Wednesday, February 24, 2016

We need to talk about Beyoncé

[Photo Source:Screenshot via for the Weekend]
When Coldplay’s music video for their track Hymn For The Weekend was released, it became controversial almost instantly. I saw my friends sharing posts on Facebook, saw articles published by publications I respected, and was even asked in person multiple times about the video and what exactly made it controversial. Caught up with schoolwork, planning for weekend trips, and a few other obligations, I put off watching the video. I thought that when I saw it, I’d want to consider writing a blog post about it. And when I finally sat down to watch the videoand after some time to process itI knew I wanted to write about it. Beyoncé's cultural appropriation stood out most to me, along with Coldplay's very decision to shoot in India. Cultural appropriation is something I think about often, especially while I’m here in India. It’s something that’s important to me, and before I get into what I think of the music video, I’d like to explain why.

A bit of background

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of, critical of, and passionate about the systemic disregard and exclusion of Indians and other South Asians both in the U.S. and worldwide. Because it’s not just that this exclusion affected a lot of how I grew up, how my family and friends and thousands of other Indians and Indian-Americans have lived in America, but it’s also how it continues to affect how we live.

Where Coldplay comes in

The video opens up to a montage of peacocks and holy men before we catch our first glimpse of Beyoncé, clad in a sari, and Chris Martin, sitting in an auto-rickshaw. Hindu imagery continues throughout the video, and it even appears that the video takes place on Holi, which is confusing to me because it’s a seemingly random choice to pick that one day of the year. Sure you might be going for aesthetic appeal, but there are so many other options that go beyond the cliché Holi shots. But okay, we’ll chalk this up to a lack of creativity, or a lack of imagination, even sheer laziness if you will.

But then we go on to more Hindu imagery. There is a little boy dressed as Krishna and plenty of holy men and orange flags to go around. This confuses me because it makes me feel as though Hinduism is being exotified by the Western gaze, being shown as being cool or pretty or having cultural value solely because it’s Other. But okay, fine. Let’s excuse this, too, by maybe thinking about how many other music videos in the history of the music video use religious imagery from other world religions. Fine, maybe 
despite being problematic, this in and of itself isn’t a problem.

Let’s move on

Oh the lyrics have started. I’m trying to understand what this song has to do with India or Holi or Hinduism or anything. I’m not saying that the director of a music video should be a literalist. In fact, I’m sure my professors would argue that he or she shouldn’t. But it’s weird to me that someone would choose a lazy, uncreative (although very visually appealing) representation of India—a country and culture that are already systemically misrepresented, devalued, dismissed—for a song that has nothing to do with India.

And as my fabulous friend Alena points out, this is just another example of the fetishization of poverty, foreign cultures, and people of color. As she says, the use of color here distracts from the common depictions of India as Martin walks through low-income neighborhoods with colorful buildings and children running around him.

We need to talk about Beyoncé

First and foremost, I’m just going to say it: I don't get what the big deal about Beyoncé is. Is she talented? I mean duh. Is she beautiful and successful? Obviously. Is she an unproblematic, genuine feminist and activist? Yeah definitely no. And that’s where my issue comes in. I’m not even going to touch upon how troubling and problematic and downright offensive Beyonce’s marketed brand of “feminism” is. But within the context of this video, let’s talk about how this Beyoncé-worshipping needs to be reexamined.

The first time we see her, she’s on a billboard in a flower crown. I’ve already discussed a lack of imagination, so let’s move on. The next time we see her, she’s in a sari. Does she look beautiful? Oh, absolutely. But would we be okay with this if it was Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus or pretty much anyone else? (I’m just going to point out that this has happened, countless times. Jessica Alba in The Love Guru, Iggy Azalea in the video for Bounce, etc.) It doesn’t matter to me that she’s a person of color. Being a POC doesn’t entitle you to disrespect or appropriate another culture. In fact, some might argue that being a POC should teach you better. I’m not saying I agree (and in fact, saying so is problematic itself because it places unequal expectations across races and excuses some while blaming others). I’m just saying that Beyoncé should not be excused because she’s Beyoncé or because she’s a POC or because Coldplay made the video or whatever.

