Would you like a Slurpee with that?” says the brown skinned, turban clad Sikh man behind the 7-11 counter. And this introduction serves as the basis for most Americans’ perception of the South Asian experience.
We supposedly work 27 hours a day at gas stations, Patel-owned motels, quick shop marts, Subway stores, computer firms, or emergency wards — and that’s it. On television, our entire culture is represented by television icon Apu Nahasapeemapetalan, the Indian immigrant owner of “Kwik-e- Mart” on The Simpsons. A visually one-dimensional cartoon character with more animation and character than the one-dimensional cardboard caricatures seen in most Hollywood movies, TV shows (with the exception of Naveen Andrews in Lost); talk radio, and academic history books. Desis are also in the news because of “outsourcing:” Our brown brethren of the East are supposedly systematically destroying the American job market by working the same job for 1/10 of the pay.more
I readily admit to receiving many a phone call from “Ginger Ann” and “Gilligan” or “Johnny Walker” who talk with phony British accents and harass me for unpaid Visa bills. My gut tells me Ginger Ann is actually Jasdeep and Gilligan is Gaurav, but one can never tell. When we aren’t stealing jobs, we’re busy entertaining. It seems “arranged marriage” is all the rage — heavily featured as the central plot device in Monsoon Wedding, East is East, and Bride and Prejudice, which was a terrible movie but I’m prejudiced since I, like other desi males, fancy Aishwarya. As bhangra-remix music influences modern hip-hop, American audiences know that a good desi is a dancing desi is a lively desi is a happy desi.
But we currently live in a violent, confusing world where hijackers brought down two towers. Where British citizens fear to ride the London Underground. Where an ever-growing Axis of Evil is being “brought down” by the Axis of Freedom and Democracy and Liberty and Values. Where Sikh men wearing turbans are beat down and called “Osama” because the violent, ignorant perps can’t tell the difference between us silly “rag heads,” (or towel heads). Currently, a Muslim is a Sikh is a Hindu is a Paki is an Indian is a Bengali is a fundo is a weirdo is a terrorist is the “other.” So, what should we do? Shall we bhangra and temporarily forget our woes to the pulsating beats of Daler Mehndi? Or, shall we simply blame those “war mongers” — you know whom I’m talking about — them dirty Moslems — the conquerors from the Arab peninsula. Yes, that will surely make our collective South Asian life easier. Because, if you think the people who beat down the Indians, Sikhs, and Pakistanis could really tell the difference between the three, then you’d probably also believe I had chai with Bigfoot and Jimmy Hoffa.
The topical political-cultural climate of today is a conflagration of extremist opinions and passionate voices drowning out reason and sanity amidst a feverish race to promote a single-minded agenda and ideology. Experts on the radio and on television, who really aren’t experts but the printed title underneath their photos says otherwise, routinely paint the entire Muslim, Middle Eastern, and even South Asian population in such broad strokes you think they were too cheap to buy more than one color. The experts on Islam, Pakistan, India, and the Middle East are usually white, European, and Jewish or Christian. Can you imagine me being the de facto, supreme expert on the Irish American culture? Wouldn’t that be an insult to any self-respecting Irish American? If I was an Irish-American, I’d very logically ask, “So, where’s the Irish expert?” But not so with our people — our voices are “outsourced” to media puppets that routinely pillory our culture and identity to further the political agenda of their respective masters. So, what to do?
One elementary approach is to have South Asians speak and write honestly about the South Asian experience. How novel — an authentic South Asian American actually writing about the South Asian American experience — you’d think this would have been pursued? Unfortunately, the marketplace is only big enough for South Asian female writers, who despite their massive talent and gifts, aren’t usually allowed to challenge many of the status-quo representations of South Asian men (we are usually pilloried and denigrated as violent and misogynist, as is the case of all colored men).
