Whose identity is it anyway?


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THE forever-affable The New York Times on 26 March 2004 ran a story on its culture pages about multicultural life on Coney Island Avenue. It is a collection of rapid observations on cultural harmony among diverse groups of immigrants in the city. One gets the image that this place is a veritable feast of food, languages and music, all blended in a wonderful image of contemporary urban America. The story entitled, ‘On Brooklyn’s Avenue of Babel, Cultures Entwine’, is fully mindful of the times in which it is enunciated as it summarizes the issues about immigrant life and America: ‘…here civilizations that clash elsewhere share not just blocks but grocery stores.’

This is how one of the leading newspapers in this country sees diaspora. It is a vision of harmony among themselves and a romantic image of American public life. In this mainstream vision of multiculturalism, diasporic communities are an attractive feature of a society where diverse cultures live side by side, each in their enclaves, but fully assimilated in public life. That is, cultural clash is dissolved when we think of food, music and other ‘non-political’ features of multicultural life.

Americans like to embrace diversity with a certain historical distinction. After all, this is a country of immigrants, and as such it offers a colourful mix of different races and peoples from around the world. In fact, one of the most common metaphors used for this vision is that of a melting pot, where everyone blends in perfectly into a mixed coloured but distinctive mix of diverse peoples.



Those who believe that multiculturalism, as it is lived, is more like a salad, a mosaic, a quilt, where each identity can be seen distinctly without blending into each other, contest this vision. Proponents have claimed that this multiculturalism makes this country distinctive. But if its claims on a society founded on the principles of Enlightenment are to be true, it must respect this diversity and face the real life issues about equality and respect while maintaining diversity. No doubt, this has been a contentious debate and in many ways, as we will see, it figures into the intellectual debates among Indians as well.

It is possible to see Indians in this country as aligned with their host land, as harmonious contributors of food and music in a generally attractive (‘Orientalist!’) vision of the society. Else, they could be seen as one of the major components of an egalitarian society. Some of us may like to take stock of forty some years in a picture of ‘progress’ and ‘achievements’: steady immigration, a gradual growth of ‘little India’s’ everywhere from California to New Jersey, an increasing presence in public and cultural life of this country, and a visibility led by everyone from the physicians and cab drivers to television talking heads, journalists, scientists and engineers. If you look inside the community and see this dominant vision of accomplishment, and progress for the community, there is no doubt a great deal of truth in these claims. Empirically, as this society has grown, Indians have grown too and that growth has not been minor by any assessment.



The image of the Indian community situated on a road to perfect harmony defined by the mainstream may equally be seen in a different light. The temptations of measuring any historical phenomenon in terms of progress are attractive but they do not grasp the complexity of uneven development and even more importantly, they miss the elements of contradiction, a rich and veritable presence of forces that shape diasporic identity. The New York Times sees compatibility in terms of food, music and other forces of innocence. But what escapes them entirely is the underside of culture where this harmony is played out into a struggle between reality and representation.

To understand Indian American identity, one may find in Walter Benjamin a concept sharp and potent enough to approach the complexity of these issues. Alarmed by the claims of progress and narratives of history which record only victories, Benjamin proposed a different method. The march of history, he thought, has no regard to the mechanisms of exclusion or violence of contradictions. His idea of a dialectical image, therefore, is an instrument that can reveal the relationship of Indian community in the United States at this historical juncture. As a given moment frozen in front of you, its time and elements nakedly inviting one’s introspection, a dialectical image is very much a juxtaposition of elements positioned to bring out the contradictions, the hidden hits and misses, silences and pronouncements.

Without regard to a catalogue of progress or claims of unyielding march, a dialectical image generates provocative thought because it plays up the contradictions ignored by the narratives of progress. It is an exercise in reflection, and makes us realize that the Indian community in the United States appears to conform to neither The New York Times’ vision of melodic cultural clash nor the cacophony of claims of diversity simply because one finds a solace of independence in these claims.



In recent times, both here and in their homeland, Indians in America have come to be known as part of the NRI community around the world (non-resident immigrants). Within their own community, this notion prevails over all the others. It is very difficult to leave the country behind even though you have left it in a palpable sense. The internal character of this community is inescapably Indian. Whether we witness this in their grocery stores, the large traffic in Bollywood film rentals, growing number of temples around the country or their rising prominence with the sheer weight in numbers, Indians are a group protecting their identity as Indians. If we listen to the steady but vigorous dialogue within its confines, best embodied in the views of young writers and publications within the community, these concerns are about being an Indian. It is about maintaining one’s own culture, traditions and values, starting from family values and celebrating all things Indian.

