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The stamp of India
By Lini S. Kadaba 

Bindis, mehndi, samosas, chai: Indian words, styles, flavors are permeating popular culture. A writer muses on how her "weird" heritage has become the rage. 

When 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 sauce.

"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 friend.

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," Ramsey said.

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 world.

"America has always had this fascination with the East," said Leonard Norman Primiano, a folklorist at Cabrini College who studies American popular culture.

"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 it."

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 Starbucks.

"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 America."

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 time."

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.



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