Cocktail Concoctions of the Unpalatable Variety
Like most of you, I’m always asked where I’m from. When I answer that I’m half-Indian and half-Bangladeshi, the purists begin to attack me. “There can be no such thing,” they say.
In fact, I was chastised very publicly by one of Bangladesh’s high society members at a late night gathering in the country’s capital, just over a month and a half ago.
The scene was a stilettoes, evening gowns (or in the Bengali translation of this, the horrendous “Pakistani” lawn kameezes that are currently in fashion and drag along the floor, some of which are filled with so many different patterns and possibilities that any proper style guru will want to vomit), and champagne kind of affair, an after party to an event at the elitist American Club.
“Honey,” the said woman, hissing softly, reported to me, “Look around you. We have lived all over the world, but none of us are pretending to be anything but Bangladeshi. You’re Bangladeshi too, so just get over yourself.”
I looked around and took in the ministers’ sons and daughters holding champagne glasses in a room where artwork by prominent artists provided the gloomy backdrop of beggars and malnutritioned babies during Bangladesh’s war of Independence from Pakistan in 1971.
On the foreground artists and singers and the editor in chief of a prominent English language daily sat laughing jovially, in complete oblivion to the terror of those depicted behind on the walls, ignoring the deprivation that was being highlighted for us by garish white spot lights showcasing protruding ribcages like trophies to be admired.
Perhaps the others in the party were simply numbed to the ostentatious display of wealth all around them, and I suddenly felt bile on my throat. I mentally counted every single person in the room, including my self-righteous and quite horrendously clad host, and realised that everyone in the room held a “foreign” passport, except for me. And here we all were, drinking prosecco whilst my host insisted it was “champion,” and I suddenly was livid at the kind of privilege that we afford some lofty ideals such as the byproducts of class privilege, just based on imagined boundaries of similarity.
National Identity: A Question of Semantics
When looking at the laws of India and Bangladesh, state sponsored beliefs do hinge on accepting permanent divisiveness: I cannot receive an Indian citizenship because my ancestors have given up this privilege by migrating- a migration that has caused family members to be holding all sorts of random passports, with British, Bangladeshi, Indian AND Pakistani ones being the key ones in the mix amongst my immediate aunts and uncles alone.
The possibilities of movement are limited in the direction one travels, a post-Partition and postcolonial residual reality that has been made applicable in a multilateral level across all of South Asia- “persons of Indian origin” are hence those who are perceived as outside of those millions who were forced to flee during Partition to either Pakistan or Bangladesh, or indeed to India from these two other countries.
National identifications are interesting, given that what’s occurring in reality is a very well articulated form of ethnic cleansing based on religious distinctions of Muslim/Hindu bifurcations. Funnily enough, one of the staunchest spokesmen against nationalism was found to be upholding exactly what he preached against- nationalism itself.
Rabindranath Tagore, long admired by Bengalis on both sides of the border, would have laughed, and has probably turned over in his grave after seeing the ramifications placed on his ballads. Tagore’s legacy of posthumously providing both India and Bangladesh with our national anthems is enough of an indication of how national heroes are defined wrongly by situating them within the strict boundedness of nationalism, and making them spokespeople for causes such as nationalism, which they would never have supported in their lifetimes.
I won’t excuse the Bangladeshi front either. The other day at the Bangladeshi passport office headquarters in Agargaon, Dhaka, I spent five minutes explaining that I am atheist/agnostic, but the passport office gurus insisted that my biometric passport MUST include information regarding my religious affiliation, and I MUST choose Muslim because of my last name, but I cannot choose not to be affiliated with a religion.
I waved my hands in the air in exasperation, but again, I was left feeling unsettled.
Long has my distrust and distaste for nationalistic or religious ideals been fostered, and I’m here just to insinuate just this much- distinctions are a form of violence, and by extension, they are a tool to validate acts of discrimination against those who lie outside of this boundedness.
My national identity has, over the years, been the cause of debates, of awe, of aggressive conversations, and of counter-assertions that I’m Bangladeshi, not Indian, when in India, or when in Bangladesh, oftentimes an assertion that I’m an Indian “firangi.”
In NYC I was the vague subcontinental South Asian, and when in Europe pn a holiday one year, some of my well-meaning North American friends took the liberty of introducing me to a group of hunters in Innsbruck as a New Yorker, to heated objections from me to this cookie cutter affiliation to a city that I have called home for years, but which I can never truly call mine. After all, as Mohsin Hamid says in “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” “I was never an American, but I was immediately a New Yorker.”
