Friday, September 28, 2012

Pride and Prejudice

If there is one common grudge held among single, upwardly mobile straight Indian men living in urban America, it is that the “hottest” white women – a subjective and highly loaded term, nonetheless used in popular culture to signify and commodify sorority blondes – seem so damned unavailable. They are everywhere: in magazines and movies, preening haughtily on the beaches of California. Everywhere it would seem, except by the side of Indian men.

It’s indisputably true: whereas the handsomest American men often view Indian women as trophies, blondes are far less likely to hook up with desi boys, unless, say, the blonde was a displaced Eastern European or she grew up having a crush on a surly Indian kid who left her needing to chase emotionally unavailable Indian men.

To be fair, when any woman is presented with options, she will likely say that Indian men do not make the most desirable fuck buddies. Maybe we desis are ruined by our mothers, we never learn to play the game. On the other hand, in the complex society that is America, with its rigid racial and class-driven structures of hierarchy, is it possible that most of our kind, perceived as perennial outsiders, didn’t have a chance to begin with?

The data seems to back this up. OkCupid, a popular free American online dating site conducted its own large-scale survey and found that white women responded to messages from non-whites on its interface only 23 per cent of the time. (According to OkCupid’s blog, users create their own unique matching system that ensures that a good match is predicated on the prospect of great conversation; the messaging function facilitates getting in touch with potentially fabulous matches.) The upshot: the dating habits of white women are racially suspect.

None of this concerns me directly, but as an Indian male, I am offended. In four years of living in central Texas, I cannot recall seeing an Indian fellow with the sort of gori universally acknowledged as stunning. Austin is a liberal college town in a conservative state, and interracial partnerships are not uncommon, but the peculiar configuration of Indian men and white women I refer to was absent.

Not every Indian man – especially not the kind that holds militant conceptions of ethnic identity – wants to be with a white girl. Perhaps most people pick partners based on shared cultural experiences; perhaps beautiful white women, long eulogised by society as the ideal mates, and, consequently, spoiled for choice, prefer to pick partners who practise the cultural codes of whiteness.

Then there are darker motives: some may be sensitive to pressure exerted by conservative families and society at large to pick only men who will preserve the whiteness of the line. How much of it is attributable to racial attitudes in the Deep South?

Two months ago, I moved to the Northeast. One of the first things I noticed in Princeton is the number of interracial couples; after Austin, I was startled by the sheer number of Indian men accompanying women from other racial groups. According to US census figures, the density of Indians is highest in the tri-state area, but that alone cannot explain the spike; my guess is, in intensely dorky environments like Princeton where irrespective of their ethnic affiliation the men (and women) assuredly belong to the cream of intellectual society, nerdiness will trump every other card. If you extend that thought, Indian men probably have it best in big cities, such as New York and San Francisco.

However, a fundamental question remains: is there a cultural trend in America wherein Indian men are dismissed en masse as unsexy? Indian men have traditionally been desexualised or portrayed as unattractive in the mainstream American entertainment. Parallel to this, in America, there is a general belief that Indians constitute a model minority: they are well-educated, hard working, and rarely raise their collective voice in protest, focusing instead on fitting in. In contrast to the sizeable Punjabi contingent that made it to Toronto and Southall in the 1960s and set up small businesses or drove cabs, desi migrants to America hail from a variety of linguistic backgrounds and are more likely to belong to the professional class.

In America the word ‘Indian’ today quickly summons the image of Apu from the Simpsons, or a tech employee; maybe, a doctor. It conjures up the impression of men committed to arranged marriages and – more viciously – smelling like curry. The problem with stereotypes is that while they may be grounded in specific truth, they are often distorted to overreach for a generalisation. Some might argue that one ought to approach false categorisations with a sense of humour, and recognise that in comparison to the African-American and Jewish narratives, the history of South Asians in America is a short one. All of this may simply be one stage in the larger process of cultural absorption.

It would also help the Indian cause abroad if attitudes changed in the mother country. Anti-Muslim rhetoric retains a hold on many Hindu and Christian families, and couples across caste lines are routinely subjected to horrific violence in smaller towns and villages. But there is cause for optimism: in big cities at least, we are witnessing a rise in inter-community relationships.

Deep transformations take time; one day hopefully, Indian men in America will see past the false binary of whether white women find Indian men sexy or unsexy, and learn to ask if the partner they seek is good enough for them.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The making of an audience

(This essay originally appeared in Open magazine.)

There’s a lot of good stuff out there even if little of that is mainstream. In the age of auto-tune, indie bands are stepping up to reclaim intellectual purity. (‘Indie’ is a term generally used to denote relatively obscure bands signed up with independent record labels.) As far as Western indie bands are concerned, there’s barely any money to be made anyway beyond the Anglophone market. In the case of desi indie bands, any awareness of their work would probably be limited to the Indian cognoscenti whose number is restricted to a few thousand and who till recently were inclined to pass up locally produced music in favour of classic American and British bands.

This is a condition that the fledgling Indian college radio scene can rectify. Ruia College Radio does some interesting things. The RJs speak to their guests and audience in a mix of English, Hindi and Marathi. There is even a show that promotes Urdu culture. I’ve heard them play ghazals in languages like Marathi. (I didn’t know they were performed in anything other than Urdu.) They don’t play material that might be considered commercial. It is no coincidence that Indian bands can now dream of sustaining themselves without playing a single Metallica cover. The intent is great, but they really ought to work on hitting international standards of quality.

Read more here.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

After the uprising

An extract from a poignant essay in The Observer:

Rohan Gunaratna, an international terrorism expert and author of the book Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network of Terror, conducted a lengthy interview with John, and prepared a written report for the American court to which John was brought for trial. Gunaratna is an expert consultant to the US government itself on terrorism matters. "Those who, like Mr Lindh, merely fought the Northern Alliance," he wrote, "cannot be deemed terrorists. Their motivation was to serve and to protect suffering Muslims in Afghanistan, not to kill civilians."

John described his motivation in similar terms. "I felt," he later explained to the court, "that I had an obligation to assist what I perceived to be an Islamic liberation movement against the warlords who were occupying several provinces in northern Afghanistan. I had learned from books, articles and individuals with first-hand experience of numerous atrocities committed by the Northern Alliance against civilians. I had heard reports of massacres, child rape, torture and castration."

More here.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

What would Baba O'Riley say?

Teenagers comprise the largest consumer demographic in the United States today. The Merchants of Cool is a superb PBS documentary that examines what the relentless focus on the teenager does to culture.