misconceptions about india

The Sacred and the Profane

By

My husband and I discuss my issues with the Western portrayal of India as the land of the sacred and the profane with frequency. We discuss whether the fact that Katherine Boo is married to an Indian man should alter my interpretation that the well-written account of Indian slums in Behind the Beautiful Forevers won the National Book Award while countless Indian-American journalists go unnoticed. We discuss whether Slumdog Millionaire, made by a Brit who failed to pay child actors adequate wages, winning an Academy Award was good or bad. We discuss whether Nabokov’s write-off of Rabindranath Tagore as a “mediocre” writer is fair.

These issues are of particular interest to both of us because we are both writers. As new parents of a half-Indian daughter, we’re thinking not only about our individual experiences of the collision between American and Indian (or more accurately, Tamil) culture, but our daughter’s future experiences. We perceive issues of representation so differently at times that we seem to be talking about entirely different objects or events.

My husband is a fair-skinned Chicagoan writer of mixed Italian descent who feels comfortable voicing whatever is on his mind and does not worry about the reaction. Without speaking for him (his viewpoint is more sophisticated than I’m able to capture here), I gather he doesn’t find it offensive when Americans emphasize exotic aspects of Indian culture.

I am an Indian-American immigrant writer who often feels torn about whether my experience is too small, too unique, to have any bearing on what other people think or should think, but nonetheless feels a deep need to voice opinions no matter how unpopular they are. In my view, writing and other art forms that don’t conform to exotic stereotypes Americans have about India and its diaspora remain mostly invisible, creating a narrow public impression of Indian culture and people of Indian descent.

Our latest discussion, over candlelight and fondue, was about the American and British news coverage of the gang rape in India. Specifically, I was interested in an article called My life behind India’s Purdah that ran in Salon on January 4, 2012, in which Mira Kamdar wrote, “India’s purdah mentality permeates every level of Indian society,” as remarks made after the gang rape by members of Delhi’s police force and political leaders make abundantly clear.

Salon picked up the piece from Asia Society, retitling it to suggest (erroneously I believe), that Kamdar, who grew up in America like me, was writing as a voice for all Indian women in India. The piece is packaged as an inside scoop on Indian society, rhetorically connecting the fear of violence that Kamdar learned from her grandfather with the argument that India is in its entirety a rape culture, the worst culture in the world for women.

Later, Kamdar tweeted that she had asked Salon to retitle the article. They retitled it “Behind India’s cultural purdah”.

***

Following on the heels of the news about the horrific gang rape in India was a false news story accidentally spread by Alternet and picked up by Salon, “Saudi religious leader calls for gang rape of Syrian women.” I noticed this article on a friend’s post on Facebook. It received twenty-eight comments expressing horror.

The sole commenter who pointed out that the story was link bait put out there for the purpose of fomenting outrage, that this ‘news’ might be the result of Islamophobia rather than reality, was denounced and shouted down. To critically question the legitimacy of shaky news pieces about the Middle East or India is apparently to be a vile and reprehensible person in American culture right now.

By the time Alternet responsibly retracted the story about the Saudi cleric, the damage had already been done. As far as I could see, Americans read the original article and reinforced their stereotypes about brown people “over there” in those terrible foreign countries. There was no consideration about what it means when Americans react with social media outrage to a story about a Saudi cleric or an Indian physical therapy student, but virtually ignore similar violence at home.

I am referencing here an event from last August: the sexual assault of a sixteen-year-old by two Steubenville, Ohio high school football players that was followed with people urinating on her and dragging her around by the ankles and wrists, which was followed by onlookers sharing photographs of her and tweeting about the “drunk girl” and the “dead girl.”

