A friend and I recently met for coffee at Starbucks. After a few minutes of conversation, she remarked, “They’re playing Bollywood music!” The sounds were unmistakably desi, not an India-inspired fusion—a fact that should have been jolting—but what surprised me more was that we had not noticed it right away. India seems to be everywhere these days. Subway™ uses Bollywood dancers in one of their ads (misguided though it seems to me). Mobile services provider Metro PCS™ features a guy talking in an outrageous Peter Sellers’ version of an Indian accent, a piece of silliness that would have raised an offended eyebrow even at the turn of the century, but that seems almost endearing today. A desi chef on Iron Chef America infuses leek into her pani puri offering. Bhangra dancers perform at the White House. Americans tuck into cilantro-sprinkled pizza, pausing to sip masala chai.
When my family arrived in this country a decade and a half ago, we scrambled to find others like us, opting to settle down in neighborhoods segregated by choice. Our kids (a tad unhappily) carried rotis in their lunchboxes, and fraternized with other Diwali-celebrating, Bollywood-watching, Hindi-language learning friends. But the beauty, color, and sheer joie de vivre of our South Asian culture could not be contained; little bits of desi-ness kept leaking out, first attracting the closet Indo-phile, till Slumdog Millionaire burst the dam and made it cool to be desi.
Now Hollywood directors want a piece of Bollywood action, with big-shot director Brett Ratner editing Rakesh Roshan’s Kites for the mainstream American audience (see interview). Retail stores at the mall carry kurtis and crushed skirts. Having an Indian name is a competitive advantage, whether in getting your book published, applying for a tech job, or running for political office.
Indeed, the pendulum may have swung to the other extreme, as evinced by Aseem Shukla’s lament in a Washington Post blog that yoga has been completely coopted into the American culture, abandoning any vestiges of its Hindu, or even Indian, origins. But, to me, this is a source of comfort. After all, this is what assimilation is about, when pieces of your homeland’s culture blend in seamlessly with the ethos of your adopted country. Instead of regretting the loss of purity, I rejoice that our legacy will survive for ever as colorful threads of the complex tapestry that is America.