Dear Didi…

A Letter to Mississippi Masala director Mira Nair
By Yasmin Ladha

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This letter is gup-shup, yak-yak all from my end. This is not a review for Cinemascope. But I admit, there is a long, long line-up in Calgary, winding past the Kensington Building. Plaza's doors to open in another half an hour. Lot of whites in the crowded line-up (they are everywhere) but my eyes gawk at Indian housewives in starched summer saris, resembling Mina's Aunty (Chachi? Maami? Who is she?) who wants to grasp all toilet paper on sale. When Mina glares at her, I laugh, and Shani next to me laughs, and Shelina next to her, laughs. Our two rows bunched together, laugh. (I'll tell you about the two rows in a bit). Because we of the two rows often conduct Mina's sulky stance, here, out West. She has brought her Aunty (chaffingly, like us, when asked to run an errand by elders) to the supermarket to purchase American cartfuls of homo milk for the wedding mithai. Didi, I wish there is more of the Aunty in the film. I just know this Aunty makes gor keri and lemon pickle in the four o'clock Mississippi sun when she has finished her regular chores. (She would never buy Patak's sealed pickles. Just know).

Back to the line-up outside the Plaza in Calgary:

An Indian housewife has slits in her heels indifferent as brown thread, and University women with thick cropped hair, oxidized silver bangles, shorts, no lipstick, white, white teeth. Mummy is in the line-up, too (in East Africa, we never called her 'Mum'), in her mid-length cotton dress and bob-cut hair. Your Mina calls her mum 'Maa.' Sounds lyrical—she would also have called her 'Mummy.' It sits on the character you try to flesh out: in Kampala, Uganda, their drawing room (we called it 'sitting room' in East Africa) is lampy-western, African carvings and rugs (a child in such a family would call her mother 'Mummy.' Mina calls her African Uncle, 'Uncle'—western style. I forget what Mina calls her father—Papa?).

Didi, should I tell you first that I saw Mississippi Masala in Vancouver, or discuss the strangeness I felt when Mina kisses her little Ugandan playmate. Her playmate who is their servant's child. Didi, let's celebrate first!

Even now, I hear Lakshman Subramaniam in my ears, over the oceans, as the maps of the continents move across the screen. (Cornily, I want to use the word 'migrate' instead of 'move'). On the red ply screen, names of countries in yellow. Is this true? Or my imagination? Red and yellow are auspicious colours, my colours, from Ganges India, carried to East Africa, carried to Canada. Didi, did you carry them to America? It is verandah-warm in the cinema. Shani clutches my hand. We are moving with you, Didi. This is our film. This is our mehfil. And snatches of ghazals, for our ears only.

Sarakti jaye hat rukh se nagab
ahista, ahista

Let me tell you of our two rows of seats filled by Indian yaaro from all over: Shani's Caribbean, Shelina and I are from Tanzania, which is not as ritzy as Kenya, or as fertile as Uganda, but we share East Africa. Ashok born in Bhopal but never seen Bhopal. (Didi, these "buts" are tender hyphens). Today, in Vancouver, it is our father's cinema. There is a couple, a white man and a Japanese woman who sit in front of us.

Ashok's seats are taken! No way! I am timid (except on paper). Not Shelina (she runs a business on Granville Street, but I am partial to her long Kashmiri nose), she tells them the seats are reserved (in Vancouver, Ashok of Bhopal, who lives in Calgary, is always delayed at the Paan ki Shop on Main Street. He likes a good spread of the chalky stuff and nugget betel pieces. Definitely none of the sweet, red paste). The Japanese woman gets up, miffed (typical Asian or African reaction). The man smiles affably-yoor, these Whites grin affably in an Indian ghetto: Indira Gandhi International Airport, mehfil gathering, or film. Today, it is our father's cinema.

Didi, when I was young, maybe eleven, my grandparents moved to Canada. This was my last visit to Dodoma in the interior of Tanzania where I did my primary school. One of our oldest servants, Mzee Juma, say me on the street. It was Idd and I was carrying a tray of mithai to a friend's home. He was with another black man. I waited form him. He stroked my forehead. Didn't say a word. His fingers were rough from cutting, peeling, washing, ironing, lifting, farming, building. His African friend grinned. Another sly way an African manages to touch an Indian. Didi, so creamily little Mina kisses her Black Ugandan friend. Didi, such cinema satisfaction.

In 1972
an African touched my breast
I walk the street
with hunched shoulders.

