Saturday, July 30, 2011

You don't know me

Of all the recent asinine things I have heard -- and you know I have -- two stung me. One was last night, a joke from a co-worker, who tweeted that I am a "white in an indian girls body". The other was during the break at this seminar I have organized and am attending in Aurangabad, Maharashtra -- when I told a certain gentleman my mother is Maharashtrian, he responded that I am not because I didn't grow up here, and nor do I speak the language. I told him I spent a lot of summers in Pune at my grandparents and understand Marathi, to which he replied, "yes, but came as a foreigner."

The thing about identity is that if you aren't secure in it, you can often be lost. I have written about this on my blog before -- about how, as a child of a cross cultural marriage (Maharashtrian/Kashmiri) who grew up in neither state (I did in Delhi and at boarding school in Dehradun) -- I've always thought of myself as someone with a fluid, cross cultural identity. When the gentleman make this snarky remark about being a "foreigner" I took great offence. I told him that because of boarding school I can understand a host of languages (to get by) which include Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati. The truth is that in school we didn't think too much about where we came from or what religion we were. Mrs Varma routinely read out prayers from all the holy books at assembly, and as a result the Quran, Granth Shib, Bible and Hindu prayers are equally familiar and alien at the same time.

I couldn't stop thinking about identity. Who am I? Where do I belong? I would say Delhi, because thats where I was born and brought up. But a few years ago I found myself adding a caveat to this explanation by saying that I didn't study or go to college in the city -- a reaction to being categorized with empty headed floozys our city is so famous for. A very calculated decision made me leave the safety of my plush Indian Express editorial job which kept me firmly in Lutyens Delhi to roaming the small towns and villages of India, to feel connected to places out of Delhi. And the thing is I do understand this country better, I see how people are different, but at the same time, perhaps that gentleman was right -- a part of you might always remain foreign.And you know whats funny? All of it has connected me to Delhi stronger than I could have expected!

We've all had these experiences. For us North Indians, it happens in the south where everything is different. I'm sure its a vice-versa case. It reminded me of people who say they are "global citizens" or some who purposely say things like "I am Bengali only by birth." I started to wonder why you would not define yourself by your rightful cultural heritage, and something popped into my head. It could be because someone felt very causal about taking it away from you. I once joked, in a previous post, that thank god for Delhi. In Kashmir I could not buy land since I was not born there, and in Maharashtra I'd be penalised by some for being a half breed/non speaker. I guess that might be the reality. For heavens sake, I have people who casually decide that you are not Indian because you enjoy Hollywood movies and don't east spicy food? Really? Are we that shallow? I can't imagine a parallel situation where I'd tell someone they were not Bihari for choosing to live in Delhi, or not Punjabi for being a vegetarian.

But its never that simple is it. For the scattered people who deem themselves the decider of YOUR identity, there are so many others who warmly welcome you to the fold. When I travel in Maharashtra (and this includes this very trip, with people in the same room, same conversation) who feel an instant connect to that fact -- that a part of you belongs here! Where is your mother from! Oh, what is her family name! They come up with connections, or describe the street she lived on and start asking you simple things in Marathi to be affectionate. I felt the same in Kashmir when I'd say I'm a Kashmiri from Delhi, so many people smiled and said they were glad I was visiting.

Identity politics are fascinating. Not long ago I was at a seminar in Varanasi focusing on Dalits and the media. Not surprisingly, at some point, the conversation turned to identity. Many Dalit leaders felt abandoned by their brothers and sisters who had done well and conveniently forgotten their community. A part of me wondered whether this was because they wanted to keep away from this sense of disillusionment that I could feel running through them. A sense I felt, which was clouding a sense of opportunity. Without analysing that, the point to be made is that we seem to be conditioned to relate to our communities, and when we cannot, it seems both the individual and the community suffers for it.

A while ago, I participated in a workshop for Video Volunteers where we were trying to explain to a bunch of people from all over the country that they should not box up their identities simply into Dalit/Woman/Tamil etc. For this, Stalin made big placards which had words like 'Punjabi' 'Woman' 'North Indian' etc etc and asked people to go to the card they identified with. Through the exercise people moved to different cards, and we showed them that you can see yourselves as many things. Sometimes given a choice between Punjabi and mother, the woman would choose mother. But given the choice between Punjabi and North Indian, she may choose Punjabi. The point to be made is you have different identities on you at all times and you should never box yourself in.

So, what should I learn from all this? That it is easy to upset, anger and manipulate someone based on their identity, especially the threat of taking it away. But its even more important for us to always remember that one identity isn't what defines us, and perhaps even more importantly, you are who you are. No one can tell you otherwise.


Manu said...

i can totally connect to what you have written and really like the way you have written is for us to chose who we are .

Anshul Pandey said...

I was born in Uttar Pradesh and brought up in Madhya Pradesh and am now studying in Delhi. Both are poorly governed and most backward states of our country and it doesn't matter whether I speak Bhojpuri or Bundelkhandi. The identity is for ours to choose and no one can dictate it to us. Maybe, this is one of the wonderful things about our country!

Supi Bhakt said...

