Forite asks Devika about her feelings about being recognised as the South Asian face of the industry. (Express Illustration)
“I would like to thank everyone who contributed to the making of my story. I would not go to sleep without recalling every precious moment of this night. Each second is an archive for me. I would like to tell you all that as it is because of you that I am here. Who would have imagined that a brown girl with a thick Indian accent, coming from a middle-class family, would be at the centre stage of this mega event in New York City? I saw my sisters suffering the abuses of white males. I want to tell them now it’s ‘times up’. Pack your bags... WE WILL FIGHT YOU BACK,” Devika Chopra said in one breath to a rousing applause. The audience in tuxedos and gowns moved to the reception later.
“Congrats Ms Chopra, I would like to ask a few questions... I am Forite, investigate reporter at a Paris-based fashion magazine.”
Cheerfully acknowledging the intrusion of a world-renowned journalist, Devika invites him for a talk. The cameras flash as she takes him to the green room behind the stage.
The first question is on the night’s events. “Honestly, it is unbelievable. I came to New York to find my passion. I worked minimum wage as a waitress studying journalism. My parents were middle class, father in defence and mother in a private company. They worked hard to send me to a good school. My experiences have been marked by negation and rejection. People found me inferior. I went through a stage of self-doubt, of seeing myself as out of the American social culture. I tried to fit in but was never accepted.
“But then as I saw Beyoncé burning the stage and soaring the charts. She inspired me. J LO was there and so was the queen, O (referring to Oprah Winfrey). These Black and Latinx women keep inspiring me. Ava DuVernay is undoubtedly my icon. You may say I copy her style (laughs). But Camila Cabello is a work of pure beauty and persuasion. There is so much talent in these people that remained unacknowledged in this wretched world of ours (referring to her industry). Had it not been for my sisters in America, there would be no today and I wish to contribute to that legacy.”
Forite asks Devika about her feelings about being recognised as the South Asian face of the industry. “I love that because I am embracing my heritage like other Black women and men are embracing theirs, and diversity is what makes us more renowned and beautiful. I want to push for more South Asian voices in the mainstream.”
Forite intervenes to ask another question about Devika’s impression of India. “I love my country. I am more Indian than you can imagine, apart from my Indian accent. Of course, we have problems. Like in the US, we have racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and all kinds of white people’s malice towards POCs (person of colour). We have our problems that have to do with colonialism and its aftermath.”
“Is caste in your society equivalent to racism in America?” Forite asks. Devika replies immediately. “I think caste is an issue of the past. We have reservations for lower castes. We call them Shudras and they have rights as equal citizens. I would agree that in the past their condition was weak and they were treated badly, but now, they are also rising and have a political party which is run by a corrupt woman. So they’ve their issues to tackle.”
Forite intervenes: “With an experience of a quarter century across the globe, I am constantly in search for newness and diversity in fashion. In India, I tried many times to find authenticity of culture from a different perspective. I could not find lower castes or tribals in fashion or films. I did a survey to find out how many fashion magazines in India covered lower castes or tribals, how many outlets upheld their fashion and style of cuisine without appropriating them? To my surprise, I could not find any expert on any credible resource.
“I couldn’t track them in the most beautiful Indian men and women list of the year. Or the list of most influential Indians, or even awards recognising their talent. The editors of Indian and Western fashion magazine outlets also appear to have a distant understanding of the social equations of your country. They hired me to do a segment on India’s diversity and it was just limited to taking pictures of the poor and Banjaras dancing. You are a champion of diversity and the most influential name in the industry. Would you be able to talk about this and champion this cause?” Forite fronts with a smile.
The atmosphere is rarefied. Slowly, like crumpled leaves, Devika and Forite leave the green room to the spectacle of glory outside. Camera flashes continue.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 12, 2020 under the title ‘Caste in a green room: A fictionalised account’. Suraj Yengde, author of bestseller Caste Matters, is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. He curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column