Following free traders and artisans who migrated to and traded with India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in the fist centuries of the common era; from the 1300s onward, East Africans from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and adjacent areas entered the Indian subcontinent, mostly though the slave trade. Others came as soldiers and sailors. From Bengal in the northeast to Gujarat in the west and to the Deccan in Central India, they vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their enslavement. The success was theirs but it is also a strong testimony to the open-mindedness of a society in which they were a small religious and ethnic minority, originally of low status. As foreigners and Muslims, some of these Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations.
Besides appearing in written documents, East Africans, known as Habshis (Abyssinians) and Sidis, have been immortalized in the rich paintings of different eras, states, and styles that form an important part of Indian culture. Africans in India features dramatically stunning photographic reproductions of some of these paintings, as well as photographs.
As rulers, city planners, and architects, the Sidis have left an impressive historical and architectural legacy that attest to their determination, skills, and intellectual, cultural, military and political savvy. The imposing forts, mosques, mausoleums, and other edifices they built — some more than 500 years ago — still grace the Indian landscape. They left their mark in the religious realm too. The 14th century African Muslim Sufi saint Bava Gor and his sister, Mai Misra, have devotees of all origins, not only in India, but also in Pakistan. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians frequent their shrines.
From humble beginnings, some Africans carved out princely states — Janjira and Sachin — complete with their own coats of arms, armies, mints, and stamps. They fiercely defended them from powerful enemies well into the 20th century when, with another 600 princely states, they were integrated into the Indian State.
**TRIGGER WARNING: rape, sexual harassment**
It was a Monday afternoon at the theater in Lucknow, a small city not far from Delhi, somewhat old-fashioned by reputation. We–the women in the audience–were wearing the loose, concealing clothing that women usually wear in Lucknow. The three women on stage were dressed similarly, but in striking combinations of black and pink. The audience was excited, maybe a little tense. During the introductory remarks, the Delhi rape case had been brought up again. About ten minutes into the play, the atmosphere changed when she walked on stage. Black hair, black top, short black skirt, long brown legs. She looked good, but she wasn’t trying to titillate anyone. She spoke with a kind of serene authority “Meri short skirt ka aap se koi lena dena nahin hai.” My short skirt has nothing to do with you.
The play was Kissa Yoni Ka, or The Vagina Monologues translated into Hindi. (Starring Varshaa Agnihotri, Rasika Duggal, Dilnaz Irani, Mahabanoo Mody-Kotwal, and Dolly Thakore and translated gorgeously by Ritu Bhatia and Jaydeep Sarka.) This staging was the first in Lucknow, part of a week-long drama festival called Repithvar. Two years ago, the same festival had tried to bring this play to Lucknow, but it was cancelled at the last minute when the cultural minister objected to the “adult” material Bhupesh Rai, the festival organizer told me. Dolly Thakore, one of the stars of the show, told me that she was happy to have an opportunity to perform in cities where The Vagina Monologues had previously been banned at a time when rape and child molestation were at the forefront of discussion in India. Dialogue about violence against women is opening up across India, and this play is a part of that.
After the play was over, I tried to figure out why the short skirt monologue was the one that made it hardest for me to hold it together. And I thought, seeing this woman onstage, seeing the way she took control of everyone in the room made a lot of lies go away, at least for five minutes. One of them–that women get raped because of what they wear. Another–that the fucked-up ways of thinking that make this monologue necessary are isolated to certain countries and people of certain skin colors. Originally, the same defense of short skirts was written in English for an American audience. There, too, women don’t get to wear short skirts without occasionally being told they’re asking for rape. (Even my high school “health” teacher also told a classroom full of teenaged boys and girls that women who wear short skirts are asking for rape.) Kissa Yoni Ka was translation at its most powerful.
