Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani: An In-Depth Look At a Misnomer

cover

I have been hesitant to write this, even though it’s been a while since I read the book. After all, Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani answers the call for diverse books. For so many American Indian kids, it is exciting to see themselves and parts of what seems to be an authentic India in a graphic novel. The book has done so very well that it is being made into a movie by Netflix. I am happy for the success that has come to its creator Nidhi Chanani.

Pashmina, is a graphic novel about, Priyanka, a teenage girl whose mother emigrated from India years ago, leaving her father behind. Priyanka is eager to learn about her father and her Indian heritage, but her mother refuses to discuss it. When Pri’ finds an old “pashmina”, she is magically transported to the India of her dreams whenever she dons it, and the shawl takes on the role of a sootradhaar (a person or object that is integral to the holding the narrative thread), as she finds out more about her mother and India while tracing the history of the shawl.

Even though I know that I am taking a pretty big risk by critiquing a very successful graphic novel, I feel compelled to stay true to the culture and the people the book and the shawl ought to and seeks to represent. Firstly, I feel deeply disappointed by the many inaccuracies in the book, especially since it’s written by an Indian American. I also feel disappointed by the lack of due diligence on the part of her agent, publisher and reviewers, not a single one of whom checked the book for authenticity. I find the lack of research rather perplexing in an age when a whole universe of information is no further away than a few taps of a keyboard. From the diversity panels I have attended, and posts by organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, I was under the impression that the tide was turning towards representing minority cultures in the US with greater accuracy, but that still seems quite a ways away.

In our desperate call for diverse books, let’s not forget the enormous responsibility we bear to finally change the misconceptions we seem to accept when it comes to non-eurocentric cultures, and truly speak for the silent populations implied in those books. Some of the visual representations of the places that Pri visits in India are also inaccurate. I am writing this because I feel obliged to transmit truths about India to my daughter and others Indian Americans like her, starting with why this book should never have been called Pashmina in the first place.

The bright red shawl unfurled on the cover is as far away from the exquisite and painstakingly made Pashmina as America is from India. Pashmina is accorded a GI (Geographical Indication) which is the equivalent of the appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC). Now, imagine this egregious error in a coming of age graphic novel called Champagne, where a French American girl is tracing her roots and finds that the grapes for Champagne are picked in Britanny, processed in Burgundy, and bottled in Paris. Would that pass muster? So why do we not accord the same respect and scrutiny to cultures of color?

Pashmina: GI.

The GI on a Pashmina

Livemint reports that “Pashmina, a very delicate cashmere wool from the pashmina goat found in the higher regions of Kashmir, has become a much exploited word”. Pashmina comes from the Persian word, “made from wool”. The wool comes from the same breed of goat that gives us cashmere. The soft underfur is seasonally shed and traditionally collected by local villagers in Kashmir – a conflict ridden state nestled in the high mountains of northern India. It is harvested by combing as opposed to shearing. All steps from combing (removing impurities and guard hair, and aligning fibres) and spinning, to weaving and finishing, are traditionally carried out by hand by highly specialized craftsmen and women based in and around Srinagar, Kashmir. Pashmina fibres are finer and thinner than cashmere and the quality and price of the finished shawl is dependent on the fineness of the fiber and the skill with which it is woven.

weaver

A Pasmina weaver and his traditional loom.

The US FTC doesn’t recognize the labeling term “Pashmina”. However, it does encourage manufacturers and sellers of products to explain what they mean by the term. I wish the author had also felt responsible to do so, given that it is an extremely prized and endangered product produced by highly skilled, underpaid, craftsmen who continue to create magic on their looms, despite often having lost family members in the conflict. Just Google/Wikipedia “Pashmina”. The wealth of information on why this product is not a synonym for any shawl will become more than apparent. 

I understand that setting a story for children against a highly complex decades old conflict was not the author’s intention. So, why name the story after a shawl that it just isn’t? Why take the reader through a long-winded tour of places that this shawl would, at best, be sold at? 

Not only does a story around a shawl that is a Pashmina completely ignore Kashmir, we run into further set of misrepresentations starting with Pri’s aunt saying that the Pashmina might be made of Sualkuchi silk. Sualkuchi is a town in Assam in the northeastern part of India. It is a center for manufacturing different types of Assamese silks (muga, pat and eri) that are eventually woven into gorgeous Mekhela-Chadors (for women) and Gamosas (for men). The patterns woven into them evoke the history and geography of Assam, which is pretty much the case with most Indian motifs. These silks, too, bear a GI.

