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?
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.
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.
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.