‘Touch of Care’

 

I saw this video this morning, and I’m filled with optimism and joy.

I’ve shared posts before about encouraging movements from south Asia, targetting women’s rights, beauty standards and feminism. This is the first time I’ve come across a nation-wide campaign normalising transgender people and their lives.

I knew what to expect when I saw the article accompanying it on NPR, but it was still a wonderful surprise that the video didn’t preach, or generate a rallying call to arms, or worse yet, and as is often seen in south Asia, portray transgender people as caricatures or as objects of ridicule.

It’s a normal story about a girl on her way back to university, thinking about her childhood and her parent. Only at the end do you realise that her mother is transgender, though it’s hinted throughout the video through the partial shots of her mother.

The woman playing her mother is Gauri Sawant, an activist and head of Sakhi Char Chowghi Trust, an NGO based in Bombay which works with transgender people. The story in the video is based on Gauri’s life raising Gayatri, the daughter of a sex worker friend of Gauri’s. Many articles have sprung up in the past few days talking about it, Gauri’s work, and that’s generating even more discussion around the reality of transgender rights and equality in India – which gives me a lot of hope.

I’m buoyed by the fact that the social media response has been overwhelmingly positive, despite the – legitimate – cynical critique of Vicks. The link between the product and the video isn’t clear, this could just be PR stunt, etc. To me though, it’s not really an ad for Vicks in the way this was an ad for Tanishq, for example. So I’m treating it almost as a short movie, independent of the brand. It doesn’t matter to me if the ‘caring for families for generations’ super is accurate or not. This is an equally bold move for Vicks, and similarly to the Tanishq ad, makes a topic that’s either taboo or at best, marginalised, something for everyone to talk about. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

Don’t your parents mind that the person you’re dating isn’t Indian?

Insert other insulting culture/race/class denomination as appropriate.

If you’re not white/Western/European, chances are you’ve heard this at least once. If you’re ‘ethnic’, this is possibly the story of your life.

If you’ve ever asked anyone this question, please read this post. Never ever ask it again.

Funnily enough, I’ve been asked this by as many brown people as white, which would be shocking if it weren’t so tragically believable. The amount of racism within our own ethnicities is pathetic, and a topic for many future blog posts, but I want to address this one specifically.

I have not dated a single south Asian in my life. It’s not a deliberate choice, or a conscious decision on either side. Pickings are slim in Central Europe for other ethnicities, and why would I actively seek out someone with the same skin tone, rather than finding someone I want to hang out with, who may or may not be from the same ethnic background?

I’ve been asked this question so many times that I have perfected the responses, and they’re instinctive now.

Option 1:

“No they don’t. My parents are human beings, and they’re not racist. Even if they did mind, I’m allowed to disagree with them. Don’t believe everything you see in the movies; not all Indians are stereotypes.”

From there, depending on the response I get, I can either go full-on ‘stop being a racist’ or have a more measured discussion about ethnicity, if the person seems open-minded enough to have it.

It’s obviously better to meet stupid questions with something constructive, because otherwise I risk people walking away thinking of Indians in exactly the way they did before they spoke to me, or the stereotype could get worse – and they’re obviously never bringing up my ethnicity again.

This is my loss, because I’ve missed out on the chance to engage in a constructive discussion, possibly change someone’s perspective of my family and me, and in a wider sense, other ethnicities too. I will admit to resorting to this when I’m in a short-tempered mood, or when I can’t be bothered, honestly, which is a real shame.

Option 2:

If I’m in a generous mood, or the person seems kind but moronic (owing to the asking of the moronic question), I engage them in a conversation that begins something like:

“Why do you say that? Where are you getting the image that Indians are so close-minded from?”

It often turns out that they’ve only ever seen Indians on TV or in the movies, or at best, in their local Indian restaurant.

I don’t know why, but someone somewhere decided not to portray Indians in the mainstream media in a representative way.

