Brownie Points

Arrival of the Indian Chic.


Newsweek recently anointed South Asians the “new American masala,” but the signs as the Oracle might say were always there. A little South Asian girl looks down at a supine Keanu Reeves at the beginning of The Matrix Revolution.

Tops that look like kurtas hang on the racks in departmental stores in the hip Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. At a gym in San Francisco, young women kick their legs in an aerobics class as Punjabi MC and Jay-Z belt out “Mundiya te bach ke.”


And most recently the holiest of the Holy Grails, Bombay Dreams opened on Broadway on April 29.

If this clicks it could it be the dawn of the New Brown Age of Desi Cool in America? In 1492 Columbus thought he had discovered the Indians. Now finally after more than six centuries of waiting we might have discovered him.

“If Bombay Dreams is a success in the States, then we’ve crossed a huge milestone,” says actor Aasif Mandvi. “All the Indians in the tri-state area will be going to go see Bombay Dreams, but it still has to cross over to a large non-Indian audience.” Mandvi’s one person play Sakina’s Restaurant got rave reviews in 1998-99 and helped land him the title role in Ismail Merchant’s The Mystic Masseur, but Sakina was not considered a financial success. And ultimately that’s the currency of cool.

“It will last as long as people buy it. Just follow the dollar,” says Mandvi.

When I first landed as a grad student in the United States at the end of the eighties, my little university town in Illinois was bursting with desi grad students, but had little to offer them. There were no all-you-can eat lunch buffets that now dot Silicon Valley.

One “international” store offered basic spices, but if you wanted panchphoran forget it. Now you can go to a supermarket in Sunnyvale in the heart of Silicon Valley at 8 pm and get your Neem toothpaste and hing.

Ads for a desi grocery store in the program brochure of a Vijay Tendulkar play in a suburb of Boston offer “baby goat meat” and “frozen fish from Bangladesh.” The local high-end grocery store in my own granola and organic neighborhood in San Francisco stocks ready-made and packaged Dal Maharani and Palak Paneer among the organic baby spinach, firm tofu and soymilk.

Some say America’s Indian embrace started with India opening its markets to the multinationals. The giant cosmetics industries have been called the main forces behind the dawning of the age of Sushmita Sens and Aishwariya Rais on the fashion firmament.

But the sea change, it seems stems from the numbers.

According to the last census, the desi population in the United States doubled in 10 years to 2.18 million in 2000. Thousands and thousands of engineers gobbled up the H1-B visas. Most of them were young men, missing mom’s home cooking. Not surprisingly Indian restaurants started popping up in the areas they congregated – from the nan-tandoori staples to homestyle cooking from the kitchens of enterprising housewives to idlis and dosas served in stores that were carefully made to look like the IIT-mess complete with carom boards.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, the rundown Tenderloin, once home to gloomy dark hole-in-the-wall bars, seedy massage parlors with flashing signs and corner stores selling liquor and beef jerky, started attracting so many dhaba-style Indian/Pakistani restaurants that the local newspaper dubbed it Tandoorloin.

Nowadays walking down the street, you can still see the occasional drunk lying in a stupor on the sidewalk. But the pervasive smell is the rich charred aroma of tandoori and creamy tikka masala rather than cheap liquor and urine.

The economic downturn and the dot com bust hit the Indian population hard. Suddenly the H1-B stream reduced to a trickle. More and more engineers started returning home.

“Many of those engineers might have gone back to India, but the taste of India remains,” says Sohel Subedar who runs Mela, one of the oldest desi restaurants in the area. “They introduced their co-workers to this food before they left. Now Americans are getting a taste for Indian food whereas once they thought it was an instant ulcer.”

Food often is the immigrants’ first point of entry into America. “For most Americans too, their first glimpse of Indian culture is at a restaurant,” explains Lisa Tsering, entertainment editor of India West, a California weekly.

Thanks to the ubiquity of the H1-B engineers and the sudden fame of hotshots like Hotmail’s Sabeer Bhatia, director M. Night Shyamalan and Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri, Indians were no longer the invisible modern minority. Lagaan’s Oscar nomination and the images of Aishwariya Rai at Cannes all helped boost that visibility.

We were the model citizens: winning spelling bees, writing reams of code and buying responsible cars like Hondas and Toyotas. We had money, motels, and a lobbying firm in Washington.

But we were never cool.

But when Hollywood anoints you, you are transformed. Suddenly we are the stuff that dreams are made of. We came here in search of the American dream. Now, we are in it.

“The door is definitely opening,” says Tsering, who has been covering the entertainment industry since 1991. “(Gurinder Chadha’s) Bride and Prejudice (starring Rai) might be the one that really opens the door,” says Tsering.

Bollywood is finally entering the American imagination. At the University of Washington, Keith Snodgrass teaches Bollywood as part of course on Media and Society in South Asia. Most of Snodgrass’ students are non Indians or second generation Indians trying to fathom why their parents are addicted to Hindi films.

This year on Academy Awards night, the biggest Oscar gala in San Francisco, a black tie affair hosted by the Academy of Friends decided to go for A Hollywood to Bollywood Theme.

“Our event has always centered around a celebration of the movies and Bollywood and the window it provides into Indian culture seemed a natural choice,” says T. J. Snyder, publicity chair of Academy of Friends.

