Nostalgia in the Land of Cool
Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City. By Sunaina Marr Maira, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002). Paperback: $19.95
As a dyed-in-the-wool FOB leftist, I initially found it difficult to muster a whole lot of empathy for my second-generation comrades who seemed to be overly preoccupied with what we pejoratively termed "identity politics." It took us a while to realize that this tension between class politics and identity issues was fraudulently generated. Of course there was much that was exasperating about the way in which our second generation comrades refracted all organizational issues through the lens of "what does it mean to be a desi in the US?", but it must have been equally frustrating for them to deal with their mustachioed comrades dressed in terycot pants, lecturing to them about the purity of South Asian activism, while they turned their nose at hip-hop, turned all parties into antakshari contests, insisted on listening to Hemant Kumar, and poured Tabasco sauce on their pasta whenever they were corralled into an Italian restaurant.
I would first recommend Sunaina Maira's book Desis in the House to all my lefty FOB colleagues who, like me, genuinely wish to deepen the basis of their solidarity with their second-generation comrades. The book does an effective job of analyzing the creative ways in which desi youth in New York City enact their identities (through research done in New York City), and also the ways in which they encounter a minefield of contradictions, paradoxes and seductive ploys to lead them up the garden path of sectarianism in the name of purity.
Maira positions herself as a "1.5-generation" person (born in India, but came to the US early enough), and thus writes as someone who can translate the desi youth experience for multiple audiences. In the framework of her analysis, desi youth encounter a constant tension in their lives between the power of nostalgia, which challenges them to re-imagine their tenuous, yet compelling relationship with the distant land of their foremothers, and the need to be cool, to creatively imagine ways of celebrating an identity that is compelling neither to their parents nor to the overwhelmingly white-centric culture of the metropolis.
On the issue of nostalgia, Maira considers a variety of questions that relate to desi youth, such as:
- How do they deal with the preoccupations with ethnic identity that their parents possess, and try to thrust on them?
- What are the different ways in which they "come out" as desis, if at all?
- What forms of desi youth traditions are being created and performed by the youth? (Maira talks about things like student organizations, campus subcultures, bhangra nights etc.).
- What is the impact of this whole preoccupation with ethnic purity on the dating practices of desis? (For example, she details the "strategies of nondisclosure" when one is dating undesirable "others," and the price it exacts in terms of self-esteem).
- Does the way in which the desire for identity is refracted through religion leave desi youth vulnerable to the ravages of fundamentalism? (She discusses the politics of organizations such as the Hindu Students Council (HSC), and the source of its appeal to desi youth).
As a necessary complement to these questions and their impact on the lives of South Asian youth Maira moves on to lay the terrain of desi cool. In a delightful chapter titled "To be young, brown and hip," she talks about the performance of cool, through musical spaces like Basement Bhangra at SOBs with DJ Rekha, the Mutiny parties, the remix music scene, and the myriad other ways in which desi youth have learned to celebrate their newly-found assertiveness about their identity.
In attempting to examine the tension between nostalgia and cool, the book offers a delightful slice of youth culture in New York City. There are a variety of vignettes in which desi youth give voice to their own sense of what these issues mean to them. Maira's analysis comes up with the twin notions of "critical nostalgia" and "commodified cool," two strategies which she sees desi youth adopting to deal with the contradictions that they face. These include their parents' nostalgia for some bygone vision of "home," the assimilationist pressures in the US and the segregation and racism they encountered while growing up, which their parents have no template of understanding. As an example of the power of these strategies, she discusses the case of the Youth Solidarity Summer (YSS). YSS offers desi youth "a way to respond to ideologies of authenticity that exclude those who are disloyal to narrow visions of who is really 'South Asian.' The organization hopes to offer a space where participants learn that being progressive or radical is not opposed to being South Asian or Asian American, as model minority stereotypes of docile immigrants suggest."
Maira is not merely celebratory, she talks of her own ambivalence about the gendered nature of these spaces, where women are rarely totally comfortable. The book is unfortunately thin on more rich experiences of "critical nostalgia" than one would have liked. One also hungers for a more in-depth analysis of how class plays itself out in these desi youth spaces. Indeed, sometimes one wonders if Maira deliberately skirts around issues that may problematize her framework. For instance, what are the positive ways in which desi youth experience religion and culture? How does the issue of gender play itself out at basement bhangra parties? In other words, what is the source of Maira's gendered discomfort in the spaces of the cool? These discussions, if voiced in greater detail, will help us in further extricating the experiences of second-generation desis from the simplistic structure of identity politics lying at the core of their experiences. I guess for all that analysis, we will have to wait for Maira's next book!
This book, however, is at its most interesting when Maira's characters are speaking in their own voice, or when she takes a step back and reflects on the broader processes that she is dealing with. However, I must warn those who have an aversion to academic jargon, it is in the final analysis, a book written for an academic readership. So be prepared for liberal sprinklings of words like "liminality," or subtitles like "Appropriating Hip-Hop: Masculinity, Racialization and Subcultural Capital," or discussions on "essentialism." As Maira claims in her concluding remarks, "This is a book to intervene in debates about cultural theory and methodology in Cultural Studies, Anthropology and Asian American Studies..." If this is your bag, baby, then knock yourself out! But even if it is not, read this book to take a peek into the strange, subterranean young, brown, hip and unchaste lives of desi youth in New York City.