Digression no. 1:

First of all, nearly all the Indians you see come from northern India – either Delhi or Bombay. Besides Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, there isn’t a single mainstream media personality from southern India – and in any case, they’re both second-generation so their acceptability and visibility is different than mine would be if someone put me on TV – bad idea.

I dream of the day an actor from Bangalore, Madras, Cochin, Pondicherry, even a village, is as known as other Indian actors. This is true within India too, by the way. All the most famous actors are northern, so Indians themselves have a skewed image of the south.

South Indian culture is vastly different to north Indian, and there are huge variations by state – linguistic, cultural and social nuances. These aren’t represented properly in Indian media, so they won’t be elsewhere.

If people know that Bangalore is in the south, they may also know that it’s the call centre hub of the universe. Besides that, they don’t know anything. I was born in Bangalore and also lived in Madras. No one knows the cuisine of southern India, unless they’re enough of a foodie to try niche restaurants and food stalls, where the dosa is becoming more and more common. Indian food in most restaurants outside India is still based on the Brit-Asian model of curry houses, filled with oil and unbalanced spices.

The second imbalance is that there is never a measured, real-life Indian shown in the mainstream media. A flawed, complex, funny, intense, *human* set of people interacting as all of us humans interact.

Oh no. All Indians in mainstream media have a strained relationship with their family, who all expect too much. Everyone resents or hates their parents, or doesn’t get along with them, or worships them. No one talks back, disagrees or argues. You play the hand you’re dealt, grumble about it but heaven forbid you disagree.

There’s a wonderful scene in Monsoon Wedding of a family spending time together before the wedding, singing, drinking, making jokes and having a great time; the movie is an accurate representation of a Punjabi wedding in Delhi, by the way.

 

Note that Ria’s mother disagrees with her decision. And note the number of people in her generation who disagree with her. This is a proper depiction of a human family, not strictly an Indian one.

But it was directed by an Indian, so of course it would be measured in the way the culture’s represented. Instead of an everyday family talking about school, homework, friends and life in the way we did, and our family members did, we have the Kumars at No. 42 and Goodness Gracious Me. All north Indians, of course. I can’t think of many other Indian/Bollywood movies that show a normal image of an Indian family, so if this is all we have to work with it’s no wonder.

I’m saying this because we can’t blame people for these racist questions if they’re only shown northern stereotypes, not real Indians. Which is why I choose to go for Option 2 if I feel like the audience could properly talk about race portrayal, and we as minorities should try and normalise the narrative as much as possible, show people how we live and that it’s as varied as the way every other group of people lives.

Now that’s out of the way.

The annoyance and irritation with this question go back to my point earlier about meeting stereotypes and everyday racism with constructive thought and responses.

Make no mistake either – these are racist statements; they’re not misinformed, uneducated, uncultured mistakes, or any other word people use to dismiss this less harmful racist talk.

Among other faults, contained within this statement are so many assumptions.

  1. I’m Indian.
  2. I have a dependent relationship with my parents.
  3. They are controlling.
  4. They are close-minded.
  5. They have a say in my life choices.
  6. They would disapprove of any of my life choices.
  7. They would make any of these opinions known to me.
  8. They make them known to me often.
  9. This is a source of tension in our relationship.
  10. The person I am dating is defined by their race, rather than any other personal traits.
  11. I am, and my parents are, are defined by our race rather than our personal traits.

It’s also important to point out that not everyone is as lucky as my brother and me, and our friends. There are people within my family who have had to keep relationships, details like co-habitation and the depth of their commitment to a person a secret to their parents, or risk an argument. In the countries we live in, an argument – or a regular series of arguments – is as far as it could ever go. I know family members in India who are facing more serious consequences like losing out on or damaging relationships with other family members or long-time family friends just because of a perspective their parents hold. It’s all incredibly sad, and I can’t imagine having to live that kind of life.

