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Winter 1998, Volume 15.1

Essay

 

Prateeti Punja Ballal

Illiberal Masala: The Diasporic Distortions of Mira Nair and Dinesh D'Souza


Prateeti Punja Ballal (M.A and M.T.P.W, Northeastern U) is a Ph.D candidate in Comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She recently co-authored a textbook on technical writing.

 

"I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives there. See whose face it wears."

                   —Audre Lorde in "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master's House"

For post-colonial products in self-imposed exile in the United States, Audre Lorde's injunction involves situating what Gayatri Spivak calls "the structures of violence and violation" which I inhabit (72). It recalls the Gramscian imperative to "'[know] thyself' as a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory" (Gramsci 324). This essay articulates the politics of the institutional space occupied by Dinesh D'Souza and Mira Nair, two diasporic Indians in the U.S., the first a writer and the second a filmmaker. I analyze the knowledge about the "Third World"1 which they produce through their treatment of gender, race, and class in Mississippi Masala and Illiberal Education.

Mississippi Masala presents a searing critique of racism in a diasporic Indian (Gujarati) community in Mississippi. An affair between a young Indian woman, the central character Mina (played by Sarita Chowdhury) and a young black man, Demetrius (played by Denzel Washington), raises the ire of the local white, black, and Indian communities. From the other end of the political spectrum, Illiberal Education is a backlash on the awareness of race and gender issues on campuses in the U.S. While speaking the language of privilege and authority in a Western2 community of readers and writers, Nair and D'Souza are part of a tokenized minority of "post-colonial" scholars and artists who function as both collaborators and resisters. This essay explores the space of these two texts, their creators, and their reception in the United States.

From Kampala to Mississippi

As diasporic Indians in the U.S., both Dinesh D'Souza and Mira Nair are products of class, colonial, and historical structures which comprise particular reasons for being here. Mina, the hero in Nair's Mississippi Masala, for instance, must explain that before Mississippi, she lived in England, and before that, Uganda. She has never been to India. The British brought her grandfather from India to Uganda to build the railway, and then her family was forced to leave Uganda in Idi Amin's expulsion of all Asians in 1972. The film begins with the expulsion from Uganda. Mina's diasporic condition is metonymically represented by two enduring images: one, the rearview mirror of their departing car that encapsulates the tropical locale and colors of their home in Uganda (Earlier Mina had asked her father, "Will there be snow there?") and the other, a well-known song from an old Hindi movie that bursts forth from a tape player as the Ugandan guards harass Mina's mother. The song runs: "Mera juta hai japani," "My shoes are Japanese/ My pants are English/ My red hat is Russian/ But my heart—it's all Indian." The rest of the film is based in Greenwood, Mississippi, where her family struggles for existence. Her mother runs a liquor store and is always in debt. Her father, a lawyer by profession, is a broken record, stuck on suing the government of Uganda for forcibly and illegally expelling him. Mina works at a motel as a cleaning person and receptionist.

The history of Mina's family is inscribed by immigration, nationality, the search for cheap labor, and colonialism. Dinesh D'Souza's reasons for being here (I speak of him as a character in his text because he does relate situations and issues through an autobiographical context which he provides) constitute a second chapter in this history in the consolidation of the Western-educated, Indian middle and upper classes through British colonial rule in India and their immigration to the United States. As part of that Western-educated middle class, D'Souza came to the United States in 1978 as a Rotary exchange student, went onto Dartmouth in 1979, and later to Princeton for graduate school.

It is important to note a few historical points on Indian immigration to the U.S. Racialized and gender-based immigration and naturalization laws in the U.S. such as the 1917 Act and the 1924 Oriental Exclusion Act surveilled, restricted and permitted the immigration of Indians to America.3 As Mohanty points out, "Citizenship through naturalization was denied to all Asians from 1924 to 1943" as part of the construction of Asians as the "yellow peril" (25). Immigration laws were liberalized from 1943 to the mid-1960s when the U.S. established a quota system for Asian immigrants that provided "green cards." However, these quotas were also classist in that they were available only to professionals with Western education and specialized training and experience in skills that were in short supply in the U.S. Thus, as Mohanty points out, "The replacement of the "yellow peril" stereotype by a "model minority" stereotype is linked to a particular history of immigration laws which are anchored in the economic exigencies of the state and systemic inequalities" (25).

