This post was originally published via Reappropriate.co and republished here with permission.
Just a couple weeks before the season two premiere of “Quantico,” Priyanka Chopra (obviously) made the interview rounds, and of course, we saw tons of our friends sharing Refinery29’s splashy new profile of the 34-year-old star.
Unfortunately for Chopra, people weren’t posting about her stunning photos or their excitement over the return of the show. Instead, there was plenty of side-eye towards her views on diversity in Hollywood.
After reading the piece, I immediately reached out to my friend Asha Sundararaman, so that we could have one of our epic G-chat conversations breaking the piece down. An edited version of that conversation is below.
Lakshmi: Asha, what was your first thought once I sent you the new Priyanka profile?
Asha: That I wish “Quantico” were a better show!
Lakshmi: Don’t we all.
Asha: No actually, it was about the headline. When you say something like “I don’t want a label” (and yes, that might just have been the headline writer), you’re usually missing something fundamental about today’s global culture and the way it operates.
Lakshmi: Yes, I’m instantly wary of any celeb who tries to play that ‘don’t put me in a box’ game.
Lakshmi: Also, there’s the actual structure of the piece itself. We begin right with a reference to Hindu goddesses. “For eons, women have been told how to be or think or dress,” the quote reads. “I come from a part of the world where this debate is so heated, especially because we’re a country that has goddesses. We pray to women. But at the same time, we prey on them.”
She could have taken a moment to talk about the Indian feminists who have been working to change this. Or mention the current movement to police the way Muslim women dress in Europe and the outrage about that. Instead, we don’t get much.
Asha: I’m also wary about people who invoke Hindu goddesses. Because there are so many problematic stories involving women in Hinduism.
Lakshmi: Yes. Also, every time I see that I’m like INDIA IS SUPPOSED TO BE A SECULAR DEMOCRACY, FOOLS.
Asha: Also true. India does not have goddesses. Hinduism has goddesses. They are not one in the same.
Lakshmi: And it just doesn’t help when perhaps the most well-known Indian celebrity in the states is pushing that Hindu goddesses equals India narrative.
Asha: Way to play into stereotypes, Priyanka!
Lakshmi: Well, Priyanka’s career trajectory has been interesting in that she has been playing those stereotypes to her benefit for a while. Remember that ‘Exotic’ song? One of the lyrics was “I’m feeling so exotic/ I’m hotter than the tropics…”
Asha: I don’t actually.
Lakshmi: Oh! Well, you missed a treat!
Asha: Sounds like it!
There was something else that struck me. When she was talking about “Quantico” and Alex Parrish, she says she speaks, thinks, and looks Indian.” What does that even mean?
Lakshmi: This is a good time to mention that like Alex Parrish, you’re also biracial. What did you think of the portrayal Alex’s identity?
Asha: It seemed super muddled to me. In full disclosure, I didn’t finish the season. I got bored.
Lakshmi: You’re definitely not alone. Just from the feedback I’ve gotten from my recaps I think a lot of people stopped watching because the storyline was too hard to follow or it just didn’t capture their interest.
Asha: But the whole interview seemed to just stress Priyanka’s distance from the American experience.
Lakshmi: I know the quote that got both of us to raise our eyebrows was the one where she says she’s not a person of color. Let’s take a second to break it down more fully. “I don’t like the phrase ‘woman of color.’ I feel like that puts women in a box,” she says. “I’m a woman, whether I’m white, Black, brown, green, blue, or pink — whatever. I think we need to start looking beyond that. It would be a big win for women, period.”
Anytime someone starts ROY G BIV-ing I stop reading. Green! Blue! Pink!
Asha: Hahaha. I think it just illustrates the disconnect between people who grow up as minorities and people who grow up as the majority. She has the luxury of not thinking of herself as a “woman of color” because in India she’s part of the majority culture and her time in Hollywood is just a lark of sorts. So she gets to disconnect from American reality.
