I left India a long time ago and found myself connecting with Indian professionals in the U.S. who were a product of Western education mostly in science and engineering. I too am a product of Western education but in the social sciences. Though this placed me in the margins of many Indian groups and associations, I have always appreciated the reconnection to the Indian art and music these organizations offered me that I ignored or took for granted in my younger days. I have to admit, unfortunately, it was considered cool in my high-school days to reject Karnatik or Hindustani music as old and embarrassing while listening to rock-n-roll groups with juvenile themes and bland pop groups with a disco beat. Now, I find much of the latter irritating.
Don’t get me wrong! I love Abba and other groups from the disco era—my era—for the melody and the easy sing-along words, but I listen to them now mostly for the nostalgia. I am objective enough to admit that much of disco was just great dance music and nothing too deep or transforming. Similarly, I am the only one among many of my friends who never got into the Beatles, with their sweet choir-boy voices and inane romantic words like “I want to hold your hand,” while most of them were holding more than a hand! I am waiting for the day when I can go an entire year without hearing about the Beatles or Elvis or how wonderful the ’60s were! I am sick of this excessive adulation with the ’60s. Can we get to the ’70s please, or just move on to other eras in other countries?
We worry about exporting adulterated drugs and food to Third World countries. What about export of mediocre movies, films, and music that would not be consumed by the critical public domestically? There was a funny interview with a gentleman in Delhi who said that with “… the background of the sea, the blue sky, and the trees” he loved Baywatch. He reminded me of my mother’s cousin who would look at pictures of skimpily clad women and attempt to appease his young wife by saying that he was doing it strictly for artistic reasons. She did not buy his rationale, no matter how many archaic Freudian theories he used to convince her. He is an adorable guy, but let’s face it, everything coming from abroad into India is not wonderful and meaningful, just as everything the younger immigrant Indians say or follow is not deep and liberating. There are shallow people in all cultures and in all age groups.
A few weeks ago I met an Indian gentleman who claimed to be an artist from India. It is fashionable in certain younger circles to see oneself as artistic because one has written a poem or got one article published. I still hesitate to call myself a writer though I have several publications. I don’t even consider myself the best, but then, I am my worst critic. Anyway, back to this artist guy. He had all the mannerisms of someone who saw himself as some kind of creative urban genius. I have met these kinds in many Indian art shows and they are now beginning to show up in San Francisco and Berkeley. In their minds they are artists—to me they are psuedo-artists or artist-wannabes, just some ordinary Ram, Roger, Rahul, or Rani with poor self-awareness.
His kurta was long and loose, made from was unassumingly expensive silk. He wore jeans under his kurta. It had the right amount of threads hanging out, making him appear casual without looking sloppy. He wore chappals that were downright pretty. He looked every bit like the bourgeois bohemians that David Brooks wrote about in his book Bobos in Paradise. These are the people who pay huge amounts of money to look simple and peasant-like. His hair was long and he spoke with a whiny voice of a Bombay upper-class—not-so-original upper-class—that conveyed, “I have opinions and deep ideas and you can figure it our just by my accent and hand movements.”
“Hello Sammy, how’re you?” he asked a woman standing next to me. Sammy was obviously a shortened version for Samita, Samyukta, or some such Indian name. I never hear these people calling Sunita as Sunita or Srinivasan as Srini. It’s always Sammy or Jackie or some Anglicized version of an Indian name. He continued: “My, you are looking great, yaar! How is Danny? (told you). Chalo, hum uska birday parti ko saath chalen. Heard there is a lovely keema place on Poke Street. My god, yaar, I have not had keema in a long time! We have to go!” I am not sure if our artist-wannabe would ever feel comfortable announcing to Sammy that he was really aching for coconut rice bhat or that he’d want to join them for Buddha poornima. That would be a no-no.
Sammy, on her part, was wearing a small nose ring, lots of kaajal around her eyes, and kept stylishly shaking her head to throw her hair back. She did this so frequently that I wanted to say: “For heaven’s sake, if it really bothers you that much then just tie the damn hair with a ribbon or a rubber band.” Of course, the shake of the head had nothing to do with the hair. It was an affliction learned among her classy elite circles. She also had an obvious look of dislike in her eyes whenever she encountered anyone who looked more fashionable than her, more sophisticated, or just more rich.
If one finds the old immigrant Indians conservative and stuck in their old ways, not adapting to America fast enough, the urbanized so-called artistic progressive liberal Indians recently migrating to America are stuck in their own cultural short-sightedness. Many are intellectually narrow, having analyzed Marx, a dead German Jew, to death and totally disconnected from Indians outside their urban milieu.