Let’s not forget, these situations exist in non-Indian households too. I have Hungarian colleagues who have to hide the number of Romanian friends and partners they have from their very conservative family. However, knowing that and taking the next step to ask every single Hungarian what their interactions with Romanians are and whether their parents hate them too, is horrendously racist, right?

So you may know that Indian families, like all others, contain conservative and liberal members, and there’s a chance the person you’re talking to may have a conservative parent, who may be conservative enough to disagree with their choices, and have an active problem with the people in their life. Taking the next step to talk about it and infer character traits on people you haven’t met – and you may not even know the person you’re asking the question of well – is racist.

However, because this inaccurate portrayal of Indians exists, I know that the racist comments don’t come from nowhere. However, assuming they apply to everyone, and starting off a conversation about my relationship in this way, is unacceptable.

I can hear you ask, what is the right way to ask if your parents mind, then?

My question is – do you have to ask it at all? How about you talk to a minority in the way you would speak to any other human? Find out about their life, their work, hobbies, travel, taste in movies, get a book recommendation. Treat other minorities the way you would treat someone who looked like you, and stop adding your assumptions about their life to your conversations with them.

I have never once asked anyone what their parents’ opinion is on any of their life choices, unless it directly impacts their folks – such as when a close friend from university moved out of the family home after many years of living there. “Your parents must be so excited for you but I know they’re going to miss you.” This is a close friend whom I’ve lived with.

That doesn’t make me an angel. It makes me sensitive to what is and isn’t acceptable to ask and comment on when it comes to someone’s race, country, culture, etc.

I’ve been asked the above question by everyone from total strangers I’m splitting a cab with to colleagues I’ve worked with for years. This incredibly personal, highly insulting question.

Here’s another fun little fact for you – I know more white people who have had problems with their parents because of life choices they’ve made. Partners, professions, friendship circles, sexual orientation, you name it. We would never dream of asking an LGBT person at a cocktail party about how hard it was to come out to their parents, would we? Because we know that’s a horrendous statement based on far too many assumptions. Why does this not apply to race?

So what I’m coming to is this – don’t just stop asking this specific question. When you meet someone of a different race, country, culture, ethnicity etc, ask yourself if the way you’re speaking to them would change if they looked like you. If it would, think honestly about how, and why that is, and whether you would be insulted by the question you’re thinking of asking if someone asked it of you. If you would, why are you asking this person?

I’m stepping down from my soapbox now. Only temporarily, though.

I’ve been inspired to start writing about these instances of what I call ‘everyday racism’ (because it’s catchy and at 11pm I can’t think of a better way to put it), my experiences of it and what I would say to those who have experienced it and perpetuate these ideas. I’ll be borrowing stories from my life as well as that of my family, comparing it to those not in my culture/race/ethnicity/background/minority box of choice and will try to talk about it in as open a way as I can. Sometimes I’ll rant, like I have here; sometimes I’ll share a photo or a video; and sometimes I’ll make a few jokes because what’s the point of being a minority if you can’t push the boundaries every now and again? Keep telling me what you think, share your experiences and your feedback!

Fabrics from India

I was scouring Etsy a couple of months ago for fabrics from India. Being of Indian origin, I knew this would be the easiest country to get stuff from, so I started there.

I found a woman who makes bunting out of fairly traded fabric. I think she, like me, found it hard to get actual textiles from ethical sources, but finding handmade skirts using ethically-sourced fabric is oddly easier. Don’t ask me why.

Claire is a remarkably talented woman who makes stunning fabric works for the home, and also sells some of her knitting and crochet work. She was very helpful when I asked about fabrics – she didn’t have any scraps lying around, but she could give me bits of the skirt that she was taking fabric from. It turns out that her bunting actually came from a patchwork skirt itself, so we had a little giggle about the circle of life! 

The listing for the bunting itself is no longer available but here are some examples of Claire’s work:

 

 

 

She created a custom listing for this and it was with me within the week. Check out this beautiful skirt – my favourite part of it is the sheer range of colours available!