Lakshmi: Definitely. And Priyanka, as a light-skinned, high caste person has known a sort of privilege in India that most Indian women will never know. Of course, she doesn’t care about color! She has the color everyone has always cared about.
Asha: Exactly! And now as a Hollywood star, she still doesn’t face what most people go through on a regular basis.
Lakshmi: Reading that quote also made me realize that she probably completely didn’t understand why people were upset a few years ago when she was cast as Mary Kom – the Indian Olympic boxer from Assam who has a distinctly Northeast Indian appearance.
Asha: Nope, she has no idea. I couldn’t believe they cast Priyanka. That was ridiculous.
Lakshmi: When the casting was announced, Quartz did a great list of actresses from the region who would have been better picks.
Asha: It’s true that Bollywood is just as exclusionary as Hollywood. The regional film centers barely make up for them.
Lakshmi: Yes, and anytime a role requires you to don “prosthetic eyelids” it’s just best to run away as fast as possible.
Asha: Haha. And it just plays into India’s vision of homogeneity. When the biggest film industry in the world is only made up of a certain look, it’s easy to forget the diversity of the subcontinent.
Lakshmi: Definitely. Part of the reason I wanted to do this post with you is that I know that we both have had a lot of conversations about how some immigrant members of our families don’t seem to understand race in the U.S. and how Priyanka’s quotes really embodied that. What do you wish you could tell her before her next interview?
Asha: Open an American history book. Was that too mean?
Lakshmi: Not mean, but not likely?
Asha: Probably not.
Lakshmi: The ‘don’t call me a WOC’ bit was really weird because her show has tons of really great WOC characters. Nimah and Raina were game changers in the way Muslim women were portrayed and Miranda is just fantastic.
Asha: This is off-topic, but there’s also this quote: “I’m not, by nature, physical,” Chopra says. She doesn’t train or keep a regimented gym schedule. Mostly, she assumes she’ll get a little beat up on set.” But that’s a different conversation.
Lakshmi: Also, I don’t believe it.
Asha: Me neither.
Lakshmi: I mean, I believe she hates the gym, but I don’t believe she NEVER goes.
Asha: Don’t we all. She’s probably trained her entire life. I mean to be Miss World, you have to at least do some exercise.
Lakshmi: Exactly! I’ve seen “Miss Congeniality!” I know what those girls go through in order to win.
Asha: But back to your original question. I wish I could tell her that diversity is about humanity. It’s about recognizing that people experience the world differently depending on history, culture, gender, religion, birthplace, etc. It’s about not erasing those experiences or distilling them down to a single narrative and it’s about being comfortable with that.
Lakshmi: Definitely! On a lighter note, I do appreciate PC’s personal campaign to get herself cast as James Bond.
Asha: Yeah, that’s pretty cool. I wonder how a female Bond would change the character, especially since he’s such a womanizer.
Lakshmi: Also, it’s just neat that an Indian woman wants to play an iconic British character. Imagine what Twitter would be like if that happened!
“Look,” she says, “It’s a story about a British guy who happens to be a white dude. There’s nothing wrong with that, whoever came up with it.” But the way she sees it: If Victor can become Victoria, then James Bond can be played by a woman. “And not Jane,” she says, with emphasis. “She should be James Bond, and she should be able to sell it. Why not?”
Asha: Hey, I know a woman who goes by “James.” I think her given name is Jamie, but it’s always been “James” to us.
Lakshmi: That’s neat. I think, judging from the way she portrays Alex Parrish, Priyanka would LOVE to play a character that sleeps around as much as James Bond does. And I mean that in the nicest, most encouraging way possible.
Plus, a postcolonial take on a character that was created at a time when the British Empire was crumbling would be so interesting to watch! To see an Indian woman be a hero and save everyone, it’s really a more countercultural idea than Priyanka realizes.
Asha: So true. It’s like she doesn’t want there to be barriers, but she also doesn’t realize how they got there in the first place and why they stick around.
