This essay appeared in Kajal, Volume 4: Food. You can purchase a copy here.
Growing up in a nearly all white small town, I remember spending so much time looking for myself. Decades removed from the motherland itself, my India was a tapestry of objects and symbols woven together: Ganesha watching over cereal boxes in the pantry, green grocery store mangoes, Kareena Kapoor. There was a certain thrill of recognition when something India-related emerged unexpectedly. You hear South Asian creators often say that they were motivated by an absence of their own stories, and that’s what moved them to create. But I wonder if I shouldn’t have been encouraged or taught to look at myself – to contextualize the reality of my particular South Asian experience – instead of for some kind of Bollywood or Hollywood abstraction. Representation has been a fixture of conversations about social justice for the past few years, and looking at the mediascape now, you might think there’s no better time to be South Asian in the US. South Asians are increasingly visible in media, from television to film to self-created digital spaces. The rise of the diasporic influencer, for example, suggests a level of creative agency and acceptance that would have been unthinkable years ago. But representation doesn’t necessarily equal liberation.
The history of South Asian material goods and cultural exports is the history of colonialism. The British East India Company (EIC) sailed to India to engage in the spice trade, but its economic project quickly turned into political conquest. The EIC seized most of the Indian continent and used African and South Asian slave labor to bring exports including spices and cotton back to England. After the First War of Indian Independence in 1867, the Crown took control of the “jewel of the British Empire” until Independence in 1947. British exploitation of Indian resources contributed to some of the most devastating famines in modern history, including the Great Famine of 1876-1878, in which 6-10 million people across the subcontinent died. The role of Britain’s policy during these years has led some scholars to call these famines “Late Victorian Holocausts.”
The British exported Indian foods, minerals, textiles, jewelry, and art to the West, where they became objects of fascination, statement pieces on the foyers of the wealthy and prized possessions in trade fairs. Colonial exhibitions – fairs complete with reproductions of Indian jungles, artwork, and even local “artisans” (who were really prisoners forced to perform traditional craft making) – introduced the West to the East. These exports and fantastical tales of a colorful, timeless place, at once mystic and savage, fueled Westerners’ obsession with the subcontinent as they denigrated its inhabitants at the very same time. Britain’s colonial rule deindustrialized India and further exploited existing social divides, ultimately leading to the tumultuous and violent partition of India and Pakistan. India’s contemporary identity, defined by the Modi administration as a Hindu, Brahminical nation state, is in part a byproduct of British colonialism. Indian postcolonial nationalism appropriated the very same image-building as British colonizers, propagating the myth of a sacred, Vedic country while sowing discord between Hindus and Muslims.
Representation doesn’t necessarily equal liberation.
Today, India claims the world’s largest diaspora, and this mass migration is, in part, another byproduct of colonization. Migration from India to the United States rapidly increased from 1965-1990, when new immigration policy, including the creation of visas for “high-skill” workers, drew upper-class, educated Indians to the United States. Restrictive immigration practices and the overrepresentation of relatively financially privileged Savarna Hindus contributed to the creation of the model minority myth, which erases the struggles of other underserved South Asian communities and is fundamentally anti-Black.
As the diaspora grew, Indian identity became organized through cultural clubs and institutions. For many upwardly mobile Indian immigrants, cultural continuity was a primary concern. Bhangra became a team sport, second generation kids donned salwars and saris several times a year for events organized by Indian cultural and religious associations, and identity-based clubs emerged on college campuses, from South Asian fraternities to Hindu Student Councils. Education in the late 1990s and early 2000s was focused on a sanitized “multiculturalism” consisting of superficial sharing of food, clothing, and customs. Scholar Meira Levinson describes this kind of multicultural education as “trivializing real differences in order to emphasize our commonality: toleration becomes a lesson on the order of, ‘They eat tortillas, whereas we eat blintzes, and that group eats mu shu.’” This focus on surface-level diversity and tolerance rather than anti-racism or deeper engagement with South Asian culture led to a whittling down of identity into these concrete objects and practices.