Since the immigration of Indians has grown steadily since the early waves in the 1960s, there are now problems on generational levels. Here, the conflicts are embedded more in the tension between the imperatives of the culture in which the younger generation is growing and those that their parents and elders think are simply corrupt and not genuinely respectful as those they had brought with them. The second and third generational issues are of main concern to the internal mechanics of how the Indian community functions and how it treads the waters of an aggressively and rapidly changing culture in the US. While these problems are not uniquely Indian by any means, they are brewing here with greater intensity and do surface as a major issue of representation in cultural gatherings, writings and even films and television shows.



Part of the drive to define ourselves as genuinely and strongly Indian is influenced by the urge to establish ourselves as non-resident Indians. There is, among Indians, an unyielding urge to belong to India. This raises all sorts of puzzling and endless questions at a practical and intellectual level. Clearly, this irrepressible desire for dual citizenship speaks for maintaining dualism in diasporic life. Part of it is motivated by a desire to draw financial benefits from a dual relationship and, given this, there are few who could benefit measurably from this new status. But we need to remember that the desire to acquire dual identity is also driven by an illusory aspect of diasporic identity everywhere, the desire of belonging to the land that one has left behind.

The status of an exile is never an easy one. But one that is aware of its own state of being is especially difficult. Those who want to belong to India want to belong to the mythical India of their memory, their own sense of what it was and has been. This from a group of people, specifically the earlier generation in large part, who adapt to new structures of feeling here but don’t want to lose their anchor in rapidly imaginary waters. But the impulse is strong. It is maintained, nurtured and even cultivated by this internal and internalized culture of preserving their own India.

It is always a fascinating issue how we hang on to imaginary identities and what means we use to do so. Since the frame of reference they want to keep alive is changing, Indians have wonderfully resorted to a larger mythical achievement of their memory and public life back home, the omnipresent and prodigious presence of movies in their lives. Bollywood films, available now from major neighbourhood stores, their own grocery stores (which are an important part in holding on to this identity process in general), and a variety of mail order outfits accessible from all parts of the country, have to be one of the most mysterious vehicles of culture and memory ever imagined.



Since the idyllic life we believe we have left behind is not accessible through other means, it is kept alive by Bollywood cinema. The weddings, the romance, the family politics, the religious rituals, the ever cacophonous chorus of (the so called uniformly) Indian values coming from blockbusters preserve an India that is not easy to reproduce by any other means. It is a powerful medium, and unlike in countries like Trinidad where the separation from the homeland is more clear and contact with it is scarce, it is not the only medium. Never mind that Bollywood cinema itself is a gigantic production of a homogenous myth called India, a machine successful at projecting a dominant vision of India. More importantly, it has become a prominent mechanism of cultivating and preserving a sense of Indianness among Indians.

If we visit this notion of what it means to be an Indian, we realize that an entire set of discourses are under-way to maintain it as a theoretical possibility while it remains a practical difficulty in the lives of Indians. In large communities, where there are sizeable numbers of variety of Indians, where Bengalis and Punjabis, Maharashtrians and Tamils coexist, the idea of an Indian identity tends to be quite mixed. Here the divine claim to the separate identity of one’s real place in India takes precedence over the larger pressure to be called Indian. One is a Bengali before one is an Indian. In smaller communities where the numbers don’t force you to retreat into your specificity, there are no imperatives to claim any particulars. But this perpetual pull toward the specificity is a fundamental part of lived identity for many Indians. It results in the formation of small enclaves based on regional and linguistic identities. Finally, it decides what needs to be preserved and what needs to be delineated. Several of the regional groups have the equivalent of the ‘Sunday’ schools in their temples, where old folktales, religious texts and rituals are kept alive for second and (now) third generation of Indians.



If we think of how problems of any culture find their place in the public map of representations, it becomes clear that those who have the means to do so and those who have the language to do so succeed. There is this old tale among linguists. When learned and upper class kids are caught in a mischief, they weasel their way out of it because their sophistication of language allows them the privilege, while uneducated and lower class kids, in the same situation, face the consequences because the skills of representation are not at their disposal. The literate, the articulate and those who can afford the leisure of intellectual pursuits dominate the discourse of identity. It is legitimate to ask: whose identity is it anyway – those who can articulate it or those who suffer it?