The town, which reminds me of the one in Friday Night Lights, was reluctant to help in prosecuting this crime because of its potential to damage a chance to win the championships. It took the work of an industrious blogger, the hacker group Anonymous, and four months for The New York Times to break the news of this rape. There are many people who are as disgusted by the Steubenville rape as the Delhi rape, but the Delhi rape made global headlines almost immediately generating outrage, whereas the Steubenville rape, which occurred in August 2012, registered widely in American consciousness at the start of the new year.

***

With twenty-two mother tongues, twenty-eight states, and seven union territories, India is too heterogeneous a nation, and frankly too diverse in the experiences it offers, to argue with legitimacy from the personal, as Kamdar and other commenters discussing “the conspiracy of silence” in India do. Of course, all I can offer to explain the reason these articles hit me the wrong way is my own personal experience with India, which has been different, and less sensationalistic.

If I were to argue from my personal experience, I would reach an entirely different result from Kamdar. But you won’t see my viewpoint on this topic in a mainstream or even a progressive news magazine because my viewpoint doesn’t fit the sacred or profane dichotomy by which the West categorizes Indian experiences.

The Indian women I know are not silent, nor any more vulnerable than any non-Indian woman in the West. Whether they are children of the diaspora in California or Sydney or Johannesburg, or living where they were born in Chennai, they happen to be among the most outspoken of my friends. They happen to be the quickest to offer an opinion or give help or ask a question or participate in an event.

Kamdar talks about the fear her grandfather instilled in her in order to argue that the same fear permeates all of Indian culture. The first Indian man I ever knew (my father) encouraged me to feel comfortable dissenting from popular opinion and taking a stand against injustices. I do not believe he is unusual for an Indian man. Jyoti Pandey’s father, for example, described his daughter as courageous, not transgressive.

***

During my visits over a thirty-year period to Chennai, the most salient aspect of the culture I’ve encountered has been liveliness in both genders, not a pervasive silencing of women. Women talk over men to get heard. Women visit nightclubs. Women work out at gyms. Women work in positions of power. Women protest injustice in the face of rising violence. Following the rape victim’s death thousands of outraged women took to the streets of India to protest the government’s inaction toward the perpetrators of the gang rape.

It is fair to say that India is deplorably behind the curve when it comes to Indian women’s rights. Yes, misogyny and brutality exist in India. In the American rush to condemn a foreign culture, however, let’s not forget that women brave, bold, and strong enough to protest the rape exist in the culture, and are emblematic of India’s culture, as well.

There is a total silence in the West on India’s culture of dissenting women in the face of severe patriarchy and authoritarianism. It doesn’t quite fit, does it, into the dichotomy carved out for Indian women by Americans and the British, being neither sacred nor profane, but a bit heroic.

Discussion of the protests, if any, is embedded in articles about how India’s entire culture, one composed of multiple nations bound together by British colonialism, is a conspiracy of silence, all of which fits rather nicely into the stereotype of the “quiet, good Indian girl” that I experienced while growing up and while dating in my early twenties. I don’t know where this stereotype originated because Indian women were rarely seen in mainstream television or movies before the nineties, but it was an expectation of silent obedience I encountered regularly while growing up into my mid-twenties. A prime example can be found in Madhuri, an Indian woman shown in the first ten minutes of the pilot for the cancelled series Outsourced.

One literary representation of the quiet Indian woman is V.S. Naipaul’s portrait of Shama in The House of Mr. Biswas. Another literary line referencing the perception that Indian women are inconsequential is referenced at the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway when Clarissa calls Indian women “silly, pretty, flimsy nincompoops”. After Mindy Kaling grew in popularity on The Office, Kelly Kapur transformed from quiet background character strategically placed to show what a bumbling politically incorrect guy Michael Scott was, to loudmouthed airhead in her own right.

***

Last year, a Bollywood actress, Sherlyn Chopra, decided to become the first Indian woman to pose for Playboy. She told BBC Hindi,

“I have become the first Indian to pose naked for Playboy, and nobody can take away that achievement from me.”