It was a resounding success complete with palm readers and Bharatanatyam dancers, studly half naked young men with henna tattoos on their rippling abs and white men in tuxes and bindis moving through swishing curtains of silk while the overhead televisions broadcast the Oscars live.

Part Maharaja-fantasy, part Jungle Book, a Bollywood theme can make quite a splash. Renda Dabit of Hennagarden was in charge of bringing Bollywood to life at the gala. Dabit, a Palestinian-American who opened the first Henna salon in the United States in 1996 remembers that for the first ten days of her salon in Berkeley she had no customers. Now she has up to 35 artists working at her store during peak time.

After branching into event production, Dabit put on some Indian-themed parties for big corporations with a lot of South Asian employees.

“Bollywood and India are hot,” says Dabit who also offers other themes like Old West and Orient Express. “If it’s New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles now, in five years it will be in Texas and Minneapolis. So Bollywood still has a plenty of juice left in it.”

But others worry that like everything else that’s “hot” this is America’s latest fad. Once upon a time it was kung fu.

“I love Bruce Lee,” says Anmol Chaddha, co-director of Yellow Apparel: When Coolie Becomes Cool which dealt with commodification of Asian culture. “But what did it do for Asians’ economic and political power?” He points to the popularity of African American culture from rap to hip hop and soul. “People want to see a black person on TV but don’t necessarily want them next door,” says Chaddha.

Christine Wong says the popularity comes at a price. An associate editor with YO! Youth Outlook magazine, she remembers how at the height of Kung Fu mania, she was constantly asked by classmates in her rural, mostly white town if she knew Bruce Lee.

And post-Bruce Lee she says Asians are stuck playing roles with funny accents even if they have none in real life like Pat Morita of the Karate Kid movies.

“I hope their growing visibility in mass culture will allow South Asian Americans to correct stereotypes and have a stronger voice in national dialogues on race,” writes Wong. “We don’t need any more grinning comic-relief sidekicks, over-done accents or “exotic” hotties. But I doubt Apu (the store owner in the cartoon The Simpsons) will be packing up his Kwik-E Mart any time soon.”

The interest in things Indian is not entirely new. Yoga and sitars all had their 15 minutes of fame. But that was fizzless karma cola in comparison. The difference this time is Indians are calling the shots, instead of just handing their sitars over to the Beatles to twang. Sudhir Vaishnav is intimately involved in the marketing of Bombay Dreams on Broadway.

It’s not just the entertainment industry. Birthday cards reproducing old kitschy Indian matchbox covers pop up in retro stores. Lunch boxes with Krishna or Ganesha are suddenly popular.

Tight body hugging t-shirts in the tourist trap stores in San Francisco’s gay Castro district say San Francisco in Devnagari scipt. The vinyl covers of our rickshaws are suddenly being converted into 100-dollar tote bags for the fashionistas.

“All things can be turned into lunch boxes and throw rugs,” cautions Mandvi trying to draw the line between commercialization of Indian culture and appreciation of it. “In a consumer society, things are only as valuable as how many people want to buy it. Therefore it’s a way to get people to buy Indian culture, without actually having to understand it.”

The disconnect is pretty apparent if one examines the plight of South Asians after 9/11. One of the first victims of the post 9/11 backlash was a Sikh gas station owner in Arizona. Temples were looted and vandalized.

A Pakistani family trying to make biryani in Pennsylvania found FBI agents in moon suits bursting into their home and rifling through the spice cabinets. A suspicious neighbor thought they were making bombs or something.

Now the fuss over outsourcing has heightened tensions in an electoral year. Rohit Khanna running for office in San Mateo county in California received threatening phone calls accusing him of taking jobs from “real” Americans.

“That’s not surprising. A bindi on Madonna may be cool but my mom wearing a bindi is still a ‘dothead’ and a target for discrimination,” says Anmol Chaddha who is also a research associate with ARC, hreferring to the Dotbuster gangs that harassed and attacked South Asians in the 80’s. “Our lives as South Asians are not improved because white Americans can go to malls and try on bindis. They after all can take them off when they are not convenient.”

The danger of cool is also that we can be chewed up and processed and spat out as millions of cookie-cutter lunch boxes with images of Krishna stamped on them. Probably made in China! And once you enter the American Dream factory there is no telling who will consume whom.

There have already been missteps. American Eagle put Lord Ganesh on slippers, Gold Medal Hosiery Company put Om on socks. Images of Gods and toilet seats, Gandhi as a comic wimp in Maxim magazine and rock icon Tina Turner being tapped to play Kali/Durga/Shakti have all sparked the anger of Hindu organizations.

“Of course people don’t have a lot of information about India or Bollywood,” admits Dabit of Hennagarden. “So if they want to use images of Gods we have to educate them about what’s appropriate or not. We have to say would you use an image of Jesus Christ there?”

But when Anisha Nagarajan, Sriram Ganesh and Manu Narayan belt out Shakalaka Baby on Broadway it represents the browning of Broadway as never seen before.

Whether this shade of brown will last into next season or be replaced by the next flavor of the day remains to be seen. But for now, NBC entertainment is scouring the country looking for the cast of a new television sitcom. Nevermind Nirvana is about a desi family, the Mehtas – Arjun, Sonny, Raju, Sarita and the faithful family retainer, Govind Singh.

Let the browning begin.

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