 

 

However, in the book the Sualkuchi factory is in Nagpur in central India, and the shawl is still called a Pashmina.

 

In the book we travel from Nagpur to Warangal (known for its carpets) in Telangana in southern India (nearly 2500 kms away from where Pashminas are actually made) where the shawl is embroidered by Rohini Mitra, (a Bengali), who could (in the real India) potentially be a weaver of Taants, Jaamdaanis and Baluchuris in specific areas of Bengal or Bangladesh, but never of a Pashmina! These sarees, too, bear GIs.

The moment we start using proper nouns, not just in India, but my guess is any ancient culture, we need to start being specific, just as the moment Indians hear the last name  Mitra, they will know that he or she is Bengali.

Even the UNCTAD, WTO and UNESCO have argued that the crafts form a substantial part of a country’s cultural heritage and the skills related to the crafts affiliated to a community must be protected in the areas of their origin.

Map of places labels

The location of Pashmina production vs. the places the author assigns Pashmina to.

Outside of this primary misrepresentation, there are many others, such as women not being allowed to drive cars, the slums of Jadavpur, the visual depiction of New Market and more. Jadavpur is a middle to upper middle class neighborhood and home to a reputed university. One doesn’t have to go to Jadavpur to search for poverty in India. It hits you smack in the face the second you step out of the confines of your middle-class or affluent gated community.

There are American Indians, like Jhumpa Lahiri and Sanjay Patel, whose attention to detail and authenticity are truly remarkable. The Interpreter of Maladies takes me right back to summers spent at my grandma’s, and Sanjay Patel’s jaw-droppingly accurate depiction of the pitted stone statue in Sanjay’s Super Team looks like it’s been transported right out of a temple in India. In the Google documentary, Pedaling for Peace, producer Fhay Arceo, ensured that the edited version of the film was accurately subtitled by hiring a native Hindi speaker, even though the entire raw footage had been professionally subtitled. She even made sure that the Hindi script one can barely see as it floats around at lightning speed is accurate.

Why then did Nidhi Chanani (nor her agent or publisher or reviewers) not follow suit in starting with perhaps questioning the accuracy of shawl she depicts and whose name the book bears? 

Are we so desperately hungry that the creative pipeline and their gatekeepers feel justified in feeding us anything that simply confirms and reinforces the Indian stereotypes and familiarities of elephants, peacocks, samosas, paisley motifs, disenfranchised women and a few Indian Hindi words scattered throughout a book? Yes, we do need diverse books, but we also we need them to be true, so that children, like my daughter, don’t have to grow up with misinformation about their heritage.

 

“It takes a very long time to become young.” ~ Picasso

Reposting with a new image. This post is from 2014

Aditi Raychoudhury. My father readied for cremation as I bid my last goodbye. 2019 . Watercolors and Goauche.
Aditi Raychoudhury. My father readied for cremation as I bid my last goodbye. 2019 . Watercolors and Goauche.

When my father died last summer, so did my childhood. Pouf! Just like that!  UNEXPECTEDLY, in that very moment as I stared at the slowly forming words, ” Your father passed away”. To this, and, with this one person in the world, I was, and, could always be, a child – not just middle-aged progeny, whose achievements (or lack there of) one could gloat or bemoan about. And his very last birthday wish to me said just as much.

Last message from Baba. March 20, 2013.
Last birthday wish from Baba via Skype. March 20, 2013. (A rasgulla is a spherical Bengali dessert)

It recalled an incident from nearly forty years ago. I was around 2 years old, hovering around my brother, who had just started kindergarten, struggling to write his lower case ‘a’ in cursive. Fluttering about him, I boasted that it was so easy that even I could do it. Surprised, my parents asked, “How so?” “An ‘a’ is nothing (Yes, kids can be insensitive!). During my last birthday, this incident was still fresh in his mind.

And, just like that 2-year-old, who hadn’t transcended the plasticity of time inside his mind, I continued to make demands long after I had left home. In the US, it was for the things that were almost impossible to find outside of Bengal – Gobindo Bhog Chaal (an incredibly fine-grained fragrant rice), Shona Moongeyr Daal (fine grained gold colored mung bean lentils), Moori (Bengali puffed rice), Mukhorochok (a sweet, salty, and sour snack mix) and Mokaibari tea. I knew that despite his failing health, and limited mobility, he would never fail me. And, sure as ever, he would arrive, with these common Bengali treats, packed in (and sometimes, disastrously strewn all over) his suitcase. Along with them, would also arrive a few banal trinkets that weren’t special to anybody, but me.