I don’t know why, but I feel a lot of sympathy for Sherlyn Chopra who thinks that being the first Indian to do something this banal and absurd and simultaneously this transgressive, is somehow an achievement. She has escaped the sacred and profane by being in Playboy.

Or is that still profane? Given the ubiquity of Internet porn and the rise of Hustler’s image via The People v. Larry Flynt, I don’t think that America still sees Playboy as profane, but the magazine is banned in India, which suggests that Chopra was seeking a way to make a name for herself by working within the sacred/profane dichotomy.

***

In a back issue of an Indian-American magazine I read regularly, I notice that one of the reviewers of books and films is white. I am irritated when she says, in her review, that she wishes she were Indian, too, that she would change her name to sound like an Indian writer, because it would be easier to get published by one of the big six—Indian fiction is hot right now!

Um, no, not unless you want to write sari and mango novels. Not unless you want to play into the stereotypes of what American people seem to want to read about India and Indians: that it’s all rape, poverty, plucky slumdogs, arranged marriages, mystical, yoga retreats, spiritual revelations, corruption, and elaborate descriptions of North Indian food. A hodge-podge of the sacred and profane packaged for easy consumption, rather than serious consideration.

Later, I’m surfing the Internet again, and stumble upon an essay in The Millions about Indian fiction gaining popularity and mainstream acceptance. I read an Indian writer’s comment to the article: “not writing about my grandmothers reminiscing about baking chappatis in some dusty back court in India, has made some of my work a very difficult sell.” I’m divided. Me, too, I think. I relate, and yet I don’t want to relate because it seems ungenerous and presumptuous to think that readers are motivated to read a book or watch a movie solely by how well it conforms to stereotypical images of my culture that seem “authentic” to them.

Surely those of us Indian-Americans who feel this way have sour grapes? Maybe our work just isn’t good enough to pique interest, having nothing to do with what kind of imagery is expected of us. If Mindy Kaling can write and star in the ultra-popular The Mindy Show without a whiff of exoticism, doesn’t that disprove that you need to write about India or the Indian-American experience in a particular way in order to be successful as an Indian-American writer?

I read interviews with Mindy Kaling in New York Magazine and The Boston Globe. In the latter she says,

When you’re a minority and you’re writing a show for yourself you don’t know that people are pinning hopes and dreams on you in a way and, like, if this fails, does this mean they won’t take chances on Indian-American actresses?

And then she says,

That would be a bummer. I’m not one of these people that’s like, ‘I didn’t get into this to be a role model.’ . . . We’re all role models to a certain extent. You have that responsibility to not do things or say things that you wouldn’t want to perpetuate. But at the same time it’s like I didn’t go into politics, I came out to Hollywood to write and act in earnest. I feel it’s a balance.

She didn’t ask for the responsibility—as she says, television is not politics, though it also functions on popularity—but she has it. When you’re a minority who is not as successful as she is in her field, you see that opportunities are few and far between for minorities in the arts.

It also turns out Kaling’s writer’s room is mostly men. And then I see the show a bit differently, thinking that what Kaling seems to have intended as part-homage, part meta-romantic comedy is being scripted by a bunch of men who are probably mocking, who don’t love romantic comedies at all, who are doing what Jane Austen and Henry Fielding did with sentimental fiction, punishing their heroines for being girls.

Before I learned those factoids, I thought The Mindy Project might counterbalance the whiteness of Girls. Unlike some other writers of color, I didn’t have a problem with Lena Dunham not casting nonwhite women in significant roles in Girls. It’s her fictional world and she should write it how she believes it should be written, I said to myself.

The responsibility lies with networks like HBO or Showtime to green-light projects that are closer to the experience most of us have—a real world in which (gasp) even women of color have bodies that are imperfect and egos that are even more imperfect, who say stupid, earnest, funny things. misconceptions about indiaMindy Kaling says she isn’t interested in having ethnic humor, or her skin color, or her gender define her: “I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists…I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorize myself into a smaller group than I’m able to compete in?”

