Check out the September playlist!

Importing India – The (Dis)Content of Digital Diasporas

Written by Shreya U.K, 7th August 2020

Sometime in May, I came across a British TikTok video talking about the necessary items in an ‘Indian’ household. Strangely, I had neither heard nor seen most of those things growing up. A little disappointed, I looked up similar content in a quest to understand why I – a Bengali-cum-Oriya, born and raised in Delhi – was not ‘Indian’ enough. This further made me wonder, what does it mean to be ‘Indian’? That too, outside the subcontinent, in far and distant lands? 

The recent Netflix releases, ‘Never Have I Ever’ and ‘Indian Matchmaking’ have brought the Indian diaspora at the forefront of public discourse. Both shows have provoked a range of responses that appear to have only widened the chasm between representation and reality. Somewhere in between, the question still lingers – what does it truly mean to be ‘Indian’ outside the Indian subcontinent? To find out, I interviewed several first and second-generation Indian immigrants, most of whom are active digital content creators between the age group of fifteen to twenty-five, born and raised in different corners of the world. 

The following are excerpts on the most crucial, ongoing conversations in Indian society. I share these in a conversational format, not to arrive at any assertive answer but to collectively unravel – and thus perhaps perpetuate the ever-perplexing project of decoding inscribed identities. Nonetheless, I encourage you to engage with these contending comments and inherited beliefs so as to arrive at your own conclusions, with introspection instead of imposition.

Disclaimer: All Names Have Been Changed

On Culture 

Born to Tamil Christians in Kansas, United States, Srija recently graduated from high school in California. Unlike most participants, she introduces herself as a ‘coconut’ right from the start – “brown on the outside, white on the inside” – a term usually deemed “insulting and hurtful” when used for seemingly “whitewashed” Indians. Identifying with Devi from ‘Never Have I Ever’, she confesses to leading a double life – one with her “brown homies”, another with her ‘non-desi’ and/or white friends:

A scene from ‘The Mindy Project’, where the protagonist is dumped for being a ‘coconut’.

“We grew up in a super super white town. Where I grew up, it was 99.7% white. I was like one of the two Indian kids in that town. So we grew up super Indian, and I feel a lot of guilt over this, but I definitely tried to whitewash our household a lot. Like I would hide my food when I went to school…I remember I cried so hard because you could still see some mehendi on my hands before the first day of school. Which is crazy, because white girls do it as a trend now. Or bindis, for example. So we have always been a very desi household.” 

Not many participants, however, can claim to have always been ‘desi’. Vansh, a seventeen year old born and raised by Gujarati parents in London, elaborates on the nuances between being and becoming Indian:

“Growing up, I am going to admit to that, I didn’t feel as proud to be Indian. As I grew up, I wasn’t that cultured. I didn’t enjoy my culture as much as I do now. I used to think it was a bit weird or I’d rather do something else. It’s because I hadn’t learnt to embrace my culture or realised how fun it was. But it’s a big thing for me now. I used to have a lot of white friends but then I started making desi friends…So I started listening to more music. I started watching more films. Obviously, Bollywood is the first thing that gets people into desi content.”

Children of first generation Indian immigrants are usually introduced to their ‘culture’ through family, food, fashion and films. Becoming Indian, if at all, comprises wearing kurtas and lehengas to periodic community functions, resenting your mum’s daals and sabseez till you go to university, and learning Hindi via Shah Rukh Khan’s dialogues from early 2000s Bollywood. Both Vansh and Srija evidently exercise a certain amount of agency with regards to consciously as well as selectively, choosing and rejecting one’s heritage – otherwise, assumed to be innate and inherited – at different points in their lives.

While becoming cultured is not obligatory, it is recommended. However, with caution; lest you be declared a ‘FOB’ or a ‘Paki’. A particularly American phrase, ‘FOB’ or Fresh Off the Boat, is a “derogatory” term for someone who is supposedly “not cool”, “more traditional”, “does not embrace the American culture” and has a “thick accent”. ‘Paki’, on the other hand, is a British slur that connotes “being dirty” or “sort of tribal”. Vansh further elaborates to me, “When people say, ‘Oh it’s just an abbreviation of Pakistani,’ I am like nah. Because it was used against everyone who was Desi. Like the N-word. So you can’t say that. People in Britain do not think that people in India are very advanced compared to them. Even though they probably are…Just because we have our cultural background, that is why they do not see. They do not see anything else.” 

Children of Indian immigrants thereby unknowingly commit to an inevitably futile exercise of treading a terribly thin line between being Not-Indian-Enough and Too-Indian; an endless strife towards remaining cultured but not uncivilised. 

On Colourism 

While there are some elements of Indian culture that can be cherry picked, colourism is not one of them. Body is and has always been a racial entity, in and beyond the Indian subcontinent. Siyal, fifteen, born and raised in Indiana, United States notes the same:

“I have seen it everywhere, they [mainstream media] lean towards fair people than the dark skinned people. I don’t like that. I mean, dark skin people are beautiful. Like, they’re to die for. Like, I don’t get the Eurocentric beauty standards. We are India. We are South Asia. We are Sri Lanka. We are Pakistan. We are Nepal. We’re not just one skin colour. We are a diversity of skin colours. I think that India’s and South Asia’s and Pakistani and Sri Lanka’s – all of their views would change on colourism once they start putting diversity in their films.”