When he died last year, 16 years after my mother did, not only did I become a middle-aged orphan – but, I also lost that last refuge where I could always be a child.

That child who led a simple life, in a simple town, in a simpler time. That child who spent most of her afternoons reading, drawing, chasing butterflies, climbing trees, eating guavas, and, running around the neighborhood sucking nectar out of wild flowers. That child, who stared, with wondrous rapture at the birds flying across a bright fuschia sky, and, knew that it was time to wander her way back home from the hills behind her house, where she had just whiled away many happy hours. That child whose heart burnt just as brightly as that spotless evening sky.

As a parent to a pre-schooler, I know that it may be many years before I can shrug-off the self-generated urge to stress over school, organize my space to mimic an IKEA display, and make my meals look like they had just jumped out of the pages of Vegetarian Times, and release my heart instead, to long afternoons amidst the wild flowers of California, and, sink my feet into the wet ocean sand.

On the other hand, as a parent to a pre-schooler, it might just be more possible than ever to relive those childhood wonders of peering through grass, looking for snails, squeezing my eyes as the ocean surf hits my face, and dissolving into laughter at the first lick of ice-cream on a hot day.

While I no longer draw with the passion and freedom that I did as a child, my daughter’s free forms lead me to where I want to be.

Here are some of the things she drew when she was a little over two years old.

Inika Moni RayMukerji. Plane. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Plane. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Whale. January 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Whale. January 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Pig. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Helicopter. 2013. Crayons on Paper
Inika Moni RayMukerji. Helicopter. 2013. Crayons on Paper

Picasso had said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” May be by the time she is my age,  I will learn to draw and laugh like her again. 

 

 

 

Celebrate Pride

 

These 12″ x 12″ prints are now available for purchase from my store till the end of June to celebrate #pridemonth… Orders fulfil pretty quickly, so you can carry it to your local pride weekend celebrations #pride2018#loveisloveislove #celebratelove #celebratepride

for the ladies:

http://www.etsy.com/listing/607501762/love-is-love-is-love-f

Aditi Raychoudhury. Love is Love is Love. 2018. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Love is Love is Love. 2018. Adobe Illustrator.

15 X 15 Gay Pride female 2 2018 clean- ZOOM

for the men:

http://www.etsy.com/listing/607501762/love-is-love-is-love-m

15 X 15 Gay Pride male 2018 - cleaned up-01
Aditi Raychoudhury. Love is Love is Love. 2018. Adobe Illustrator

15 X 15 Gay Pride male 2018 - Zoom

 

Love is Love is Love

Just a reminder that #loveisloveislove not just in the beautiful month of June, but all year round. Support the #LGBT community and ask Congress to pass the Equality Act, which would update our civil rights laws to provide all people with full protection from discrimination. #LGBTPrideMonth

Aditi Raychoudhury. Love is Love is Love. 2018. Adobe Illustrator
Aditi Raychoudhury. Love is Love is Love. 2018. Adobe Illustrator
15 X 15 Gay Pride male 2018 - cleaned up-01
Aditi Raychoudhury. Love is Love is Love. 2018. Adobe Illustrator

The United Faces of America in Layers

Aditi Raychoudhury. United Faces of America in Layers. 2018.
Aditi Raychoudhury. United Faces of America in Layers. 2018.

This GIF captures a bit of how each color is painstakingly layered one at a time to create the final image. That is more than 400 pulls for an edition of 100 prints. Anybody who screenprints takes it on for the love of it. Its truly backbreaking work.

You can pre-order this ltd edition #screenprint ed #poster of #theunitedfacesofamerica from https://lunaspace.org. Part of the proceeds will go to International Rescue Committee and Sister District Project . Big thank you to those who already pre-ordered.

Twenty years ago today

 

We observed my mother’s Shraddha. That day is blurry but I am sure that we blindly went through the rituals that had been codified more than two thousand years ago.

Aditi Raychoudhury. And he wept and he wept and he wept. 2018. Watercolors.
Aditi Raychoudhury. And he wept and he wept and he wept. 2018. Watercolors.
Aditi Raychoudhury. And he wept and he wept and he wept. 2018. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. And he wept and he wept and he wept. 2018. Pencil on Paper.

What is not blurry is the day leading up to her death.

Her sprightly chatter had fallen into near silence during the week leading up to her death.

