his way to visiting America. More nuanced, a reader is tempted to say, are the hero/heroine’s identity conversions in a Karan Johar mass-market flick. But that’s understandable, as one deeply suspects that schlock director Karan Johar could have been one of Dasgupta’s muses in his novelistic enterprise on identities.
Indian by Choice undertakes to perform a most difficult task of defining “identity,” something that is as slippery as an eel. He simplifies the task by presuming that identity is something that is fixed and there exist, in the Dasguptan world, two types of identities: an original (good) one and a derivative (bad) one. Mandy while he was living in the skin of Mandy was living the derivative life of a wannabe American, while upon converting to Mandeep he begins to live his authentic/original life. The bad white moron thus wisely chooses to revert back to the good, smart Indian.
In the 21st century when living a “hyphenated” identity—Indian American or Chinese American or African American or even something as local asNuyorican—is considered to be a prized/privileged existence, one that is hybrid and always in exciting flux, always in the process of being formed and reformed, Dasgupta, instead of choosing to celebrate its complexity, chooses to castigate such hyphenated existence as counterfeit. His is an anachronism by choice.
Sharmila Mukherjee teaches Writing and Literature at New York University and practices girth-control during her spare time.