The rise of an underclass among immigrant Indians has grown sizeably over the past two decades. But their concerns, struggles and issues have not reached the register of the conscience in the media or the public life of Indians. Often survival in economic crossfire or simple issues of immigration and health insurance are sufficient to take your mind off dual citizenship, mythical reconstruction of India in Bollywood films, or various manifestations of what it means to be part of a diaspora. There are the perennial cab drivers in the city, graduate students who work for pitiful wages called assistantships, waiters in Indian restaurants who are denied even the minimum wage and the gratuities assumed to be part of living wages, untold number of household help in Indian and other homes – all face accumulated problems of nitty-gritty survival in an economy that brings them hope and often just hope. Identity for them is so far removed from theoretical and conceptual considerations, but the very thought of it exposes the larger forces that weigh in on the lives of individuals. Diasporic identity becomes a luxury for those who have the language, the conceptual structures and the intellectual leisure of contemplation.



The US economy is increasingly driven by demands made on the low level workers. It is not simply a glorious service economy, where there is more information processing than manufacturing, but an economy that requires labour which must go unnoticed to the larger concerns of politicians or numbers on Wall Street. It is no wonder that the President of the US recently asked for a legislation that would grant legal status to a large number of illegal Mexican immigrants. True, it is a cruel cynical ploy in an election year, but it speaks volumes for the necessity of this labour in the economy. A sizable part of the Indian community is made of this level of workers whose identity must be articulated by those who have the means to do so.



All our vaunted claims to Indian values of family and community collapse as we realize that many of these workers (including students, without whom undergraduate teaching in universities would simply collapse) do not have health insurance – a disgraceful feature of the richest country in the world today. In a country that holds so many physicians from India in high regard and where the Indian community is increasingly considered to be affluent, the silence of the helpless continues to grow. Sure, there are scattered examples of generous arrangements between individuals, but the picture is less than heartening. The irony of seeking dual citizenship and guarding the ‘Indian’ values of community, family and our cultural character while we contribute to the segregatory and selfish aspects of American society is not lost on those who have a broader view of the Indian American diaspora.

Perhaps the most generalized and prominent pressure on finding ourselves in a strange land we now call home is the old struggle between assimilation and independence. Indians do not have any exclusive claim on this dilemma any more than other groups of immigrants. Our plight is shared and separated from that of the others. This dialectic remains at the heart of what it means to be an Indian and what it means to be an Indian American. Much of it depends on the political make up of this land and much more on the politics of multiculturalism itself.

The Indian community finds itself gathering strength in numbers, in its ability to flex financial muscle and an overall prominence in the social role accorded to it because of numerous cultural, social and historical achievements of Indians and their country of origin. Despite all this, they cannot erase their racial identity in this race-conscious society. This aspect shapes their external, social identity in the United States. The polarized tensions between the African Americans, who have an entirely different claim on the notion of synthetic, dual identity, and white Americans of European origins, have formed an axis of how race is seen across the spectrum. The degree of tolerance is often shaped by one’s place on that continuum.



As the social and policy debates become more intensely polemic and polarizing, Indians find themselves in a dubious position of being exploited and privileged at the same time. Their various tones of skin colour have been accommodating in place of American blacks on issues such as affirmative action or general racial make-up of companies, universities and other social organizations. That is, in many cases, the system has discovered that one can fulfil the requirements of a racially diverse group by choosing darker Indians who are considered less troublesome, sometimes more competent and no doubt socially advantaged. It is entirely possible in this nexus of competing forces of accommodation and social needs that Indians find themselves targeted for racial bias precisely because of their skin tone and general social success, both of which invite scorn and categorization in a society that attempts to be egalitarian but lives by the old dictum of fair skin superiority.

Various hate-crimes and dispersed incidents at workplace and in everyday lives of individuals will attest to this complex picture of what it means to be brown in a rainbow of uneasy multiculturalism. The recent climate of Arab bashing has only exacerbated the situation, exposing the hypocrisies and pretensions of this society. Stories are abundant since the time of the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, where a number of brown skinned students from India were roughed up and intimidated, especially in the hinterland of Middle and South America.



The much-publicized attacks and a murder of a Sikh in the South only underscore this deep ignorance among Americans who cannot distinguish in their hatred between the beards and turbans of Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts, and those of Sikhs or anyone else’s. A country so deeply oblivious to the complexities of global cultural scene was woken up by the attacks of terrorists. But much of the awareness quickly degenerated into an expression of its deep-rooted beliefs and misplaced conceptions of the world it dominates.

Some years ago, Pat Buchanan, a right-wing talk show host and a flaming Republican who has attempted Presidency, spoke about how difficult it is to open doors to immigrants from all over the world. In rhetoric reminiscent of the other dark era of the last century, he told his fellow Americans and policy-makers that it is good social policy to bring Europeans to this country because they are easy to assimilate. Increasing the variety of this populace by choosing people simply based on merit or need as it is mostly done now, would simply corrode the country’s basic fabric which is founded on European ethic, as Buchanan sees it. While much of that is worth paying attention to, simply to understand the diagnosis of racism on the right, Buchanan identified the dilemma of assimilation quite well.

