IN HER memoir, Bone Black, American writer bell hooks wrote about growing up coveting the tremendous fun and sorority of black women getting together to straighten each other’s hair. As an adult she recognised that the hatred she and other black women felt for their hair was tied to their acceptance of white supremacy. Though one of America’s most influential public intellectuals, hooks is also the kind of relaxed adult who could write a children’s book called Happy to be Nappy — a sweet celebration of gloriously kinky, fuzzy hair. hooks, one hopes, is one of the eight million viewers who encountered a certain little black girl on YouTube in October.
Willow Smith whips her hair. She tells you she whips her hair, she whips her hair. Over and over again. Willow Smith is a skinny nine-year-old in loose, androgynous clothes and a heartshaped mohawk. In the video her hair lashes out colours her monochromatic grey school. Willow’s parents Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith are not the reason why this video is addictive. It is Willow herself. She has that indefinable quality best defined by Terry Pratchett: “The Monks of Cool have a passing out test for a novice. He is taken into a room full of all types of clothing and asked: Yo, my son, which of these is the most stylish thing to wear? And the correct answer is: Hey, whatever I select.” At nine, Willow is already curling her lips with the attitude of someone who is about to wipe the floor with nasal blond boys who sing “baby, baby”. And suddenly, 16-year-old pop prodigy, Justin Bieber looks pension-worthy.
Unlike Bieber, though, it is unlikely Willow Smith is going to inspire any petitions begging her to perform in India. Which is a pity, because India could do with some lessons from a young Monk of Cool. One is grateful for Susan Sontag and other priestesses of American high culture. One is also grateful for President Obama’s preternatural calm, and for all the long shadows of civil rights, feminism and I-have-a-dream-ness he casts. Rich and privileged as Willow Smith is, she and her earwormy song still carry the weight of a history of radical politics, still informed by the minutiae of the lives of young and poor black women.
We should pay attention to Willow Smith, especially we who are constantly fretting the imminent loss of our culture to stronger forces, like the young man who peers anxiously into the mirror at his upward creeping hairline.
India is the good girl with her head tilted for a pat. She wants to be praised. She is the girl who wants to smoke but won’t buy her own cigarettes
The young girl in the video is unsmiling, swimming in fierce egocentrism, much like the best that American culture can offer the world. On the other hand, India is the type of girl Tamilians call a chammathu ponnu, a good girl with her head tilted for a pat. She wants to be praised and soothed. She is the girl who wants to smoke but won’t buy her own cigarettes. India’s touchiness is no secret. We famously are not amused and look for sedition everywhere. Why else would American foreign policy magazines feel okay to run headlines like: “India needs a lot more love”? India is the kind of lover Harry described to Sally — the high maintenance girl who thinks she is low-maintenance.
In Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, the beautiful and anglicised Chatterjis happily condescend to Haresh, the gauche creature who’s merely studied at a polytechnic in England. When they’re forced to admit that they’ve never been to England themselves, the passage makes clear that they’re as surprised by this minor fact as Haresh with his bad accent is. After all, didn’t the Chatterjis know everything there was to know about England?
Times have changed. We are still the Chatterjis.
WE KNOW too much about America. We know what a podunk town is, we know that hipsters like chalkboard paint on their walls, we know apocryphal Abraham Lincoln stories, we know who wrote which episode of Mad Men and How I Met Your Mother, we crush on Michael Chabon’s hair, we dream of seeing Thurber’s dogs, wish we had been there at the Algonquin Round Table nudging Dorothy Parker in the ribs, we dream of boyfriends who are a cross between Sufjan Stevens, Jon Stewart and a little bit of Kanye West. We know that PricewaterhouseCoopers audits the Oscars. We make jokes about The Simple Life and The Brady Bunch. We know who Kennedy slept with and where Scorcese grew up. We miss the Sixties, especially Cameron Crowe’s Sixties. We cried when we saw the documentary of Britney Spears as a child and nodded sadly and knowingly when we saw Miley Cyrus’ leaked nude photos. We know America a little too much, as if she was a distant acquaintance we stalk on Facebook. Why else would we know what to eat at the Hungarian pastry shop in New York?
But we don’t love America. We love its power. We don’t love its feckless ways, its reckless girls, its independence, its self reliance, its ability to say No. Zadie Smith has written that the international language of youth is Jamaican, and yo, so it is. But it is a Jamaican via New York and LA and Nashville that we’ve learnt. Indians shiver at the delicious thought of our culture becoming such rich currency. Every actor in an obscure Hollywood project, every Indian within five kilometres of the White House means, we think, a step closer to power.
We in the middle classes say we are done with mimicking America. We like to think we are. We tell ourselves we are too sophisticated to be copying 10-year-old, utterly dated trends from Seattle. We make fun of young boys and girls in small towns who are learning to colour their hair, change their accent and wear grungy basketball shorts. We tell ourselves we are turning our back to America to save our ancient culture. But we are never unaware of its presence. All the while we are passively aggressively fighting to become class monitor.
We imagine the decades ahead through the windscreen of American suburbia — of smooth roads, lawns, white houses, long-haired dogs and children in matching sportswear. The future seems so American because we know no other trajectory. Our high culture is dull, inaccessible and continues to tell the stories of conquerors. Our popular culture is a sham. It is either adorably pert or in a frozen rictus of hearty, good humour,“enjoying”, as Anuja Chauhan writes in her new novel Battle for Bittora, “with the single-minded intensity of traders at the Bombay Stock Exchange.” We barely have cinema, television or paperbacks with the agility and power to access popular rage or see the absurdities of our lives.
So we want to be a cultural superpower too? India needs to learn two things from Willow Smith and her America — gumption and anti-cuteness. And perhaps one other from that other American priestess, Joan Didion, who wrote: “Self- respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.”
Let high culture take care of itself. Sanskrit is going nowhere. Li’l Willow carries her heritage of suffrage and sass into her pop culture. When truck drivers and Adivasi women and bonded labourers can do that too — however mercantile the forms that takes (it’s not that gangsta rap is funded by altruistic arts councils) — when Indian popular culture is suffused with their anger and wit, then let’s talk again. Until then let’s whip some hair.