I hate saris.
If you’ve ever seen an Indian woman drape a sari, you know it’s a complicated process. If not, imagine someone handing you a bed sheet and saying ‘Find a way to make this look good on your body.’ Once you’ve got it on, it’s difficult to manage: it’s often weighed down with gold, sequins; sparkling beading. You have to walk a little more slowly in saris, and be a little more careful not to trip. At parties, you skip the third beer to avoid the jumpsuits-in-the-bathroom situation. Worst of all, the first time you wear a sari is seen as some kind of rite of passage. It marks the beginning of the time in your life when non-blood relations you have to call ‘Aunty’ tell you about their son, who is always, always five feet nine inches and “studying to be a doctor at the NYU.”
In college, my roommate asked me on moving-in day: “You’re Indian? Oh, have you ever worn a sari?”
I said eagerly, the words tumbling out in a rush: “Oh god, no. I’m the worst Indian you’ll ever meet. I have no Indian friends, I hate Indian music... I’m a coconut.”
She blinked. “What’s a coconut?”
“Uh, it’s when you’re brown on the outside, but white on the inside. See? Like a coconut.”
“O-kay,” she said in a measured voice. I saw her thinking: “This is who I’m living with, the kind of person who self-describes as a nut.” Then she went back to unpacking her John Mayer CD collection and I tried to pretend I hadn’t said anything at all.
In my second year of college, my advisor asked me if I wanted to room with “somebody Indian.” I said “Definitely not.”
“Because there’s this really nice girl in a single in your dorm,” she said, oblivious. “Natasha Khan.”
I knew Natasha. She was president of the bhangra team. Her dorm room was decorated with pictures of her extended family and saris that she hung like tapestries on her wall. She called her mother every day on Skype, and they had hour-long conversations about rice cookers. I resented Natasha because she was the type of Indian white people thought about when they thought about Indians. The original Indian, the source of all stereotypes.
“I already have three roommates,” I said reflexively. “They’re great.” This was not so much stretching the truth as murdering it. I called my roommates the Pony Girls because they were on the equestrian team and wore their hair in tight ponytails. They woke up every morning at 6 AM and clomped out the door in their riding boots. One of them was very Christian, and spent weekend nights negotiating what “exactly counted as premarital sex” with her slightly less Christian fiancé.
I knew I needed to find new roommates. I just didn’t want Indian ones.
“I thought it might be nice for you to room with somebody from the same culture. You’d have a lot in common.”
I shrugged. “Maybe we wouldn’t,” I said as defiantly as any teenager. “Maybe we wouldn’t have anything at all in common.”
All through college and grad school, I collected friends like butterflies, except Indian friends. I never talked about my life before I moved to America, or anything to do with “Indian culture,” no matter how many white people said “Wow, your culture is so rich.” (Rich was their go-to word. It made me think of a slice of Black Forest cake, my favourite dessert.)
“I feel like you aren’t really Indian,” said my white boyfriend. “Like, everything you like is white. You belong to us.”
In hindsight, that was it, right there: the moment when you see a camera pan slowly behind a door in a horror movie and think Something terrible is about to happen. Unfortunately, I was playing the role of the girl who ended up getting stabbed. I even took that comment as a compliment, the same way that I thought it was a compliment when people said “Oh, you don’t look Indian” or “You’re the coolest Indian girl I’ve ever met.”
There are glamorous minorities, but Indian isn’t one of them. Model anything isn’t cool, and the model minority is no exception. You don’t get a reputation for being the class troublemaker; you get a reputation for being the guy in AP Math who brings strange-looking lunches to school. The eternal Kumar of Harold and Kumar. When you’re the Kumar, you duck the uncomfortable, glaring fact of your brownness by hanging out with all-white friends and hoping no-one notices that you’re not one of them.
Being Indian in America means you don’t get to see many faces that look like yours in popular culture. You have a handful of reference points: Aziz Ansari, MIA, that guy from Lost, Bobby Jindal. Kal Penn. Mindy Kaling, who has gone on record saying she doesn’t think of herself as an “Indian comic.” When Mindy Kaling is asked about why “there are only white guys on her show,” you can feel her bristle. I understand her intolerance–she’s fielded this question a thousand times. The Mindy Project even references it slyly, in a way that acknowledges the question without answering it. Why doesn’t Kaling go the Shonda Rimes route, and cast lots of different actors of color on her show? Why doesn’t she ever write anything “Indian?”
