Dal, a lentil-based soup, is a staple of Bengali cooking — at least in my family. It didn’t matter that we grew up in Ohio, about as far from Kolkata and Dhaka as you can get, we had dal with dinner almost every night. Moog dal, musoor dal, cholar dal, toor dal, yellow split-pea dal. You know that whole Forrest Gump riff on shrimp? That was the Bhattacharjee household’s relationship to every kind of lentil in existence. It was one of my late father’s favorite dishes, and my mom liked to joke that he could eat just dal-bhaath (lentils and rice) for every meal. Me? Not so much. I looked upon dal with the kind of horror that middle American white kids saved for their broccoli and Brussels sprouts.
The only way you could get me to enjoy lentils was in khichuri, a classic Bengali comfort food that combines dal, rice, spices and ghee and usually comes with a side of something fried. Let’s face it, fried potatoes on the side make any dish a winner.
Vikramaditya Motwane’s period drama Lootera (“Thief”) is appropriately titled, as it steals slowly into your consciousness and deftly exploits your vulnerabilities before leaving you alone with nothing but your thoughts. This is not a loud film; it features no dance numbers, no bombastic “Bollywood moments,” but it still delivers the beautifully melodramatic payload that makes Hindi films such a joy to watch.
Lootera is the story of Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), a pampered Bengali landowner’s daughter, and Varun (Ranveer Singh), the mysterious archaeologist who comes to dig on her father’s property. Pakhi is instantly entranced, but as Varun is wooed by her charming, single-minded campaign to win his heart, he’s waging a dangerous war of his own. He’s no archaeologist. He’s a con artist, part of an expert ring of thieves, only there to worm his way into her and her father’s good graces so that he can simultaneously worm his way into their coffers.
Sometimes, when I talk about “white people” in front of actual white people, there’s this pause…this moment of awkward. It’s a combination of “Did she just call out our skin color?” and “But…we’re people.” Yes. Welcome to my world on a daily basis. How does it feel? That, my friends, is the luxury of being the default in the western world. “People” means “white.” “American” means “white.” The “reader” is white. The “audience” is white. It’s the baseline, the normal…and why would you point that out?
That’s EXACTLY why I point it out. Because “people” should encompass everyone, but it doesn’t.
“Being The Default is the largest privilege granted to white Americans, yet it is so deeply entrenched it is the most invisible,” says Kartina Richardson in this April 24 article on Salon. And she’s right. Because it’s there in everyday speech, in the simplest of words: “us,” “we,” “them.” In the South Asian and South Asian American community, elders still say “Amrikan” to mean “white,” even if they themselves are citizens and their children identify as American. Because it’s the norm, the bottom line — and, often, the aspiration.
There’s this unspoken, perhaps even unconscious, sense that the only true western legitimacy, in terms of success, place and identity, is in whiteness. Everything else is the Other. “Black people.” “Indian people.” To just be people is the goal, the driving force of ambition. Too bad that slot is occupied…largely by folks who don’t even realize they have it.
It would be nice to never, ever have to specify someone’s race, ethnicity or skin tone. It really would. To just be like, “Duh. This is a person. With a name. A history. An individual identity.” I’ve been fighting that linguistic battle my whole life. But as long as Default privilege keeps fighting back, the deck is stacked. As long as “everybody” and “anybody” is presumed to be white…nobody wins.
When I was in my late teens, visiting Calcutta (this was pre-“Kolkata” conversion, not that renaming a place changes its ethos), I was groped by a guy as my cousins, my mom and I stood on a curb waiting to cross over to a shopping mall. Stunned, I whirled around and glared — I was so shocked that the expletive-laden tongue I’ve cultivated in the nearly 20 years since was struck silent. He locked gazes with me, defiant, those coal-black eyes unrepentant, as he vanished into the crowd.
Yes, I still remember his eyes. His pencil-thin mustache. The abject hatred for a girl he didn’t even know but felt he had to touch. What I also remember is the mix of empathy and shrugging from many female family members. “Oh, I’ve been groped xyz times…” was the refrain. Everybody had an assault story. As though we were trading campfire tales, because it’s so normal for Indian women to experience unwanted touches.
That’s what it was couched as: normal, every-day behavior from men that just had to be endured and accepted. I would roam the para, our neighborhood, with my cousin sisters and we would, without fail, pass packs of young men clustering on street corners and staring at us like prey. We walked a little faster, made scornful comments to stave off our fear, but there was nothing we could do to stop how they looked at us and, more than that, how they saw us. Like meat.