If this were a truly egalitarian society and one founded on the principles of immigration (not to speak of the injustices done to the ‘other’ Indians), it would be possible to see one’s place here as that of equal but different, of similarity and difference. Indians, one can assume, are negotiating this at two levels, cultural and political. As we have seen, the pressures to absorb an alien culture into your own were met with much less success among the early immigrants, now the first generation elders, rather than the recent and second (or third) generation members. But their social involvement plays out quite differently at the political level. Since politics or the theatre of politics proper is quite simplistic and bipolar in this country, with conservatives and liberals or Republicans and Democrats occupying the easy poles, one has to navigate one’s place in a less complicated land.



Since the mainstream of this country, thanks to the likes of Buchanan who remind us, was founded on European identity, Indians have found themselves aligned with those who fought for civil rights and who valued the core of the principles of free speech and freedom that are unrestricted in the spirit and letter of the law. In some quarters, it is a given, as such alliances are considered natural, losers bound together in a common cause, in an empathetic bond and a shared political purpose. One would assume that is still the case and the sensibility of Indians may be with the larger multicultural project of this country.

But Indians bring layered complexity to this problem. The students in the sciences and engineering, doctors and technicians in the computer economy and a general excellence in the natural sciences have dominated the Indian community of immigrants. As some of us in the humanities have observed, the community’s outlook is dominated by technical or instrumental rationality. Their orientation separates them from the question of values and binds them to the efforts of technical, competitive efficiency.



This group, quite large on several fronts, is known for its extraordinary competence and professionalism. But it also embodies a servile submission to political pressures since these were supposed to be out of our gambit of establishing ourselves. That includes a growing business class of Indians in this country. Conservatism has always been a good ally of instrumental rationality. For them America represents a land where dreams come true and rags-to-riches is not a fairytale but a distinct possibility. The intense attractiveness of this country to others, one argues, is founded on this perspective. One does not live by politics alone, one works hard with faith in the system so as to put food on the table.

The recent rise of the candidacy of Bobby Jindal for the governorship of Louisiana positioned against the first time woman candidate from the Democratic Party (who finally won) underscores this approach. For him, a simplistic faith in the conservative principles is identical to the offerings of this nation as such. One could prosper with plenty of opportunity and less of regulation. A dedication to the principles of free enterprise is much more valued than that of free speech or social responsibility. The continuing dallying of fundraisers and political action committees by Indians for the right comes close to endorsing this blend of blindness to one’s place in this complex world with the uncritical endorsement of the ideas that fundamentally delineate us in the first place.

Among the newly emerging chattering class, the issue of representation has become central in every sense. Dinesh DeSouza, Ramesh Ponnuru and Fareed Zakaria among them have occupied airtime and visibility in the public sphere. Their Indian-ness pronounced, they have become powerful spokesmen of mainstream positions. Someone like DeSouza is more of a wonder child to the right as he presents views more fervently to the right than those who seem to lose the energy to defend them. In a country that values free speech, this would be a commendable achievement were it not for the vapid lack of any self-conscious, historical perspective of what suffering is and how it can be alleviated.



But this group believed in the power of rhetoric and they are the rising stars of the media and politics. Their racial identity is entirely hidden to them in their own discourse, as it becomes the first screen through which the rest of the culture sees them. Fareed Zakaria’s claim to a place in the corridors of power (as editor of the international desk at Newsweek and a prominent commentator on US policy on television) takes him to new heights as he espouses full military campaigns where democracy does not exist while advocating authoritarian governance in places where democracy isn’t endemic. Along with the triumph of the instrumental rationality of science and business minded Indians, this is an equally glorious victory for those speaking for power without realizing how power speaks through you.

Zakaria and DeSouza would be eminently ordinary in the panorama of Indian identity. But for Americans in the public sphere, they are emblematic of Indian identity. It is a vision of multiculturalism, where individual representatives of diverse cultures are so absorbed in the mainstream that they achieve exemplary status for all Americans. If one is finding a place in this culture as an Indian, one negotiates one’s relationship to the views and presence of the rising stars whose Indian-ness is marketed cleverly by those who use them.



One also negotiates social identity in the sphere of media representations. For over ten years, an immensely popular animation series on prime time, The Simpsons, has constructed a persona of Apu, a convenience store vendor, who typifies his presence as an Indian through a thick accent, a consistent devotion to deities in the workplace, orthodox views on community, a selfish and protective approach to customers and his occasional forays into lust. So broad is his popularity that Apu has come to represent Indians to most television viewers. His accent has become so common now that most other characters on television shows use it to lampoon all things Indian. And in a move typical of parochial ignorance, Apu’s accent has been adopted as a generalized diction for all people east of Europe. It is not surprising that Osama Bin Laden and other brown skinned terrorists now speak like Apu in the American media.

