June 18, 2007

Fluid Identity

Boloji, 17.06.07

Whatever you say, naming your son Gogol is harsh, particularly when he’ll be brought up in America. That’s the first thing that came to my mind looking at a gigantic Bengali poster for The Namesake in Leicester’s city centre. The more Oriental the identity of an individual sounds, the greater sense of alienation he will feel- castigated and ostracized as the omnipresent ‘other’ in the minds of the typical American teenager. But is identity a constant concept? Or is it even a singular concept? Lots of things make up my identity, and that identity is extremely fluid- changing not within years but within seconds. When I type an entry onto my blog, I am ‘protonriver’. Once I’ve finished typing, I am someone else again.

“Bud bud ting ting 2.99, went to a Paki shop n got a bottle of wine”- such innuendos about your Indian accent forces your identity to be straitjacketed into a narrow prism. When you respond by learning how to speak English with a British accent, you are reminded that you’re a “freshie” by British Asians. On the other hand, ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) and its British counterpart (BBCD) are labels that we put on them to define their identity. It is plausible that integration was their priority while selecting a certain identity for themselves.

And we’re back to ‘us’ and ‘them’ again. Edward Said, in his pioneering Orientalism, pointed out nearly 30 years ago that the Orient responded to the Occident’s generalizations in the same terms that were originally used to define it. The other day one of my clients asked me whether I was so clever since I was a Bengali Brahmin and people from my caste are supposed to be clever. I know plenty of readers can remember political party leaders from my caste that they would not classify as ‘clever’.

But that is not the point. What is fascinating is that sitting thousands of miles away from India, I responded to such utter generalizations about my identity. Later that evening when an Indian man asked my community background, I responded emphatically- ‘Bengali’. Generally I do give my mother some credit by mentioning her non-Bengali roots.

Finally, we’re onto roots. I am not sure about other Indians, but I went through two phases of identity shifts and am in the third at the moment. Initially there was the rejection of roots. India had disappointed me- it had not given me what I aspired for in my life. So I left. Starting from the sickening heat, unsatisfying education, crowded buses- I dissociated myself from the India I left behind. Clean roads, swanky cars, terraced houses, bacon and eggs, Queen’s English became attractive as a hankering for acquiring a British identity crept in.

Then came the rude awakening. Rejected and repelled by British Asians and experiencing some downsides of life in Britain shifted my identity once more. “If we wanted, we could occupy your country and loot it again”, teased one of my classmates at school. I responded by going through innumerable statistics and websites to find out about India’s armed forces and its nuclear arsenal and prepared my retort to this statement. Not interested in the Godless existence amidst ‘booze and babes’, I began visiting a temple, something I had never done in 15 years of living in India. I started taking a lot more interest in events back home. I proudly spelled out my name to any call centre worker who couldn’t understand, something many Indians are so ashamed of that they’d rather call themselves Bob than Harjit.

The third phase began when I couldn’t find my roots. Romantically returning to a village helped Mohan Bhargav find his roots in Swades, but all I went back to were concrete boulevards, swanky cars, English-speaking gentry and ‘booze and babes’ reigning supreme. I am also realizing the folly of using Western statistics and definitions to reject their generalizations about my identity and country. That is what Said was writing about in his book. The Orient is no longer there as it once was- it has been reinvented and designed by the Occident. And the Oriental is born thinking this to be his natural abode. Amartya Sen may argue for giving chosen identity primacy vis-àvis that assigned by others, but there may not be any difference between the two. The environment automates an individual’s actions according to its social, political, intellectual, economic and linguistic contours and there’s not much he can do about breaking this Foucauldian discourse.

Gogol Ganguly lives within me. And not just in me. But if I see him, I want to find out where he got his roots back from. I want mine too.


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