Between Asians and Africans in East Africa, there was no innocence. Your sunniness isn't agreeable to me. Didi, friendships like the one between Mina's father and his African friend may have been possible. You should have interrogated, unpacked and further. Unpacked to heal instead of consumptive cinema. Then I could have retrieved Kiswahili words like polé (sorry).

Soft Kiswahili like
polé I have exiled
You say polé to a leader in jail,
to a young child
whose wobbly feet can't stand alone.

Perhaps then I could have licked Mina's creamy kiss because such friendships didn't occur in my ordinary Indian home. Because even as I was four (younger than Mina?) I knew that Africa was for the Africans. Didi, being an outsider, you have done an outsider's thing— romanticized the diaspora of Asians from Uganda.

There is another scene you skirt around but don't unpack. I am talking about the embrace between Mina's mother and their African friend. It must have happened for the first time between them like it happens for the first time when Mzee Juma touches my forehead on Idd. What occurs between Mina's mother and their friend is too fast, too quick. Ahista, Ahista, Didi. Slow, slowly, Didi. Like the veil in the snatched ghazal: this pordoh/curtain descends from the face (Sarakti haye hai rukh se nagab) s-l-o-w-l-y. It never just slides off.

To my history: we are crossing the border. From Kenya into Tanzania. The Black Tanzanian inspector smiles. It is about two in the morning. My mother in ayellow sari, travelling without a man, travelling with her two children. The inspector looks at her breasts. As she fills out the declaration form, her pallauy slips. She asks for a paper clip, and the inspector takes the paper clip pot with both hands (sign of respect) and holds it close to her breast. Smiles. An East Indian woman's harassment by a Black man in East Africa. In the seventies there is a lot of cornering. Wild running down the street. Didi, ban the prescriptive embrace between Mina's mother and their Black friend. Oh, the brown-black colour is there...The White jati caste (my mother asks do I have to be so rude?) would probably smile affable and say, "So what was the problem?" Didi, such an enormous chunkof history/my flesh you abort: an Indian woman (even if she wears a European cotton frock) is like a Brahmin, any other man besides her husband, an untouchable. And you exhibit an Indian woman clasping a Black man, chest to breast. My mother insists there is an awkwardness conveyed in the scene. She is satisfied. (Didi, here in the West, mother's generation is easily satisfied. Grateful). I say, ahista, ahista, Didi.

In film analysis, my teacher slices things apart. Colloquially, she is sharp as a kukri. She says that Nair (but I call you Didi) pulls the rug from under our feet when Mina tells Demetrius, the morning after that she has something to tell him. Allah! She tells him it's her birthday! When us Indian women want to find out whether she is a virgin or not! Pulling the rug from under our feet is urban film direction, a Western quick step; I am a rustic and want to know how Mina gets birth control pills (I never go to an Indian doctor for pills) or does she pick up condoms from the hotel. How? When? Show us Mina, Didi. Mina is expert at lovemaking in comparison to her goofy male cousin. Fascinating! Dig, dig, digging Mina, yes, that's what I want. (Part of Mina exists in many South Asian women. I am one of them. So Didi, you can't say that this is your film, not ours!)

From what is shown of her family, the concept of virginity must be fused to her jugular vein shame. Where did I get this from, you ask, Didi? Yaar/friend/Didi/sister, we are talking about Indian shame, a compounded mass of woman shame, family shame and tribal shame. Then there are valves like Sita purity and husband is Godji—these tighten the hymen until the proper time of henna, wet as Uganda soil, doctor-grooms, tycoon-grooms, and sweet mithais, of course.

Didi, Mina and her lover's heavy kisses are spitty and wonderful, but their lovemaking, on a Hollywood bed. But in true Indian filmi-style, out of the blue, Mina's red chunni is draped around her when she phones her mother to say that she is going away with Demetrius (this rustic loved the detail!). Oh, and you should have unpacked the hair-scenes. Yes, there is the scene when Mina's mother gives her a hair massage as they gup-shup about Mr. Hand-Picked groom. But on the beach, Didi, on the beach, Mina does a jura with a flick of her palm. I want to celebrate this motion not a single exotic detail, but repeated many times because it is vernacularly Indian. Indian women do this all the time when talking to their wohi (or when they are in a huff with their wohi). You may argue, Didiji, that Mina isn't from India, that she wouldn't think of her beau as wohi. Really Didi, you are an outsider to East Africa! My Didiji! I don't want to enter into a bahez-argument with you, and what the hell, I am partial to juras! Moreover, I confess that I think of my'him'as wohi even though I am from East Africa. That's the Indian dilemma. Was fed on Sita, Draupadi, fiery Bengali heroines through the umbilical cord of my second generation East African mother.

