The narcissist principle

I recently checked out How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life at Crossword, a Barnes & Noble-like Indian chain with Barista-style upstairs cafés. The book is chick lit for teens, and the Indian cover interprets that so literally it shows a girl carrying both strappy heels and a stack of textbooks.

UK/India cover

The cover model for the UK/India edition could be desi, but her look is more toward the white end of the spectrum. Nor is Opal a common desi name. If I recall correctly (and I may be wrong — will double-check), there’s no mention of Mehta’s desi origins on the cover or in the official blurb (though the blurb for industry buyers is more accurate). Her desi-ness has been excised as neatly as was the turbaned actor from the Life Aquatic poster. To a casual browser it would almost certainly seem that Opal Mehta was just another white character, albeit with a funny last name.

I’m of two minds about this. In one sense it’s wonderful and somewhat subversive to have a desi character where her ethnicity isn’t made an issue. But in this story, surely Mehta’s upper-middle-class, post-’65 desi American-ness is a key reason why her parents are obsessive about her academic life. The plot summary reads like a parody of Asian American parental pushiness. That she’s desi seems integral to the plot.

Not that this is the author’s fault. New authors have famously little say over the trade dress of the product, though later Rushdie books have conspicuously avoided sari covers. (One of the worst: a hardcover of former BBC India correspondent Mark Tully’s book The Heart of India; it has that overbroad title, a garish, hot pink cover, a woman in a sari and a border smothered in garlands.)

The narcissist principle, the desire to interact with people similar to you, drives a lot of book covers and advertising and a lot of this blog. It can be limiting, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. It only becomes objectionable when the work is misrepresented, the work caters to Neanderthal conquest fantasies, or the aspirations being pitched are inherently colonialist.

U.S. cover: Mughal arches, fabric theme

The principle is so widely understood that when it’s violated, it’s worth decoding why. In Bombay, ad campaigns often include random white people. A clothing campaign currently features a preppy-looking white guy in suit and tie smiling sheepishly at two hunched-over grandmas in saris. Another shows white people hovering pre-coitally around ice cream. This puzzled me at first. Then it struck me that white models are used in two kinds of advertising: aspirational and sexual.

White models are used in luxury ads because many Indians still aspire to wealthy, civilized, English babu-dom. Conversely, they’re used in bikini ads and ads with sexual double entendres because Western culture is associated with louche sexuality. Using white models both conveys a sheen of sex appeal and lets you show more skin than many Indian models would be comfortable with. It’s a kind of reverse colonialism, and it’s the same schizophrenia about Western liberalism you see in Saudi Arabia, only to a lesser degree.

Related post: Waris’ star turn, The subway series, Buzzword bingo, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, Girls, Girls, Girls

120 thoughts on “The narcissist principle

  1. if a male name is chosen for a lead female character in the novel, that makes it somewhat gay, dont it? i mean, man-like female = mainstream perception of gayness, rite?

  2. No because masculine or non-gendered names usually lend a rather smart-chic aura to female characters. From Scout in To Kill a Mockbird to more chick-lit protagonists named Alex than I can count…

    Eh..no matter. I just want to know more behind-the-scenese stuff about the packaging of this book ;)

  3. ok, i’d better come clean before someone (times of india?) takes this too far… i made up the gopal/gay thing. sorry citrix- for the bubble burst, but you’re probably right about the alex/scout phenomenon..

    btw, for those who grew up in 70′s-80′s madras, gopal palpodi(pal-teeth,podi-powder) was quite a popular brand of…well toothpowder…hence the handle..

  4. Bruce was “too gay” so they changed it for television audiences.

    How do you KNOW these things????

  5. chickpea, is that article for real? The similarities are uncanny – that really stinks. If the allegations are correct, she is even more desparate to please than even her Opal character. Yikes!