Growing up as a biracial, second generation Indian in a rural, nearly all white community in Southern Maine, I did this diaspora show-and-tell act every year. I brought mango lassis and papadum to school, and dressed up in the clothes normally reserved for weddings, family reunions, and events at the Indian Association of Maine. I gave a third-grade account of the Indian Independence movement pieced together from my Dadaji’s childhood stories–Gandhi and the Swadeshi movement and satyagraha, but no Bhagat Singh or freedom fighters. This kind of sharing was supposed to be beneficial for me – an opportunity to take pride in my culture – and my peers, who were ostensibly learning something. For a long time, this performance was the way I understood my identity, too. I was Indian because of what I wore, the movies I watched, the songs I listened to in the car. My grandparents taught me everything I knew about our culture and the country they had left behind and it was in my grandmother’s kitchen in that I learned the most. I watched her hover around pots of kheer and lamb curry for hours. After a trip to India, she somehow managed to smuggle a carton of mangoes through security, and we ate them whole over the sink, “the Indian way” staining our arms yellow. Occasionally, when she was too tired to cook, there were Patel Brother frozen palak paneers, or Reena’s exotic chikoo ice cream out of a pink, frostbitten tub. Now that I’m older, I look back and can see the extent to which my diasporic South Asian identity was filtered through the lens of consumption. Culture was something I received – in the form of long dinners, bangles, rakhis, and Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham. In my own liminal experience of identity, I used this consumption to prove I was Indian enough.
Diasporic millennial and Gen-Z South Asians like myself inherited a very different mediascape and political climate than our older siblings. The language of social justice entered the mainstream in a profound way. Social justice spaces on sites like Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter provided spaces for young South Asians to share their experiences of racism at school, bemoan overly strict “immigrant parents,” and engage in discourse around stereotypes, representation, and cultural appropriation. Previously fringe concepts like intersectionality, Orientalism, and fetishization became accessible via these online platforms. While Internet discourse liberated discussion of racism and identity from the Ivory tower, the social capital attached to being progressive led to the commodification, and subsequent watering down, of these spaces. Via “”desi meme” pages like @browngirlmemes, young South Asians celebrate cultural exports from chai to Maggi noodles to Bollywood movies. These pages tend to celebrate representation in popular culture, show South Asian women “stunting” in wedding attire, and speak out against cultural appropriation of South Asian culture. Many of these pages advertise “diaspora merch,” like T-shirts that say “samosas and squats.”
Contemporary identity politics emerged online at the same time as commercialized social media platforms constructed “personal brand.” Social media users’ engagement and self-presentation have been irreversibly commodified, and their expressions of identity have been, too. Personal brand so heavily influences all forms of online expression, and capital is so inextricable from presence on social media, that identity politics often appear as a selling point. The “show and tell” of multiculturalism has morphed into the mirror dance of 21st century online identity politics, in which an intense focus on the self – one’s own positionality, privilege, and experiences – is made to speak for an entire community. The hyper individualism of online identity, in which one is constantly creating and maintaining an outward facing persona, makes it difficult to have truly community-minded discourse. And, as Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sharmin Hossain note in Wear Your Voice Magazine, some voices still dominate the conversation in these online spaces, “The overwhelming majority of brown girl influencers are upper caste, cisgender, Hindu and Indian by origin. In embracing brownness in their location, there is an erasure of their caste, class, immigration, and racial locations, one that would situate them not only in a position of oppression, but also of privilege, placing them in multiple hierarchies related to caste, cisgendership, and nationality.”
These South Asian Instagram and Twitter pages typically become explicitly political around two issues: beauty standards and cultural appropriation. It’s certainly important to discuss beauty standards within and outside of the South Asian community, especially with regard to colorism, but the idea that these picture-perfect representations – often of women in full wedding attire and professional hair and makeup – signify some kind of vindication in the eyes of white patriarchy seems like a stretch. If you look up “#desigirl” on Instagram, a swath of conventionally beautiful, light-skinned women appear in ornate jewelry, full faces of makeup and expensive-looking saris. These are often the images shared by Desi influencers and meme pages, accompanied with captions about the beauty of our women. Another irony here, as Soundararajan points out, is how often these pages co-opt AAVE and Black aesthetics.
The Indian “Don’t Rush” challenges, in which women switch from workout clothes and messy buns to full-out glam are shared with a kind of smugness, a “stick it to the man” attitude that gives pause. In one viral Tik Tok, influencer Hamel Patel sings along to “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande adorned in gold jewelry, her makeup glistening, at the same time as a White woman in a Cinderella-like get-up. The caption reads “POV: a world where the british never colonized India & we kept our riches.” It’s funny, especially the white woman’s shock as Patel bitingly lip syncs to the last line. But it’s also an example of the kind of surface-level engagement with history and politics that creates consumable content that ultimately positions beauty as the best form of revenge.
