Friday, March 31, 2006

Identity: The Quest for Comfort Within Our Skins

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 that I diligently tried to read and grasp at 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 (as various institutions in India label me), a Resident Alien, Amerian 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, 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), non-vegetarian.

Needless to say, the list goes on.
In our normal lives, we see ourselves as members of a variety of groups - we belong to all of them....Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them can be taken to be the person's only identity or singular membership category.
So says Amartya Sen in his collection of essays, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny.

"The essential plurality of human beings, and how the undermining of this plurality lies behind most of the world's conflicts, are the central themes," of Sen's book, writes Jai Arjun Singh in his excellent review.

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 be all and end all, or are there other factors at play? Home is where the heart is, as the cliché goes. This also means that we identify ourselves most 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 supress 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 supress 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 like. 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 supressing 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 a single political identity 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 I like to describe myself as.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Different Shades of Loving

N has heard many times from me, "The only reason I get upset with you is because I love you. If I didn't care about you, then I wouldn't get upset with you at all."

So yesterday, N comes up to me and says, "Mama, remember how you always say you get upset with me because you love me?"

I reply, guardedly, "Yeah?"

"Well, could we try loving each other in a different way where you don't get upset with me?"

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rose Petals are Romantic...

but if you think you want to save them for ever in the leaves of a book, please don't.

I had stashed away some rose petals (along with the stem) from a bunch of roses that V had given me a few years ago in the really heavy Oxford Atlas of the World. The petals and the book were perfectly fine until we opened the book yesterday to look up something.

The petals had eaten into at least five pages on either side. So we've now lost portions of Europe, England, Russia and Africa.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Commonwealth Games: Indian Masseur Charged with Sexual Harassment

On the heels of Blog-a-thon 2006 highlighting street/sexual harassment of women in India and Nachiketa's post bemoaning the harassment (euphemistically called "eve-teasing" in India) of women on New Delhi's streets, comes this news that a masseur in the Indian contingent that has traveled to Melbourne for the Commonwealth Games, has been charged with sexually harassing a 16-year old cleaner in the sports village.

Now, the charges are still under investigation by the Australian authorities, but what was he thinking?

That he could behave as he wanted with that girl? That she would not take offence? That she would be cowed down by this "status" as an official of the Indian contingent and would not complain? That even if she complained, the police would laugh her off? That the authorities would not countenance her allegations?

Well, whatever he might have aniticipated would happen in the wake of his alleged actions, he could not have anticipated at the speed with which the authorities have reacted in Australia. According to CNN/IBN, his alleged victim complained to the Commonwealth Village police, and the Australian authorities have confiscated his passport pending further investigation. The accused Indian official will be produced in front of a magistrate on March 16th.

Needless to say, this is a highly embarassing moment not only for Indian sport, but for Indian diplomacy as well. What should have been a joyful two weeks of representing India and hopefully putting on a good show in the sports arenas has now turned into two weeks of hiding from the glare of reports a sleazy incident in a room in the sports village.

Indian officials are left in the awkward position of having to deal with an issue that happens all too often within their own borders but is equally often ignored, explained away as "men will be men", or worst of all, blamed on the victim as "deserving what she got" because she might have been too "forward".

But Australia is not India, now, is it?

I don't think we're in Kansas any more, Toto.

Update:

The accused went to court today (March 16). The hearing has been rescheduled for Friday. According to his lawyer, he pled "not guilty". He has been expelled from the Indian contingent and alternative living arrangements have been made for him outside the Village. He faces two counts - one count of unlawful assault and one count of indecent assault. Each of these carries a maximum penalty of 2 years.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Maelstrom

The first time he hit me, I refused to believe it. My body felt it: my cheek stung, the sound reverberated around the room, for one slight second I could swear I saw double. My eyes took in his contorted face leaning into mine as he breathed heavily. But my brain said it was all a lie; it had to be a lie. The seconds filed calmly past as we simply stared at each other. And ever so slowly, into that shocked silence, my rage was born.
This is how Amrita Rajan's tale - a powerful portrayal of the decay and degeneration of what starts out as a loving relationship - begins.

