Bindis, mehndi, samosas,
chai: Indian words, styles, flavors are permeating popular culture. A writer
muses on how her "weird" heritage has become the rage.
I was growing up, I wouldn't willingly go near a sari or a samosa. My mom would
try to persuade me to wear the traditional dress of her native India to the
school dance. No way!
Indian food? Too spicy. Indian stuff? Too weird. Kids would constantly ask me
why my mom's forehead was bleeding when she wore the traditional red bindi. If
she wore a sari back in Lexington, Ky., people just plain stared.
Now, Main Line teens show off silver toe rings. Naomi Campbell and Madonna wear
bindis. Tony stores are selling those long tunics-with-loose-pants outfits that
resemble the Indian salwar-kameez to society ladies. And images of Hindu deities
grace lunch boxes sold at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Yo! The Acme in Newtown Square even sells potato-filled samosas and tandoori
"Everybody is going Indian," said Clare Ramsey, a trend-spotter for
Youth Intelligence in New York.
Figures all things Indian would be cool 20 years too late for me. No longer a
hippie relic or, worse, furrin', the trappings of Indian culture are chic and
quickly moving into mainstream America.
Masala stories by Indian or Indian American authors are spicing up best-seller
lists, with more due this year. Movies with South Asian themes (most recently,
Cotton Mary, East Is East) are attracting non-Indians. The rhythms of
traditional bhangra music are heard at clubs.
Deepak Chopra is guru to the stars and masses. Yoga is an aging yuppie's best
Not that long ago, Miss India never made the cut in the beauty pageants I loved
to watch as a child. Every year, I'd search for the raven-haired contestant,
hoping to catch a glimpse as she sashayed by on TV. I'd usually be disappointed.
Now, Miss World and Miss Universe are both Indians.
"I think people are tired of everything having the McDonald's stamp,"
Maybe this love affair with India reflects America's embrace of
multiculturalism, or the impact of nearly a million Indian immigrants across the
country, or the arrival of a global economy that relies on Indian software
techies to keep Silicon Valley humming.
Maybe the movies and books that explore India's cultural curiosities are
ultimately universal, age-old tales of trying to find meaning in a changing
"America has always had this fascination with the East," said Leonard
Norman Primiano, a folklorist at Cabrini College who studies American popular
"Fifty years ago, the influence of Indian culture in America was very much
colonialist in nature," said Primiano, also an assistant professor of
religious studies. "This was a British colony and there was an exoticism to
Times have changed. The American fabric now includes Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer
Prize-winning short stories, and chai, the spicy Indian tea, is sold at
"We've gone from a colonialist idea to a neocolonialist idea - a new idea
of India," Primiano said. "I think it's a celebration of a new
Walk the city, and a taste of India is suddenly everywhere.
At the Reading Terminal Market, vegetable vendors stock mangoes and Indian
lentils. The Cook Book Stall displays dozens of Indian cuisine titles, from A
Taste of Madras to The Sultan's Kitchen. Amazulu sells incense sticks, toe rings
and om pendants. And at Viva Imports, mirrored handbags and recycled saris made
into jackets, dresses and skirts sell like, well, samosas.
Over on Walnut Street, Urban Outfitters hangs saris from the ceiling, to be worn
sarong style or used as a tapestry. (Maybe I'll raid my mother's closet full of
heavy silk beauties!) Mehndi, the intricate henna designs worn mostly by new
brides in India, is a funky temporary tattoo stateside, with transfers sold at
hip stores. Even that American staple, the blue jean, has knelt at the Indian
altar, trimming its cuffs in gold brocade reminiscent of sari borders.
Linley Stroud, 15, and Alex Kinzig, 14, shopped recently at Urban Outfitters for
the latest fashions, many of them inspired by sari prints and the colors of
Indian spices, such as saffron and turmeric. The Shipley School sophomores who
live on the Main Line both wore toe rings.
I hid away my plain silver toe ring almost immediately after my traditional
Hindu wedding. It was entirely too old-fashioned and un-American for me.
But neither Linley nor Alex even knew about the adornment's place in Indian
marriage rituals. "I just thought it was cool," said Linley, whose
ring has the unorthodox design of a buckle on it. "I wear it all the
For me, the popularity of Indian stuff is more complicated than cool can
encompass. Whether yoga or mehndi, each comes with a long tradition and
sometimes with the baggage of expectation.
When my mother came to America, she eventually discarded saris, toe rings and
bindis, symbolically liberating herself from the traditional roles expected of
an Indian woman - and, truth be told, sidestepping the stares.
Now, we have what writer Shekhar Deshpande calls "the packaging of
India" - something the Indian immigrant views with ambivalence. He takes
offense at pop stars' wearing mehndi. "In some ways, those symbols are
quite sacred. They mean something to us," said the writer for Little India
magazine who also directs the communications program at Beaver College.
"In the '60s, I think there was a genuine fusion," Deshpande said.
"Americans in the West had discovered India in a very real way."
Transcendental meditation was popularized. The Beatles traveled to India.
"Now," he said, "India is purely a commodity" for bored
Americans in search of a safe but still "exotic, awesome" alternative.
But as even Deshpande allowed, we with connections to India shouldn't be so
possessive of our culture that we cannot share it with others. And, while it
would be nice if the toe-ring-wearing girl knew its significance, I can't help
but smile, with a bit of pride, at the very notion of my culture as chic. Maybe
I'll even dig out my wedding-day toe ring.