In the 1960s and 70s, as part of the brain drain from the Third World, Indian middle-class professional men immigrated to the U.S. in large numbers along with Indian middle-class women who, with some rare exceptions, most often earned immigrant status ("green cards") by virtue of being their wives. Although there were some instances of Indian women who were professionals themselves, as wives of professionals most Indian women were homebound and employed in "women's work" in the home which was again in keeping with Victorian and consequently Indian norms of middle-class womanhood. As a result of this particular class- and gender-based history of immigration, many Indians in the U.S. such as D'Souza do not share the same history of oppression with the Indians taken as indentured labor to the Afro-Caribbean, with subcontinental Indians in Britain, or with Blacks, East Asians, and Hispanics in the U.S. However, British, colonial, economic and political agendas which passed into the hands of the U.S. in the international economy of the post-colonial world have clearly constructed the above history of Indian immigration.

Colonial Education and Empowerment

As Edward Said points out, "It is good to be reminded that between them a small handful of European powers controlled 85% of the earth's surface in 1914" ("Intellectuals" 44). The number of British in India was at no point very large in relation to the number of Indians. The British civilizing mission depended on the cultivation of European tastes and education in an indigenous middle class that served as a new market for English broadcloth and other British goods and as administrators of institutions of colonial rule: the military, judiciary, and civil service. This was starkly articulated by T. B. Macaulay in his famous 1835 Minute on "Indian Education." The institution of colonial education bequeathed pervasive forms of knowledge, language, and racism transmitted even today through post-colonial education and evidenced in D'Souza's work, as I will later show. As Jenny Sharpe points out, "The colonial policy of English education was conducted through a small, select, yet crucial sector of the Indian elite and not the native as such." Thus, "a Western educated, English speaking, indigenous middle class metonymically represented all of India" (142). The subordinate or subaltern classes were denied even the status accorded to colonial subjects who acceded to the authority of Western knowledge.

The inheritance of colonial education has different implications for middle-class Indian immigrants settled in the U.S. today. As part of that Western-educated middle class, Indians such as D'Souza and Nair are able to participate in English and compete in an international economy. The normative "English gentleman" who was mimicked by middle-class colonial subjects wears the garb of the white, middle class professional in the context of the U.S. today. The natives who speak in colonial texts, such as Dr. Aziz in A Passage to India, are even now from that same educated, middle class. There are, thus, segments of Indian immigrants who believe, in a retrospective reflection on colonialism, that the humiliating experience of unending economic oppression, injustice, and societal distortion that virtually enslaved them had its benefits. It allowed them to "go West" and provided material benefits and "liberal" ideas that make colonialism seem a much less unpleasant thing. D'Souza in fact, propounds such a view, which I will elaborate on.

The paternalism in this notion that we civilized them extends itself to academic debates on the canon and curriculum. In a Wall Street Journal editorial of 28 May 1988, the eminent scholar Bernard Lewis comments on the controversy at Stanford University over reading lists in western civilization classes. Lewis claims that the threat to "the West" is more than a modified reading list containing black or female writers. He says that it is no less than the restitution of slavery, the harem, the veil, polygamy, wife burning, and female child abortion. The West, according to Lewis, abolished these brutal customs on its own through principles of equality, democracy, and economic development. While he does not acknowledge the measure of persuasion added by slave revolts and other indigenous reform movements, he also does not acknowledge the profit and power rather than the disinterested pursuit of truth sought by Western colonial powers. D'Souza cites Lewis to adopt the colonialist construction of Third World women as "oppressed" and their salvation by normative Western masculinity: "Western ideas have helped to bring about basic rights for women that were, until very recently, regarded as preposterous in many countries of the world" (D'Souza 86). He completely misrepresents the role of indigenous movements which spurred the abolition of practices such as Sati, or widow-burning, in nineteenth-century India: "Western norms forced the suspension of brutal indigenous traditions the British stopped the practice of Sati" (87).