At the start of the day all writers face the same problem: how best to express what you want to express, which might prove to be inexpressible, in the face of a glaringly blank page and an audience that doesn’t care (hopefully, yet). The tick-tick of the clock, the patch of the great green outdoors you can see from your window, the siren song of the Internet or the television. The experiences that have shaped your ontology.

So although I am an Indian-American woman who loves stupid romantic comedies and finds Kaling very funny, I find it troubling that she separates herself from other Indian American women writers because she can compete in a bigger pool. Not because she’s wrong. She can compete outside her racial group, so why shouldn’t she? But so can many other Indian women writers whose voices must fit into the sacred-profane paradigm in order to be published in mainstream outlets at all. Would Kamdar’s essay have been picked up by Salon if she articulated that no, the stereotypes about India are not true? I don’t believe so.

Maybe Kaling wants to separate herself because she doesn’t want to fall into a race trap, the trap that you are a writer who, in writing for Indian-Americans, writes only for Indian-Americans or for people who see India as a bit of a promised land (a land of yoga or spiritual retreat), whose concerns are only racial or ethnic, as opposed to  the broader human experience.

How a writer asks and how she answers questions of race and identity and gender and culture are crucial in a time when the vast majority of women of color working in entertainment, literature, or the arts still have to package and commodify their “exoticness” or experiences of “otherness” as an “Indian-American writer”, a “black writer”, “a Chinese-American writer” etc. in order to have anyone even be interested in what they have to say.

As Kaling seems to realize, there’s a trap here, which she dodges. If you choose to market yourself this way in America, you are only that. You are the writer or artist or entertainer that many people still elect not to read because your experiences are too exotic, too alien, too other.

“I’m not really in the mood for an Indian novel,” I’ve heard readers say. And I am ashamed that I have been guilty, too, of choosing not to read particular books that I have ethnically pigeonholed without reading word one of them.

What would be the cost to me of pretending I am not an Indian-American writer, but just an American writer? Having taken my husband’s name, I might get away with that.

But a heightened experience of otherness is what I’ve experienced. It’s part of my artistic makeup, not only because I grew up learning Tamil, going to Bharatanatyam classes every Sunday, eating thair sadam and lime pickle at dinner each night, reading Hindu mythology comic books, visiting India as child, but because of how other people have responded to me.

No matter how many Babysitters Club books I read to fit in as a child or the law degree I acquired or other markers of social acceptance I’ve sought out in the hopes of belonging. I was always other in American society. I could not help it. My otherness has become part of my ontology.

On the other hand, if I chose to pull a Lena Dunham in reverse, writing only about Indians, is my work automatically to be sneered at (as the writer of The Millions article on the New Wave of Indian fiction put it) as “ethnic fiction”? As fiction that is assumed to have no value to broader America except to the extent it addresses the sacred or the profane?

***

My daughter is half-Indian, but like her father has fair skin and the question for me everywhere I go now, from pizza parlors to doctors’ offices is, “Are you her nanny?” or “Is she yours?” When I told my husband about the latest episode at a pizza parlor, he was quite surprised. From his perspective, most people don’t talk like that anymore.

My mother told me to ignore it. For some reason, perhaps because it is my daily experience, perhaps because I’m sensitive, I can’t. Every incident reverberates, vibrating with every other experience of otherness I’ve had.

When I was a teenager, a boy I liked who knew that I liked him compared my skin to the color of shit as the reason he didn’t find me attractive. Five years later, I learned that my brother had the same experience with some elementary school bullies. Ten years later, a half-Iranian male reading some of my fiction mentioned the experience of being called “sand nigger,” while growing up in Arizona.