So, here we are in 2005 with The Domestic Crusaders, a two-act play about Muslim Pakistani Americans living post 9-11 which had its showcase premiere at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and its next showcase Sept. 10 and 11 in San Jose State University (www.domesticcrusaders.com). The writer of that play, yours truly, recalls sitting in Ishmael Reed’s short story writing class over three years ago at University of California at Berkeley. Reed took me aside one day and said I was a terrible short story writer (and I believe he was correct), but I had a “gift” (whatever that means) for dialogue and characterization — ideal tools for writing plays. Now, imagine if someone came up to you and said, “Hey, you can replace Aishwarya or Shah Rukh and become a Bollywood megastar!” You’d probably laugh and tell that FOB to go drink his chai and leave you alone.
Reed might as well have asked me to be a ballerina or a teapot. However, I had to pass that damn class and I wasn’t passing until I gave him a 20-page play spec, which I reluctantly did. It was worse than pulling teeth. You just don’t tell someone to start planting a garden without teaching him how to plow the field or plant a seed. Yet, Reed and others, including my parents and the director of the play, Carla Blank, encouraged me and oversaw my attempts with encouraging pats on the back and technical edits (for example, I had written the entire play in the wrong format — requiring me to go back and compose it according to “play standards”). After 2 years, many cups of chai, cursing out loud, learning about writing plays by renting plays, and simply saying “Bismillah” and pounding furiously away at the keyboard, a play was born.
The intention of the playwright and hopefully the final presentation of the play is meant to convey a brutally honest, authentic, and no-holds-barred depiction of a family. Three generations of a Muslim American Pakistani family to be exact, featuring an aged grandfather (Dhada Hakim), his immigrant son and his middle aged wife, (Salman and Khulsoom), and their three American-born children (Salahuddin, Fatima, and Ghafur) who convene at the family house to celebrate Ghafur’s 21st birthday. As in all families, there are secrets, revelations, love, mistrust, resentment, loyalties, and regret. As in all cultures, no one really gets along but manages to find a way to hold on to that essential thread in that colorful fabric called “family.”
The writer’s intention was to create six living, breathing, multidimensional, and complex characters that should (or could) resemble members of your family. You take away the brown skin color and make it white, replace the Urdu-Hindi with Spanish, take away the Islam and replace it with Hinduism or Christianity, and substitute meatloaf for chicken biryani, and you should see universal topics and conversations that play out in every family every day of the week. However, these similarities are never shown the time of the day in the current news or media. Complexities of characters cannot be afforded media coverage when it’s so much simpler to make us all backwards and exotic, dancing and jumping, or angry and yelling.
The three standing ovations from the three shows recently presented at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre indicate that people, especially those not desi or Muslim, are starving for an authentic South Asian voice. The multicultural audience gave BRT more color than perhaps any show in the past 10 years. The requests we’ve had for the play to come perform in LA, Auburn, Washington, Canada, and even Chicago have been overwhelming; and many of these are non Muslim and non desi organizations. With my five seconds of fame (note: it’s not 15 minutes, because we’re too poor and can’t afford it), I’ve been invited to talk on the radio and to newspaper personalities about the Muslim South Asian American experience. The interviewers and their listeners are “refreshed” (a word I keep hearing) to hear a person of my background speak candidly about their experience. The refreshing words that spew from my mouth are neither brilliant nor original, I just consider them common sense that has been passed down from generation to generation. Listen to the other point of view. Put yourself in other people’s shoes. Don’t judge a book by its cover, and so forth. Elementary, really.
So it’s up to us. South Asians, Americans, Muslims, Hindus: a people whose voice has been outsourced for far too long to self-proclaimed experts who fail to present the complexities of our existence. We are neither heroes nor villains, simply people, whose time has come to stand up and reclaim our identities, which are shamelessly marketed for the profit of an almighty dollar (or rupee). A play written by a 24-year-old punk kid who grew up in Fremont is just a step, nothing more and nothing less. But it’s a start. It’s up to others to take us the rest of the way.