The problem of representation of the other in the West has always been a troublesome one. The stereotypes and caricatures have long been a privilege of the powerful. That defines one major dimension of the relationship between Europe and its other. American media has not been immune to this and, if anything, has carried the torch quite well. Apu merely leads the pack of the buffoons; the heavy accented cab drivers, the clumsy Harondi Bakhshi’s (memorialized by the inimitable Peter Sellers) and the typical doctors or dentists and like Apu, the managers and staff at Dunkin Donuts or area convenient stores.

The issue is complex as we find that this constructed identity is what one lives with; it is the screen that one wears in each encounter with the world. It is never too amusing to see someone sport a surprise at the fluency of English spoken by Indians, the simple assumptions that everyone is a computer wizard, or that doctors are made brilliant and kind in India, or that it is Kama Sutra that causes the population explosion in the land of mystery and wonder. One lives with these issues in diasporic identity, which is never a given, never a peaceful state of being and never a comfortable phase of growth in between two lands.



Meditations on identity are best shaped in the academic world. Identity has become a buzzword in scholarly circles, a fashion of intellectual pursuit and also a feat of advance in reflective thought. It is a mixed world and the most heartening aspect of it is that in a changing and challenging world, it is still a formidable issue for scholars. One of the most common refrains is that identity is not a static idea, that it is constantly changing and being modified. In a world that once reverberated with struggles defined over the dimensions of class, race and gender, it is identity that rules intellectual circles.

The focus on identity leads to a two-fold approach. One foregrounds identity itself, a fundamental notion of who we are and what we have become. Identity politics is a veritable feast of self-proclaimed positions, statements and ideals. In a rapidly mainstreamed field of cultural studies, with its specific provinces in universities, scholarly conferences and publications, identity is something tangible to hold on to, while proclaiming that it is a fluid concept, given to the whims of social and cultural factors, which seem to have a logic of their own.

A somewhat more productive approach comes from an exploration of other forces that produce identities, which is nothing more than a window to the world of real politics. The focus here is less on self-gratifying proclamations of identity and more on the complex forces and social conditions which shape them. We are now in the realm of social and historical analysis rather than confessional psychology. This would be a provocative aspect of intellectual work if it were not for the divide between intellectual labour and the real world of political forces, a divide, which is as wide as, well, the Grand Canyon itself.



The world of intellectual inquiry in the United States is showing signs of enjoying the surplus luxury of analyzing the world by removing oneself from it. Diasporic studies are fast becoming a fertile ground for practising this remote control intellectual pursuit. It is common to witness conference sessions and papers with titles such as ‘The homing of diaspora, the diasporizing of home’, which claim the art of name-dropping or cursory attention to revolutionary concepts of exile or political responsibility of diasporas around the world. The American academy is uniquely situated to exploit this divide with the real world of people.

All of this forms the context of diasporic identity for Indian intellectuals who are one of the most complex and dynamic of such phenomenon in the contemporary world. Unlike their counterparts in the realm of science and technology, scholars in the humanities are, by and large, socially conscious and progressive and far removed from the trappings of power. The identity of those who analyze and reflect on issues of identity with scholarly fervour is indeed instructively engaging.



With the rise of postcolonial and cultural studies and a healthy place for the study of diasporas, the presence of intellectuals on university and college campuses has been strong. Led by some brilliant work by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Homi K. Bhabha, one notices a whole cadre of faculty members and graduate students working on these issues. All of this work is certainly affected by the language games in cultural studies, with obscurity, esoteric tones, ritualistic lip service to revolutionary concepts and a deliberate distance from the contingencies of real politics. It raises anew the issues of intellectual responsibility in our time, of the role of the public intellectuals, of academics willing to engage in public sphere outside of their own parochial enclaves of conferences, journal publications and tenure battles.

This irony of the divide between the stated political ambition of post-colonial discourse on identity and the vast separation from the problems and spheres of political issues of our time is at the heart of the enterprise of political engagement by Indian intellectuals in the United States. In this country, tenure and resources of academic institutions provide a protection that is unparalleled around the world. But instead of using that security as an engine for political involvement in the public sphere, we retreat into scholarly reflection that is without accountability. This challenge is by no means exclusive to intellectuals of Indian origin, but it is certainly a challenge that will test the viability of the project of diaspora, of being in two places and belonging nowhere.