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.

 

Mimi, the Little Umbrella

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“In a very busy town…

A Very Busy Town. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.
A Very Busy Town. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.

On a very busy street…

2 City Street Store 29 BZ st lighter file_BZ st1
A Very Busy Street. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.

Was a very busy umbrella store.

A Very Busy Umbrella Store. 2016. Adobe Illustrator.
A Very Busy Umbrella Store. 2017. Adobe Illustrator.

At the very back of this umbrella store, lived a little umbrella named Mimi. But, Mimi wasn’t fancy at all… in fact, she was just a plain black umbrella. But Mimi had a secret, which, made her special… very special indeed.

Mimi. Adobe Illustrator.
Mimi. 2017. Adobe Illustrator.
Town, Street, Store, Mimi Panoramic. 2017. Adobe Illustrator.
Town, Street, Store, Mimi Panoramic. 2017. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. On a Very Bury. Busy Town, Busy Street, Busy Store, Mimi Panoramic. 2015. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. On a Very Bury. Busy Town, Busy Street, Busy Store, Mimi Panoramic. 2015. Adobe Illustrator.

On rainy days, lots of people came into the umbrella store to buy, well …umbrellas! And the shopkeeper would always show them his fanciest umbrellas”….

….”But, the shopkeeper never showed plain little Mimi to anyone… and no one even asked for her.
So, she just lived quietly at the back of the store, waiting for the right person to come along.”….

Does the right person come along? Does Mimi ever get to leave the store? What made Mimi special? What is her SECRET?

I am not telling till some one publishes this story… till then.. here are some illustrations/sketches of work in progress.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Very Busy Street. 2014. Pencil on Tracing.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Very Busy Street. 2014. Pencil on Tracing.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Busy Little Umbrella Store (With Baskets). 2014. Adobe Illustrator CS5.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Busy Little Umbrella Store (With Baskets). 2014. Adobe Illustrator CS5.
Busy Little Umbrella Store
Aditi Raychoudhury. Busy Little Umbrella Store. 2013. Pencil.

Character sketches –

Aditi Raychoudhury. Blue Boy with Mamma. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Blue Boy with Mamma. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Blue Boy with Mamma. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Blue Boy with Mamma. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Dad with Stroller and Runaway Girl. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Dad with Stroller and Runaway Girl. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Close-up of Runaway Girl. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Close-up of Runaway Girl. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Close-up of Dad. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Close-up of Dad. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Runaway Girl. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Runaway Girl. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Couple Behind Counter. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Couple Behind Counter. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Couple Behind Counter. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Couple Behind Counter. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Toddler Girl with Trench Coat Mamma. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Toddler Girl with Trench Coat Mamma. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Toddler Girl with Trench Coat Mamma (Refined). 2013. Blue Pencil on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Toddler Girl with Trench Coat Mamma (Refined). 2013. Blue Pencil on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Toddler Girl with Trench Coat Mamma. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Toddler Girl with Trench Coat Mamma. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Exiting Mamma with Runaway Son. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Exiting Mamma with Runaway Son. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Exiting Mamma with Runaway Son. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Exiting Mamma with Runaway Son. 2013. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Tall Man With Umbrella. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Tall Man With Umbrella. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Tall man with Umbrella. 2013. Adobe Illustrator CS5.
Tall man with Umbrella. 2013. Adobe Illustrator CS5.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Trio. 2013. Adobe Illustrator CS5.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Trio. 2013. Adobe Illustrator CS5.
Trio. 2013. Pencil.
Trio. 2013. Pencil.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Panta Girl with Father. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Panta Girl with Father. 2013. Adobe Illustrator.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Pants Girl with Father. 2013. Pencil.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Pants Girl with Father. 2013. Pencil.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Pants Girl's Father. 2013. Pencil.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Pants Girl’s Father. 2013. Pencil.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Pants Girl. 2013. Pencil.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Smarty Pants Girl. 2013. Pencil.

The Bomb and The General V2.2009

Aditi Raychoudhury. Bushes. 2009. 6" x 4". Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Bushes. 2009. 6″ x 4″. Adobe Illustrator CS.

The original ‘The Bomb and the General’ is a delightfully optimistic, anti-war children’s book – written by Umberto Eco (The Name of The Rose), and brilliantly illustrated by Eugenio Carmi. It was published in 1989 –

In Italian: By Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, Bompiani, Sonzogno, Etas S.p.A.;
and
In English: By Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Inspired by the original story, this version retains some of the original text (italicized), and maintains a similar naïveté to create an anti-war message for children. For adults, its a more complex tale about hegemony and insular faith.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty. Adobe Illustrator CS. 2009.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Green). 2009. 22″ x 11″. Adobe Illustrator CS.

The General of our story enjoys a life of ease and gluttony, till he is compelled to seek God, during a moment of personal crisis. This pivotal encounter awakens in him an unshakable passion for God’s word. But his myopic obsession with the minutiae of God’s message clouds its original intent, and provokes an ominous future. Will his country slumber on through the impending doom or will they arise to reclaim their right in a peaceful world?

Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Pink). 2008. 17" x 14". Colored Pencils on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Pink). 2009. 17″ x 14″. Colored Pencils on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Primary Colors). 2009. 17" x 14". Colored Pencils on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Primary Colors). 2009. 17″ x 14″. Colored Pencils on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Orange). 2009. 17" x 14". Colored Pencils on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Orange). 2009. 17″ x 14″. Colored Pencils on Tracing Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Orange). 2009. 17" x 14". Gouache on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Land of Plenty (In Orange). 2009. 17″ x 14″. Gouache on Paper.

The Wicked Dragon of Pelmel

Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Forest Fire. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.

Synopsis:

‘The Wicked Dragon of Pelmel’ is a story about the addictive nature of power, and its potential to devastate, or, create. When the dragon accidentally discovers his ability to breathe fire, he uses it to terrorize the little creatures of Pelmel Forest. Alarmed by this sudden occurence, these forest creatures get all riled up to hunt down this horrible monster. When they do, they are in for a big surprise! Not only is the dragon sleeping quietly, but looks anything but the terrible monster they had imagined him to be. So they promptly include him in their circle of friendship. Will this innocuous invitation beget the scorching heat of his breath, or the gentle warmth of friendship?

Aditi Raychoudhury. Wicked Dragon. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Wicked Dragon. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.

There was a wicked dragon
And so wicked was he..
That every night
When all slept tight
He went on a burning spree..
…….
“Whoo hooo, whoo hoooooo,
Has lost his grace utter-ly?
What can I do?
About this hullabaloo –
It wakes my chicks up so early!

Aditi Raychoudhury. Mama Owl. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Mama Owl. 2009. Adobe Illustrator CS.