Bombayites can be as provincial, ignorant, and even dismissive of what goes on outside their city or their little neighborhoods as New Yorkers. The difference is that this kind of provincialism is considered fashionable in an “I don’t care” kind of way. It used to be fashionable among my peers in India to say with pride that they didn’t know Tamil, Punjabi, Gujarati, or Telugu. These languages were to be spoken only by the poor, the old-fashioned and unfashionable Indians. Of course, their masala English wouldn’t have been admired in Cambridge or Princeton, but they considered themselves the liberated, worthy Indians.
Classism and urbanism are rampant among the new generation of Indian immigrants to America. Indians in remote towns of the U.S., in an effort to connect with anybody who is culturally similar, make concerted efforts to connect with Indians from all walks of life, including those who just happen to look Indian. Whereas Indians in the big cities of America, because they can pick and choose who they want to socialize with, are likely to categorize and classify people before they communicate with them. As such, if caste and region were criteria for forming connection and friendship among the older generation of immigrants, class and urbanity are the new criteria among younger and newer immigrants.
On my last trip to India, I found that many younger middle-class Bombay women actually believed they had the upper hand in fashion. They criticized women from Coimbatore or Gurgaon for either wearing saris too frequently or not being appropriately “with it.” The myth was that if you are from the South or from a small town in the North, wore a sari, ate vegetarian food, and listened mostly to Hindi or Tamil film music, then you were obviously stuck in old India and could not be part of their liberated mind! I am sure wealthy Indian-Americans in New York must think the same way of these middle-class Bombayites.
If I felt a little out of place with some of the older generation of Indians or those who came from families with non-Westernized and non-urban experiences and seemed to have more in common with my parents, I am now equally baffled by the new Indians who have created their own recipes for inclusion and exclusion. It is okay to wear a nose ring but only certain kinds—a ring or a small stud—not the eight-stone one my mother wore. It is okay to wear a sari, but only to parties or weddings. It is okay for men to wear pajama-kurta but not veshti or dhoti because that was not classy. Women’s hair should be fashionably shoulder-length—longer than that would make you look like a village girl. But guys should have long hair and preferably in a ponytail.
In no way do these new dos and don’ts in fashion or appearance indicate wisdom or originality. If we accuse our mothers of following traditions without asking penetrating questions or challenging the system, how original are women of the younger generation if they follow popular fashion and anything that reeks of “my-god-that-is-so-ultra-modern-na!”?
I met a psychologist in Chennai several years ago. The young, charming woman had intelligent insights on some emerging psychological problems among middle-class Indians. She grew up in a fairly traditional family, married her engineer husband through formal introductions, wears saris to work, and leads a not-too-exciting-life according to her friend. Her friend kept telling her to get rid of her old-fashioned look and start tasting wine! My simple question is: “Why?” If she is happy, content, comfortable, and can be accepted for who she is, why should she be doing what some Sammy or Danny in Mumbai thinks is “socially trendy”? I found that for all the “modernity” that modern Indians seem to be preaching and practicing, they can be as judgmental and condescending of people different from them as many older and more traditional people who are often accused of being rigid.
If some women and men in India and among Indian-American families here feel stifled by traditions and cultural expectations, the same could be said of many modern Indian women and men who seem to be equally stifled by trends, peer pressures, hyper-marketing, and consumer one-upmanship. If we can be lonely in a traditional community because our emotional needs are not satisfied or our individuality is not supported and allowed to blossom, we can also feel painfully alone in a materially competitive society where networks are developed strictly around what one wears, how one talks, how one looks, how rich one’s father is, and how connected one can be.
Some of these younger desi immigrants appear perfectly comfortable with their jobs, their career focus, their trendy fusion music, their own fusion food, and their fashionable fusion lifestyles until a problem hits them. When they fall sick, lose a job, have an unplanned child, or get divorced; when their parents move in; when they have painful experiences due to racism or sexism, or they just get old, and then suddenly their roots, their identity and, of course, their need for a genuine community, that goes beyond partying, shopping and shallow chit-chatting, begins to emerge.
Inner growth and personhood does not develop by conforming to traditions reluctantly or blindly. Nor does it occur by conforming to trends, fashions, and group approval based on pseudo values. If we call something old-fashioned then we are forced to call something fashionable as if there are only two ways of categorizing people and their behavior. If we label certain immigrants as stuck in their old ways, then we are forced to label some younger and newer immigrants as stuck on having to appear a certain new way. The real problem is that they are both stuck. An open, thoughtful society gives us informed choices and an open thoughtful mind picks what is best, be it old-fashioned or new-fashioned.
Mental health consultant Meera Srinivasan-Schaeffer freelances for her roti. She writes mostly on political, gender, and immigrant issues.