While representation is essential, it is not easy. It is marred by hierarchical identities that propel individuality into continuous and consistent theatricals, ultimately leading to only counterproductive essentialism. How does this affect the people now packaged into performances? Deliberating on the same, Srija discusses her digital presence and the response it garners:

“It was weird dealing with hate for the first time in my life, like from people I didn’t know. Especially on my one video that blew up. Just a lot of angry men confused that women use make up, which was really weird…I get hate for not having clear skin, which I guess is understandable but also stupid. I get hate for being a woman. I think all women on TikTok get hate for being a woman. And then I get hate for being relatively dark, which I don’t care about, and I think I am semi-lucky in the sense that my parents sheltered me from colourism in India to an extent. But I do get [it], especially American’s being like, ‘Oh my god, there is no way that she isn’t black.’ And I’m like, ‘You know people have melanin all over the world, right?’”

On Caste, Cows and Current Government 

Much like culture, ‘national’ politics too are not self-contained. I was curious as to how Indian immigrants navigated these borderless minefields at home, abroad and in between. Somehow the topic seamlessly weaved into every conversation, either as an assertion, hesitation or confession.  “Being from India, you know the huge divide between Pakistan and India, which is something I would never understand. It’s something I need to do, especially in college, which is to understand the Indian history a little bit more,” admits Srija. “People would talk about Modi and politics in general and I am like, ‘Uhhh, I don’t know what’s going on.’ I am so focused on American politics, I don’t know what’s happening there [India].”

Ishaan, seventeen, born and raised in California, United States, on the other hand, claims to be updated on current events back in India. “I personally think Modi is definitely better than Rahul Gandhi. The dude doesn’t even know what he’s talking about half of the time,” chuckles Ishaan. “I personally think India has a really bright future…but only if we take away all of Congress, all the Gandhi parivaar needs to be eliminated…[because of] what they have done in the past and are still doing.”

The only child to Sindhi and Punjabi parents, Ishaan too grew up in a predominantly white neighbourhood with very few ‘desi’ friends. Being a content creator on TikTok was what first introduced him to the “big brown community.” Nonetheless, Ishaan does not feel comfortable in truly expressing himself neither around his ‘virtual’ fans nor his ‘real’ friends. Rather, he admits to self-censoring out of the fear of cyber bullying, especially from “left-leaning Indian-Americans”:

“Do you know who Hasan Minhaj is? I think a lot of them [Indian-Americans] take information from him and Western media. They think whatever Western media states is true. They made this one video about how Hindu nationalists are going about killing people because they’re killing cows. I try to explain it to people…I lean more towards the side of these people who love cows because they consider it more than just a pet. Imagine if someone came into the United States and killed your dog, you would definitely not stand quiet.”

While Ishaan does not advocate violence – which in this case is public lynching of predominantly Muslims and Dalits – he certainly believes it is justified. I enquired if cow vigilantism is something that comes up during family dinners. “A lot of my political views are based of what my parents think and what my relatives think, and what I have seen on Indian news media for reliable sources,” Ishaan explains, “I don’t think BJP is a Hindu Nationalistic party…It’s not as bad as people think it is.”  

Then I am assuming you must have discussed caste at home as well?” I ask. 

“Obviously, the caste system is not prominent here [US], but I know what caste I am. I am the business caste, the merchant caste. We don’t really see that here, so we don’t talk about it as much…We kind of learnt about it in school but I would say it’s not that prominent anymore,” asserts Ishaan. 

Caste never comes up again. Neither does the community driven survey conducted in 2016 by Equality Labs that finds that 25 percent of Dalit-Americans have faced verbal or physical assault, 20 percent report feeling discriminated at work and 40 percent have been rejected in romantic relations, all of this specifically owing to their castes. Despite the recent case of caste-based discrimination in Cisco, the multibillion-dollar tech company in San Jose, California. Despite Yashica Dutt’s recent article in the New York Times, where she reiterates the dangers of the ‘model minority’ myth – epitomised by the Indian diaspora – and the resultant delusion of a “post-caste” world. One that is built on “seemingly harmless calls for ‘vegetarian-only roommates’”, “caste-based temple networks”, and the “Hindu activist organisations”, that in the name of Hinduphobia, fervently strive to erase ‘caste’ from California’s textbooks. Consequently, oblivious young adults like Ishaan prove that these conveniently concealed caste hierarchies are not only preserved but also perpetuated, “almost as a core tenet of Indian Hindu culture.”

