In early January, each of my sisters despatched me an Instagram put up of a dark-haired, brown-skinned doll named Kavi Sharma, the brand new “Girl of the Year” from the American Lady firm. Not solely was Kavi its first South Asian American doll, however her character was from Metuchen, New Jersey, the identical 2.84-mile city the place we grew up. The coincidence was so uncanny that I assumed the put up was pretend and photoshopped by the Metuchen Fb group. However after a fast Google search, I used to be excited to be taught that Kavi Sharma was actual.
As I examine her character, I used to be relieved that she wasn’t solid as a nerd, as South Asians so typically are. In her pink bucket hat and matching sneakers, printed mesh high and silver joggers, Kavi appeared cool and outgoing, possibly even well-liked. She beloved New York Metropolis and Broadway reveals, and like my youthful self, she was a performer who choreographed Bollywood dances along with her buddies. Her equipment included a totally outfitted dressing room, a songwriting set with a keyboard and drum pad, and a black-and-white canine named Scamper. Along with her trendy Western garments, she additionally had an elaborate Indian lehenga in crimson, royal blue and glittering gold.
Rising up, I had a greatest pal with a group of American Lady dolls, and I keep in mind their old-timey garments and coordinated books. I knew that they have been costly and subsequently priceless, however I by no means cared for certainly one of my very own ― till now.
As I perused Kavi’s outfits and watched her music video on YouTube, I couldn’t assist however want I may teleport myself again in time. Kavi Sharma was precisely the doll I wanted ― solely 40 years too late.
When my household moved to Metuchen within the Nineteen Eighties, the city was identified not for spunky Indian ladies, however for its well-ranked public faculty system, tree-lined Predominant Avenue, and practice station 45 minutes from Manhattan. Again then, I used to be simply certainly one of two brown-skinned ladies in my entire grade. I used to be quick and chubby, and my household was from a South Asian diaspora in Guyana. The opposite woman was pale, skinny and Pakistani. Regardless of our many variations, the academics routinely blended up our names from elementary by means of highschool. I wouldn’t say that I used to be ostracized particularly due to my race, however it undoubtedly didn’t assist my social standing.
Whereas the South Asian inhabitants of Metuchen was sparse, the neighboring city of Edison already had a longtime “Little India.” Oak Tree Highway was a warren of sari retailers, eating places and grocery shops providing an eclectic mixture of all issues from the motherland: dosas, pani puri, chrome steel tiffins, Bollywood soundtracks, statues of Hindu gods, jhumka earrings and silk saris in each hue.
This enclave was simply quarter-hour from the place we lived, however it felt like one other world. In these slender, musty shops, my mom requested questions in damaged Hindi and bargained with the shopkeepers, a lot to my embarrassment. It was in a kind of shops that my mom discovered an commercial for a Bharatanatyam dance instructor who lived 5 minutes away. Weekly courses led me to a second life immersed within the Indian neighborhood, fully separate from my world at college.
By the point I graduated from faculty and returned to my mom’s home in Metuchen, the demographic had begun to shift. I can nonetheless keep in mind my shock as I spotted that your complete practice automotive to New York Metropolis was filled with Indians, the air clattering with totally different accents and dialects. As an alternative of standing out as I had as a baby, I used to be indistinguishable in a crowd of brown faces. The inhabitants of Asians in New Jersey reached 1 million in 2021 ― a statistic that little doubt underscored the necessity for an Indian American doll.
The cynical facet of me wished to poke holes and discover fault. A toddler’s plaything wasn’t going to erase generations of trauma, and at over $100, the value was prohibitive for a lot of. And why did it take so lengthy for a worldwide toy firm like Mattel to acknowledge the significance of my demographic? However whilst I attempted to be important, I knew the launch of Kavi Sharma was a shift ahead. As I surveyed family and friends, it was clear that all of us felt a real connection to this doll. We have been so hungry for illustration, not only for our youngsters, however for our youthful selves. The sensation was common: American Lady had gotten it proper.
“I love that there is a doll that I can relate to now,” Bhavika, a childhood pal, shared over e mail. “We teach our daughters to be proud of their culture and what it represents. But to also show them that our culture is widely accepted and appreciated is a great feeling because when I was younger it didn’t always seem that way.”
Not solely is Kavi a sign of affirmation for Indian Individuals, however she provides non-Indians a curated style of South Asian tradition. Her character was crafted by a staff of advisers, together with Arusha, a 12-year-old Indian American woman from New Jersey, and Rina Shah, a choreographer specializing in classical Indian and Bollywood dance. The doll’s storyline was written by New York Instances bestselling creator Varsha Bajaj, who migrated to the U.S. from Mumbai within the Nineteen Eighties. In an interview on the American Girl website, Bajaj explains: “One story cannot possibly depict the complexity of India or the Indian diaspora. That said, I took immense delight in showcasing slivers of Indian culture, including dance, yoga traditions, food, clothing, and … magical festivals like Diwali and Holi.”
My cousin Prema, a nurse from New Jersey, talked about how Kavi’s connection to each Bollywood and Broadway rang true for her. “I especially loved the part where Kavi’s grandmother takes her to a Broadway show,” she advised me. “This is something near and dear to me because my mother took me to see Broadway plays, and I got to see how song and dance are represented in Western society. Growing up watching a lot of Bollywood movies, it was nice to see that musicals were not completely foreign, but could also be American.”
Whereas Kavi isn’t the primary or solely Indian doll available on the market, she represents a hyphenated expertise so hardly ever captured within the mainstream. As first technology Indians and kids of the diaspora like myself intermarry and have kids with companions from different cultures and races, the nuances of id turn out to be much more complicated. In a dialog with my cousin Valini, she shared: “Raising two half Indian girls, I have been careful of the words I use to help them frame their self identification. I love that Kavi is an ‘American girl’ doll and not just representing an Indian girl that an American company made.” As dad and mom with hyphenated identities of our personal, we’re challenged to search out inventive methods to impart and combine Indian tradition into our youngsters’s lives.
My very own daughter is a mixed-race, curly haired 3-year-old who dances to Bollywood, Bob Marley and Disney hits alike. Technically talking, she is Guyanese Indian Bahamian American, a four-pronged id she shares along with her older brother, and possibly not too many others. Whereas she is interested by South Asian and Caribbean tradition, she has to this point ignored the 2 brown-skinned dolls in her assortment, preferring the corporate of her stuffed animals. Rising up in Harlem, she doesn’t undergo from the cultural isolation that I did in New Jersey within the Nineteen Eighties; she sees folks from each a part of the world on her subway commute to pre-Okay. Given the numerous threads of her heritage, I do know she can have totally different baggage than I did. I’m hoping she gained’t have to attend till she’s middle-aged to search out affirmation.
Once I go the American Lady retailer on Fifth Avenue on my approach to dinner, I can’t assist however press my nostril to the window. Kavi Sharma stands on a desk, placing a pose. ”There she is!” I feel, as if I’ve noticed a star. I’m too previous for dolls, however this one is iconic. She’s not going to resolve racism, however she may assist. And regardless, she’ll all the time be the cool Indian American BFF I by no means had.
Sumitra Mattai is a author and textile designer primarily based in New York Metropolis. She holds a BFA in textile design from the Rhode Island College of Design and an MFA in inventive writing from The New College. Her essays on household, meals and tradition have been printed broadly. For extra data, please go to her web site, sumitramattai.com, or discover her on Instagram at @sumitramattai.