What India means to me

Map of India

I have developed a very strange relationship with my motherland.

I was born in India, but my parents took me to the UK when I was five years old. They tried to come back and settle in their homeland twice during my childhood, but it never worked. They were absorbed in their medical careers, which required them to be in the UK.

My sister and I spent a couple of brief school years in India, looked after by grandmothers and other relatives while my parents went back and forth between continents, trying to manage work and family life. For both my sister and me, India was our first home, our native country, undisputedly. As a young child who had known no other territory, ‘Mr India’ was my favourite film. But gradually, everything I took for granted as my natural identity became questionable.

As I struggled and succeeded to learn British English in London, my grip on Hindi began to falter. As I became accustomed to my friends’ ways of being and doing things, the memories of my childhood home began to fade. Those brief spells in which we tried to come back to India were like a temporary reawakening – a door to the past that would open and pour its wisdom into me for a short time before shutting again. My relatives thought I had become ‘angrez’, even thought I hardly thought of myself that way. In India. I became ‘different’, and in the UK, I was ‘different’ too.

So now, years later as I write this, I am very aware of what India represents to me. It’s more than just an idea; it’s a reality that I feel everyday. It’s huge and complex, something that I won’t ever be able to explain fully. Every time I feel a sense of ‘Indianness’, I am aware there is a ‘Britishness’ which rests uncomfortably alongside this. After all, the countries struggled against each other historically, precisely because their identities could not integrate fully with each other.

Whenever I am in India, it’s tempting to see stereotypes all around me: spiritualists, poverty, chaos, consumerism. Only when I actually talk to people personally – the rickshaw wallahs, relatives and their neighbours, dry-cleaners and taxi drivers – I see the reality behind the overpowering image of India. The authenticity of other people’s cultural behaviour allows me to see what it means to be Indian.

Despite this feeling of identification, I disagree with the concept of national identity (the idea that an individual can be defined by which country they come from). I see my identity as drawing from, yet separate from, nationality and culture. What I understand about India is cultural rather than political, although I’m aware that there is a connection between culture and politics which cannot be ignored. Even the naming of a country is political and represents a territorial division.

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Reading The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel, The Namesake, has been appreciated by desis (Indians) and non-desis alike, to the extent that it has been made into a film in India and appreciated worldwide. The book deals with the cultural situation of first generation and second generation Indians in foreign countries, in this case America. I am in a bit of a strange situation when it comes to cultural categories, as I am neither a first nor a second generation Indian… I am somewhere in between, having been born in India and having grown up in the west (something like a 1.5 generation migrant). Stranger still is the fact that, after living in England, making friends there, graduating from college there, getting married there and having a home there, I have revisited my motherland after all these years. My partner and I are currently working in India for a couple of years… My husband is in the second generation migrant category, and we speak to each other in English (with British accents), he watches the football, we eat a mixture of western and Indian food at home, we don’t practise the Hindu rituals our parents practise and we wear mostly western clothes. So, that’s my situation as I begin reading The Namesake

The book begins with an account of a Bengali couple’s journey to the USA, the wife’s (Ashima’s) sense of alienation as she learns to accept her distance from her family, the lack of authentic Indian food, the cold climate and the sense of being different from those around her. The couple have two children, Gogol and Sonia. The story centres around Gogol’s experience. He hates his name, which was given to him as a pet name but which stuck as his ‘outside’ name. He does not initially know that his father gave him this name because he had been reading a book by Nikolai Gogol when he experienced a serious train accident; waving the book from below the wreckage was the act that allowed him to be seen and rescued. Gogol later changes his name to Nikhil, a name his father had wanted him to adopt for school, but which he had not liked as an infant. The act of naming becomes integral to the book’s exploration of cultural identity. Unlike his mother, Gogol embraces Amercian culture effortlessly, to the extent that he dismisses and discards his Indian identity. He has premarital relationships, goes out with friends and only engages with the rituals of his childhood – of speaking Bengali, attending ‘pujos’ and eating mostly Indian food – when he visits his parents. He visits his parents less and less as he grows independent, preferring his separation from them. This is until his father dies suddenly, when his perspective begins to change. As if in retaliation to his ‘foreignness’ from his parents and from his white American friends, he marries an American-Bengali like himself. But the marriage fails because the couple cannot maintain a sense of connection with each other; Gogol’s wife begins an affair with a man who has the same intellectual interests as her, and Gogol eventually finds out.

The book ends at the point Ashima, Gogol’s mother, is about to return to India to enjoy her retirement. She plans to divide her remaining time between India and America. Sonia is about to get married to an American man who Ashima knows will make her daughter happy. The story is simple but deeply moving, showing the struggle of those who start a life in a foreign country whilst being unable to fully let go of their own cultures and customs. It also shows the more subtle pain of the second generation immigrant, who feels divided between two identities.

What struck me most about the book was that things I thought were specific to my own experience of growing up are actually typical migrant experiences. Such as the loud Indian get-togethers Gogol’s parents have, and his mother’s fussing. It seems to me that the book is ultimately trying to say that however important culture may be in shaping our experiences, it is not the thing which makes us who we are inside. Gogol and his Indian wife have the same cultural experience, but their personalities do not complement. Ashima builds her life around her Bengali community, but when she grows older she realises that America has also become her home, and she cares about her American friends at the library where she works.

The saddest thing about the book is that it is a reminder of cultural fragmentation. People living far from their families and friends in pursuit of new opportunities. But in such a global situation, it becomes even more important to stay connected with loved ones and to be open to unlikely friendships.

Buying into sorrow

I don’t watch a lot of TV. Every once in a while, when I tune into ‘what’s on’, I am strangely drawn to the genre now popularly referred to as ‘reality television’. I can’t explain why I find this genre interesting (programs like ‘Big Brother’ or ‘Spendaholics’ don’t really seem to have much of a story-line); I guess I watch them because I want to fully understand our own society. Human nature is a curious thing. I also enjoy watching documentaries, but whilst documentaries are logical, informative and carefully structured, reality shows tend to be unstructured and somewhat spontaneous.

The themes of most reality shows focus on obsessions, materialism or image concerns. ‘Wifeswap’ is one which looks at lifestyles and beliefs. Most of these programs highlight the neuroses of our culture, and by bringing it to our attention, they really emphasise the kind of beliefs we are buying into. Beliefs influence thoughts (attitudes), words, actions, and hence contribute to the way our society is. We are buying into ideas which make us feel unhappy. The statements below express some of these poisonous ideas:

-“I simply have to have those new shoes.”

-“If I don’t buy my kids everything they want, then they’ll think I don’t love them.”

-“I want to make my face look like Halle Berry’s / Gwyneth Paltro’s / Brad Pitt’s.”

-“When I’m skinny then I’ll be happy.”

These statements endorse the idea that a person needs something external in order to achieve something internally. But it works THE OTHER WAY. When you achieve the right things internally, it benefits you externally, too. Positive thoughts, loving actions and self-acceptance lead to physical health and natural well-being. So, why buy into something which will make you unhappy?