ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

On America's Bandstand

It is finally alright for the desis to come out of their puja rooms and take their place on the American Bandstand. Indian-Americans are no longer the stealth immigration group, but the public attention may be too much to handle.

Lattar from Amarica

On America’s Bandstand

It is finally alright for the desis to come out of their puja rooms and take their place on the American Bandstand. Indian-Americans are no longer the stealth immigration group, but the public attention

may be too much to handle.

ITTY ABRAHAM

T
he hoopla is over, the mangoes will be arriving any day, the paparazzi have moved on, and we are left with a new relationship between the US and India. At the political level, all’s well for the moment, but what of the popular? The portrayal of the desi “Indian” in American popular culture has never acquired iconic status, whether positive or, as we might more readily expect, negative. Compared to the racist stereotypes Hollywood and TV have long offered of African-and Mexican-Americans, e g, Stepin Fechit and Speedy Gonzales, the occasional images of glassy-eyed Spelling Bee champs have a long way to go. In fact, for the longest time the most prominent image of an Indian-American on TV was the cartoon character, Apu, in the outstanding animated series, The Simpsons. But Apu, the neighbourhood grocery store owner, is much too complicated to be readily stereotyped; indeed, next to the show’s ostensible star, Homer Simpson, he appears positively sage and well adjusted. The primary reference here was the convenience store, which along with the taxi cab, gas station and cheap motel – all sites embedded in a liminal economy of mobility and transport as it turns out – were stock images defining the social space of the immigrant desi. What’s missing from this dusky portrait gallery are the images of the good Indian professionals and knowledge workers: the ones who keep this country healthy and competitive. Doctors saving lives all over America, but never appearing on General Hospital; the IT guy working late into the night to improve the 100th beta version of Lotus-123, but never becoming the cyber wiz in Mission Impossible.

Now, nearly a half century after 1965 and the revision of US immigration rules, we have the next generation to cope with. These are the kids of the good but invisible desi professionals, brought up in huge suburban homes and good schools, with law school and med school and big mortgages waiting for them around the corner. Why, there’s even space for someone like the hit director of creepy flicks, M Night Shyamalan, who has achieved what only that other great Asian-American, Tiger Woods, could pull off, namely, an American Express ad written just for him. Things would seem to be going real well, when, in recent weeks, the next generation have forced themselves into national reckoning in ways that may be hard to swallow, but are nonetheless more real and stark than anything the fertile imagination of script writers and hyphenated novelists have been able to come up with yet.

The most prominent of course is Kaavya Viswanathan, the Harvard undergraduate who received a huge advance for her first book, a candid and humorous recounting of obsessed desi parents trying to get their kid into an Ivy League school. Alas, the world of online bloggers, the 21st century combination of the Spanish Inquisition and neighbourhood watch groups during the Cultural Revolution, soon transformed Kaavya’s photographic memory bank into a petri dish of petty plagiarism. Kaavya stood exposed, the inter-textual evidence from her book unmistakable, reminding some of us of the other ways in which so many IIT boys got 800s in their GREs. But surely the outrage is overdone. Was Kaavya guilty of anything other than all-too successfully internalising the American Way of Life? It seems her first-rate training methods missed only the 11th Amendment that official Washington lives by: Do what you want but don’t get caught!

But the Kaavya story was really small potatoes in the scheme of things. When MTV, one of the founders of the reality TV craze that started some years ago, was looking for new forms of over-the-top excess combined with public humiliation, they decided to focus on the “Super” Sweet Sixteen party. Once a plebian coming-out party for girls in the midst of puberty, the Sweet Sixteen party has become a commercial and cultural monster rivalling Kaavya’s parent’s efforts to get her into Harvard. According to the New York Times, invitations to these extravaganzas might includean MP-3 player for the lucky guest, while the party can cost as much as $ 2,00,000 and include batteries of cancan dancers.

And this is how we meet Priya and Divya Kothapalli, daughters of “a prominent cardiologist in Beaumont, Texas” as described in the Times. Their contribution to new forms of social excess was of course a Bollywood-theme party that had 500 guests, and included their favourite rock band playing along. (It’s not clear whether The Format knew how to play the disco version of ‘Dum Maro Dum’.) The girls would make their entrance to the party carried on palanquins, with elephants in attendance. Their doting father gave one daughter a Mercedes convertible and diamond jewellery, and the other a Bentley, diamonds, and two homes in India. Divya’s response: “I was really surprised because I was only expecting a Bentley and one house.” And, as she went on to explain, “We both love attention

– that’s one of our main motives for having the party. The more attention the better.”

It used to be the case that drawing attention to oneself was what every desi immigrant feared most. Whether it was your accent, clothes, food habits, or love of tube lights, standing out was to be avoided, for fear of confronting the biases of white Main Street. Indian-Americans became the stealth immigration group and huge numbers of them came and made their millions before anyone even realised they were here. No wonder they were absent from popular culture. Middle America wasn’t sure whether that quiet new family down the block was Mexican or west Asian, didn’t know if they spoke “Hindu” and slept on flying carpets, and puzzled about what they were always cooking in big pots in their hot and crowded kitchens. But that’s all in the past now. W has cozied up to a guy in a blue turban and Condi has said India is the next China. It’s finally alright for desis to come out of their puja rooms and take their place on the American Bandstand. But when they do, make sure you have your shades on. The dazzle from those diamonds is a little too much for the uninitiated to take.

W

Email: abrahami@eastwestcenter.org

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

Dear reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attracive subscription offers.

Click here

Comments

(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top