My father had bathed and changed her, just like he had done every noon since the time she had gotten too weak to do it herself.

I had taken to brushing her thick long black hair. I liked how it felt wet, cool and heavy in my hands.

Like the past few weeks, her head rested heavy on her hand. Her eyes – sad, soft, downcast and faraway, even though we were sitting right in front of the mirror she had used to energetically adorn herself with a little gold and sindoor for about 32 years.

“কি ভাবছ, মা?” (What are you thinking about, Ma?)

“ধুত, কি আবার?” (Oof! What else?)

she replied distantly and irritably.

I loosely braided her hair even though her voice stung. Did she know that was going to die?

She ate a bit and lay down to rest.

I laid down beside her and stroked her still spotless, golden, beautiful back. I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t love stroking her back.

She was falling off to sleep.

Suddenly, she sprang up to sitting on the edge of her bed, her words tumbling rapidly into one another as she desperately tried to keep pace with her sudden burst of delirium.

“Can you hear them?”, she gasped.

“Hear what, Ma?”

“Those bells… the evening bells. Can’t you hear them? They have started to practice their dance. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you there, practising with them?”

“What bells? What dance, Ma?”

“There! There! Can’t you see them?” pointing to a corner of the room.

“Ma! There’s nobody there!” I was beginning to get very frightened as I looked into a pair of eyes that I could no longer recognize.

They looked manic, puzzled. Why couldn’t I see what she could see? She dropped her arm,  let out a deep sigh and fell into disappointed silence.

For twelve years of my life, I had practiced dancing every evening. It was evening alright. But those practice sessions were long gone.

As my husband and brother frantically tried to get a hold of her doctor for advice, my father and I sat next to her, not knowing what was to come.

Little did we know that we would be watching death unfold.

Perhaps it was an illusion created by the emotional center of my otherwise pretty logical brain, but it wasn’t like she was alive one moment and dead the next. It felt like her life had become into its own being and was wrestling to set itself free from its physical binds.

How long did that last? A few minutes? A few hours? We weren’t scientists trying to study death with a stop clock. We were watching my mother die, and it felt like a really long time.

Strangely enough, the closest thing I can compare it to is birthing. Just as time, space and cognition collapse into one incomprehensible dimension when a baby is on its way to be born, this was no different.

Just like a baby forcefully and determinedly squirms and twists its way through the birth canal in no predictable pattern till the head, shoulders and the rest of her body slithers out into one slimy, bloody mess and a loud wail, my dying mother’s life was corkscrewing its way out through her death canal, a bit at a time to no set rhythm.

Like a baby unregrettably leaves the womb that had kept her alive for nine months, my mother’s life finally broke free from the body that had nurtured it for 51 years, leaving behind slightly parted lips, a stony blank stare, and a loud wail – my father’s, ” আর নেই রে! তোর মা চলে গেছে!” (She is no more! Your mother has left us) as he continued to stroke her limp but still warm shell of a body.

They had been married for 32 years. It had been arranged. They hadn’t met till their wedding day, yet it is the best marriage that I know of.


 

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Limited Edition prints of THE UNITED FACES OF AMERICA is now available for PRE-ORDER

If you downloaded THE UNITED FACES OF AMERICA for the Women’s March, I hope that you carried it with pride. I am now taking pre-orders for a limited edition, signed and numbered 3-color screen printed version of the poster from my Etsy Store. The first 20 orders are also in for a special surprise!

Basic CMYK

We, the United Faces of America, are stronger than hate, and will uphold justice and human rights for all. Here we are carrying our message in front of the courthouse on Women’s March day.

Oakland Women's March 2018.
Oakland Women’s March 2018.

 

Size: 16 in. x 20 in. Signed and numbered edition of 100 prints.

Order yours today!

Peace,

Aditi

Images for Women’s March 2018

Yesterday, a friend asked me for a digital image of the B+W screenprinted poster I had made as part of Agitprop. Here it is in 11 x 14.

Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (B+W). 2017.
Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (B+W). 2017.

 

And, if you want to print a colored-one – here it is.

Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (Color). 2017.
Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (Color). 2017.

 

Women’s March. January 20, 2018

First, we marched. Now, are you ready to run? Print this 11 x 14 image of  The United Faces of America for Women’s March 2018  and print it off your printer. Take it to the streets and claim Justice and Equality for All ! Please spread the word. Thank you!

Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (Color). 2017.
Aditi Raychoudhury. The United Faces of America (Color). 2017.

 

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