Oppressed, but Beautiful

Those colonial and post-colonial subjects who speak the language of privilege have rendered what Edward Said has called, "The representative deprivations and exhilarations of migration in the art of the post-colonial era" ("Figures" 7). However, representations of Third World women in both Illiberal Education and Mississippi Masala have been normed on a hierarchy of "Western (read: progressive/modern)" over "non-Western (read backward/traditional)." This results in a victim-oriented depiction of Mina who is subject to traditional, cultural practices such as her mother's designs of an arranged marriage to Harry Patel. Hindu religious traditions are depicted negatively. For instance, during a marriage ceremony, while the elders pray, "God grant peace to every living creature," the camera focuses on a dog chewing shoes that worshippers traditionally remove during prayer. Mina and Harry Patel escape from this scene and in a jump cut are seen in a disco. This sudden shift not only invalidates the traditional religious ceremony, but represents disco dancing as somehow being a progressive alternative. Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar describe the quintessential cultural stereotype of the Asian woman that arises out of such representations: "The image is of the passive Asian woman subject to oppressive practices within the Asian family with an emphasis on wanting to 'help' Asian women liberate themselves from their role" (9). While Mina eventually runs away with a black man (which could be read as daring and unconventional), it is from her "oppressive" traditions and family. The lovers' Hollywood-style chase and flight in the denouement is also the film's elusive escape from engaging serious questions of race and gender relations. The viewer is left wondering: "Where to now?"

This representation of Third World women is parallel to strategies employed by colonial discourse. Critics such as Abdul JanMohamed and Edward Said have shown how the colonizer rendered the colonized powerless in representations of colonial subjects that were feminized and eroticized. In Mississippi Masala, the body of the young, female hero is used to cross racial boundaries within a discourse of eroticization. Mina is decked in the flaming oranges, reds, and golds of titillating, "ethnic" costume and comportment. Mina herself says when referring to her roots, "I'm mixed masala," and explains to Demetrius, "It's a bunch of hot spices." Demetrius responds, "Oh, you're hot 'n spicy." His brother Tyrone says at one point in the film, "Man, just lookin' at her makes me break into a sweat." A number of Americans whom I spoke with after the film responded variously with, "She's beautiful" and "She's hot." The film thus serves the exigencies of the Euro-American marketplace where the exotic hero becomes the object of a Western gaze.

Class Unconscious

While many Indians in the U.S. tell rags to riches stories of coming to America in the 1960s as graduate students on fellowships and other limited incomes, of borrowing money to do so on a "life mortgage" as Spivak recounts (84), the fact remains that as middle or upper class Indians they had access to education. Most often, they came with a minimum of a Bachelor's degree that made the "American dream" far more accessible. This trend has continued to a large extent through the 1970s and 80s although these last two decades have produced an influx of small business people who own shops, restaurants, and motels, professions that require some capital investment but not necessarily a college education. Access to education in India is "extremely class-fixed" and educated Indians "represent" a metonymic India, not all the constituents of a population that is approaching a billion. In Mississippi Masala, there is a distinct divide between the Indians who speak English well and those who do not, the professionals and the small business people. The father of the young woman, an Indian lawyer from Uganda, and her mother are presented as noble in that they are educated, eloquent in English, and eventually able to accept their daughter's relationship with a black man. However, the non-professional, Indian motel owners are caught in the trajectory of the film's critique of racism. They are presented as comical in the way they speak English and in their clothing and manner. One of them, Anil, wears an orange shirt and white trousers, another, Ponte, an ill-fitting gray suit. They register emasculation through the unfulfilled sexuality of Anil's arranged marriage and Ponte's kissing girls on television screens. Their greed for money feeds into their racism. When one of them befriends Demetrius and claims, "All of us people of color must stick together," it is only to prevent Demetrius from suing him and to protect his economic interests.

I cite Mississippi Masala as an example of a film made by a diasporic Indian woman that implicates itself by using on one level the very strategies of colonial discourse and racism that it seeks to undermine at another. As a Harvard-educated, middle-class, Indian filmmaker, Mira Nair codifies her own middle-class culture as the norm and working-class cultures as Other. As a filmmaker in the Hollywood tradition, she uses an exoticized hero and a melodramatic plot to serve the needs of the commercial marketplace where the film is dispersed. As members of a fairly new immigrant community seeking to establish itself in the U.S., several Indians said they were "ashamed" to see the film in theaters with (white) Americans. In both its stereotyping and class biases, a film made by a diasporic Indian woman works within the Western discursive construction of "Third World women."

The "Not Quite/Not White"

What Mississippi Masala is able to achieve is the problematizing of issues that have traditionally, in the U.S., dissolved into black against white. It introduces new configurations of brown against brown, brown against black, and so on. These issues are particularly relevant to diasporic Indians who are frequently subject to new levels of invisibility. As part of a fairly new immigrant community, marginalized, and even excluded from the category "Asian" or "Oriental," they slip between a number of racial categories and face their "difference" in being what Homi Bhabha has called the mask and mime of the "not quite/not white" (132).