Lakshmi: Here’s another quote from the piece that definitely lends itself to that theory. “I want to be able to conform, to evolve, and be whoever and go wherever. Just like everyone else,” she says.
Asha: Yep. But you can’t just do that willy-nilly anyway. There has to be some self-reflection involved (which there clearly wasn’t when she played Mary Kom).
Lakshmi: And anyone who has followed her efforts to break into the American market knows her journey has been very calculated (as it had to be.)
Well, I’m interested to see how “Quantico‘”s writers continue to portray her Indian identity next season. Maybe we’ll see her mom more! I still crack up when I think of the fact they named her mom Sita.
Asha: They probably couldn’t think of other names. Sita is one story that I have a hard time getting behind but also another conversation.
Lakshmi: Well, I know your lunch break is almost over, so I’ll let you go now. Thanks for chatting about our favorite ridiculous TV show with me.
(And, yes, I think it’s likely that a certain segment of people reading this can also rage about the Sita story for hours.)
Lakshmi Gandhi is a journalist and pop culture writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in Metro New York, NBC Asian America and NPR’s Code Switch blog, among other sites. She likes it when readers tweet her @LakshmiGandhi with their thoughts on Asian American issues and romance novels.
Asha Sundararaman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Oakland, California. When she’s not discussing pop culture, she can be found in her kitchen blending the flavors of her Southern and Indian roots.
Culture, in the broadest sense, is a shared set of norms, values and beliefs. We pass down our culture to our children based on our own lived experiences, and what we believe in. The decisions we make for our families reflect the values that we want to prioritize. We also hope that our children will want to pass them down to their own children.
As parents, it’s important to reflect on our cultural values: Where did they come from? Why do we believe in them today? Also, what values seem outdated or irrelevant in modern times and for our own children? By reflecting on these, parents will consciously be aware of the values that they believe are relevant, meaningful, and important to articulate to their children before they leave the nest and fly off into the world.
Our South Asian-American culture is constantly shifting and adapting to reflect changes of the modern times. Today, we are continuing to hold on to the celebrations that bring us the most joy and meaning in our lives. For example, I am attending a family wedding, this October, where the bride is Gujarati and the groom is Tamilian. They have decided to have a Sangeet which is traditionally a Punjabi custom, but they wanted to celebrate both cultures in this new way with their families because they both love music and dancing to Bollywood songs. They are also honoring their individual cultures during the ceremony by having a mangalsutra (the most important piece of the Tamilian ceremony) and the sindoor (the most important part of the Gujarati ceremony).
As we approach Rakhi this year, I think back to how I used to celebrate Bhai Phota, which is a Bengali version of Rakhi celebrated during Diwali. Today, I have chosen to celebrate Rakhi with my brother and with my Bengali-Gujrati family as a separate celebration, that takes place in August, because this way we can spend more quality time celebrating this sibling bond.
Post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha puts forth how when cultures mix together, we often open up a hybrid, third space, which forms new ways of being and living in the world. This idea of hybridity acknowledges the space in-between cultures which is filled with contradictions and indeterminate spaces. By negotiating between these differences, we are able to create new forms of culture and identity.
“hybridity… is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge.” – Homi Bhabha
Today, South Asian American children are forming new ways of connecting to their cultural identities. This summer, I launched my new children’s book, Shanti and The Knot of Protection: A Rakhi Story, to provide more context to children about the historical origins of Rakhi, while also capturing the new and unique ways Rakhi is being celebrated in contemporary times. In contemporary times, we don’t just celebrate with our immediate siblings, but also with our network of family and friends that we have created in our communities.
We celebrate individuals in our lives (boys or girls) who provide us with a sense of protection and security. This could mean siblings that are both girls, siblings that are both boys, only children, or children who identify as LGBTQIA+ and don’t identify with traditional gender norms. I wanted this story to highlight images of inclusivity and to represent and validate the experiences of all children who are celebrating this festival in the modern day and age. Through this story, children learn the importance of creating a community and feeling secure with not just their siblings but with their friends and other caring adults.