  6. metric:

    that article is from the crimson (the newspaper at harvard and is REAL)… it stinks for kaavya… damn.. maybe harvard needs to reopen her admission files and make sure she didn’t copy her admission essay from another place (if these allegations are really really correct which i presume that they are)… maybe she was that desperate.. i don’t know… anyhow, she’s under severe scrutiny now..and i’m sure other papers/magazines will soon follow… pretty sad… maybe another book should be written… ‘how kaavya got into harvard, plagerized a book, and tried to pass it off as her own..but got caught’

    okay.. i’m being a bit mean… but to copy another persons work and call it as your own and cash in on it isn’t good… doesn’t bode well with me at all..

  7. Wonder how much Kaavya had to do with it, and how much her editors/publisher did. The similarities are too strong to overlook — I wonder what will happen from here.

  8. thanks kush.. i’m sure the rest are soon following as the story was out in the crimson today..i don’t know if dreamworks will be pleased along with her publisher…right now i’m pretty damn sure she isn’t sleeping so well…

  9. what i wanna know: how does a college sophomore get a 2-book deal??!?!??! also, is she any good??

    great finds, chick pea — endless procrastination =)

  10. anything to keep me studying for my boards.. sigh. anything.

    glad i didn’t waste any money buying it…. did you click onto that blog link? i giggled out loud…people are going to be pissed…. someones title was… ‘how kaavya got freyed’…. that i laughed at as well… gotta love it.. this day and age with blogs, word is spreading like FIRE.. gone are the days of newspapers and waiting till the morning…it’s a ‘now now now’ deal…

  11. okay.. i’m being a bit mean… but to copy another persons work and call it as your own and cash in on it isn’t good… doesn’t bode well with me at all..

    No, I don’t think you’re being mean. Plagiarism is wrong, and I can’t believe she had the balls to get it published on an international level!!! Is she in denial? or whaaaat? On one hand, I understand the pressure to please/impress at that age, but having the book published is outtacontrol!!! Is this a case of a little white lie that went too far?? I don’t know….. It’s funny that her story is about a girl who learns to let loose and live a little – plagiarizing and pretending you’re someone you are not is the exact opposite. This is even more sinister than Opal’s character, who lives and breathes Harvard and does all the right things to get in: If the allegations are founded, it seems this young author has decided that perceived success is all that matters – not the journey – and to take whatever means necessary to get to that status of perceived success. I’m not impressed!

  12. ps. I hope she gets the counselling and help she needs to get her through and past, what will be undoubtedly, a very trying time. Moreover, I hope she gets help dealing with whatever moved her to plagiarize in the first place.

    It can be a depressingly enron-ish world at times!

  13. A $500,000 book contract is so rare. For that, the author, of whatever age and experience, had better be good (not “good for a 17-year old” or “good for a new author”). There are so many deserving authors who never make that much money off their work.

    And any features of the book should primarily be the author’s, not her “handlers’.”

    It surprises me that even a chick-lit book would be considered to be so marketable that it would have gotten such a large deal. Maybe they thought that all Indian families would buy a copy for their daughters? In hardcover no less?

  14. Maybe they thought that all Indian families would buy a copy for their daughters?

    Considering the subject matter, I doubt your average desi uncle and auntie would want to give their darling daughters such a book in case it gave them any “funny ideas” ;)

  15. Vivo

    I think I read about kannadiga sikhs(native) before. can someone verify this(paging razib)

    Yep. They’re mostly in Bidar, Karnataka, close to the border of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra. They’re not just Kannadigas but also Telugu speaking people. Guru Nanak is supposed to have travelled through Bidar on his way to Sri Lanka, and most of the Sikhs there were converted locals, and not Punjabis. I have a friend who’s one such Dakhni(Deccani) Sikh. Their food habits are closer to the locals’. Another interesting Sikh I met was a from a Hindu Maharashtrian family. In their family one male every generation follows Sikhism. The story went – some ancestors of his had allowed a couple of Sikh soldiers to stay in their house for the night. That night the house was attacked by some dacoits, and the two soldiers fought them off, protecting the host’s family. In gratitude, the family promised them that one son would follow the Sikh faith every generation.