The minute the words left my mouth, my mother gave me that forbidding look that only mothers are able to give, and advised me sternly that it would be very wrong to put the image of a God on my foot. There are many little rituals in Hinduism that one is supposed to follow, and certain things that one should not do. For example, if I ever even accidentally step on a newspaper or a book, I am meant to touch that surface with my hands and then touch my eyes in apology, because literature and learning are the domain of the Goddess Sarasvati. Hindus pray to Her to do well in their education and learning. By touching a newspaper or book with my feet, I am not giving Sarasvati the respect She deserves. Similarly, my mother explained, it wasn’t such a good idea to imprint a figure of Ganesha on my ankle. We instead came to a compromise, and for the last 13 years I’ve had the image of an Indian elephant, that I lifted from a cotton bedsheet I had bought in India, drawn onto my skin. Because, as my mom said, an elephant with the trunk up means good luck too! Even though my background is South Asian Hindu, I am a product of growing up here in Canada, and my mom had to tell me the intricacies of what was appropriate and what was just considered improper. Out of respect for my culture and background, I agreed.
Hindus around the world have long kept quiet about the use of our religious iconology being appropriated by Western pop culture. We’ve had the opportunity to buy toilet seats with the images of Goddess Kali and Lord Ganesha, ripe for bottoms to sit on; the picture of Lord Krishna playing his flute slapped onto lunchboxes as if he was any other cartoon character; and Lord Rama has even received the privilege of decorating the crotches of designer bikinis for sale at the very reputable department store Harrods of London! In most of those cases, protest from the Hindu community worldwide resulted in the products being taken off the shelves, and very quiet apologies.
Somehow, these protests are always dismissed by the majority as the rants of orthodox or socially militant segments of the minority objecting to the appropriation of their culture. That they should just ease up, and go with the flow! Case in point is the commotion that’s gone on here in Toronto over the HIV/AIDS fundraiser “Fashion Cares.” This year’s theme was Bollywood cowboy, a glitzy and glam way to mesh Eastern and Western cultures. The publicity campaign for the evening depicted Hindu Gods and Goddesses dancing amongst a bevy of very athletic and half-nude cowboys. At the actual event apparently one could get an alcoholic beverage from the Lord Krishna himself. Where the organizers went wrong was to equate Bollywood with Hinduism. Hinduism and Bollywood have very little in common, except that both originate from India. It would be like confusing Hollywood and Christianity. The two don’t mix well, just ask Mel Gibson. Consider the outrage if a figure of Jesus was depicted nailed to the cross, hanging high above a group of go-go dancers in a fashion show. Or if a pregnant mother Mary, riding on horseback, was offering shooters to the crowd, naked but for the dangling stripper tassels covering her nipples.
What’s most disturbing about this is the lack of attention from mainstream media. The story started brewing in a few of the local papers, and has been followed with more depth by ethnic media OMNI Television. The Toronto Star newspaper reported the outrage felt by some of the South Asian attendees at “Fashion Cares.” Other than that, the story has largely been ignored by the national media in Canada.
Sometimes I can’t believe that I live in a country where the government has proudly dedicated a ministry to multiculturalism, whose key slogan and job is to promote the idea that Canadians live in multicultural, multi-faith, and multi-ethnic harmony. South Asians are projected to be the largest minority group in this nation of majority Anglo-Saxons by 2017, the year Canada celebrates its 150th anniversary. Yet, the events of the past couple of weeks are a reminder that there is still much work to be done before we South Asian Canadians are taken seriously.
Priya Sankaran lives in Toronto.