Shanti and the Knot of Protection also helps parents open up the conversation about what values they want their children to prioritize in our post-pandemic world and how to live a balanced life. In this story, Shanti’s parents die and she decides to rule her queendom based on the four values that her parents taught her: strength, curiosity, community, and security. In addition to highlighting the importance of relationships, this book also highlights the importance of balancing one’s life with the four domains of well-being: physical domain (strength), cognitive domain (curiosity), social domain (community), and emotional domain (security). These domains are all connected to one another and influence our overall well-being and happiness in life.
As parents, we want to be the North Star for our children and provide them with an inner compass to know what values are important and why. We also want them to know how to be resilient during difficult times. As Ann Landers states, “It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” Through this story, I hope parents can have important conversations with their children about prioritizing values that will contribute to their overall well-being, happiness, and resilience in their lives.
I first started writing it for submission to a competition with the Borough Press. I wasn’t sure what story I wanted to write because I felt obligated to write certain stories or write in a certain style. I pretty much got fed up and started questioning myself. When I put pen to paper and got serious, the story that came out was a story of grief not necessarily specific to my life. I knew I wanted it to be about a family going through grief for decades, and how grief can arrest and impact the family structure.
When you first started writing, which part of the story came out?
It was the very first chapter. The first three chapters of the book came naturally. What you read in the book is untouched from the first draft that I submitted. I knew it was about a family that was going through grief. I knew I wanted it to take place between Trinidad and Toronto because I was born and raised in Trinidad and lived in Toronto. I wanted that sort of cross-generational mixture of family in the book as well – to see how each generation dealt with grief.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I don’t think I knew. It’s just one of those things that you think is impossible, so there’s no point dreaming about it. But when I was a young girl in Trinidad, I imagined myself carrying a leather briefcase and I don’t know why, but I knew I was going somewhere important, and I had something important to do. I always loved writing, but the truth is people get in the way and they dissuade you. It’s all around you – that the arts is not a viable career and if you pursue it, you have a 95% chance of failure. But after working 10 office jobs in three years, I’m like, ‘I’m not happy,’ so this is actually the failure. I knew I needed change.
How do you navigate the space of being told that art is not a viable career, especially in the Indo Caribbean community?
Those challenges were around me all the time. It wasn’t even my family, but it even comes from friends and acquaintances. When you’re young, being an artist is hard, and you’re told there’s no point in doing it. I listened to people who said that, and got office jobs and did what everyone else was doing because apparently, that was the way to be happy. Five years passed by and I realized I wasn’t happy and I should have never listened to those people. I started writing. I started doing something that made me happy and treated it as a serious craft. I did not treat it as a hobby, but as something that was going to pave my path. I really worked in a tunneled vision. So I never told anybody what I was doing – I didn’t want to be dissuaded. I had to be my own champion. I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but back in 2012, I didn’t know about community.
Cassandra, the main character is a writer, like yourself. How much of Cassandra’s story is your story?
My family is very supportive of my writing and it took some time for them to get there. Like many families, they kind of saw it as a hobby. Once they saw that I got published, they took it more seriously. Now, they are supportive of my writing and I think in the book, Cassandra’s family is not that supportive. They just weren’t interested in her writing, which is why she didn’t talk about it. It is a little bit reflective of my own experience.
It wasn’t based on a true story. That is something I get asked often – a lot of people say ‘she’s Trinidad and you’re Trinidadian.’ The places I wrote about are from my memory, but the plot itself is fiction. I wanted to challenge myself to write something truly fictional. I grew up in a household of strong Trinidadian women. I wanted to write about strong Trinidadian women, the roles they play, their histories and their backgrounds. The characters aren’t necessarily based on anyone particular in my life. Overall, it was a joy to imagine and write it because each one of these characters are very different from the other.