Cultural appropriation is another issue given much attention in these online spaces. From the trendiness of haldi doodh repackaged as “golden milk” and turmeric lattes, fashion designers selling turbans and shirts with Hindu iconography, and white girls wearing bindis at Coachella, the discourse has much to feed on. This kind of “activism” is perhaps best epitomized by Padma Lakshmi’s impassioned takedown of white people saying “chai tea,” and then being bombarded with criticism about her silence on CAA. These conversations often tend to position culture as property, and it’s nebulous at best, dangerous at worst to say that something as expansive and abstract as heritage can be treated like a commodity. The idea that South Asians in the diaspora own any of these things, that the question at the heart of the matter is who has a right to these exports, that they constitute the complex, multi-faceted identity of an entire group of people, mirrors colonial logic. Giving mythic meaning to exports has the potential to reproduce the colonial image of India as a land of exotic riches, but disposable people, and plays into reductive, Orientalist tropes.
Moreover, focusing on material culture rather than people obscures the labor of migration and exportation. Who picks the spices that we use to make the food that reminds us of our homelands? Who weaves the sari cloth? Upon whose backs have wealthy South Asians created the opulent lifestyles diaspora influencers mirror in their blinged out selfies? Calling out cultural appropriation distracts from another more difficult conversation about the production and context of culture – for example, the inequities of the spice trade, the rampant racism of the Bollywood industry, or the casteist origins of yoga. Defending the sacredness of Hindu iconography but not speaking out against the widespread, brutal Islamophobia and casteism in India and the United States is a matter of taking sides.
Vijay Mishra writes about diaspora in terms of the “enjoyment” of a nation: “…diaspora as Other has an important function to play in the construction of the fantasies of the nation-state as a Thing to be ‘enjoyed.’” This notion of enjoyment, of a certain right to pleasure, colors the way upwardly mobile diasporic South Asians understand their identities. The right to enjoy India, for example, from one’s home in the West too often looks like mining its exports for social capital, for personal brand, for an aesthetic.
This mining extends to diaspora poetry and literature, especially the new generation of Insta-poets. While there’s a breadth of nuanced, critical writing on South Asian diasporic experiences, the literary market has become flooded with what Kiran Misra has called “mango diaspora poetry.” The speakers in these poems often make use of certain tropes and archetypal images centered around South Asian exports, often going so far as to collapse the distinction between themselves and these objects. For example, in Tarfia Faizhullah’s “Self-Portrait of a Mango” she becomes the fruit itself: “Why use a mango to beat her perplexed? Why not a coconut? Because this “exotic” fruit won’t be cracked open to reveal whiteness to you.” Naben Ruthnum calls these narratives “curry books” and cites Monica Ali’s Brick Lane as an example, in which the author writes of her pregnant protagonist “For seven months she had been ripening, like a mango on a tree.”
There’s nothing wrong with writing about mangoes, per se – and I agree with Soniah Kamal who, in an essay about her conflicted feelings about including mangoes in her novel, says, “I don’t want to, nor should I have to censor myself just because parts of the world have turned my reality into cliché.” But the underlying premise of many of these works of diaspora literature, especially the kind that circulates social media, suggests that we are mangoes (or chai, or coconuts, or turmeric), that these objects speak for us, that our consumption of these exports define us.
Diaspora poetry often treats a collective kind of trauma as another type of commodity.
Diaspora poetry often treats the former feeling, a collective kind of trauma, this way too, as another type of commodity. As Misra writes, “These poems rely on stereotypes that often flatten the description of the complex South Asian experience into universal nostalgic sadness entwined with imagery of monsoons and plump, sweet fruit.” The telling and retelling of a certain kind of anguish – of longing and never fitting it – constitutes a different kind of “enjoyment,” the claiming of one’s own suffering. Diaspora literature is often riddled with reference to mothers and wombs and “split tongues,” capture the affect of a relationship that necessarily relies on metaphor and symbolism without ultimately saying much. The most popular forms of this kind of art focus not on the material, but the abstract. Writers like Rupi Kaur and Fariha Róisín understand diaspora through untold stories, ancestral trauma, and spectral forces. Diasporic identity here is symbolic and deeply interior. As Chiara Giovanni writes, this abstraction and generalism is what makes Kaur’s “unspecific” poetry so popular, and the reason it’s garnered so much criticism. In an interview with DNA India, Kaur said, “I can only speak as a South Asian woman, that is who I am. I can only speak about my lived experience and of the women around me—my mother, the life she’s lived, her mother, my sisters and so on. Our trauma escapes the confines of our own times. We’re not just healing from what’s been inflicted onto us as children. It is generations of pain embedded into our souls.”
