Desi Lives


Kanishka Chowdury

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN

Copyright © 2001 by Kanishka Chowdury, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

Review of:

Vijay Prashad. The Karma of Brown Folk. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.

  1. Current perceptions regarding South Asians in the United States are dominated by a multitude of stereotypes that collide and rebound against one another. South Asians are viewed as hardworking and potentially "productive" citizens but also as essentially different and distant from "American" life and culture. Although this form of othering may sound benign, it is part of a more complex form of racism that includes a portrait of the South Asian as a possible economic threat, willing to cheat honest Americans out of their livelihood (consider the depiction of Apu in The Simpsons). Moreover, South Asian difference, though seemingly an innocent gesture of exoticization, can be used to deny civic and economic rights.

  2. In his groundbreaking text, The Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad effectively unpacks some of these stereotypes, providing an excellent historical contextualization of the many layers that determine the complex lives of South Asians. His book, as he puts it, is about "the feeling, the consciousness of being South Asian, of being desi (those people who claim ancestry of South Asia) in the United States. It is also a set of sutras (aphorisms) of the karma (fate) of desis, who must now imagine ourselves within the U.S. racial formation and seek to mediate between the dream of America and our realities" (viii). Prashad's book, however, is not just an archival resource or a series of community vignettes; it is also a call to action, striving "to address the dilemmas of desi life in the United States." In addition, the book "suggests passages to transform [desis'] current aporias" (ix).

  3. One of the greatest strengths of the book is Prashad's historical overview of desi life in the United States and of desis' unique, evolving place in a white supremacist society. Prashad does an excellent job of tracing the roots of some of the racist notions that persist into contemporary times. An early example of racial othering, for instance, had been constructed by American writers, such as Emerson and Thoreau, who had portrayed the East as essentially spiritual and different. These views were exacerbated by turn of the century "popular orientalism," which "paraded out both the ghastly and beautiful mysteries of India as racial specimens that represented the multiplicity of Indian society, entertained U.S. residents, and validated the U.S. way of life in opposition to that deemed to be general in the East" (30). Some examples of these specimens included idols in personal museum collections, spectacles organized by the Barnum circuses, and the Ethnological Congress, which displayed people of "different and (lower) races" (30). Such spectacles were further sanctioned by the "Godmen of the fin-de-siècle who came from India to the United States" (40). However, Prashad notes that many of these "godmen," including the most famous one, Swami Vivekananda, were disturbed by the American "tendency to view India as solely spiritual." In their eyes, this perception "obscured the devastation wrought on the subcontinent by capitalism and colonialism" (41). Prashad is particularly effective at demonstrating the continuing pattern of these perceptions by focusing at some length on the most prominent contemporary exponent of Indian "spirituality," Deepak Chopra. Chopra, according to Prashad, is a "sly baba" who "is the complete stereotype willed upon India by U.S. orientalism, for he delivers just what is expected of a seer from the East" (48). Unlike Vivekananda, however, Chopra "fails to mention the structural poverty of his homeland, nor does he offer any of criticism of capitalism" (48).

  4. A parallel phenomenon also incurs Prashad's criticism, the rise of Hindu nationalism. Prashad traces the historical evolution of this movement and charts its alarming rise in the United States. Like Chopra, the Yankee Hindutva movement panders to the desire of some desis who are "under obligation to present themselves before the eyes of white supremacy as a cultural commodity" (143). Instead of creating a culture that is critical of white supremacy and consumer capitalism, Yankee Hindutva "asks desi children to withdraw into Hindu enclaves to learn the ways they are greater than others" (148). However, this indoctrination is not their only goal; organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America (VHPA), one of the more destructive incarnations of Yankee Hindutva, "participat[e] in fund raising for the Hindu right in India" (146).