What does it mean that this is not the unique experience of a few kids in the suburbs, but also the experience of our president? President Obama had the skin color publicly compared to shit by Lesley Arfin, a writer for the popular television show, Girls. For me, this is something we shouldn’t ignore about American culture: that people of color are compared to waste products and very few people are outraged. Bullies who talk trash like this are not boycotted and shunned and fired; instead, people of color are expected to stay quiet and ignore it.

When I talk about a racist episode, people assume it is limited to one instance with an ignorant person—one instance in a pizza parlor or one instance at the doctor’s office where somebody assumed I was the nanny. However, in my experience, it is a lot of instances, with a lot of ignorant people.

I can’t help but think that these instances are connected to the issue of representation in art, film and literature. The more we see life from the perspective of someone outside the majority culture, the more empathy we are likely to have for the targets of this kind of abuse and the more likely we are to talk differently ourselves.

Girls is a show I enjoyed last year and now feel maybe I shouldn’t. A show that feminist writers gush over as “honest” and “realistic”, comparing it to Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be and Kate Zambreno’s Heroines.

Women writing about their experiences in their own form, women writing about their experiences in the face of a world that wants them to be quiet, women writing in a world that trivializes the seriousness of writing about one’s personal experience when the writer is a woman like Sheila Heti or Kate Zambreno, but elevates that same ambition when the writer is a male like Philip Roth. However, nobody to my knowledge suggests that Girls, How Should a Person Be, or Heroines is actually interchangeable with the other and that you only need consume one to consume them all. Perhaps you’ve noticed, too, that this cultural conversation about silencing, which takes place in both alt lit and mainstream publications, is almost entirely silent on women writers of color.

Zambreno’s book, which I liked a lot, contains a line that scorns a woman who suggests Zambreno write a “multicultural novel.” I’ve heard that scorn from many fiction writers not of color over the years: that to write a book that is actively multicultural (which registers to me as a simple fact about American society today) is not to write seriously, but to write to a trend that will pass. I think this opinion is motivated by the same thought process that motivates the woman who wished she had an Indian name because Indian fiction is hot, just like vampires, BDSM, and post-apocalyptic dystopias.

For some of us, however, multiculturalism is not merely a trend; it is not written because it is hot; it is a serious engagement with our reality.

***

In a smart essay for The Millions, Thea Lim wrote that,

Since 1917, a total of four men of color have won the Pulitzer: N. Scott Momaday, Oscar Hijuelos, Edward P. Jones, and Junot Díaz. Thirty women have won the Pulitzer, almost half of them condensed in the last 30 years, and three of those women were women of color. Since 1950 two men of color have won a National Book Award in Fiction (Ralph Ellison and Ha Jin), and 16 women have won an NBA, one of them a woman of color.

She goes on to mention two white writers, Mary Gaitskill and Alice Munro, as female writers that write as gracefully as Diaz about their own lives. Then notes that Zadie Smith and ZZ Packer are also possible counterparts.

Within this mainstream literary fiction, there is also Jhumpa Lahiri, a writer who somehow manages to break free from the sacred/profane dichotomy, but winds up writing books in which the saris could be exchanged for jeans, where the Indian-ness is frequently bound up in name brands rather than Bengali culture per se. And yet after three such books, a common criticism of Lahiri (that I find annoying) is that she only writes about Bengali-Americans: why doesn’t she write about something else?

Other Indian-American writers who are far more prolific than Lahiri are sidelined for their social engagement in the same way that Barbara Kingsolver is, as described in a 2011 essay on Slate by Michelle Dean: not taken as seriously in the literary world. Chitra Divakaruni. Bharati Mukherjee. There are more.

Part of their relegation to a literary status below that of Lahiri’s might be bound with literary merit and use of language, but another part, from my perspective, is that these “multicultural” or “ethnic” writers write to Indian-Americans familiar with Indian culture about the Indian-American experience. I don’t think they write only to that audience, but that audience is included. Whereas Lahiri’s work, brilliant and graceful as it is about the Bengali-American experience, does not really require the reader to adopt the same familiarity with Indian culture(s). By not making that assumption, by not being “ethnic,” Lahiri more properly takes her place in the pantheon of literary greats.