This gets even more frustrating when she appears on a movie screen while Chris Martin watches her. Here, she’s wearing jewelry that isn’t even Indian, her henna is bedazzled (?????), and she’s performing a sad excuse for Indian dance moves (I’ve seen five year olds do better). And later she’s not even wearing a sari and the dried henna hasn’t even been taken off? I’m so confused and frustrated someone please explain what’s going on. 

Why couldn’t they just have an Indian or Indian-American singer play her role, the role that is supposedly of a famous Bollywood actress who sings and dances on the big screen? 

When I see people excuse Beyoncé's role in this video because she's Beyoncé (and yes, this has actually happened, multiple times), I find it insulting. It automatically suggests that Beyoncé is more important than my culture, my heritage, my background and how it is treated. As Alena points out, Beyoncé is so outspoken about oppression and appropriation towards her race and culture, but why should she be given a pass when she perpetuates the same for others? She has called out people for using her culture, her identity as a prop, and yet this is exactly what she does in Hymn for the WeekendI'm not here to turn anyone away from their Beyoncé-worship, but I urge you to be a little more critical of her, to recognize that this sort of behavior is not okay, not even for Bey.

Still confused? Read this.

This is not what India is

I don’t expect you to represent the entirety of a culture and its history and its people in a music video. I’m sure no one does. But it’s not too much to ask that you think beyond the stereotypes, the all-too-presented images that everyone already associates with India. It’s not too much to ask that you don’t contribute to the orientalizing and exotifying portrayal that already exists.

Who cares?

When I spoke to Indians here—as opposed to American students studying at the same university as me—I found a general indifference, even a feeling that people were making an issue where there was none. No one was pleased with the video’s focus on specific details such as Holi or streetchildren, but it seemed that not many people were bothered. (Which might explain Sonam Kapoor's cameo.) And those who were—at least from who I’ve spoken with about the video—were other Americans.

I'm trying to understand what can explain the disparity in opinions and the only thing I can think of is this: media representation and cultural appropriation affect you very differently when they become part of your everyday life on a personal level. I feel like Indian-Americans are so frustrated with this because they deal with this kind of thing all the time and are tired of it, tired of accommodating others' ignorances and tired of their background not being seen as worthy of defense. As for my friends here, I've been lucky enough to be surrounded by many socially-conscious and just genuinely kind people. My friends here have already been critical of the way India is seen in the media; we've already been talking about what is or is not okay for Americans abroad (wearing bindis, speaking in Indian accents, etc.). I wasn't surprised when some of my friends shared my anger and frustration with this video, but it was just so reassuring and comforting to know that other people care, that other people get it.

Bottom line

Look, the song is catchy as hell and Coldplay’s gonna have to move onto my list of problematic faves (hello Drizzy) and Beyoncé doesn’t bother me any more than she already has—actually, yes she does—but it’s exhausting to see yet another example how people continue to disregard misrepresentations of Indians and other South Asians in the media and beyond. In the conversations on race in America—ranging from topics such as diversity to police brutality to hate crimes to the model minority to Affirmative Action—Indians and other South Asians continue to be devalued and disregarded, often left out of the conversation altogether. On the topic of intersectionality, let us strive to focus on power dynamics that aren’t being questioned or discussed. I hope that the controversy that this video has sparked will push people to consume and create a little more critically. Now if you'll excuse me, I'll be working on getting the song out of my head.

~ V

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Valentine's weekend in Bombay

{Sara, Corinne, and me at Juhu Beach}
It might be because I was born there (back before it even became Mumbai!), but of the many places I've visited in India, Bombay is without a doubt my favorite. The food and shopping are unparalleled, a ton of my family is there, and when the heat or traffic aren't overwhelming you, the city is perfect. Needless to say, Bombay is home for me in a very unique way, and various parts of the city hold incredible sentimental value to me. There's my first home, my Nani's (maternal grandmother) place where I've spent so many summers, the beach I used to visit as a kid, and so much more. I've wanted to go back with some friends from GW for a while now but coordinating vacation schedules and financing expensive flights from the U.S. isn't exactly easy to accomplish on a college student's budget and lifestyle. So when I found friends from my CIEE Abroad Program who were interested in visiting Bombay, I jumped at the chance to show them around.