  5. Perhaps the most compelling section of the book is devoted to Prashad's analysis of the recruitment of desis in the war against black America. Desis, according to Prashad, are viewed as a "perpetual solution to what is seen as the crisis of black America" (6). Prashad is conscious that he is a "weapon in the war against black America." He asks, "How does it feel to be a solution?" (6). Desis, according to Prashad, initially "came as techno-professionals to a land that emancipated its state from direct racism, transferred antiblack racism to civil society, and used them as a weapon to demonstrate U.S. blacks' inability to rise of their own volition" (171). One of the more tragic consequences of this form of racism is that it erases a tradition of solidarity between South Asians and black Americans, a tradition that has existed for over a hundred years. Prashad points to the collaboration between Haridas T. Mazumdar, a Gandhian, and Marcus Garvey, Kumar Ghoshal and Paul Robeson, Dubois and Tagore. Of course, many more alliances were formed during the anti-colonial struggles, especially because of India's support of African and Caribbean decolonization movements. Although Prashad does not mention alliances in the popular realm, one could also comment on the tremendous popularity of black athletes such as Muhammed Ali, Pele, and Viv Richards amongst South Asians. As C.L.R. James has shown, these alliances are equally important in understanding the anti-colonial sentiments of colonized nations. Prashad does, however, offer us hope for a renewal of these forms of solidarity in the practices of the younger generation of desis who are turning to black culture to express their disenchantment with the model minority myth. Although he warns us that "musical fusion allows for a certain amount of social fusion, but one must not mistake it for political solidarity" (181).

  6. The potential for political solidarity is also problematic because of the complex class system within the desi community. Many of the post-1965 immigrants were state-selected professionals, but the "stereotype of the Indian American as techno-migrant is blurring" (82). He adds that "since the 1980s the percentage of technical workers among South Asian migrants has steadily decreased, and the percentage of family members who come to make their lives in the United States has grown" (78). For instance, almost fifty percent of the cab drivers in New York City are of South Asian origin. Their growing presence in the metropolis is reflected in the staple of racist jokes on the David Letterman show. Although middle and upper class South Asians may try to distance themselves from their less fortunate brethren and seal themselves away from the direct acts of violence visited upon South Asian workers, they are not unaffected by the policies of white America. Prashad points to a Glass Ceiling Commission report from 1995 that indicated that South Asians did not rise within their firms or institutions. Prashad hopes that diverse alliances can be formed to combat institutional racism. For Prashad, there is promise in solidarity and in "the translations of our mutual contradictions into political practice" (197).

  7. The Karma of Brown Folk fills an important gap in contemporary cultural studies, a discipline in which South Asian culture is glaringly underrepresented. Prashad's text offers us a historical glimpse at a diverse community evolving in multiple ways. Perhaps the most important function of Prashad's analysis is his insistence on historicizing the practices and perceptions of both white Americans and desis. There are, however, a few limitations to his analysis. For instance, although Prashad comments on desi or South Asian culture in general, his examples, especially those drawn from contemporary culture, tend to be limited to the Indian community on the East coast. Obviously, there are demographic reasons for this choice, but such a selective analysis ignores the diversity of South Asian experiences in the rest of the country. Moreover, an emphasis on the Indian community reinforces the hegemonic status of "India" in South Asian cultural studies. This national focus could also have been avoided if Prashad had pointed to the complexities of transnational borrowings and crossovers. Some attention to the disjunctures in the current global economy could have prevented an adherence to drawing from discrete national forms or practices. For instance, Prashad could have commented on the contradictory ways in which South Asian culture produced in the United States is consumed in South Asia and vice-versa. Given Prashad's suspicion of authentic culture, it is also puzzling that he enjoins desis to "take elements of the tradition that are meaningful solutions to our own local questions" (132). Surely Prashad realizes that such selective borrowing does not erase the questionable status or origins of "traditions." In this context, it is equally puzzling to find Prashad harking back to an unspoiled India: "India used to respond to white supremacy as the land of Gandhi that would fight with moral force; now India simply flaunts its nuclear weapons and tells the world to back off" (136). Does Prashad really believe in the mythology of a once "moral" India that has now been destroyed? Finally, Prashad does not specifically or substantially address the complexities of desi women's lives and their double burden of sexism and racism. What, for instance, are some of the unique circumstances that determine the cross-generational struggles of immigrant women? What of the anonymous lives of the women that are circumscribed by patriarchal tradition and white supremacy?

  8. In the end, however, these limitations do not significantly undermine the depth and importance of Prashad's argument. The Karma of Brown Folk occupies an important place as one of the first texts to take a concerted and thoughtful look at the South Asian community in the United States. Prashad's analysis is an excellent introduction for academics, activists, and those who live out the effects of white supremacy. Here is a book that offers history and hope. As desis struggle and dream in the shadow of consumer capitalism, Prashad's vision of solidarity provides a revolutionary spark for the difficult years ahead.

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