In Master of None, a TV show created by American comedian Aziz Ansari and loosely based on his own life, the title character, played by Ansari himself, is called “Dev Shah” and his father, “Ramesh.”
Now, this little factoid is of no interest to most of the show’s mainstream North American audience, nor should it be. But it has been remarked upon by those familiar with the minutiae of South Asian cultural distinctions.
Ansari and the character he plays on the show are Muslim. “Dev,” the sanskrit word for “divine,” and “Ramesh,” one of the names of a Hindu deity, are not.
Another, even more subtle distinction: ethnically, Ansari is Tamil, a region in the south of India. “Shah,” is a very recognizable Gujarati name—Gujarat being a region in the west of India.
Similarly, in another hit TV show, The Office, the character played by dark-skinned actress Mindy Kaling, an ethnic Tamil, is given a Punjabi name, “Kelly Kapoor,” surely to the horror of light-skinned Punjabis everywhere.
Oh, stop harping on these silly distinctions, Kaling and Aziz seem to say. Here in America, brown is brown is brown, brother. And they would be right.
So here’s the larger question: in an age of increasing interconnectedness, could American popular culture achieve what even Gandhi couldn’t? I’m talking, of course, about unity in the Subcontinent.
(Gandhi, it should be noted, also formulated much of his philosophy while living abroad.)
You Are Who I Say You Are
Hear me out: there is plenty of historical precedent.
In 2015, the blockbuster exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass at the Metropolitan Museum in New York showed how reductionist Hollywood stereotypes of Chinese culture, i.e., imperialist kung fu epics, blue and white porcelain, and cheongsams, have been adopted by the Chinese themselves over time as they seek to project their cultural influence on the world stage.
As if on cue, the gown Chinese designer Guo Pei made for the pop star Rihanna to wear at the opening gala reduced “five thousand years” of Chinese civilization to yellow silk—two cultural cues easily accessible to a non-Chinese audience, yellow being the colour of the Chinese Emperor, and silk, of course, China’s gift to the world.
In Singapore, the British colonial practice of lumping together diverse ethnic groups under four simple headings (“CMIO”) made Chinese out of Cantonese, Hokkien and Teochew, Malays out of Javanese, Bugis and Ambonese, and Indians out of Punjabis, Sindhis and Tamils. A lucky few who defied categorization got labeled as “Other.”
But in the face of new waves of Chinese, Indian and Malay immigrants from the PRC, India and the Philippines, CMIO is now giving way to another identity: native Singaporean vs. the newly arrived other.
And Indians got so tired of explaining their complex beliefs to foreigners that they decided to invent a religion out of them, which eventually led to Hindu-ism.
All of which is to say, our ever-evolving identities are the result of a multi-party dialogue. The more parties involved, the more nuances get lost in translation. You are who you say you are, or ultimately, are you who I say you are?