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Identity: The Quest for Comfort within Our Skins

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Every year during summer break, our family visited my aunt and cousins who lived in Thiruvunnamalai in Tamil Nadu, home to the Ramana Maharishi Asharamam. Each visit to that town included numerous visits to the Ashram at which, for us kids, the free-roaming peacocks on the premises were the main attraction.

At the entrance to the main hall of the Ashram, a huge white metal board with light blue lettering laid out the Maharishi’s manifesto. I diligently tried to read it and understand it every visit, but gave up somewhere between the second and the fourth sentences.

“Who am I?” the manifesto began, and proceeded to try to answer that simple question.

To my young mind, that was a rather silly question to ask, to say the least. In the intervening years, although I’ve realized the import of that question, I have never felt the need to examine my life quite in that way.

But, surrogate queries do crop up often as my various identities try not to imitate a multi-car pile-up on an icy interstate: daughter, sister, wife, mother, niece, cousin, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, aunt, student, employee, a Person of Indian Origin, Non-Resident Indian (or NRI, as various institutions in India label me), a Resident Alien, American citizen, a stay-at-home mom (improbably, American media has coined an acronym for this – SAHM), working mom, writer, radio jockey, lawyer, first-generation immigrant raising a native-born American far away from the social structure of my upbringing, expat in my own hometown, Hindu who attended Catholic schools, woman, friend, colleague, non-vegetarian, and someone who gets riled up at certain things that happen in society but hates labels. (I really don’t know if I’m a feminist or a liberal or a conservative, and I really don’t care.)

Needless to say, the list goes on.

I can already see these multiple identities taking shape in my young son. He’s been in school in India for about a year and a half now, and his accent does the switcheroo as he moves between different social groups. Among his friends at school he puts on an Indian accent; among his expat friends, he’s the true blue American.

At any one point in time, only one of these identities may come to the fore while the others hang back, waiting to be pulled off the shelf, dusted off, and worn.

But do we really ever succeed in shaking off any of these identities? Should we even want to shake off any one of them? If so, why?

These are questions that all of a sudden seem to be plaguing the literary world, the blogosphere, perhaps society in general. Or may be I’m just noticing these things because I’m thinking about these issues now; you can never tell. (It’s like when you learn a new word and that word seems to crop up everywhere all of a sudden.)

In DESI Confusion, Parts 1 and 2, Vikas Chowdhry explores the “confusion” he says ails Indian immigrants which they then transfer to their children, the second-generation Americans. In Part I he gives us a hint of the problem,

Of course, we like to think that we have the ability to straddle both cultures and environments successfully – the culture of our birth and the culture of our adopted homeland but at every opportunity, life throws surprises and litmus tests that constantly prove that assumption false. We try to preserve our culture and our way of thinking and force them on our kids, in turn making them confused and clipping their wings.

Hilal Isler writes about two immigrant waiters at an Indian restaurant in Immigrant Dreams – Desis Everywhere Searching For Identity,

At one point last night, when Naseem (one of the waiters) was talking animatedly with V. about the upcoming World Cup, (soccer?) I caught myself staring at him. Here he was, this confident, 20-something guy, full of life, surely full of ambitions — or at least, dreams — stuck in this dimly lit Indian restaurant with nothing much to look forward to. It just seemed so tragic. I felt my heart sink.

Hilal expresses frustration at attempts to “decide which group is more confused — those American-born, or their immigrant-equivalents,”

I wish folks would stop being so interested in passing judgment about one another and just recognize that, ultimately, minorities of color in this country — foreign-born or not — are peas in pretty much the same pod. I wish we would acknowledge, then embrace the similarities that link us all, and use those common experiences/sensibilities to form communities of strength.

A related question is how much does the land of our origin influence our identities? Is it the end-all be-all, or are there other factors at play? Home is where the heart is, as the saying goes. This also means that we identify ourselves with places where we feel most comfortable. Shashi Tharoor in last Sunday’s column in The Hindu says “… it little matters where you were born; what is important is where you belong, where your soul has its allegiance.”