Almost 20 years later, it’s still an issue…that gaze. That hatred. “The India rape case” trumpets western media in headlines, as if there’s just the one…but there are multitudes. From rape to street harassment and forced touching, I honestly don’t know a woman who has lived in/visited South Asia who hasn’t been victimized or depersonalized in one form or another. I haven’t heard all the campfire stories, but that’s because women aren’t generally encouraged to tell them. After all, why would you acknowledge something commonplace? “It’s raining today, I went to the bajaar and, oh, some creep felt me up on the metro.”
Durga Puja 2009, Texas
“It’s difficult to consider the American Durga Pujo as even a mildly authentic experience,” says Arnab Ray in a rather jaw-droppingly short-sighted piece at the New York Times India blog— one that has me seeing red and wishing I had eight more arms so I could shake 10 fists in his general direction.
“I have a standard operating procedure for this time of the year,” says Ray, as he longs for the halcyon days of his Kolkata puja experiences. “I go online, find out the venues (usually schools) and the dates (usually weekends) of each of the local Durga Pujos.” Wow, that’s awesome…that he has to go online and search rather than knowing outright because he’s active enough in the American Bengali community to have, say, helped arrange one. But it’s easier to “snigger” at cultural programs than to be a part of them, no? Easier to become misty-eyed for what was than to throw yourself wholesale into what now is.
I’ve been to Durga Puja everywhere from the Bay Area to suburbs of Houston to the midwest, and while there are always plenty of “weekend Bengalis” like Ray who show up for the food, there are more who roll up their sleeves and get involved, determined to make the experience as fun as possible. Sure, it’s not going to be what they had back in the Motherland, but it’s a facsimile meant to keep Bengali heritage and custom alive for each other and for their children.
I keep stumbling upon the assertion that The Mindy Project and Mindy Kaling’s Office character Kelly Kapoor are somehow “too white” or “too privileged.” As if the only valid South Asian narrative is curry-soaked and accented, a tale of oppression and being The Other. Are those really our two options: too white or too Outsourced-and-Apu? Bullshit.
There isn’t just one Indian story and definitely not just one diasporic, second and third generation story. We’re not all characters in a Jhumpa Lahiri novel, growing up miserable in the midst of a pathos-laden struggle for assimilation. (Okay, I had a little pathos, but that’s neither here nor there.) Kaling has made no bones about not “feeling” Indian. Her social circle is white. She went to private school, graduated from Dartmouth, her name is anglicized…but guess what? That doesn’t make her any less than a woman who goes to temple every weekend and wears saris and knows how to make rooti-thorkari from scratch. We all still came from the same place. Kaling’s mother is Bengali and so is mine. Kaling did improv in college and so did I. Before I moved to New York, all of my friends — aside from the ones made in our South Asian community — were white. Gasp. Alert the media. Oh, wait, I am the media.
Sujoy Ghosh spins a Kahaani featuring a heroine you can’t help but root for. With the backdrop of Kolkata’s Durga Puja celebration and the overarching metaphor of the mother goddess coming to life to accomplish what the gods never could, Ghosh crafts a masterful thriller…and a wrenchingly human story of loss.
At the center of it all is Vidya Balan, who has cemented her place as Bollywood’s go-to dramatic powerhouse. On the heels of her mesmerizing turns in Ishqiya and The Dirty Picture, Balan again commands the spotlight. She embodies the fiery role of mother, wife and determined sleuth Vidya Bagchi like she just stepped out of the Hindu pantheon. And that’s a deliberate narrative choice! In drawing from the goddess worship that permeates Hindu culture, and Kolkata in particular, Ghosh celebrates the strength and determination of women in a wholly desi fashion. Vidya Bagchi is kickass on multiple levels, and she doesn’t need to be Lara Croft or Evelyn Salt to get the job done. She’s vulnerable, but also immeasurably powerful. Kahaani is a riveting ride from start to finish, and, make no mistake, it’s Vidya Balan in the driver’s seat.
This talented performer has proven she can play the ingenue, the sexpot and the avenging angel with equal finesse. Playing the role of a woman who is eight months pregnant, Balan moves like she’s really carrying low and about to give birth. But Vidya the character is also pregnant with the desire for truth, and that is what she seeks to birth throughout the course of the film.