In How To Cure A Ghost, Róisín plays on what Mishra calls the “spectral nature” of diaspora, taking a deeply spiritual and highly symbolic approach to understanding her place in the history of migration: “The ghost is colonization, my mother, white supremacy, abuse, ancestral trauma. Even though all of these themes are broad, they really come back to human pain. We’re all suffering in a way, so how do we heal? We heal by naming the ghost.” Fatimah Asghar’s work also takes on the spectral. She writes in her poem “Smell Is the Last Memory to Go” of “a tree smelling of citrus & jasmine that knocks me back into the arms of my dead mother…my mother’s skirt twirls & all i smell is her ghost.” There’s room for a multiplicity of relationships and representations of diaspora, however, the extent to which the representations of diasporic identity given the most attention online collapse into either commodification or abstraction suggests an unwillingness on the part of privileged South Asians to contend with the complex, material realities of diaspora.
South Asian storytelling is vital and important, and there are countless examples of rich, nuanced representations of diasporic experiences in literature and film. But the storytelling that makes it to the mainstream is not typically the storytelling that critically engages with this experience. We crave representation, stories that reveal our own truths and affirm our identities, but are often disappointed when we look to platforms with the widest reach. Some of the biggest shows to come from South Asian creators or feature South Asian actors – from Quantico to Master of None to, most recently, Never Have I Ever – are eagerly awaited, then alternately celebrated and ripped apart for perpetuating anti-blackness, Islamophobia, casteism, and tokenism. Of the latter program, Monica M wrote in Wear Your Voice Magazine, “Kaling is more interested in packaging Indian upper-caste Hindu American identity for the white gaze than she is in authentic storytelling. Shows like these continually erase the complex dynamics of South Asian experience and place their heads in the sand when it comes to critical socio-political realities that ground their shows. And this is frankly dangerous.” These shows are for mixed audiences, and often pander to Western views of Indian people, whether it’s through faked Indian accents or plotlines that make fun of immigrant parents.
Consuming ourselves, or at least consuming the image that diasporic creators and Netflix come together to sell to us, doesn’t bring us closer to an understanding of identity driven by community, solidarity, and care. Neither does defending our ownership of our culture by attempting to copyright turmeric and yoga, nor does only considering our histories in the language of ghosts and spirits. And I do believe that it’s these things – community, solidarity and care – that ease the loneliness and nostalgia of the diaspora. When we align ourselves with one another on a deeper level, in order to care for one another, we gain access to a new kind of identity that’s built upon togetherness instead of a sense of estrangement or isolation. Neither understandings of identity that are either primarily interior, spiritual and abstract nor understandings of identity based on cultural ownership and consumption satisfy the longing for connection that so many of us feel. There’s still a role for material culture to play: those hours I spent with my grandmother in the kitchen fostered my sense of duty towards the generation who came before me, gave us time for her to impart her experiences and knowledge and values. These exports are meaningful when we speak around them, instead of making them speak for us.
Ultimately, critical engagement with culture, solidarity with vulnerable people, and an emphasis on community beyond the confines of capitalism is necessary to create a meaningful relationship with the homeland and reclaim our political agency. Especially in the case of India, which is being pushed further and further into anti-Muslim, casteist fascism every day by the current administration, a politically engaged diaspora that refuses to be complacent is crucial. A starting point is interrogating the different conditions for migration and of diasporic experiences in the West – we all arrived where we are now by taking vastly different paths, and have experienced diaspora differently, too. Understanding where our experiences differ along the lines of nationality, immigration status, class, caste, and religion does more to unite us than divide us. Resisting an easily consumable identity and a consumer identity, resisting the collapsing of different circumstances, is a form of resisting that initial colonial homogenization of India and division of South Asian communities, as well as the myth of India that its right wing government would prefer us to perpetuate. And, as we enjoy the tastes and scents that transport us to our homelands, we must consider the conditions that bring them to our doorsteps: the invisible human labor, the environmental degradation, the centuries old exploitation of globalization and exportation. Being South Asian can mean finding community online, celebrating our food and clothing and holidays, the riches of where we come from (mangoes included), even satirizing our experiences, but it has to be more than that, too.