Harder than studying is being the object of study. I remember when Shalini Shankar, an anthropologist at Northwestern, published Desi Land: Teen Culture, Class, and Success in Silicon Valley in 2009. India Currents published a generous review, but I was frankly skeptical about the book. I’ll refrain from an academic critique here, though certainly my ambivalence was related to Shankar’s deployment of particular theoretical frames. But my skeptical reading was also undoubtedly linked to my having been (not so long ago) a desi teen in the Silicon Valley, fabricating my own narrative of culture, class, and success.
Was she talking about…me? Although Shankar took pains to distinguish her elaboration of desi teen life from clichés like that of the ABCD, arguing for a nuanced understanding of hybrid consciousness, I read with dismay the resulting account: “Desi teens create styles that defy simple classification…To differentiate what is fashionable from what is not, Desi teens use the terms ‘tight’ and ‘FOBby,’ derived from ‘fresh off the boat,’ respectively.”
“Desi teens create styles…” “Desi teens use terms…” The propositions were not only reductive, but static; they left little room for the Desi teen who didn’t “create” or “use” the terms in question in the manner described. What made my skin crawl was also, of course, one of the enabling conditions of the anthropological project. Shankar had to constitute a recognizable collective (“Desi teens”) in order to write about them. The individual high school students she interviewed and with whom she “kicked it” (her phrase) were just that: individuals. But their languages, desires, habits, and ways of being were taken to be revelatory of the ideas and practices of a group. This is an age-old academic problem—some might even say a complication of inductive reasoning. How do we move from the particular to the general, from the instance to the rule?
We all make observations about ourselves and others. Every day, as inhabitants of the world, we construct our theories of it. But it isn’t until we encounter a theory of our particular worldly condition that we begin to see (and feel) how fraught the practice of making meaning really is. In my own ambivalent reading, I understood the impossibility of the task of adequately representing Desi Land. Nevertheless, books like Shankar’s, in concert with more colloquial representations, inform our experiences of the world. The question, then, is not how anything or anyone can be captured in theory, but rather how differing and even incompatible ideas of things—of us—give shape to our lives in practice.
As always of late, India is in the news, making news, being news. In September, the New York Times debuted “India Ink,” the newspaper-of-record’s first country-specific blog, saying, “India Ink will provide…on-the-ground coverage of the world’s biggest democracy—and of a people who know that no matter how far they roam, their hearts will always be Indian.” With this schmaltzy introduction, the bloggers revealed that they would cover not just India, but NRIs, not only the nation, but its diasporas, and not simply Indians, but Indophiles. This, too, I want to suggest is a theory: a theory of India, with an attendant theory of how to represent India, what to discuss, who to interview, and where to go.
The blog would be yet another participant in the production of the complex morass of representations with which readers of India Currents are already familiar. The India to be inked would not necessarily be geographically determined; it would not be restricted to the bounds of the historically determined nation-state. It would be the India of Ela Bhatt and Indra Nooyi, of Anand Mahindra and Anna Hazare. It would be the India that Minal Hajratwala’s family left, and the India that called Anand Giridharadas. It would be the India of Bangladeshi refugees, and the India of vada pav sandwiches on a Williamsburg waterfront.
Are these the same Indias? To which do our hearts supposedly belong? TheTimes blog is just one of many projects involved in the construction of a motley 21st-century India, but as a high-profile entrant into the world of representations, it begs scrutiny. Deliberately or not, the blog demands that we think seriously about the relationships between the sari with a phone-pocket, impoverished weavers in Varanasi, and designer Naeem Khan’s New York City shows.
What do these stories say to each other? And what does it mean to collect them together under the heading of “India Ink”? The three stories were featured on the blog in its early weeks, and one (guess which?) was revealingly sub-titled “The Other India.” I’ve been following this particular segment on the blog with some indignation. Another “Other India” post in mid-October shared harrowing stories and statistics of missing, kidnapped, and exploited children in the metropolitan area of Delhi. Why is this the “other” India? Other to what?
The “obvious” answer is that anything that’s not “India Shining” is the “Other India.” But if I’ve learned anything as a student of Rhetoric and a writer for an Indian diasporic magazine, it’s that we can’t be satisfied with what seems like common sense. In the history of representations of India, from colonial-era Orientalist imaginings to early 20th-century anti-colonial nationalisms to diasporic nostalgia, there have been many other “Other” Indias: India the colony, India the nation-state, India the patriarch, India the motherland, India the orphan, India the object of desire, India the laborer, India the capitalist, India the flavor of the month, India the past, India the future, India the nightmare, India the dream. India the Desi Land.
India Currents readers know that the U.S.-based diasporic community has moved far beyond what used to be a celebratory response to any mainstream media mention of India and Indians. Now is the time for more critical readings of representations of India, anywhere and everywhere they surface, out of the mouths of Jindals and Friedmans, on film screens and blog pages. We just can’t take any idea of India for granted. The ideas are us.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.