The entire story is definitely worth reading. Please do so here.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Gangubai Hangal Creates History

Gagubai Hangal created history on Sunday in Belgaum by holding a public concert at the age of 94. Here's the report from The Hindu.

History is said to have been created in the field of music with the doyenne of Kirana gharana, Gangubai Hangal, giving a public concert at 94 here on Sunday.

The event, which could enter the Guinness Book of World Records, also turned out to be a public performance coinciding with the 75th anniversary of a glorious musical career of Ms. Hangal.

Renowned harmonium exponents R.K. Bijapure and Tulshidas Borkar and novelist Chandrakant Kusnoor were present.

This rare event was organised by the Belgaum-based Academy of Performing Arts to celebrate her 94th birthday and 75th anniversary of her professional career. Sanchalak of the academy Hayavadan Joshi felicitated Ms. Hangal by presenting her with a citation in recognition of her contribution to Hindustani classical music.

You go, girl!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Right Thing, Wrong Time

N was looking through a long-lost volume of Tintin. He appeared to be slowly flipping through the pages without reading any of the dialogue.

So I asked him to read as well as look at the pictures.

He read, "Beasts! Swine! Cowards!"

Uh. Oh.

I leaned over and saw a picture of Captain Haddock shaking his fist at a plane that flying low and trying to sabotage the boat he and Tintin were in.

Right thing to say to N, but totally the wrong time.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Why Do Some Men Think It's All Right to Harass Women and Girls?

Most, if not all, women have a stories to tell about street harassment. Women are subject to all sorts of assaults the minute they step out into the streets - whistles, cat calls, lewd comments, propositions, stares, gawks, casual brushes of the hand on their bodies as they are walking along, being pressed against in crowded places (and no, this is not the variety that is merely brought on by lack of space - the intention of the perpetrator is quite clear to both him and his victim), and in extreme cases, groping of private parts in full public view. The stories are all too common and they are based on incidents that occur every minute of every day on the streets.

That is the thing about street harassment - the fact that it is so pervasive.

When I'm walking on the streets here in India, I literally have to do a 360 degree survey every few minutes - a sort of a reconaissance mission - to see who is around me. If I see a man anywhere within five feet of me, I then look out for flailing hands.

Oh, they look so innocent, those hands, but within a matter of seconds, I've seen them brush against someone or squeeze some female body part as if it were the most natural thing in the whole world. By the time the woman or the girl turns around in indignation, the perpetrator is making his way merrily up the street not once turning to look back.

An equally galling thing is that this behavior is not limited to any one male demographic - they could be young or old, in rags or in smart clothes, in middle-class areas or in upper-class areas, they could have respectable jobs (I know because many of these oglers stand outside company office buildings during breaks). And sure as hell, most of these creeps are married with kids of their own.

And this is for all those who say, well, the women invite it by the way they dress. Where do I begin to counter an inane assertion like that? First of all, no matter what the woman is wearing, she gets groped anyway. Second of all, what does a woman's dress have to do with how a man reacts to her? What gives a man the right to think he can feel up a woman no matter how she is dressed? Do women, then, have the right to do whatever it pleases them to a man because they did not, for instance, like the color of his shirt or the cut of his pants?

Moreover, the woman's age does not seem to matter either - she could be young, old, married, unmarried, in groups or all alone, with children, without children.

This whole issue and the conversations surrounding it get lost in sociology jargon - invasion of private spaces, for example. The argument goes, "In India, no one has private space. Everyone gets crushed in public transportation. So women should expect it too." The argument has thus veered off on a tangent.

There is no need to resort to jargons to describe what happens on the street to a woman. The idea in a man's head (I am sure there are men in our society who do not indulge in any of the behavior that is the subject of this post, but I sure as hell can't tell one from the other when I am out and about) is, "Oh, look! There's a woman! Now what do I do? Should I whistle, should I slide up close to her? May be if I put my hand out, I can grab something and squeeze it. Choices, choices."