***

Salman Rushdie’s memoir Joseph Anton is told in the third person, which does not satisfy my hopes of getting closer to a real person in his situation, but which produces an interesting literary effect. The third-person device forces me to think about how a fatwa forced Rushdie to assume another identity that made him foreign to himself.

I relate enormously to Rushdie’s account of his life in the 1960s at boarding school in England, which weirdly enough, sounds in some respects not all that different from life for an Indian girl in secondary school in Palo Alto in the 1980s and 90s.

At the end of Rushdie’s time at Cambridge, someone throws gravy and onions all over the walls and furniture of his room. He is held responsible and told that unless he pays for the damages, he won’t be allowed to graduate. He pays. Then, when he wears brown shoes to his graduation, he is ordered to change to black shoes and also required to supplicate himself to the vice chancellor, begging in Latin for a degree that he earned.

He obeys.

He writes in third person,

Looking back at those incidents, he was always appalled by the memory of his passivity, hard though it was to see what else he could have done. He could have refused to pay for the gravy damage to his room, could have refused to change his shoes, could have refused to kneel to supplicate for his B.A. He had preferred to surrender and get the degree. The memory of that surrender made him more stubborn, less willing to compromise, to make an accommodation with injustice, no matter how persuasive the reasons.

The insight that I like there is that these personal experiences of abjection and passivity turn him into someone who eventually does fights—with his whole being—for his right to speak the truth as he see it.

Some people might laugh at my juxtaposition. Rushdie? That’s who makes things bearable for you? Mindy Kaling, not the feminist icon Jezebel makes her out to be? What?

But Rushdie’s personal passages contain a level of fight born of supplication, that I think has something important to say to me as a female, as a woman of color, as a writer. And maybe he can get away with talking about this because he is not a woman and because something so profoundly political and disturbing happened to him that nobody (except perhaps Zoe Heller) can trivialize the fact that he is writing about the personal aspects of the crisis now.

Maybe, also, he can write these personal passages because he didn’t grow up in America, believing that he’s supposed to be able to succeed at whatever he wants, but unable to, and because, in fact, he has succeeded by all measures. As someone who does not find herself in a post-racial America, I take solace in a passage about Rushdie’s tendency to supplicate himself as a youth finally turning into a refusal that launched one of the most powerful battles of free speech of our times.

***

Back in the nineties, my first boyfriend, an Israeli-American, mansplaining that being a Jewish male in America is much harder than being a woman of color, finally threw up his hands in exasperation saying, “But you were just born in India. You’re American. You’re not really Indian. You don’t know what racism is.”

It is twenty years since that invalidating conversation. We have a black president, and Indian women are marching against misogyny without applause, but the most popular progressive magazines are not fact-checking stories that perpetuate lies about foreign brown people and publishers are reluctant to put teens of color on the front of YA books because those books won’t sell as well. Shortly after the Delhi gang rape in 2012, a thirty-one year old woman pushed a Hindu man onto the tracks of a subway stations in Queens, New York later saying, “I hate Hindus and Muslims ever since 2001 when they put down the twin towers I’ve been beating them up.”

Ignore it. That’s what you’re supposed to do.

If I must ignore these disturbing facts; or produce writing about Indian culture that fits into the sacred and profane dichotomy such that my words are familiar to everyone but me; or worse, never engage in conversations about these facts for fear of being disliked, the answer that comes to mind nowadays is different from the silent acquiescence or self-directed anger I experienced twenty years ago. I would prefer not to. 

***

Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Anita Felicelli is the author of Izzy and Poe, Sparks Off You, and Letters to an Albatross. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, PopMatters, Brain Child, Ardor, Blackbird, and elsewhere. She lives in the Bay Area with her family. If you're so inclined, follow her @anitafelicelli. More from this author →