Great write and read Miss Kaul. Confused identity is a normal and particularly personal feeling - growing up in an equally confused home with multiple faiths, languages and ethnicity, I've spent my life fending off questions like 'how come you have a muslim surname and a hindu first name?', or how can you be a muslim with a name like Supriya or of course 'you must be a Pakistani'. What bothers me the most is these statements come from people from educated backgrounds and a wide range of exposure. We point fingers to the masses being classist, discriminatory or sexist when those who've had the benefit of all the wealth in the country continue to think and talk in an equally discriminatory way.

mahima said...

agreed supi. it just makes me thankful i am not trapped in this tightly controlled identity box... but at the same time, no else should be able to decide for me! and ur bang on about "educated" people having these opinions..

Shona said...

Nicely written, Mahima. We live with so many identities, and each one comes out depending on so many other contextual factors. And the funniest thing of all is that our identity is actually not solely determined by us, but determined by us depending also on what is reflected back to us about us from those around us. We are like mirrors - at once ourselves and also what we reflect.

Malvika Singh said...

I grew up in with a travelling father. the only constant being the boarding school years.. so your article has been lived AND felt. In a way its better because when you truly cant identify with one region, you tend to regard your whole country as your birthplace. It absolves you from being a bihari/punjabi/kashmiri/ma​rathi and leaves you free to be an Indian.

Tania Arora said...

Thank you for writing this article. I have met some amazing people, who within a short conversation can pinpoint my grandmother’s house in Amritsar; with whom I can have mouth watering conversations of where to hunt down the best kulchas in town and the different types of amb papad on Lawrence road; I have also met those who show no hesitation in saying that I will never be truly Indian because I don’t live there.
What have I learned? To ignore those people who try to define me based on their own (sometimes narrow) definition of the indian identity and thrive of those who value the diversity of Indians.

Dantedownunder said...

Happened to be attending a lecture by Amartya Sen once, in Delhi. A young gentleman stands up and asks the speaker how he could possibly consider himself to be an Indian. The speaker chose to move on to the next question. At that point I really wish he had given a sharp retort that the question surely deserved. I realized his choice later when I had similar questions being thrown at me more frequently than was comfortable.

The various people who have asked me this question believe, it seems, that I must act in certain ways or hold certain views to show just how proud I am of being Indian. The funny bit, as I have pointed out to these luminaries is: why stop there? How about my identity as a Gujrati or a Bengali? Do I lose that if I study for a few years in Delhi? Why stop at region/language? How about cities? Electoral areas? Street names? The consistent thing to do would be to essentially remain at your parents home forever since venturing elsewhere surely would define one as a traitor/foreigner. I don't see how national identity is important but the local street identity is not. I, for one, care very deeply for my ancestral alleyway. You may find people who make those very "nationalistic" remarks have indeed decided upon this most consistent solution. Hence the need to ignore their remarks.

Funnily, I thought some of the classic Indian texts seem to make a very convincing and beautiful argument for making one's work one's identity. But then what do I know? Perhaps I need to be sufficiently "Indian" to even begin to understand these texts.

egg style said...

Nicely put, Mahima, you are what you are. You can say that again. No apology, no elaboration, no doublethink. This blogpost sent me off on several trips down memory alleys and up thought hills, with this ‘identity’ thing hovering fuzzily in my subconscious like some quantum ghost (half there, half not).

As eggstyle, however, I clearly recall the words of Amartya Sen. “When choices exist, not to recognize they exist is an epistemic mistake, and also a root of irresponsibility if we attribute our choice to others.” I recall his saying this to me in a 2006 interview on his book, ‘Identity & Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’, which argues against reductionist identity tags and calls upon everyone to exercise free choice in the matter.

Yes, ‘tag free comfort’, as an ad tomtommed some years ago, is easier for those of us whose early life was free of identity burdens. For me too, school was almost entirely free of identity consciousness (as boarding boys, we had the usual snippetty shower-room ‘honorifics’, but only as jokes). Our assembly prayer, though, was about stuff like never bending a knee before insolent might, rather than Shanti Varma’s ecumenism on the other side of ‘secular road’… though she will always be special to me, for having responded 20 years ago with sporting indulgence to my Valentine’s card (it was a hostel dare), and, much later, for her hilarious burkha stories.

If you grow up tag free, attitudes in the rest of India can be a rude shock, and so even without encountering the worst of identity politics (where spinmeisters ‘upset, anger and manipulate’ people by the million to grab power). Your response, however, is your choice too. You could shrug. You could turn into a headbanger ala Kurt Cobain (figuratively speaking). You could work on getting everybody to rise above pass-me-down tags and primitive markers of identity. Luckily, some people have already flagged the issue. For instance, there is this guy who stood at the half-line of a football field some 25+ years ago, contemplating two teams in hybrid-shade shirts face off. This was only yards away from Woodseats, the hostel from where his father as a kid had once drawn a scrawly little map all the way home to Delhi. He was presumably preoccupied not with his ancestry or inheritance (or toytime troubles), but with the state of play, dynamics of teamwork, need of strategy and convergence of all this towards the goal. It’s a grim and grimy game now, the half-shade shirts (and cherries) are in scattered fields across India but mostly all on one side, and if the idea l of identity transcendence is to flag no t, there’s no tw o ways abo ut it, the game must sti ll be won.

Anonymous said...

Wow. What an amazing blog. It is being talked about. Please writer more often, Mahima, this is very good.

mahima said...

Thanks Anon - "talked about"? What do you mean? But I appreciate it.. Going to settle in for another post later tonight!

Promila Kaul said...

Enjoyed reading this, Mahima !