This mask seems to fit Dinesh D'Souza quite well in his lack of awareness of some of the questions I have raised. With the privileged status of having been a Reagan appointee and now a Research Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute with a Dartmouth and Princeton education behind him, D'Souza attacks all those who "are regarded as oppressed victims and permitted considerable license in their conduct" (8). In this group he includes blacks, feminists, and homosexuals. He employs a mock tone for "The coveted perks of so-called affirmative action policies extended to other groups claiming deprivation and discrimination, such as American Indians, natives of Third World countries, women, Vietnam veterans, the physically disabled " (3). He simply clubs whites and Asian Americans together as victims of "reverse discrimination." His methodology depends on tautological, bulleted lists that hammer out supposed instances of this "reverse discrimination" in university admissions policies that allow for more equitable racial distribution, changes in the curriculum which allow for multicultural voices, and attempts to curb racism and sexism in the university.

D'Souza's class biases are fairly clear when he discusses what he sees as the sprawling opulence, ivy walls, and rolling greens of the American university with its "old money and tradition" (1). Community colleges and other educational institutions struggling for existence are not on his agenda. D'Souza has lost the language to speak of his own people whom he calls "natives," like many Western-educated, nineteenth-century writers4 (D'Souza 86). He completely disregards the history of colonization and power shifts between the First and Third World to arrive at his underlying assumption that the Third World just has not evolved to the same extent that the West has. Thus he speaks of "Basic principles of equality, democracy, and economic development on which countless Third World natives are pinning their hopes for the future" (86).

D'Souza does not object to the myth of the "golden past" assigned by European historians and grammarians to the upper class/caste, Brahmanical, Hindu tradition in order to consolidate middle-class patriarchies in nineteenth-century India. In fact, he extols this high tradition of the Hindu great books such as the Ramayana, the Upanishads, the Vedas, and the Bhagavad Gita which he proposes should be included in the American university curriculum (73-74). Instead, his attack is aimed at what can be dubbed literature from below in his eyes, typified in books such as I, Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala. D'Souza uses Rigoberta Menchu's autobiography to discount the political commitment of women writers from the Third World. His analysis works at several levels. He objects to the Latino and Indian phrases that make the narrative hard to follow from his purist, English perspective. He denies that Rigoberta Menchu can "represent oppressed people everywhere" because she is not an "authentic Third World source" (72).

D'Souza's argument falls to the very essentialist grounds which he critiques. The fact that she is a feminist, a Marxist, and attends conferences in Paris "where presumably very few of the Third World's poor travel" (72) is used to discount her "authenticity." On the other hand, D'Souza is unconscious of his own status as a privileged Indian in the U.S., who does not share the same history of oppression with other people of color, but can bring diversity to a conservative think tank such as the American Enterprise Institute. As Spivak points out, trained in British systems of education, Indians can serve "a certain sort of Anglomania in the United States, we can be used as affirmative-action alibis" (Spivak 62), providing what Trinh Minh-ha calls a limiting difference, "a difference or an otherness that will not go so far as to question the foundations of their beings and makings" (88). While being a token of diversity himself, D'Souza is critical of affirmative action and policies that foster diversity on campuses and curricula. At the same time, he attempts to function as arbiter of Western "free thought" and "liberal education," demonstrating the selling out on the part of some Third World writers.

D'Souza's racist and sexist attack was immensely popular in campus newspapers nationwide. For instance, The Northeastern News, Northeastern University's student newspaper, ran a review titled "Illiberal Education shows the faults of the diversity movement in academia" that praises the book highly, reproduces its colonialist discourse on Third World women ("wife-beating and burning is considered vogue in many underdeveloped societies"), and trivializes counter-critiques of the book as "obligatory cries of racism at the academy" (Kurth 15). D'Souza's work and its reception calls to mind A. Sivanandan's response to V.S. Naipaul: "There was a smell of burnt belongings in his books as well as the smell of burning icons. But the icons he burnt were mine, those of the colonised, not of the coloniser. Them he preserved, mine he burnt for them" (33).

