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An Asian dilemma

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November 29, 2003 17:48 IST

The malicious canard about the fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger and the popular chat show host Oprah Winfrey that has spread from America to Europe via the Internet is significant to me for a reason that has nothing to do with these two distinguished personalities or the attempt to smear them.

To my mind, whoever invented the baseless story had a shrewd insight into the dynamics of the colour question and the subliminal interaction between whites and non-whites.

I was again reminded of these complexities during a flight earlier this week from London to Bangkok. Leafing though the pages of the in-flight duty free catalogue, I chanced upon an advertisement for Kipling bags and other accessories.

It was not just the label that caught my attention. What was even more compelling was the dot on the second "i" in Kipling. It was formed by the end of the tail of a small animal in silhouette that I think is a monkey.

Those who recall the thoroughly enjoyable magic and mystery of The Jungle Book cannot miss the symbolism. In Rudyard Kipling's imagination, the bandar log -- monkey folk -- who overran the ruined city in the jungle and were always about to do great things but did nothing save chatter were the Asian inheritors of Britain's great imperial creation.

He meant Indians but the definition would now also include Africans, Caribbeans and Chinese who are in charge of former colonies. The Jungle Book does not cease to be a great work of literature because of the author's bias but an iota of self-respect among the victims of that bias would surely persuade them to be more discriminating about swallowing Kipling's insulting message hook, line and sinker.

Ironically, the Japanese invented the Kipling label. They have no experience of British colonialism and little of English literature. But they are high on Western fashion and no doubt recognised the market value of the brand name. No doubt, too, as "honorary whites", the Japanese think they are immune to racial slurs.

BritishIndia (sic) is another such brand that exploits what is called colonial chic. Its creator is a Malaysian Chinese, and BritishIndia shops in Singapore wallow abjectly in all the secondhand memorabilia of the Raj.

At this point I must explain the Hilfiger-Winfrey controversy without in any way supporting the mischievous story that I received on the day of the horrendous bloodshed in Istanbul. Terrorism knows no borders, but with Islamic organisations claiming responsibility for targeting British institutions, it was impossible to miss the racist purpose of the carnage. That made the whole business even more poignant.

The invention is that Hilfiger supposedly said that if he had known that African- Americans, Hispanics, Jews and Asians were going to buy his clothes, he would not have made them so nice. "I wish these people would NOT buy my clothes, as they are made for upper class white people." So, Oprah Winfrey invited him to be her guest on the show, asked if the statement about race was true, and when he replied, "Yes", at once ordered him to leave her show.

Of course, it didn't happen. Hilfiger never said anything of the kind. He did not appear in Winfrey's show. Therefore, she could not have asked any such question, and, naturally, there was no eviction. But it could have, not because of Hilfiger, but because so many non-whites invite ridicule with their slavish imitation.

A Londoner asked me the other day why so many Indian women are beginning to dye their hair brown. "Don't they realise the black sheen is far more attractive?" What could I answer? Why do Japanese have eye straightening operations, Chinese Singaporeans bleach their hair blonde or American Blacks spend money trying to straighten out their curls?

I go back to Bali and the 2002 explosion in which more than 202 people were killed. The local Balinese I spoke to profoundly regretted the carnage but only because it staunched the flow of tourist dollars.

They had no views on the crime because the only locals allowed to cross the threshold of places like the Sari night club were servants and the escorted guests, known contemptuously throughout the Far East as Sarong Party Girls. The Balinese were not bitter, but Javanese nationalists, already fired with religious zeal, may have been.

It is unfashionable to talk of race discrimination, but its trigger role in politics deserves examination. Many an Asian leader might never have been roused to patriotic fervour if he had not been blackballed by a club or turned away by a restaurant.

Being ejected from a first class railway carriage in South Africa marked a crucial stage in Mahatma Gandhi's evolution. Sensitive to such factors, the government helped up the Calcutta Club in 1907 for British and Indians of a certain status to mix on an equal footing in what was then India's capital.

Such self-conscious gestures would be counter-productive today. But that does not mean treating Western idiom and institutions as the touchstone of our personal values.

Why can't Asians evolve their own styles and fashions instead of leaving it to a Parisian couturier to design the Nehru jacket? As for copycats, I am reminded of James Baldwin, the black American writer, saying in the introduction to his play, Blues for Mr Charlie, in which a young black is murdered by a white storeowner in a Southern town, "We have a duty to try to understand this wretched man."

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Sunanda K Datta Ray