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30 Things Americans Should Know Before Moving to India

I came across this article today and thought I’d share it. It’s written by a couple who lived in India for between 6 months and a year. They lived in a very affluent, rich, Western part of Bombay – itself an affluent, rich and Western Indian city.

I found it especially pertinent because I’ve just come back from a 10-day trip to southern India. Substitute the word ‘American’ for ‘Westerner’ and I think it’s generally a good guide for expats to have!

Entertaining and funny but as an Indian-by-birth, I also like that they’ve captured some of the fantastic bits of the country – the monsoon, the vegetarian food and the hospitality, for example.

There’s also a great deal they wouldn’t have been able to experience because of their limited time, the fact that they’re American and the city they live in, and I’m glad they’ve acknowledged this!

It made me laugh but it also made me see India in a slightly different way. I’m used to criticising a lot of things that happen there, either on behalf of the government or simple acts from ordinary citizens. This has made me look at the things which normally annoy me about India – the incessant attention you get when you go shopping for example (what’s wrong with just leaving me alone to browse, for God’s sake?!) – from a different perspective.

It probably is quite nice and refreshing to have someone get you things from the shelf and to fetch you different sizes or colours of clothes. I still doubt it’ll change my perspective on that however! I went into a shop in Madras with my family recently and every single member of staff greeted us at the door. We had three women following my two cousins and I around the shop, taking the jewellery we liked and putting it into the baskets that we insisted we carry! Imagine all that attention – it is probably really good fun when you need it, for example when you’re shopping for something important and need a sense of occasion. But for everything, including groceries? You have to be kidding me!

Anyway, enjoy this, and do bear it in mind if any of you are considering moving to India!

Second Marriage in India and Tanishq’s Bold Ad

You may have seen this ad which Tanishq produced a few days ago. If not, take some time to have a look:

In case you don’t speak Hindi, the little girl asks the groom if she should now call him Daddy.

Tanishq is a famous, well-known and well-respected Indian jewellery company in India, established in 1994. It has a reputation for producing high quality products with a price tag to match.

So when they make an ad like this, people actually listen.

If you look at what they’re saying, it’s really quite special.

Not only are they celebrating a second (or third!) marriage for a woman, they are insisting we do too. In a society where a woman’s worth is linked to her ability to sustain a single marriage, no matter how disastrous and potentially flawed it might be, this is a very bold step.

Tanishq are of course also appealing to a new consumer set, trying to attract women who are remarrying – for whatever reason. I don’t deny that.

However, for this to air in India, there is also a strong social message.

On the one hand, an arranged marriage doesn’t always lead to wedded bliss. Not all normal, so-called ‘love’ marriages do, either. That’s an important point to make, especially in India where ‘giving up’ to get divorced is a sign of weakness, a lack of femininity on the part of a woman and of course, comes down to how she was as a wife. The husband is rarely, if ever, blamed for any marriage problems.

But I digress.

Tanishq haven’t specified the reasons for her getting married a second (or third!) time. She could have got a divorce because the marriage was unhappy; she could have been widowed; she could have been left for a multitude of reasons. I like that they’ve left it up to us to decide why.

A second bold move is their decision to cast a ‘dark-skinned’ actress. I’m hesitant to enter this debate, and frankly I didn’t even notice her skin colour until I scrolled down and read some YouTube comments.

(Normally a foolish error, I thought I’d give it a go this one time and see what the internet thought!)

Many were lauding this commercial of course, but there were so many who praised the choice of actress as much as they did the message behind the ad itself.

But I won’t go there; here’s the director of the ad, Gauri Shinde, talking about the actress’ skin colour, for India Today:

Was the use of a dusky model deliberate?

Of course not. I don’t even think that way. I don’t see these differences between dusky and fair and frankly I personally don’t even want to be part of that debate because I feel there is a complex at play; against the dusky, against the fair. It’s unnecessary. Everyone’s beautiful.

I don’t like the little girl, or the style of the ad itself, but that’s purely cultural. I think the style is rather juvenile and the actress for the child comes across as a big brat which sort of ruins it all for me!