Counterparts of colonial occupation in the geographical Third World persist in certain discursive and material constructions in American society today. In Chandra Mohanty's words: "The project of decolonization thus involves the specification of race in political, economic, and ideological terms, for the meanings of race are necessarily shaped as much in collective and personal practice (identity politics) as by the state (colonial or contemporary capitalist)" (27). Responding to the challenge of post-colonial studies involves recognizing the interrelations of colonialism, class, and gender in the films, texts, and knowledge that we produce. The work of post-colonial intellectuals in the practice of literary and social-scientific disciplines not only shapes self and collective consciousness, but has material ramifications for institutions, such as laws (as seen in immigration policies) and education systems (as played out in debates on the canon and curricula). While their writing and knowledge production is marked by class and ethnic position, Third World writers and artists need to theorize their political engagement sometimes as resisters and at other times as collaborators.

 

Notes

1 Throughout this essay, I use the term "Third World" (in opposition to "Western" or "First World") to connote the dual definition provided by Cheryl Johnson-Odim: "The term Third World is frequently applied in two ways: to refer to 'underdeveloped'/overexploited geopolitical entities, i.e., countries, regions, and even continents; and to refer to oppressed nationalities from these world areas who are now resident in 'developed' First World countries" (314). The latter definition applies to the terms "Third World people" and "people of color," or "Third World women" and "women of color" which I use interchangeably as inherently political conceptualizations (rather than essentialist, racial notions) for a common context of struggle in feminist politics.

2 I use the term "Western" not to suggest that it is monolithic but rather to refer to what Chandra Mohanty calls "textual strategies used by writers which codify Others as non-Western and hence themselves as (implicitly) Western" (52).

3 For a further discussion of the Exclusion Acts and Asian immigration to the U.S., see Making Waves, edited by Asian Women United of California, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty's Introduction to Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism.

4 Meena Alexander provides a good instance of this loss of language in the colonial ennui of Toru Dutt, the Indo-Anglian poet of the late nineteenth century. Educated in France and England, she realizes she does not have the language to speak of her own people. She writes from Calcutta in 1876 to her friend Miss Martin: "Thank you very much for what you say about calling my countrymen "native"; the reproof is just, and I stand corrected. I shall take care and not call them natives again. It is indeed a term only used by prejudiced Anglo-Indians, and I am really ashamed to have used it" (Alexander 15).

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Meena. "Outcaste Power: Ritual Displacement and Virile Maternity in Indian Women Writers." Journal of Commonwealth Literature 24.1 (1989): 12-29.

Amos, Valerie, and Pratibha Parmar. "Challenging Imperial Feminism." Feminist Review 17 (1984): 3-19.

Asian Women United of California, Ed. Making Waves: An Anthology by and about Asian American Women. Boston: Beacon P, 1989.

Bhabha, Homi. "Of Mimicry and Men: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse." October 28 (1984): 125-33.

D'Souza, Dinesh. Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. New York: Free P, 1991.

Gramsci, Antonio. The Prison Notebooks: Selections. Eds. and Trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International, 1971.

JanMohamed, Abdul R. Manichean Aesthetics: The Politics of Literature in Colonial Africa. Amherst, MA: U of Massachusetts P, 1983.

Johnson-Odim, Cheryl. "Common Themes, Different Contexts: Third World Women and Feminism." Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1991. 314-27.

Kurth, Joel. "Illiberal Education shows the faults of the diversity movement in academia." The Northeastern News 29 May 1991. 15+

Lewis, Bernard. "Western Culture Must Go." Wall Street Journal 2 May 1988: A 24+

Lorde, Audre. "The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House." Sister Outsider. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing P, 1984. 110-13.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. "Indian Education: Minute of the 2nd of February, 1835." Macaulay Prose and Poetry. Ed. G. M. Young. London: Rupert, 1952. 719-30.

Minh-ha, Trinh T. Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1989.

Mississippi Masala. Dir. Mira Nair. With Sarita Chowdhury and Denzel Washington. Samuel Goldwyn Productions, 1992.

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. Introduction. Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1991. 1-47.

---. "Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses." Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism. Eds. Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1991. 51-80.

Said, Edward W. "Figures, configurations, transfigurations." Race and Class Special Issue on Colonialism, Language, and Imagination 32.1 (July-September 1990): 1-37.

---. "Intellectuals in the Post-Colonial World." Salmagundi 70-71 (Spring-Summer 1986): 44-64.

 

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