Although I was in Bombay for a few days before my study abroad orientation in Hyderabad, I knew I wanted to go back. All four of my grandparents are currently there and seeing them is reason enough for a weekend trip to the city. But when I thought about how fun it would be to show some friends around the city I call home, I got even more excited. So this past weekend, my friends Corinne and Sara and I flew down to Bombay for a trip I think of as my most productive visit to any city, ever. My friends and I certainly ate our way through the city, and the suitcase that was half empty on my flight there and full on my return to Hyderabad is a testament to the six kurtis, two tops, and two dresses I managed to buy. Beyond that, my three major goals for the weekend were to show my friends my city, spend time with my family, and visit places that held sentimental value for me. By some miracle we managed to accomplish all of that and then some in only two and a half days.

{one of the many dishes we had for dinner}
After we reached Bombay Friday afternoon, my friends and I headed to my Nani's house with the help of my Mama (maternal uncle). We had an amazing lunch, after which Sara headed down to Kala Ghoda and Corrine and I played cards with my cousin and Mami (maternal aunt) before heading out for some shopping with my Nani. After picking up some kurtis and fun pants from the street stalls, we headed back home to see my Ba (paternal grandmother). The four of us then visited two temples that I had gone to as a child before going to another uncle's house to see my Dada (paternal grandfather), who had recently broken his leg. We then met up with yet another uncleand I low-key blessed his motorcycle and got some amazing ice cream, nbdbefore heading to dinner. The travel hadn't been great on my stomach and I was feeling a little off, but some relentless goading by my Mami assured that I had a very filling dinner. We shared plates of pizza, dahi puri, kati roll, and the coolest pav bhaji I've tasted (the bhaji had cheese and the pav was fried with some sort of masala!) and somehow I still managed to say yes to dessert. I looked at Corinne and offered the justification of, "If not now then when?" and am definitely glad I did because the malai gola we shared was insane and definitely better than anything I've found in Hyderabad. I swear, Bombay food is just incomparable. 

The next morning, Nani, Corinne, and I attempted to fit in some more shopping, but found the stores to be closed and settled for some fresh coconut water instead. My cousin came home from a class he had, and my Nani, Mami, cousin, Corinne, and I headed to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. I've always seen the park from the windows at my Nani's place, but have either never been there or had gone when I was really young so I was looking forward to the visit. After a short rickshaw ride, we walked through, ate some fruit, and went on a short safari ride to see some tigers. We also saw some monkeys and deer on our visit! Nani, Corinne, and I then headed to see my mom's old house, the home she had lived from birth till marriage. 

For obvious reasons, visiting India and especially Bombay always reminds me of where I come from. More than being about my ethnic or national origin, Bombay makes me think of my early childhood, my parents' youth, the life I could have led and almost did. It makes me appreciate my parents on a very conscious level, which I don't do often enough. It makes me think about the family I wish I was closer to, the family I'm grateful to be close to, the family I only see every few years, the family that makes coming to India feel like home time and time again.

I'm so lucky to still have all four grandparents with me, and every time I hop on a plane or bus or car and say goodbye, I worry about whether that goodbye is as final as I fear it to be. Maybe this is a bit heavy to be sharing on such a public platform, but I think it's important to value what you have and to be appreciative of and grateful for every moment you have with the ones you love, in the places you love. So it that sense, going to Bombay has always felt like coming home to my family, and leaving has always been doubly difficult.