Aaman Lamba echoes that sentiment in Eastern Standard Tribe – Identity In A Place So Foreign and asks

In the impermanent global flux, does it matter any more where I’m from, where I’m going?

Nowadays, who I am is related to where I am. My identity is formed by the history of my place of birth, and where I grew up, but my current location creates an affinity that I must adhere to, often at the cost of my place of naissance.

Sometimes, one aspect of our identity overtakes the rest despite attempts by family or friends, functioning under social pressure perhaps, to suppress it. Perhaps that aspect asserts itself and becomes stronger than it would have been if only to survive in the face of all that opposition.

In Lakshya: The Farmer Prince Comes Out, Nitin Karani tells the story of Manavendra Singh Gohil.

The coming out of Manavendra Singh Gohil as a gay man has caused quite a stir in Gujarat within the circles of the erstwhile princely families: specifically in his native Rajpipla.

Manav is a royal by birth and an earthworm-farmer by profession…but his heart is with his organization, Lakshya [a registered public charitable trust, Gujarat’s first and only community-based organization (CBO) working for HIV/AIDS prevention among men who have sex with men].

Sometimes though, our own attempts to suppress the parts of our history that make up our identity suffer the same fate – of actually showing up in all sorts of places. Anil Menon illustrates that point in his essay on William Makepeace Thackeray,

It’s probable that Thackeray too was the product of a distant miscegenation; not so distant that people didn’t remember but distant enough that it didn’t matter. His maternal grandmother, Harriet Cowper — Anne Becher’s mother — is thought to have been of Indian origin, perhaps twice or thrice removed…. Such doubts about pedigree, in that time and place, could be a heavy burden.

Thackeray’s anxieties popped up in his conversations, letters, novels and essays.

Indeed, for someone with Thackeray’s sensitivity — several peers referred to it as being almost “womanly” — his secret would’ve been like a convex mirror, distorting the familiar and revealing…

Richard Marcus, who, until recently, went by the name of Gypsyman, extolls the virtues of not revealing too much of one self in Exposing Gypsyman,

There’s an incredible amount of freedom that you get from wearing a mask. When nobody can see your face, they aren’t going to judge you by your appearance, only by what thoughts you’re willing to reveal. We all wear masks most days of the week anyway whether we know it or not.

But, as time wore on, he says, “I started to discover parts of myself that I actually liked. Once that happened, I realized it was only a matter of time until it I would put the [masked identity] out to pasture”.

Sure enough, Gypsyman threw off his mask and revealed his true identity.

In sharp contrast to this shaking off of identities or suppressing them is the idea of embracing each one (potentially at odds with one another) as I alluded to above. And in this age of globalization and attendant immigration of people from their home countries to far corners of the world, not only is this desirable, but also necessary.

And in that sense, I’m very happy that my son has decided to jump in and bandy about expressions such as “ayyo!” and “abba!” with abandon (although I confess I cringe every time I hear them). This sort of adjustment seems very common among second-generation immigrants (or among children who’ve moved away from their countries of birth at a very early age), especially children who maintain contact with both their parents’ country and their own country of birth.

Pico Iyer, the poster child for hyphenated, multicultural, identity if ever there was one, quotes Kazuo Ishiguro in his book The Global Soul,

The only “un-English” boy at all the schools where he found himself, he realized that his survival depended on impersonating an English boy, while also putting his exoticism to occasional good use. “Whenever it was convenient for me to become very Japanese, I could become very Japanese,” [Ishiguro] says disarmingly. “And then, when I wanted to drop it, I would just become this ordinary Englishman.”

That, I must say, as a parent, is a healthy attitude to adopt in the face of what is potentially a crippling situation for a child.

Iyer himself takes delight in recounting the myriad ways in which our multiple identities have converged in today’s society,

Everywhere is made up of everywhere else — a polycentric anagram — that I hardly notice I’m [the British born son of Indian parents who grew up in California, but studied in England and now spends most of the year in rural Japan] sitting in a Parisian cafe just outside Chinatown (in San Francisco), talking to a Mexican-American friend about biculturalism while a Haitian woman stops off to congratulate him on a piece he’s just delivered on TV on St. Patrick’s Day…as we sip our Earl Grey tea near signs that say CITY OF HONG KONG, EMPRESS OF CHINA.

