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Doing the Desi Thing with Sunita S. Mukhi

Sunita Mukhi

Sunita Mukhi

Let's talk about the interaction between the classical tradition and Hindi popular music and this desi/marga distinction that you make in the book. In Hindi, desi means "countryman," the opposite of "foreigner," correct?

In Milton Singer's idea, in Hindu aesthetics there is a distinction between desi and marga. The marga forms are sanskritized and classical and you need to study them. They have text to back them up. But the desi forms are different. I use desi to distinguish a certain kind of parochiality. When you are considered a desi , you are of the earth. But you are also, so the earth, that you don't have any cosmopolitanness, and you don't have any upper-class refinement. At least when I was living in Bombay, it was derogatory. "All these people are too desi," people would say. But in the diaspora it becomes a term of brotherhood or sisterhood. It means you belong. And the word is also used to distinguish people of South Asian descent. So we are all desi though you maybe of another caste, class, or religion. It is a term of endearment, of inclusion. You say, "I'm dating a desi," as if to say, "I'm not dating a non-desi." Or "Let's get a desi cabdriver," and not give our money to some other kind of cabdriver. Or "How could you say that about a desi?"

Why in your book do you say "Indianness" and not "South Asianness"?

I didn't want to be a hypocrite. I am of Indian origin. I began to understand what it meant to be part of South Asia in New York. My parents thought of themselves as Indian and I have always thought of myself as Indian, if I had to categorize myself. The shows I went to were Indian shows. It was the Indian Independence Day Parade. The Pakistani parade was a different parade. I go to the Sindhi show in Rego Park performed by Sindhis who consider themselves Indian. Not that the producer of the show doesn't have relationships with Pakistani Sindhis, but it is an Indian show. In the same way that the NYU show is performed by Indians, I recognize the performers as Indian. I don't think it's a very popular view to take amongst my colleagues. But I don't want to advertise something that I have not done. I have not described the other desi forms. That's another book. A lot of this book is about the nation-state of India, or what we imagine to be the nation-state of India.

How do these diaspora displays of Indianness support a conservative nationalist ideology?

This is especially true of the Indian Independence Day Parade. And also in the Diwali festival, though it is supposed to be apolitical. The model that they use to present Indian culture in New York is the model that they use in India to show official Indian culture. Everything that is mixed up with contemporary forms like hip-hop was not allowed until 1993 or 1994, but otherwise they were very strict. Yet on the main stage, they were very strict until they had Bally Sagoo. So they did change their mind to adapt. I would like to say it was a very Indian thing to do, to accommodate the young people, to include young people in "Indianness." That does come up and they still enforce their hierarchies by putting folk and classical dances on the main stage and putting the most hybrid forms, the uncomfortable forms, on the side stage later. But Bally Sagoo was on the main stage because he is the icon of the South Asian diaspora. And that could be because of the influence of other producers that have come into the AIA (Associations of Indians in America), younger and more hip.

And SALGA (South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association) and Sakhi for South Asian Women were omitted as well?

They are marginalized because they are not part of the AIA. If they become members and pay to be there, then they can join. So they do all these guerilla techniques of being part of it by protesting. And one year, Sakhi was part of it, but they made them stay towards the end of the line. And I think they asserted themselves and came forward, and they allowed SALGA to march another year. I find these guerilla techniques very interesting and exciting. But it irritates the AIA because they are not following orders. So instead SALGA and Sakhi make a presence for themselves by protesting. Though they are not official, people look forward to seeing what the SALGA and Sakhi people are going to do. It is a spectacle, but they are present and they have signs that say they are to be included. You know if one homosexual out there sees that sign and says "I have a place. I can still be homosexual and Indian," then it's quite good. A space has been opened up for different kinds of Indianness and they are slowly adjusting. The Indian community is growing up. I hope it comes out in my book that they have acknowledged this adaptation. I think it's all very healthy, actually. I'm more uncomfortable with the Indian Independence Day parade. It's a little more conservative than the Diwali celebration. You have anarchic performances that happen around the parade, and even the cultural program after the parade, there are groups that do their own thing. Some of these dances are very sexual and libidinous. Of course what is happening in the main parade is also libidinous, but in a more official form.

And occasionally the spectacle of violence as well.

And the spectacle of violence was quite scary. There is that potential for communal fighting as well, especially when you advocate a certain kind of nationalism.

But in most of the academic accounts of the diaspora, in London or New York, or wherever, academics say for the most part that everyone just becomes South Asian in the diaspora at the expense of regional or caste identities, that everyone gets along a lot better in the diaspora than they do in South Asia. Do you think that's true?

I think there are spaces where we can all come together. The Sindhis will attend the South Street Seaport Diwali celebration, but then they have a little niche in Queens where they will perform their Sindhiness. And I think that happens in the community at large, there is a different space where you can be of your particular caste or religion or region, because we are all of those identities, but we are also South Asian. We are also a bold and strong community and then we also have our little familiar groupings of people that speak the same language, etc. There are spaces for multiple identities to be expressed.

So what's next for you? Are you working on another book?

Actually, I really want to do something more novelistic and / or edit a book of poetry. The novel is more related to the Sindhi community and I want to use some of my family stories. The other is a book on erotic poetry in the diaspora. I haven't decided it yet if it will be just women's poetry. I would like to address the long tradition of erotic poetry in India and see what it's become in the diaspora. I am talking about ethnicity and identity all the time and now I want to talk about sex. What do we do with our identities? How do we love each other? I want to address this in my new works.

We look forward to them! Thanks for talking with us.

Thank you.

Interview conducted by Michelle Caswell of Asia Society.