Romanticizing the regressive

A few months ago I happened to watch the film Meet the Patels. Though you do meet all the “Patels”, the film centers around the love life, or lack thereof, of the actor Ravi Patel.

Filmed by his sister, the documentary predates Patel’s current modest fame by many years (he has a small recurring role in Aziz Ansari’s Master of None). As his life has changed in many ways, perhaps his views and outlook have too. The comments I’m making in this post are not about Ravi Patel, but rather about the views he expressed many years ago in this documentary at a particular point in his life, and how it reflects a thread of South Asian American nostalgia and romanticism of our cultural roots.

Like many young Indian Americans Patel and his sister grew up between worlds. Their parents arrived in the United States among the very first wave of Indian immigrants, which today makes them somewhat unique, as there has been a huge migration since the 1990s from India due to the H-1B visa program. At one point the matriarch of the small American Patel clan bemoans how Americanized her children are compared to many other Indian Americans, who arrived later, when various South Asian American communities were more mature.

But Ravi and his sister are not entirely Americanized. Or they weren’t. Both avoided the conventional dating rituals of American life deep into their 20s, and as of filming Meet the Patels Ravi had had only one girlfriend, Audrey. Attractive, and depicted as level-headed and kind, on paper Audrey seems to have been the perfect girlfriend. But there was a major problem with her biodata: Audrey is a white American.

Eventually Ravi broke up with Audrey because of his confusions as to what he wanted in his life, and whether she belonged in it. Did he want what all his friends had? The American dream of love and marriage. Or, did he want what his parents had? An Indian arranged marriage with commonalities of culture.

But there is more to the Patels than just an Indian arranged marriage. Ravi Patel’s parents want him to marry someone from the same subcaste of Patels from the region of Gujarat that they come from. This is entirely typical of Indian culture. But it is rather peculiar in an American context. Though in some ways Ravi finds this all strange, some part of him also entertains the idea that his parents have a mutual comfort, a cultural identity, which he envies. At one point he goes back to Gujarat to a celebration of his people, his subcaste of Patels, and he looks around at wonderment at the safety and security of being among his his kith and kin. A sense of belong clearly has come over him.

As far back as Herodotus Indian society seems to have been characterized by caste. Genetically the castes, and more precisely jatis, are very distinct. And their persistence on the Indian scene suggest some level of functional utility.

Realistically Ravi could never recreate what he felt in Gujarat in the United States because such a community does not truly exist. Yes, there is kinship among Patels, as recounted by stories about Ravi and his family on the road, staying at Indian owned motels. But in the United States the Patels are a Diaspora, an archipelago of families scattered across the 50 states.

The romantic notions that Ravi airs in Meet the Patels about group solidarity, and cultural affinity of the sort his parents have, would seem creepy and disturbing if you posited it in the context of an upper middle class WASP from New England. But the strong group cohesion evident among the Patels of Gujarat, and many Indian communities, also generates as a byproduct the sort of exclusion illustrated in the 1970 film Love Story.

And the exclusionary tendencies of middle class Gujaratis is reflected in part on the social-political nature of the state of Gujarat. It is in this state that the current prime minister of India, a tribune of lower middle class Hindu nationalism, grew up, and originally came to power and prominence. It is in this state in the early 2000s that communal riots occurred, and accusations of organized genocide against Muslims have been leveled.

The connections between liberal Democratic Indian Americans and right-wing Hindu nationalism in India have been extensively discussed. That is not what I am getting at. Meet the Patels is not a political film, it is a personal one. There is no reason that Ravi should address political topics in the documentary, and much of what I am saying here would be implicit to any South Asian watching Meet the Patels. But to many Americans these darker realities would not be visible or implied in the cultural practices which Ravi admires.

The attitudes expressed in Meet the Patels is no different from pining for the “good old days.” The reality is that the old days were often not so good. Or they weren’t how you remembered them. And just as some people pine for the days of yore, others romanticize the “homeland”, where everyone was your uncle, and the aunties took care of you when your mother was a way. But this world is in many ways fundamentally regressive and constrained, and the benefits of communal responsibility are often correlated with inter-communal tension and conflict.

Again, there is no reason that Meet the Patels should have gone into this. But I wanted to put into the record what was unsaid so that those who see in it purely a charming inter-cultural story comprehend the other dilemmas latent within the narrative.

Related: Ravi’s AMA.