Not that all this coming together hasn’t received its share of criticism from some quarters. Recently, the blogosphere was buzzing with posts about whether Non-Resident Indians should be relabeled “Non-Returnable Indians.”

“Many desis, who are NRIs, suddenly find themselves having to defend their Indianness,” says Kamla Bhatt.

Becoming an NRI, or being labelled as an NRI is somehow thought to be an overnight transformation and you are expected to have a different take, perception on everything, and your comments on India are no longer correct or valid. It is like some kind of switch is flipped and a whole version of software is downloaded into your OS when you move to another country. You are now expected to behave and interact differently, but that is not how it happens.

Neha Vishwanathan recently found herself having to defend her “Indianness” which came under attack because she lives in London.

It’s interesting how often people try to shut me up by calling me an NRI (Non Resident Indian). What does she know? She’s an NRI. How can she talk about issues in India? She’s an NRI. What right does an NRI have to talk about development in India when she sits in London choking over her Starbucks Mocha? What does she know about the Gaza strip when she’s never been to the Middle East. (Except for that damn hopping flight that touches base in Dubai). So what if she’s spent 97.57% of her life in India, the minute she finds herself in an non-Indian postcode – she’s an NRI.

While most of us may never find ourselves sipping Earl Grey tea in the kind of scenario Iyer describes, it is imperative to recognize that, unless you live in back of beyond somewhere, there is no way to escape the kind of multicultural existence that is the hallmark of globalization. Even if you’ve never left the country of your birth, you may still work for, may have eaten at, bought the products made by or services of a multinational corporation.

Restricting people to single identities may sound good to parochial ears, but it is of no use in a practical sense – unless that identity is that of global citizen, one that I like to describe myself as.

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About Sujatha Bagal

  • sujatha – you beat me to the punch. every so often i start to think about the issue of identity and of late i have noticed that the impetus often comes from without. its usually someone else questioning [not always mean spiritedly] where i belong that brings up the issue. and as an indian and an “ex-colonial” in the arts, the debates just seem to multiply exponentially.

    intersting links. good read.

  • Thanks Amrita.:) I don’t know if it’s because we are more angst-ridden than our parents’ generation or we are dealing with more stuff than they did, but I just don’t remember my parents, aunts, uncles, etc. having these kinds of questions/issues.

  • Ruvy from Jerusalem


    Nice to know that others have the kinds of problems I and mine do.

    My father was born in Poland when it was still part of the Russian Empire and emigrated to America in 1921 to join his father in New York. He never really shed the identity of a boy from a small Jewish-Polish village (note the order of the identities) and to his dying day spoke at least one word of Yiddish in virtually every sentence he uttered.

    My sister and I are first generation Americans, just like your son is. The usual pattern for Jews like us was to flee from Jewish culture into American culture. My sister, the child of my father’s youth, did just that. I, the child of his old age, did the opposite. Always I viewed myself as a Jew first, and an American later.

    We moved to Israel at my urging, so that our children would not intermarry, something that plagues Jews in exile. If my ancestors could suffer to be Jews for centuries under persecution, who was I to throw away that suffering just to live a pleasant and secure life. The suffering had to count for something, and now that there is a sovereign country under Jewish rule, their dreams (and mine) of living in a free country under Jewish sovereignty deserve to be fulfilled.

    I owe that much to my grandfather, and his father and his father and so on…

    Now I watch as my kids speak better Hebrew than I and slowly lose the Americanness they were born with, gradually taking on a new identity, that in itself is still forming, both at the individual level and the national level.

    And living overseas from the land of my birth, I’m learning what a nice country America isn’t, in terms of dealing with the world.

    So, reading from this end of the world, I understand, and enjoyed what you wrote immensely.

  • Ruvy, thank you for your thoughtful comments and for sharing your experiences and your perspective. I’m glad that you took the steps you thought were necessary to find a balance.