And Bombay means even more to me. For as long as I can remember, I've been working on a balance between Indian and American. It wasn't until recently that I was able to conceptualize it as a spectrum rather than a binary distinction or a hyphenated identity. Because I'm not hyphenated. I'm me. I'm both, I'm whole. I feel so connected to India and Bombay in a way that I don't think I'll ever feel with my small town in New Jersey, in a way I don't think I even want to feel with New Jersey. And as much as I love, love D.C., I know I won't be there after graduation. It's not where my field is, and so it'll forever be the place I spent my college years, the place I grew into myself a little bit more and learned to live and love and accept in ways I didn't think possible. But Bombay. Bombay will always be home. Do you know how weird it is to leave a place for six and a half years and return and have some things change completely and others stay the same and feel wholly and completely happy to have what you have and be who you are and stand where you stand?

One of the biggest benefits of learning new languages is finding ways of expressing those teeny tiny intricacies of the human experience that you didn't know how to convey. If you're a native Spanish speaker, the phrase, "me emociona," might not mean much to you. It might be something you grew up hearing and repeating. But for someone who feels so strongly about so many things, for a writer who is frustrated with the inability to describe wholly and fully and truly every feeling and thought and experience, the phrase, "me emociona," works wonders. Because that's what Bombay does to me. That's what Madrid does to me. That's what being around people I love and being in places I love and feeling truly myself does to me. 

So when I visited my mom's old house, and when I thought about where both of my parents have come from and where they are now in a way that relates to but goes beyond the standard immigrant family, American Dream story, I was emotioned. I saw my mom's old neighbors, faces I didn't recognize at all, faces of people who expressed such warmth and a sense of community and a desire to express such genuine kindness for a person they didn't know at all, I was emotioned. When I thought about what I have to leave behind each time I leave India and the time that passes between each trip and what moving back here would be like and how both India and America are home but in a way neither of them are, I was emotioned. 

The Coldplay-Beyoncé video that recently came out frustrates me for such a wide host of reasons, but one of the major ones is the lack of representation that South Asians and particularly Indian-Americans face. I'm currently working on a post regarding that, but for now I'm just going to say that the Indian-American experience is one that is so complicated, has so many layers and valences that reflect a lot about India and America and the way we as the people of either or both countries believe and think and behave. It's one that holds so much value as an academic discourse, as a literary and artistic diaspora, as a reflection of the government and politics of both countries. Seeing such a reductive representation of India through the Western lensand seeing the lack of regard for the misrepresentation that some people excuse because it's a music video or because it's Coldplay or because it's Beyoncé, and so on is just so disheartening and so painful in ways that I myself am still struggling to come to terms with. India is so beautiful, but dancing street children and Holi and a painful-to-see appropriation of our many dance forms are not the reasons why.

And that is what I thought about on the rickshaw ride from my maternal grandparents' old home to their current one.

After a quick rest at Nani's place, Corinne and I headed to my cousin Jhanavi's apartment with two other cousins. From there, we met up with Sara and spent some time at Juhu Beach, a place that holds a lot of sentimental value for me for a host of different reasons, before heading out to dinner. At dinner, the topic of the Coldplay music video came up again and I was amazed at how much Jhanavi related to my frustration. As an Indian-Omani who is going to college in Bombay, Jhanavi knows exactly what it is to be of two worlds, to be an "in-betweener," as she calls it. 

I find that my local friends and family here don't share my frustration with the way Indians and India are represented in this video, and maybe that's because many of them have no way of knowing what being an Indian-American in 2016 means, of truly knowing how the lack or representation and misrepresentation feel when you spend the majority of your life in a Western setting. I haven't explored the topic enough with my family in the U.S. to know their stance, but even among many (although certainly, certainly not all) of my Indian-American friends, I often feel like I'm the only one who cares or at least the only one who cares this much. It's pretty isolating, and many of the friends I've made through this abroad program have provided the support and comfort through the fact that they share my frustrations, that they know where I'm coming from. Put very simply, they get it and when I saw that my cousin got it too, I was ecstatic and even relieved. I'm not alone. Someone else cares, too. And even if we're the only one's having this conversation, it's okay. Twenty years ago, this conversation might not have even happened. Maybe twenty years from now, it might not need to.

