In the late 1970s, when I was sharing a house off of Telegraph Ave. in Berkeley with a bunch of fellow students, I once put some Bollywood music on my portable boom box. There were guffaws and sarcastic remarks that it sounded like a mariachi band. I tried to tell my Caucasian friends that Hindi film music was rooted in India’s long traditions of classical, folk, and devotional music. But no one paid any attention. It was the same with Indian clothes. I once wore a silk sari to a party, only to be asked by my girlfriends what women wore in India when they wanted to look chic. I could have died of embarrassment. Indian literature was unknown in America during that pre-Rushdie, pre-Arundhati Roy era.
Thankfully, so much has changed in the last several decades. Everyone has heard of Bollywood. Indian fashions like bindi and ankle bells have gone mainstream. Chappals worn over nail-polished toes, palms adorned with mehendi, hair highlighted with henna, are sported proudly by Western women. Yoga, meditation, and Indian philosophy for the self-help addicted have become commonplace. In California, among the rising population of new-agers, “Namaste” is a more common form of greeting than “Hello” or “Good Day.” The words most Californians prefer to use for male and female genitalia are lingam and yoni, not penis and vagina. The last two foreign movies to make a big impression on audiences in the U.S. were “Bend it Like Beckham” and “Monsoon Wedding,” both directed by Indian women.
The clincher was a picture in the New York Times a few weeks ago, showing a young woman in New Delhi wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a caption that declared her to be the fashion trend of the future!
True, we have not made any headway in the field of sports. But that is only because no Indian has taken it upon herself or himself to do so. In fact, let me go on record and predict that sports will be the next field to be conquered by Indians. Not team sports, because our quarrelsomeness comes in the way of our being great team players, but I bet a generation of athletic Indian men and women is waiting around the corner to take over in the realms of tennis, golf, swimming, and gymnastics.
And so it should, because, with our ability to perform yogic feats, we should be able to exploit the mind-body connection to produce unworldly results in both arenas.
They say imitation is flattery, so why do I feel cheated by the domination of Indian chic in almost every field in the West?
Perhaps, it is because I feel that my culture is being appropriated without my permission. Perhaps, it is because I wonder, if I am mainstream, who will be on the margins?
All these decades I have lived the life of the lonely expatriate. I was long ostracized from my community because of my unorthodox lifestyle.
But the other day, I met an Indian young man who had arrived in America to find himself. He did not aspire to live the Indian immigrant life of an arranged marriage, Saturday night tandoori dinners eaten over Hindi videos, and a xenophobia directed at the Caucasian culture. He wanted to be my friend because he wanted to compare notes about the repressive social norms we were both escaping from. I felt vindicated and at the same time a little unsettled. After all, I was being held up as a role model by an Indian man!
If everyone is a rebel, against whom will we rebel, I wondered. If we become mainstream, what will we do with the power and influence we could exert over the rest of the world?
Clearly, Indians could easily become the world’s mainstream, given that there are over a billion of them as opposed to only a few hundred million Americans.
Unfortunately, Indians have more in common with Americans than they realize. Even though they excel at individual achievements, in general they don’t contribute their skills to building their country or society.
There has been one exception to that rule. Long before the advent of Indian chic in the West, one person demonstrated that we could reform entire civilizations. That person was Mahatma Gandhi. Single-handedly, he brought about in India the education of women, the demise of the caste system, Hindu-Muslim unification, and the liberation of the country from the clutches of the British rule, while setting an example in non-violent social struggle for the rest of the world.
True, not all of his reforms have lasted, but that is only because India has not seen that kind of leader ever since.
So I am waiting for Indian leadership to take the world by storm. And I predict that it will be an Indian woman to do so.
Already, Arundhati Roy and Vandana Shiva have demonstrated the passion of Indian women for political and social causes. But I am afraid that Roy’s is too divisive a voice to bring about a sea of change.
So I long for the day when Indian chic will mean more than tie-die shirts and mirrored cushions. I long for a time when an Indian woman will lead the world to a more united, peaceful, ecological, and cooperative future.
Only then will we have demonstrated the real Indian chic.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED.