I woke up this morning to an email with the subject “I think you may be white.” The sender – not a spammer – is a friend who has seen me in person and is not blind. Not just that, this email was the third time in the course of two days that someone had suspected that if you stick me in the shower long enough, I’ll emerge pink, long-limbed and blonde.
This is very curious. I wear saris and kohl. English is my second language. I read, write and speak two Indian languages fluently (which makes sense since one of them is my mother tongue) and am prone to rant about how neocolonialism is turning us into an illiterate, homogenous bunch. I’ve studied postcolonial literature (and pretty much had to go into therapy to not have it mutate my taste in literature because theory can be really persuasive even if a lot of the creative writing isn’t). Basically I’m as brown as biriyani (the real stuff; not the gravy-wet disaster that is served at curry houses in the UK).
The profile above is, apparently, compromised by the following:
1. I like wine.
On Friday, when I had to go for an “exclusive” wine-tasting, a friend emitted a porcine laugh and said, “Dude, wine tasting? Like, is your permanent address in the Upper East Side?” I said I’d prefer some spacious real estate in the Prospect Park area. Friend in question then launched into a lecture about how Harlem was where it’s all at now. I shut up because if I had to get to either Prospect Park or Harlem, it would take about an hour of staring at the Subway map.
2. The two newspapers I read are printed 8 and 22 hours away from my current location.
The significant other and I were having an animated discussion about what constitutes good writing, whether humour is essential to a piece being well-written and the distinctions between creative, creative non-fiction, non-fiction and journalistic writing. At one point the Other paused and said, “What are we doing here?” Er, we’re killing time while being stuck in a traffic jam on Tulsi Pipe Road. “No, I mean, what are we doing here? All our references are from stuff that’s happening in America or England. We laugh at David Sedaris and watch documentaries on the New York Times crossword. I mean, you wake up in the morning and read the Guardian. What are you doing here?” At this point I pointed out the joys of cheap groceries, the decadent pleasure of domestic help and being able to smoke in restaurants.
3. I like Vampire Weekend.
Ok, like might be putting it mildly. The fact that my first reaction was “Wait, but even if you ignore the whole African pop angle to their music, Ezra collaborated with Esau Mwamwaya and could I please refer you to Campus/Bollywood and Osaka Loop Line by Rostam” probably makes me sound more like a geeky stalker than any particular shade of brown or white. We’ll ignore the fact that they completely mispronounce Madras in M79.
Reading The Unbearable Whiteness of Being was, however, a pretty daunting experience. Because if what Lander is says in the article is a gauging mechanism – ironic or otherwise – I am white. All because I have taste and a conscience. I like to make transport choices that seem more eco-friendly. I love Apple. I don’t watch television (though that has more to do with what passes for entertainment on Indian tv; am officially addicted to a wide range of American shows, on the other hand). I loved Twin Peaks, The Royal Tenenbaums and enjoyed Donnie Darko muchly. I dig organic food (despite the extortionist prices). Breakfast is indeed a crucial weekend activity and I love my salmon with wasabi-touched cream cheese sandwich. While I have very little desire to go camping, the great outdoors a la Central Park (with easy access to a lemonade stand and the sonic comfort of the buzz of city traffic) is one of the reasons I love Manhattan. David Sedaris is my hero (along with Eddie Izzard who didn’t make it to Lander’s list). And as established earlier, I do indeed have a penchant for Vampire Weekend. From Lander’s Full List of Stuff People White People Like, I scored above 50%. And I’m in Mumbai, where admittedly there are an increasing number of white people but we’re still predominantly India.
What’s worse is that I can’t think of Indian equivalents for almost any of my white stigmata (even though I will vehemently thump the table and maintain that there are others like me; that this supposed racial monopoly over taste can best be answered in one word: pshaw!). Independent cinema barely exists and that too only for the film festival circuit so there’s no public access to that phenomenon. It’s even worse when it comes to music. Indian classical music is almost fossilised thanks to the profusion of musically-illiterate and talentless artists who practice it and if you ask me to replace my Vampire Weekend mp3s with Dard-E-Sherlyn or Alms for Shanti, there will be blood. Chetan Bhagat and Shobhaa De are bestselling authors and are considered insightful. The crass, hamming mimicry of the likes of Sunil Pal passes for stand-up comedy. The great outdoors in Mumbai involve coming entirely too close to a sea that is more floating fecal matter than water. As much as I love the raagi dosa, it is a completely different sensual experience from a salmon sandwich.
Most importantly, one of the reasons so many creative South Asian are returning to their roots is that it’s easier to be successful here than it is to do the same abroad. Part of the reason is that there is a niche factor that goes against you when you’re not white in a society that is primarily white. So the chances of an Indian writer scripting an episode of Frasier are highest if that episode involves an Indian family or is set in a curry house. And of course there is the mediocrity that surrounds us here. I don’t know if we’ve generally lost the capacity to come up with a novel, inventive idea as a people or that networking and nepotism has created a slack and effete culture but the fact is that stuff that wouldn’t crawl in most of the world flies in our glorious country. A lot of this has to do with the country’s attitude to education in general and higher education in particular. The only subjects that have received attention are those that are considered immediately profitable – namely commerce and the sciences. For example, most of the top-ranking colleges in the country offer a grand total of two liberal arts subjects: English and History. Anything creative is deemed worthy of being a hobby and not much more. So the kid who is barely visible in the food chain of a foreign film crew can come here and become the first assistant director. Because the kid either has some technical training or has worked with people with technical training. It’s like whooshing up to the final row of Snakes and Ladders because of academia.
For all this ranting, however, I still cling on to my Indian passport despite the trials and tribulations that come with it. Which is why I’m now officially in a state of panic. How on earth do I stop the spread of this white pallor from creeping into my brownness? I pondered this as I got ready for brunch – according to Lander, an intensely white activity – and decided to wear my Fabindia kurta. It was only when I left the house that it struck me that Fabindia’s core customer group is probably made up of tourists. White tourists.