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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Excerpt | The ‘desi’ mutation
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Excerpt | The ‘desi’ mutation

In her new memoir, Shoba Narayan writes about the duality of living as an Indian in the US


Dressing up for an Indian party in New York was, for me, a complicated exercise fraught with rules and miscues. Dressing up for a party at Zahid’s house made it doubly so. On the one hand, I didn’t want to seem too Indian, dressed like my mother in a traditional sari and dime-sized bindi. On the other, I didn’t want to show up in a cocktail dress or pantsuit and confront a sea of women decked to the gills in ethnic finery. Not only would I stand out, worse, I would be instantly labelled as a pseudo Indian who tried to be too westernised.

Indians in America have a highly honed instinct for spotting artifice, probably because many of us have attempted it ourselves. After all, what is the point of starting afresh in a new land if you cannot reinvent yourself into someone else, be it a suave corporate chieftain, Nobel-prize winning professor, media-darling, policy wonk, or a UN high-flier who cloaks ambition with charm?

photoYet, within each of us lay contradictions. We touted American enterprise and capitalism, yet engaged in acts that were antithetical to free will: conducting an arranged marriage before a thousand guests at one’s native village after spending years in America was one. Consulting an astrologer or shaving a child’s hair on a preordained auspicious day was another. We were—all of us—rational professionals with some irrational Indian predilections such as a love for cricket, curry and cold water without ice; a craving for mango pickle and mother’s rasam; and a belief in the curative powers of Vicks Vaporub, Fair & Lovely face cream and Woodwards Gripe Water.

I thought of this as I stood before my closet, discarding outfit after outfit. Usually, my sartorial decisions weren’t so complex. I wore Indian clothes to Indian parties and western clothes everywhere else. But Zahid and his American wife didn’t fit into either category. There was a fair chance that their party would be full of Americans, in which case a cocktail dress or a pantsuit would work just fine. Then again, they may have invited only Indians, in which case an elegant silk sari was more appropriate. Sari or suit, Indian or western—therein lay my dilemma.

photoEvery Indian carries a mental inventory that is divided between being ‘Indian’ and being ‘Western’. Certain clothes like saris and shawls are Indian, while pantsuits and short skirts are western. Chunky gold jewelry is Indian, while sterling silver is western. Sandals are Indian, shoes, western. Long hair in braids or a chignon give women an Indian look, while short boyish cuts are more westernised. Living in Queens, New Jersey or Long Island is Indian, while living in edgy Manhattan is more western. Goods that offer value for money are Indian; while outrageous splurges are western. Driving an SUV or BMW is western; driving a Toyota or Honda is definitely Indian. Leasing, or for that matter, anything construing a short-term mindset is western; owning, paying off the credit card bill in full at the beginning of each month, and offering cash for all transactions is Indian. Decorating your home with Indian artifacts is obviously Indian, while buying minimalist modern furniture is western. And so it goes.

The problem with such a list was that random acts became deliberations. Lifestyle choices that should have been spontaneous became complicated by over analyses. Should I keep an ‘Indian’ home or a ‘western’ one? Should I wear a bindi or not? Should I keep my Hindu name, or anglicise it, like the Jews and Chinese had done? Should I celebrate Christmas, a holiday that I didn’t grow up with, or should I ask for a day off to celebrate Diwali, the most important Indian holiday? Should I remain aloof or assimilate? Should I wear the colourful Indian clothes that I loved, or quit wearing them in public because I am tired of being stared at? Such questions rattled my brain to the point where I sometimes just wanted to check out. Sometimes, I just wanted to pick an outfit, not a country.

When I was single, the answer to such questions was simple and pointed to all things American. I wanted to wear western clothes, celebrate American holidays, embrace new traditions, and assimilate completely. That changed after I became a mother, and took upon myself, the self-imposed, but rather nebulous task of passing on ‘Indian values and culture’, to my child. I didn’t have a clue as to what exactly constituted Indian values, but I knew that they had to be different from American ones, which meant that I had to be different too. I had to become more ‘Indian’, whatever that meant, or entailed.

There were many overlapping circles amongst Indians in New York and Zahid’s party contained a fair representation. On one side was the Asia Society crowd—the auteurs and art patrons who paid $500 a pop for an evening with filmmaker Mira Nair or economist Amartya Sen. Across the room were the artfully rumpled journalists and the professors, holding forth about foreign policy and the Indian elections. A few doctors stood around with their beepers and cell phones, looking preoccupied and vaguely out of place amidst such studied, forbidding elegance. Many of the men were from Wall Street and you could tell who was where on the corporate ladder by what they wore. The ones who appeared genial, almost professorial, were the top guys who ran big divisions. The ones with the $1,000 Armani suits were the ladder-climbing mid-level executives, and the young single analysts…well, there weren’t any young singles at Zahid’s party. They were all probably enjoying Indian Bhangra Night at SOBs downtown with DJ Rekha.

Midnight stood nearby, talking loudly about his trip to India as part of the American India Foundation. He saw me and waved. I waved back. When had Midnight become such a board-chaser? All he talked about these days were benefits, boards and galas that raised money for a variety of Indian charities. The American India Foundation was a favorite amongst this group, mostly because Bill Clinton was a fellow enthusiast.

‘And Bill was such a sport about everything,’ Midnight was waxing eloquent to his audience. ‘The heat, the horses, the garlands, the crowds, nothing fazed him.’ He turned to me expectantly.

‘Absolutely,’ I obliged. ‘Clinton loves India. He got Bob Rubin to speak at the last benefit, didn’t he?’

Bob Rubin indeed. I was such a sham, making it sound like I personally knew the ex-Secretary of Treasury, like I went to all their benefits, when in fact I had been to exactly one. And the crowd here probably knew it too.

Something about Indian parties brought out the Holden Caulfield in me. It was as if I suddenly suspended logic and compassion and viewed my fellow Indians through one lens: how ‘pseudo’ they were. As cultures went, India and America were quite different that it was difficult to assemble a composite Indian-American identity. It was hard to mesh the two cultures together in one individual.

We were unlike any of the Indians we had left behind back home but hadn’t completely become American either. We were mutants.

Shoba Narayan is an author and writer of The Good Life column in Lounge. Write to her at

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Updated: 11 Sep 2012, 04:27 PM IST
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