The English Speaker: The True Indian Edition Of Identity

As a moderately sensible lady, I tend to ignore my hefty pile of trollmail. I like to think it’s Dorothy Parker saying in my head, “But now I know the things I know/ And do the things I do/ And if you do not like me so/ To hell, my love, with you!“, for the most part. Or maybe I’ve just become that thick-skinned as I see all the trollmail being happily fed to my SpamSolider. Another maybe is that I am indeed tipping over the edge of sensitivity and do not want to see any other e-mail telling me just why I should stop writing or why Renee and I are being racist for writing or promoting things about India that don’t necessarily co-opt zie’s idea of India that possibly comes from watching ‘The Darjeeling Limited‘ way too many times. Let’s just say, this lady can only take so many references of “Hey do you speak like Appu from The Simpsons?” or “Have you seen an American toilet?” before she really loses it. Forgive me for not reading all my mails when you send them in then. The question that comes in more often than I change my underpants is “Why do you even call yourself Indian if you hate India so much? You’re tainting our Indianness. Stop wearing this nationality as a badge then”. A close second is, “How come your English is that good? Are you sure you’re Indian?” (with a lot of colourful embellishments of course). These trolls don’t see it but there is a direct relation between the two.

First of all, I want to ask everyone, Just what is this Indianness? If I am to go by Western stereotypical standards, I am supposed to be enchanting, ravishingly beautiful, as exotic as fruit or those Amazonian parakeets; completely unaware of my sexuality. Like “Jewel”  (whose name we can surmise to be Ratna which does mean a jewel in Hindi) in Lord Jim, many could have taken the liberty of anglicising my Indian name to whatever they see fit. It happens enough in real life anyway, so to avoid it in my e-reality I chose to take a ‘Western’ name as it were to narrow down the possible neo-colonisation. Of course, this stands in the way of my DesiIdentity that I’m supposed to have by the virtue of me being Indian. With this DesiIdentity, comes my obligation to be the extension of the WesternMaleFantasy of being subservient, clueless while oozing sexuality that I have no agency over. Of course, when I don’t fulfill any of these conditions, many think I’m an American blogging under an Indian identity. I for one am thoroughly confused with all these questions.

Why is my ‘nationality’ even an issue of debate? For me, ‘nationality’, ‘nationhood’ or anything that is seen ‘patriotic’ in the mainstream fashion is an extremely risky ground. The idea that we actually encourage ritual and ruthless Othering of other countries to etch out our importance isn’t a source of pride, but worry. Soon enough in a few days, on our Independence Day, people will hoist flags, watch the parade, feel patriotic for a day and chug alcohol in the name of independence; when I’m wondering just what does independence mean? We’ve signed these invisible borders with blood — of our ancestors, our present and our future citizens — though I can “buy” my way out to just about any country or any “imagined freedom” by purchasing a plane ticket. So what use are these invisible borders? When I actually sit back and try to list what is Indianness, I come down to everything that makes me a Woman, a Human, a Teacher, a Student, a Friend, a Writer and many other roles that I occupy. None of these give me burning neon signals that allow me to grasp this permanently elusive ‘Indianness’. No sense of nationalistic pride weighs down me when I read my old history books. I see a history of violence, forced repression, colonisation of souls that never stops, patriarchy, religious manipulation among many things. When one troll told me, “What do you like about India? You should move to the USA because you don’t deserve our rich soil”, I was truly stumped. Not because I couldn’t name a single thing I liked about my country, but because nothing I thought about could be categorised under ‘Indian’ as much it could be put under the label of ‘Human’. Being Indian does give me a certain perspective and a world view along with the small tokens and rituals I will never be able to shed, but that doesn’t define me. Indianness for me is my geographical location, if I were to absolutely answer that question.

It seems, Indianness is something more twisted and complicated than I’d thought of in my LadyBrain. As long as I’m contained within these borders, I’m supposed to follow a certain UnWrittenCode that deigns me to haze over and paint pink every negative thing or experience I have, because as an old proverb goes, “One doesn’t spit on the hand which feeds us”. This is an extremely foolish idea, more than you can possibly imagine. If everything any culture and society does goes un-critiqued, Hitler and Stalin will have truly won the war on minds. I want nothing of this ‘Indianness’ that binds me to lie to myself every time I sit to write; just because what I see and feel doesn’t mesh too well with the tourism department of my country.

You Said It from The Times Of India

You Said It from The Times Of India

 

Entwined with this mess of determining, labeling, categorising my nationality like I were a laboratory specimen; comes this need to also place my words in a grid of “the right amount of Indian”. As a child born on the brink of era of Liberalisation and Globalisation in my country, English has become my first language. As I’ve said before, I don’t feel threatened that this ColonialGiant is going to wipe out my cultural identity. As a child, growing up with Pooh, Beatrix Potter, the Disney classics, Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl did give me an extremely Colonial way of looking at the world around me, no doubt. But that went up in smoke the day I started questioning why there are no Indian names in the books. This Colonial point of view was pushed away further aside as I begged my grandmum to tell me stories from the Mahabharat and the Ramayan, along with meeting Swami from Malgudi Days, reading lyrical short stories by Rabindranath Tagore and many, many fond memories with Ruskin Bond’s words. My privileged childhood wasn’t so radically different from any child around the world exposed to  world literature, due to which my English doesn’t vex me as it does my grand-parents and the rest of their generation.