The novel has nine major female characters and at most three major male characters. Why did you want to tell a female-driven story?
I grew up in a family of predominantly women, and most of my Caribbean friends also grew up in families of predominantly women. They really are, in my experience, our caretakers. For me, my family and my friends, our mothers are our worlds – we love and admire them. Family is their priority; raising their children is their priority. I wanted to write about Trinidadian women because I wanted to tell each of their stories. I want more Indo Caribbean and Caribbean women in fiction. I think anything that I write will always be about Caribbean women. I want to contribute to that field of literature. I have such enormous respect for them; all the sacrifices that they’ve gone through to bring their kids to new countries – some of them single moms. There’s nothing else I really want to write about, to be honest.
One of the other things I noticed was keen attention to the setting. How many of these precise details came from your own life, if any of them?
For Trinidad, a lot of it is based on my memory of the island and my home there. But I did have to turn to my family for specific details that I thought I may have imagined. Because I grew up mostly in Toronto. I was insecure about writing about Trinidad, so I went back to my mom and my family, who lived there for over 40 years. In terms of the house in Toronto, some of that is from my experience and some from imagination. I’ve written and talked about this book before, “The Poetics of Space” by Gaston Bachelard, which examines the psychology of houses. I tried to construct a house that would accommodate the psychology of the characters. If the house seems very detailed, it’s because I made it so, to accommodate certain secrets and people’s personalities.
Why explore the psychology of a house?
It’s not an original thought, but I think the way space is organized around us, or the way we organize ourselves in a space dictates physical behavior. If you’re in a wide open space and you don’t know anyone, that can seem intimidating. If you’re in a closed space, that can also seem intimidating. I tried to organize the space to give each character privacy from the other, but then once they were in a common room, it really changed the dynamics of their interactions.
What makes a family?
I think people who have been through challenges with you for years make a family. That’s not even a blood thing – I have friends that are like family because we’ve been through things together over decades. It’s people you’ve experienced highs and lows with, but managed to stick with throughout the years. But ‘family’ can also be people who you haven’t talked to for years, who you’ve had a fragmented relationship with. For those sorts of relationships, it can be an unhealthy loyalty or a wondering of what could have been.
The book doesn’t have a happily-ever-after ending. Why?
Not ending the story in a neat little package was very important to me. I think there’s a certain expectation in storytelling by readers that a story needs a conclusion. And, to me, this is not what actually happens in the real world. The reasons people read a book are different – some people are reading for escapism, others are to better understand cultures and other people – so it depends on the reader and what they’re looking for. In literary fiction, readers are more open to an inconclusive ending because literary fiction can take things to a darker, more serious place than other genres. If I wrapped up the story with a nice little bow, it would be untrue to what this family has gone through. I wanted to show how unsolved issues can pan out. I didn’t want to take the story from a sad beginning to a happy ending. Not all stories end happily.
What do you want readers to take away from “Wild Fires?”
I set out to write a story that had a universal theme. I wanted to feature a somewhat normal story with Caribbean characters. It wasn’t centered around race or indentureship because a lot of the Indo Caribbean literature that I’ve read has been – and rightly so. That’s where I learned about our history and our stories. But that was not a story that I wanted to tell first because it was not the story that was closest to my heart. When I started writing, I realized the story was really about grief. I wanted to show Caribbean women and Indo Trinidadian women, in a universal light. We are a result of these histories yet go through normal things like grief, secrets and family dysfunction.
Following the publication of “Wild Fires,” Jai is pursuing her Master’s at Oxford University as a Kellogg’s Scholar. While attending school, she’s looking to write a short story about Caribbean joy to contrast the dark themes of her debut novel and portray Caribbean women in unrepresented ways.
“Wild Fires” is available in Canada and the UK and will be available in the U.S. in Spring 2023.
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”