Caste denial, hence, is not only dangerous but also prevalent; not always out of malice or prejudice but sheer naivety. This is something I notice during my conversation with Vansh as well. “A stereotype? Not eating beef. Worshipping cows. I don’t know where people get that from,” exasperated, he pauses briefly and then suddenly  exclaims, “Oh and caste! A lot of people misunderstand caste in England. They would think it’s really bad, even though the feudal system was horrible. I don’t know why they don’t talk about that.” 

Have you ever talked about caste at home?” I ask. 

I never knew what my caste was until a few years ago…I do not exactly understand what caste means but to me it means my historical ethnicity, where my ancestors were from.”

For Vansh, caste is not a religious but cultural phenomenon. Probing on how he distinguishes between the two, Vansh remarks that he simply does not:

“Hinduism is more of a culture than a religion. At least, how it is now. Cause you don’t have to be – uh, you don’t have to believe in – uh, it’s not like other religions where you have to believe in everything to be Hindu or something. You can believe in some things, you can have your own opinions. It is a lot more flexible, I guess…Growing my platform [on TikTok] would be a great way for me to express my opinions and my voice, make sure that people in my community are heard. Cause also, I want to stand up to all this Hinduphobia thing and I’ve already done so. Few of my posts, I’ve talked about it…I wanna make sure that more people are educated about these situations.” 

Vansh is not the only one to use their virtual capital to assert typically upper caste, Hindu identities, especially as a response to seemingly rising Hinduphobia. The digital diaspora of South Asians, in the name of multiculturalism, coddles this novel breed of digital Hindus – a non-geographic, techno-native community that periodically convenes to to ‘reclaim’ henna from Coachella; ‘cancel’ Shein over Swastika necklaces; and share Instagram posts justifying the pro-CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act, 2020) rallies and #AllLivesMatter slogan. While Hinduphobia may or may not be real, what is certainly real as well as consequential is the rage it results; a response that almost always stems from selective diasporic amnesia that meticulously packages intrinsic violence under the garb of cultural relativism. Such that any attempts of its uncovering are instantly declared xenophobic, thereby further victimising  – centralising – Hindus in the Indian diaspora.

In the face of microaggressions, systemic discrimination and cultural appropriation, the urgency to defend one’s own roots is understandable, imperative even. But these roots are often bloody. Uprooting a culture does not necessarily clean it. Instead, it leaves indelible stains. The hegemony of globalised upper caste, predominantly North Indian, Hindu* traditions in the South Asian culture is one such stain, invisibilised – normalised – through the ‘brown’ community’s seemingly absurd adamancy on arranged marriages, fair skin and flexible brides. These practices, thoroughly condemned yet unexamined – lead to intergenerational ignorance where children grow up to accept, excuse and embody these seemingly forgivable follies. The consequent superficial appreciation of a culture without an acknowledgement of its conflicting histories and oppressive tendencies, unintentionally yet inevitably, makes the American/Abroad Born Desi not only confused but also complicit. 

Curiously, not quite different from you and I.

* Note, the caste system is not particular to Hinduism but a prominent feature of most South Asian religions.

Experience Further: A diasporic community always resembles a fusion of cultures, a ‘this and that, both and neither’. This remix by Tesher precisely captures that multiplicity. It is a popular audio from ‘Brown’ TikTok. Furthermore, it reiterates the significance of Bollywood as the most ‘consumable’ form of ‘Indian’ culture outside the Indian subcontinent, for it is – in the words of one of my interviewees – “the first thing that gets people into desi content.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

About Us

Anant Shah

Anant Shah- Founder

Anant Shah (just as his Instagram bio says) has always been interested in connecting people though their different cultures. He is drawn to this goal, given his background of a family of artists, as well as his work at several different organisations such as the People Tree with Orijit Sen, The Conflictorium in Ahmedabad and The UN (AIDS) Communications and Global Advocacy Team in Geneva. As a graduate of History and International relations at Ashoka University, he co-founded and set up the Ashoka Literature festival in 2019. Longing to increase this critical discourse on contemporary and traditional Indian Cultures he finally decided to start InCulture.

Kartik Sundar- Founder

Kartik Sundar loves nothing more than opining on cultural content. An avid writer for many publications, the decision to start one of his own came from recognizing a substantive lack of critical discourse around Indian culture today. He graduated Ashoka University with a degree in History & International Relations and wishes to complete further education with a focus on media and cultural studies.

Who We Are

We at inCulture are looking to shed light on what we see as an emerging new Indian culture as well as paying dues to the traditions that have been integral in shaping the current space. We want to try and create a space where critical reflection on cultural events, individuals, works of art, or practices can be fostered. Rather than exist as a cultural news outlet that merely serves as a bulletin board for the latest releases, inCulture will look to curate multi medium pieces that seek to inform readers about aspects of our culture that make you think beyond an immediate reaction. In particular, we strive to look critically at Indian culture through investigating it under four distinct categories – film & theatre, music, spaces, and society

Disclamer

All views and opinions expressed in the articles, videos are personal to the Author/Editor(s) and don’t mean to offend any individuals, organisations, institutions or communities.

More Stories
The Psychedelic Orient – The Story of How India Became The West’s Drug-Culture Capital