We spent our last day in Bombay in the best way possible: shopping and eating. After my cousin and I visited a great-aunt of ours, we met up with our friends for some shopping and lunch in Lokhandwala. My last trip to India was the summer before my freshman year of high school (yikes!) and my cousin Riya and I pretty much spent our entire summer shopping and dancing (we took a pretty wild Salsa/Bollywood/Bhangra/Raas-Garba dance class that summer). We visited Lokhandwala a ton that summer, and the first place we stopped at this time around was a stall that I've seen pretty much every time I can remember being in Bombay. I got a little obnoxiously excited, especially for a stall that only sells cheap trinkets. But before I came to India, I'd been hearing people talk about how much India has changed in the recent years and it's so comforting to see how so much is still the same.

After walking around a bit, we stopped by lunch and got classic Bombay food. My personal favorite was the Bisleri pani puri, 20% because it was the first Bombay pani puri I'd had in years and 80% because I knew it wouldn't make me sick. I also had bites of my friends' pav bhaji and dahi puri before ordering a pretty good royal falooda. I've been in India for a month and a half and really don't anticipate getting sick of having Indian food every day. If anything, I'm worried about how I'm going to be in D.C. without my thrice-a-day cups of chai and such. Guess I'll finally have to learn how to cook Indian food.

{mediocre-at-best iPhone shot of our view from the plane}
Our flight back was bittersweet. It was late enough that all the city lights had turned on, and as our plane rose we were above a thin layer of black clouds with the city and black Indian Ocean below us. Above, we could see a few stars and it seemed like a perfect, albeit reluctant, end to an even better weekend. It was one of those things where photos don't capture the beauty, so you'll just have to take my word for the fact that it was breathtaking. 

I want to travel to so many places throughout and close to India while I'm studying abroad here and I initially wasn't sure that I'd get time to go to Bombay again before heading to Oman and then going back to the Dirty Jerz. But after this weekend, I'm determined to make time. This city is just so amazing and although I'll never let six and a half years pass in between my trips there, I know I have to visit it one last time before the next.

Here are a few more photos of our trip, as well as a video I made of one-second clips from our weekend. Enjoy!

{food on food on food}
{pre-Bombay selfie}
{lunch at Nani's}
{Mami makes the best chai}
{walking around Borivali}
{Corinne and her new Vespa}
{living in a constant state of only remembering to take photos after having a bite}
{nariyal pani}
{malai gola feat. photobomber}
{fennel seeds!}
{spot the tiger}
{dahi chaat for lunch}
{Nani's building}
{falooda for dessert}
{me and my valentines}
{rickshaw selfie}
{Corinne meets the fam}
{ice cream at Naturals}
{natural park feat. a sign I can actually read now}
{malai gola}
{flowers + trees+ pretty walls}
{Nani and fruit}

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Visiting Bengaluru

{trees from the IISc campus}
This past weekend I flew down to Bangalore for a short 30-hour visit. Prior to the trip, I had done some asking around and Googling to see what there was to do and see in the city and decided that with the time I had, I would prioritize spending time with my cousin who lives there, whom I hadn't seen in five or so years, and forego visits to palaces, gardens, and the like. But in a short amount of time, we manage to fit in an amazing amount of beautiful things to see and eat.