In addition to the new blog entitled “India Ink,” which has been operational for just under a year, I’ve seen an uptick in articles on India recently–a very unscientific and cursory perusal of the more recent articles reveals news on “dirt-poor farmers,” sex crimes, and corruption, or about how India is a growing economic powerhouse. This is of course, followed by discussions of how India is “between two worlds,” with respect to “tradition” and economic disparity–with no indication about how neoliberalism is complicit in the widening income gap, not just in India, but worldwide. Combined with Nick Kristof’s regular martyring operations to rescue underage trafficked prostitutes in Kolkatan brothels, what we have here is a consistent picture of an India that is not yet “fully modern,” informed by the liberal discourse of rights and progress. It seems that the New York Times will never, ever tire of incessantly replicating imperial tropes.
So, I was naturally curious to see whether there might be an alternate, less polarizing narrative about India when I came across this New York Times Modern Love column; a Canadian woman’s account of her trip to India and how she (maybe) fell in love with an Indian man nearly twice her age. At first pass, I found myself caught up in her stylish prose. But there was something about her essay that unsettled me: Jeong’s writing is of a piece with that familiar eroticization of India–Orientalist imaginings of the lushness of nature combine with the well-worn tropes of India as chaotic, as a seductive and sexual place of pure experience, spirituality and true self-knowledge, with sinewy yet docile natives. If I had a penny for every time a (usually white and almost always North American or European) person has gushed to me about how much they love India because they found God or themselves there/how it was wild and filthy and beautiful all at the same time, I’d have a serious amount of change by now.
Feminist scholarship has built on Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism and shown how women were complicit in this project, reaffirming the binary between East and West even as they offered different visions of the Orient. Though Jeong writes about the difference in a way that doesn’t malign it, what is of utmost importance here is that the separateness of the two domains is upheld and reinforced, thus leaving the imperial ideology underpinning Orientalism untouched. I’m not suggesting that Jeong’s experience was not real or poignant; nor am I suggesting that she consciously embraced this Orientalist dichotomy. I am merely pointing to the ways in which her narrative is always already Orientalist in its reaffirmation of the disparateness of the East and the West, shaped by her privileged position as a Westerner with the financial means jet off to India and Istanbul.
One of the world’s largest ever strikes began at midnight on Monday 27th Feb and will end at midnight tonight. Up to 100,000,000 Indian workers from different sectors and industries are calling for a national minimum wage, permanent jobs, and much more.
Are those nine digits?
motherlaaaaaaaaaaaaaand git it done!
In this specific example, while making its comparison of India as a magical negro, the post fails to both note and appreciate the following bits of context:
That both the main white actress and the main desi actor in the film are British, with Dev Patel adopting an Indian accent and playing the part of a “native”. That all the featured Indian characters are coded as middle/upper class (the dress, able to speak fluent English, etc) and light skinned. That in many ways this is how India is actively marketed by its tourism sector (and also its government. Did a project once which involved collecting promo material from the Indian consul — I think in Chicago? — and it was quite hilariously illuminating), because they’ve judged that this type of pandering will bring in the tourist dollars.
And this exotification of India in the West has been happening since before the time of Columbus, and reducing said things to a “phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment…” seems rather glib. (Just because it appears in tvtropes does not mean TV created it!) And that’s not even getting into how most isms seem to inevitably become just like the racism that blacks (had) face(d) in the US.
I also thought it was telling how none of the links elaborating on the ‘magical negro’ trope went to one of the many black writers who’ve done the major work of deconstructing and dissecting it, much less linking to desi writers talking about colonialism and othering.
So what my disagreement boils down to, I think, is this: that this is a discussion about the Othering/exotification of India in mainstream Western culture that succeeds in further marginalizing/disenfranchising desis and other minorities. It doesn’t consider that we might be among the audience for this post (much less making room in the conversation for us, much less acknowledging all the times we’ve already discussed this), and in the way it takes something that rose out of certain contexts, misidentifies said contexts while applying it to different ones with no mention of the consequences of the differences, makes it, again, similar to what it’s aiming to critique.
And it brings home the point that, for all its social justice aims, this is a blog for a specific group of white people, by a specific group of white people, with all the marginalizations that entails.