It is true that I, feel a cultural disconnect from mainstream Bollywood movies and songs; though not because they are in Hindi but the content which they choose to endorse. The day I hear a Bollywood song professing anything other than the loss/lack/need for love in a million different baritones, I do find myself enjoying the song. There is a veritable lack of female expression in Bollywood music (this is a whole post in itself) and this is why I choose to align myself with political verses of PJ Harvey, Alanis Morisette, Regina Spektor and the band of UnDudely artists. Of course, in OppressionSpeech this directly translates to my lack of “Indian” music tastes. The reason I just explained above doesn’t factor in at all. It’s outright blasphemy to listen to the DeathProse of these radical women artists, or so it seems. The same goes for mainstream Bollywood movies that seem to be re-packaging every Hollywood flick ever made these days, and copy my distaste here too. This is seen as many of my peers as a preference of English over what is supposed to be my “national language” my classmate tells me while scowling at me one moment and the next making plans to see Eclipse.

The coloniser’s tongue is so deeply etched on my skin, I think, dream, cry, rave in it. This doesn’t mean my native tongue sits rusting by. At home I speak Gujarati and everywhere else, English. Stepping into either language’s shoes isn’t as difficult for me as people expect it to be. My speech too doesn’t bear traces of my Gujarati ancestry, as it does for many. Nor is my Gujarati peppered with the English accent. I don’t sound like an American, English or any other accent the tongue has acquired on its mass-conquests around the globe. My accent sounds like me, Indian English. People who sound like they are speaking their mother tongue while speaking English are often ridiculed for not “pronouncing English correctly”. A quick phrase erases all class privilege that comes with the “Correct access” to the coloniser’s tongue. A quick insult readily reduces a person to a joke thus silencing all issues that problematise this “Correctness” of English. Questions like ‘Why should we go by British pronunciations? They might be ‘right’ on some universe but they don’t sound like ‘us’ or people who suggest it’s extremely Colonial to insinuate all of us should leave behind the various associations we’ve made to the language, finally managed to inject some kind of cultural subjectivity in it after all these years should be erased and every one should just go back to being Henry Higgins is more nincompoop-y than it sounds. Of course, such people and questions are silenced.  To this day we study Phonology that tells us our English is wrong, unless we are willing to sound like The Freaking Queen. Because of my apparent lack of this ingredient known as Indianness, my English is allowed to be as it is without receiving much ridicule from my country people.

So when trolls ask me whether I am truly Indian — mainly because I don’t seem to make as many typos as they expect me too — my nationality is contested just because it doesn’t sit too well with their warped heads. Looks, sounds, walks and quacks like big, stinking privilege to me. To say I’m not Indian enough, that my Indianness doesn’t match up to your version or that my English isn’t box-able; you are erasing my identity. As a woman, as a human and as a person of moderately sound mind.

[Cross-posted]

[ P.S. Remember to check out my guest post on Viral Joy Of Disgust on just why isn’t groping a compliment]

 

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. Sanya

     /  August 2, 2010

    I don’t really know what to say. You said it all for me.

    Reply
  2. Vineet

     /  August 3, 2010

    Beautiful post. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who feels dubious about Indianness.

    But you’re SO right about nationalism, English accents… EVERYTHING. You’re quickly becoming my favourite writer.

    Reply
  3. Komal

     /  August 4, 2010

    This is an interesting post, though there’s something else that hasn’t been said, but I feel is important.

    An identity is itself an artificial construct, at least in my view. People are not born with identities, nor do identities pertain to their true selves. An identity is part performance (which requires an audience) and part phenomenology (specifically egoistic phenomenology). My ‘Pakistani-ness’ (whatever that means) is no more true to me than any other potential identity. The same applies to gender identity, IMO.

    One question we ought always to ask from identity-imposing people is why they’re so anxious that we exhibit a particular identity in the first place. Why the anxiety that I’m not exhibiting ‘my’ (meaning that which people want me to have) ‘femininity’? The answer is, this is just a way of upholding the status quo. People cannot realize their true self as completely independent of any and all biological/geographical/etc. contingencies, because that is just too revolutionary for them to handle (even post-colonial theorists don’t go this far, insisting on an ‘indigenous’ identity and not problematizing the concept of identity itself).

    Reply
  4. What a fantastic post!! I learned a lot from it.

    I just discovered this blog and am loving it.

    Reply
  1. Surges Of Nationalism And Just Where To Stuff Them « Oi With The Poodles Already

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