Why did you make this film first for the White-jati? If you had made this film for me, an East African homing in Canada, I would have asked you to take me to a bed where love is made Indian East African istyle. Wonder if there is such a thing? I am her jhumka (she has short liberated hair in Mississippi). Jai and his wife clink glasses in her liquor store (from housewife in Kampala to running a liquor store in Mississippi). Husband's pillar. I have witnessed such East African women many times.

husband gone to town again
to fetch goods and urban pleasures
(as urban pleasures anywhere)
she sits in her duka
interior of the forest
unmarked in history
braver than Livingstone, Stanley et al
Kichri pot on fire, baby in box
flour, Vicks, oil, blankets, lanterns, Aspro

My salaams to these women. I clink glasses with them. Salut! But why didn't your push on Jai and his wife's actual sexuality? I am keen to know how my parents' generation in East Africa made love. In India, there is the mother-in-law who instructs daughter-in-law to take a glass of milk to her'him.' But in East Africa, what love words or prods did my parents use? Did my mother wear (private) jhumkas on such days? I want this nearness opened. I dream it must be moist yet gauzy like a mosquito net.

But Mina and her wohi is the hot masala theme. On my way to Delhi this time, I briefly stay in London, where I am invited to dinner at my Aunty's (never Aunt) friend's home. Her daughter, born in London, an Indian Londoner. The daughter draws up her knees dreamily at the romance in the film (of course between Mina and Demetrius) and says to me, it is a sunny film. I choke on my mishkaki (barbequed beef East African way). But I cannot blame her, Didi. Mina's T-shirt as it slides up her loinic belly and Demetrius who is first class Mr. White in a Black skin—yes, yes, I witnessed fried chicken and corn on the cob in this Hollywood masala.

Didi, now I will waffle all over the place. Raw thoughts, processed thoughts, whatever comes to mind. So waffle with me as I heat unformed thoughts: Mina washes toilets (bright yellow gloves), her low cut tribal cholis, frisky miniskirts, ornis, and girdle-belts brim with confidence, security. Personally I know that the psyche of Asians from East Africa has taken years and years to repair and they (Mina's family have not left Uganda—Mina's father writes demanding letters to the Government of Uganda for the return of his property). In light of unforgotten Kampala, how can Mina fall in love with a Black man so effortlessly (even though he is a black-American?) Can she shift so soundly? Does she not remember her mother's harassment by Ugandan soldiers on the day they leave Kampala and ironically what's playing on her cassette player is Mukesh's: "my shoes are from Japan, trousers from England, hat from Russia, but my heart remains Indian." (Bad translation, Didi, sorry).

For a person who is deeply tied to her family, wounded as deeply as they are (in fact this is Mina's personal landscape), her loyalty to Demetrius shifts fatafat, quick-quick, or a proverb in Kiswahili, bandera ufata upepo (flag follows the wind). Didi, bring in the melting pot, or as we Indians say, even bring in the father of melting pots, Indians just don't melt that easy. Wrench the real Mina out (not the imagined one). Show her conflict and I will accept her choice. Portraying a Mina who only seethes under the skin won't do. Actually, I consider this another form of Hollywood re-domination, ie. a hot-headed heroine, foreign to an India-Mississippi (music parties, videos, saris, arranged marriages, fair brides). Didi, you are portraying an Indian girl with a western vision of her Indian world. This is the dye of a mainstream-wallah. This is how a western character would grasp my world. Leave everything and ride off into the sunset, like Mina does. Mina is westernized (I am you) but not western (but am also not you). I wanted my Ugandan film to be interrogative (Mina's sticky-tribal Indian blood; her woman identity out of her political and cultural history; Mina who is her parents' protector/soldier).

Didi, your film is affable and sunny. Your Uganda, prescriptive. You subject me to Hollywood's dorshon-glory.

Love, Yasmin

P.S. Didi, after the 15th, I'll be in Calgary. So drop ey a line in Calgary. I hear M. Masala will be on at the Plaza again in October. Popular film.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Yasmin Ladha
Yasmin Ladha is a writer currently homing in Calgary. Her book, Lion's Granddaughter and Other Stories, will be published by NeWest Press in the fall of 1992.
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