But I’m really interested in how this ad is being received in India and how people are talking about the idea of women getting married multiple times and celebrating those marriages instead of hiding themselves.

In some areas, widows are told to wear white, to distinguish themselves from other women. In this horrible stigmatisation, it can be really difficult for women to be seen as anything more than the successes, failures or length of their marriages.

I’m going to keep an eye on this one, and I’ll let you know how it pans out!

What do you think? Was this a bold move? Did you like the ad? How about what it’s trying to say? Does Priyanka Bose’s skin colour matter? Let me know!

Capture the Colour: Travelsupermarket Photography Competition

Travelsupermarket are holding a photography competition titled ‘Capture the Colour’, where entrants are asked to submit 5 photographs from their travels showcasing these five colours: white, red, yellow, blue and green.

Here are my submissions, please do let me know what you think! The competition finishes today, so fingers crossed I get some good feedback!

Thanks!

White – Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu, India

This photo was taken in the Basilica of the Lady of our Good Health in Vailankanni in Tamil Nadu, southern India.

Every time we’ve gone back to India since leaving 14 years ago, we try to make a trip to Vailankanni to the church. It’s particularly important to my father, and we all find a great deal of peace in the church and the small town surrounding it.

This is a shot of the outside of the basilica on a particularly sunny day, which highlights  the contrast between the building’s dramatic and theatrical white and the crisp blue of the sky.

Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health, Vailankanni, Tamil Nadu

Red – Gulmohar Flower, Madras, India

This is a gulmohar flower, also known by its Latin name Delonix regia. When we were children, we used to peel off the red sepals, exposing an adhesive green strip which we then attached to our nails to make witch nails before chasing each other around the playground.

This was taken outside my grandparents’ house in Madras.

After spotting the nearby tree, my brother and I enjoyed reliving our old childhood memories!

Gulmohar flower in Madras, Tamil Nadu

Yellow – Tokaji Wine Bottles in Tokaj, Hungary

My family have lived in Hungary for 12 years.

On a recent trip back home from London with my boyfriend, we spent a few days in the wine-making region called Tokaj. We toured the vineyards and sampled many delicacies!

This is a photo of wine bottles stored in the cellar of the Satöbbi vineyard. Cleverly-placed lights in the walls show off the colours and many varieties of Satöbbi wines, while also maintaining the appropriate temperature needed to age them.

Our tour guide, Erika, kindly talked us through their many varieties of wine, the wine-making process and allowed us to sample about eight different varieties!

I was especially taken with how well the bottles captured the beautiful yellow light, showing off the lovely amber hues of Tokaji’s world-famous sweet white wines.

Bottles of wine in the Satöbbi cellar. Tokaj, Hungary.

Blue – Malavika Vishwanath, Bangalore, India

This is my 14-year old cousin Malavika Vishwanath, who in 2010 won the gold medal for 100m freestyle in the 27th National Sub-junior Aquatic Championship in Bangalore, India.

This was taken on the last day of the tournament, where with a time of 1:03:70, she won a gold and secured a record as well!

It was an incredibly proud and emotional moment for me since it was the first time I had seen her swim and was lucky enough to photograph every stroke!

Malavika Vishwanath, swimming champion!

Green – Sweet Limes in Bangalore, India

Sweet limes are one of my favourite fruits and were a staple of my young childhood. This photograph was taken in a vegetable market which is held every day just outside my mother’s childhood home in Bangalore, India.

They are sweet but still tangy, something of a cross between a passion fruit, mango and orange. Fantastic on a hot day!

Sweet Limes in Bangalore, India

Please do let me know what you think, I hope you like these photos! Feedback and criticism are always welcome. Wish me luck!

Sanjukta

Cleaner Cooking in India

The New Internationalist approved my pitch for this story on an NGO working in rural India. It appeared in the November 2010 issue of the magazine! (And yes, it’s my first byline!)