{insanely beautiful sunset from the rooftop}
I got into Bangalore Saturday afternoon and after a quick bus ride from the airport, I met my cousin for coffee at a place called Anand Bhavan. While most people around us were there for lunch, neither of us were particularly hungry and the perfectly sweet, hot South Indian filter coffee was enough to satisfy us. After coffee, we took an auto to her apartment, an adorable place with plenty of windows, a balcony, and access to a rooftop, which provided us a stunning view of the sunset, stars, and bats flying around. After some tea and toast and the stargazing that followed, we headed out for dinner at a microbrewery called Arbor Brewing Company.
Arbor was heaven. The ambiance alone was amazing; think long wooden tables, hanging lightbulbs, and plenty of cool signs lending to an industrial-chic sort of vibe. And it just got better from there. Their beer menu is extremely diverse and well-crafted (pun sort of intended), and I first opted for Smooth Criminal, an ale brewed with lavender and honey that managed to be perfectly smooth and light rather than overbearingly sweet. Later in the evening, I got a glass of Michael Faricy's Irish Stout, which tasted more like delicious black coffee with undertones of dark chocolate than actual beer. And their music selection was on point, too. I couldn't pick out more than bits and pieces from the size of the crowd that had gathered on a Saturday night, but every now and then my cousin and I found ourselves commenting on the songs playing. Speaking of the crowd, it really seemed like the place to be. The girl sitting next to me assured me that this place was well-known for their pizza, and my friend from GW, who is from Bangalore, seemed impressed that I had gone there as well. And if you couldn't guess from the fact that this post sounds more like a restaurant review than an actual travel post, I was in heaven.
{my beautiful cousin!}
But waitI haven't even gotten around to the food yet. I'm a huge foodie, and that combined with the fact that I grew up in North Jersey has made me quite the pizza snob. I won't touch any of the garbage that considers itself pizza in DC (with the only exception being Pete's New Haven Style Apizza) and have very strong opinions on sauce consistency, sauce-cheese ratio, and crust thickness. After a plate of seriously satisfying nachos, my cousin and I ordered the Garlic Goat Cheese pizza. Instead of sauce, it came with plenty of goat cheese, parmesan, mozzarella, roasted garlic, green onion, roasted sunflower seeds, and a hint of honey. And honestly? It was good. I'm not going to go out and say it was the best I've ever had. I've been to Italy and my region of New Jersey knows what its doing when it comes to pizza, but in a country where Amul has an apparent (and in my opinion, undeserved) monopoly over the cheese industry, I was damn impressed.

I also seriously appreciate attention to detail. I've been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter twice, and possibly my favorite part about the place, even beyond the rides and roller coasters, is the attention to detail. I'm not going to describe too much and spoil things for those who haven't been yet, but to give you an idea, everything in Diagon Alley IS DIAGONAL. DIAGONALLY. Isn't that great?! Anyway, so another thing I loved about Arbor is the attention to detail. Their menu is loaded with references to historical periods, TV shows, music, movies, and more. It's seriously witty and I actually sat down and read through the entire thing. Very dorky, yes. But when a menu is written better than some of the crap you've read for class, you appreciate it.

My cousin and I started Sunday very leisurely, the way all Sundays should be spent. We had a breakfast of toast and tea, along with a slice of cold pizza each, and headed out into the city for some souvenir shopping. We then had lunch at Burrito Brothersthe tortilla was undercooked, but overall the burrito did not disappointfollowed by ice cream at Corner House. I got Rocky Road and Caramel Crunch, and my cousin picked up Fig + Honey and Chocolate Europa. And after the scooter got a flat-tire (and was fixed in a quicker and more cost-friendly fashion that I think one would have to deal with back in in the U.S.) we drove through the campus of the Indian Institute of Science, which was much more beautiful than either GW or HCU can claim to be.
{insane trees}
After a quick nap back at my cousin's place, I headed to the airport, marking the end of a trip that was tons of fun and way too short. As I've already said, I really only went to Bangalore to see my cousin. She's incredible to talk to about anything and everything, and our time spent together was so easy-going and fun even though we hadn't seen each other in years. But even still, I really loved Bangalore. It may be more than a bit presumptuous to say so, but I definitely liked Bangalore more than Hyderabad. I love being where I am, but Bangalore has an incredible climate, tons of greenery, and plenty of places to go for good food. But as I thought that during our time around the city, I was just reminded about how I have to put in more effort into my time both here in Hyderabad and DC. I have such little time left in both cities, and hope to make the most of my stay in each. So if you have any must-visit spots, send them my way and I'll try my best to check them off my list.

 Until then, here are some more photos from my trip:
{the street my cousin lives on}
{the neighbor's house}
{view from the top}
{I made a new friend!}
{auto repair shop aesthetic strong}
{house built around a tree}
{look closely; there's a tree coming out of a house}
{where we sat for ice cream}
{my cousin's place is filled with gorgeous fabrics}
{cutest door I ever did see}
{sunset still beautiful even without the color}

~ V