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 cafÃ©s. 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.
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.
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.