My question is, why do men think this way, especially here in India?

Why are not women seen as another being, having the right to walk carefree on a street or ride on a bus and to reach their destination without being abused, assaulted and battered, without feeling frustrated, guilty, angry, simmering with rage, reconciled to being violated, tearful, afraid for their safety, feeling like shit, feeling dirty, or without feeling like an object of someone's uncontrolled lust?

This sort of behavior sure cannot be what is taught them at home by their mothers and fathers, nor what can be endorsed by sisters, sisters-in-law or female cousins.

Is it the movies? For sure, there is enough violence against women in movies - rapes, harassment, stalking. But do men really model their behavior on the villains and goons in the movies? Well, it's not just villains and goons, is it? The hero initially indulges in this behavior as well, before the heroine falls for his persistence. May be that's the message men take away from the movies - if I'm persistent in harassing a girl, she will be my heroine. Is this really true?

(I am reminded of the new Pepsi ad in this context, the one in which John Abraham, the Pepsi refill guy, overcomes an initially reluctant female employee who tries to thwart his advances. They both end up doing the tango. The message here clearly says, "Don't take 'no' for an answer when the woman does not like your advances initially. If you are more aggressive, she will give in." Totally the wrong message to send to anyone, but especially to young male minds that could potentially be influenced by John Abraham.)

Or is this just an ugly manifestation of a patriarchal society that thinks that a woman's place is at home and if she has the gall to go out and about, then she is going to suffer for it? Or is it that the men think they are more powerful and are able to harass and so do it whenever they feel like doing it (like peeing on the sides of the street whenever it strikes their fancy)?

Someone, pray, tell me. Which one of these is it?

If we know, may be then we can at least begin to hope that our children will inherit a kinder, gentler society in which to live.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Interview with Vijay Amritraj on FM 101.3

If you live in Bangalore, you might be interested in listening to an interview with Indian tennis ace Vijay Amritraj that will be broadcast between 10 and 10:30 am tomorrow, Saturday, March 4th on All India Radio's FM Rainbow 101.3.

I met him for a brief chat when he was in Bangalore to commentate on the WTA Bangalore Open tournament a few days ago.

Sick of Getting Harassed on the Streets? Blog About It!

Street harassment, eve teasing, sexual harassement - whatever name this social phenomenon goes by, it is a monster in our midst. No matter how much we are used to it, having to face it day in and day out, it never fails to give rise to a sick feeling everytime you encounter it. Women face it personally, but the men in their lives are affected as well just by watching their loved ones go through it. At best we are frustrated by this scrouge and at worst, we are afraid to walk freely on the streets. It certainly is a debilitating and nervewracking feeling not to be able to go about your everyday lives without having to be constantly aware of every flailing hand 360 degrees around you.

The Blank Noise Project is an initiative that seeks to assign eve-teasing its rightful place as a crime in our society. The Project now is almost a year old. To commemorate the first anniversary of its existence in the blogosphere, the Project is organizing Blog-a-thon 2006. What is Blog-a-thon 2006 all about? Here is some info from their site:
Marking our one year foray into the blog world, we’ve decided to host a Blog-a-thon on the issue of street harassment. No, you don’t have to run anywhere (thankfully) to participate, you’ve just got to get to your computer this TUESDAY (7th MARCH) and post your thoughts on street harassment/ eve teasing on your blog. You can write about anything related to the topic: testimonies, opinions on harassment, comments about the Blank Noise project, would all be great. It doesn't matter where you're from, where you live, or whether you're a man or a woman - we'd love to have you on board. If you’d like to participate, send an email to blurtblanknoise[AT]gmail.com before the coming Monday (6th March). We’ll add your name and blogsite to the ‘running’ list of participants on the Blank Noise blogsite so that everyone can see what everyone else is writing about the topic. Also, just to get the maximum number of people 'out' for this event - we'd request that you put up a posting on your blog prior to Monday to encourage other people to participate, and to let them know to check your blog on Monday. So join one, join all!

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