Of course, Kaling doesn’t have to answer this question. One of the running jokes on the show is that Mindy has the entitlement of a white man, and the implication is that Mindy relates more to Danny and Peter and Jeremy–all cocky white doctors–more than she would to another Indian. If you’d asked me why I didn’t hang out with other Indians, I would have given you the same defensive answer that I gave to my college advisor: I didn’t have to relate to other Indians just because we were both Indian.
There was a real seed of truth within my self-defensiveness: the truth that I was tired of white people saying “Oh, you’re Indian? I loved Slumdog Millionaire” or setting me up with their boyfriend’s friend because “he’s Indian too, so you’ll definitely hit it off.” Being Indian didn’t mean that I was exactly the same as the other billion people who happened to share that characteristic. It didn’t mean I’d automatically love wearing saris. But in affirming that as loudly as I did, I made another grave mistake: the mistake of thinking that I could find the entirety of myself in the white experience. Like a child jamming a piece into the wrong puzzle, I wouldn’t accept that it wouldn’t fit.
When my friends mentioned getting the Sex Talk from their parents at a young age, I laughed knowingly, though I hadn’t gotten any kind of sex talk other than “Sex? Absolutely not.” When my friends talked about what their therapists had said that day in the most casual tones, I mm-hmmed as if going to therapy wasn’t completely taboo in desi circles. (If you had to get therapy for some unavoidable reason–say a tendency to chew broken glass or set fire to small animals- then you never, ever talked about it because it was coded as weakness.) I kept jamming blue pieces in the sea puzzle before me when they were from something entirely different: the sky; a man’s shoe; maybe a field of bluebells.
I didn’t understand that I was erasing myself till I saw somebody else doing it as well as I had managed to. Because brown kids are nothing if not good at spelling bees and assimilation.
I’m thinking of my best friend telling the Chinese place in faintly apologetic tones: “My name is Salman–like the fish, except with an A instead of an O.” Because brown kids are excellent at finding a frame of reference for themselves so white people don’t have to do anything difficult, like pronounce “Salman.” I’m thinking of my boyfriend telling the maître d’ “The reservation’s under Nick” when his name was Nikhil. I’m thinking of names, but also so much more than names.
I’m thinking of stand-up comedian Russell Peters joking “Hey, we know what the Indian accent sounds like... We know it’s not the coolest accent in the world. We know!” I’m thinking of somebody who never realized their accent was unpleasant to American ears until they watched Russell Peters. I’m thinking of hip brown teens at the grocery store, learning to stand a few feet away from their immigrant moms because they don’t want to be associated with their mother’s bright yellow kurta, her unfashionable sneakers. I’m thinking of answers to questions that we’re embarrassed to ask, like why we’re so quick to describe ourselves as “white on the inside.” I’m thinking of answers we don’t have yet, ways we can tear the roots of internalized racism out of little brown kids. I’m thinking of Toni Morrison explaining how she embraces the title “black woman writer,” because she didn’t consider it reductive to be writing as a black woman. It isn’t a place of weakness, she said. It’s a place of strength.
I watched my first Bollywood movie with a white friend on a night when we had nothing better to do. I told her I was amazed that she liked that kind of movie–sentimental, exaggerated, filled with grating musical numbers–but she laughed at my cynicism.
“It’s great! Sometimes you don’t want Woody Allen-esque dialogue or neurotic couples in New York. Try it out. You’re Indian. Maybe it’s time you watched your first real larger-than-life Bollywood movie.”
It was a dramatic story. As best I could tell, it was about a gangster killing a man who was his friend because the friend had sold the gangster’s wife to a rich sex-trafficker. In the end, everyone died: the wife, the trafficker, the gangster, even the friend who had betrayed him. My friend kept glancing away from her laptop screen to witness my reaction to this song, that affecting deathbed scene. When it was over, she asked me if I’d liked it. I told her truthfully that I’d loved it.
“Wow,” she said, visibly pleased. “You’re really Indian now.” It sounded naive, but I thought I understood what she meant better even than she did.
Years later, I reject parts of Indianness and Indian culture without worrying that it makes me less Indian. I still refuse to wear saris. I still think Indian desserts are best left to diabetics in need of a quick sugar transfusion. And still, still, there is so much to embrace in Indianness. The sweetness of touching the feet of an elderly relative to show respect. The unparalleled sadness of a raga sung at sunset, the voice of the singer quivering in a note no Western singer has mastered. I had more in common with Natasha Khan than I thought, after all. I think of her sometimes, and the way she folded her hands in the traditional greeting whenever she met someone. “Namaste,” she would explain, “means I honour the soul inside you. That’s how we say ‘Hi’ in our culture. I’m Indian.”
Image by Tara Jacoby