Light epithets aside, there is a cause for concern, and this concern is rooted in the overarching violence that surrounds the issue of complacent self-identifications.
Distinction, Difference and the Fallacy of Simplistic and Sweeping Identifications
What happens when we distinguish ourselves, as bound to a certain country, a certain continent? We only begin to showcase that divisions will never create any form of unity.
But where AM I from, some of the purists still ask. I’m sighing, but I’ll tell you a story that can help you decide for yourself: From my dad’s side, my ancestors came from what is present day Iran and Iraq, to settle in present day Bengal in the 16th century. They were Muslim missionaries, and in the next three hundred years, somehow managed to amass enough clout to send my great-grandfather, a budding human rights activist, to England in the 1870s, to study law. Armed with the knowledge of the colonial Raj, this great grandfather, who lived in the then Calcutta, helped advocate for splitting up Bengal in 1905 into East and West Bengal. He also broke all the rules of division in his personal life by falling in love and marrying a Scottish woman, with whom he had nine children, and then died of cholera, leaving his poor Scottish wife to fend for herself and their halfie children in a country and continent that has historically been hostile to anything “foreign.”
On Mom’s side, the family came in from what is present day Mongolia during the Mughal invasion to settle down in and around Lucknow, and whilst some budding activists and lawmakers have helped legislate for the second partition, with the creation of India and Pakistan, there are divisive lines within the family between Hindu converts into Islam, who have since been perceived as “untouchables,” and on the Muslim front, similar prejudices prevail against the Hindu factions of the family (none of whom I have ever met, if that is indication enough).
Fast forward a half century, and my maternal grandfather, a North Indian, moves to Chittagong, then under East Pakistan in the 1940s, for business. Fast forward some more, and this grandfather is held up at gunpoint by his Bengali best friends during the Bangladeshi war of Independence from Pakistan. His friends, leaders of the Bangladeshi freedom fighter movement, ascertained the family is “Bihari” (the Bangladeshi means of identifying all Indians into one unceremonious and unjustifiable lump), and made this grandfather sign over thousands of acres of land- what serves as the Chittagong headquarters as the Bangladesh Army, as a matter of fact, in exchange for his and his family’s life. My mother and her siblings had to flee the country, because “Indians” are not welcome in Bangladesh, but when crossing over, the guards on the Indian side were less then welcoming too.
To be fair, I think my family has done more than what is deemed appropriate in terms of our civic duty to a country where we have been terrorized, ostracized, and faced more ridiculousness than most families would ever have to face anywhere in the world in fifty generations. In short, who I am is a South Asian, first and foremost, but even such affiliations are discomforting.
I’ve grown up in a household where neither parent speaks Bengali like a native, and we have resorted to English to communicate effectively with each other. Not just that, but my mother has been repeatedly discriminated against by random and distant strangers for speaking to my father in Urdu and hence being taken for Pakistani- the penultimate enemy of the Bangladeshi mind, and so much so that by the mid-80s, she had to teach herself Bangla, causing us, the next generation, to completely miss out on our heritage of being a halfie Indian through linguistic affiliations. To this day, my father, who was born and bred in Calcutta, does not speak, read, or write in Bangla.
And to add to this mix, I have lived in four different countries across three continents and have spent more than half my life outside of Bangladesh.
Hence, my question to the world is this: why is it that those of us who refuse to identify one way or another, have to be subject to unthinking nincompoops, who, just on the basis of their affiliations, assume that simplicity is the governing dictat, and the answer, to all complicated answers?
I’m just as Bengali as I’m non-Bengali. And I’m just as much Indian as I am not. On my better days, I will tell you I’m a mutt, but you will never hear me favoring one identification over the other, regardless of the scoffs and sniggers of strangers.
Whilst nationalistic identifications allow for governments to provide the services necessary for progressing towards safe water and equitable education for all, equating place identifications with cultural ones, or totalizing one’s experience based on “origins” is ridiculous, because culture is not static, and hundreds of years of movement cannot be simplified into a place affiliation, ergo a wrong one. Such identifications are detrimental to progress and growth of an individual as much as it is to that of a country, because fluidity is lost, and difference is not celebrated, but suppressed.
When the hostess of the party tried to put me in my place, I had a simple answer, “Why don’t you ask me what issues move me or what I love? Indeed, the fact that I stand against child marriage, that I love walking, that anything by Satyajit Rai moves me to tears- these are bigger identifiers of who I am, than a blanket statement that is just pointless.”
She was flabbergasted, and her lips moved like a goldfish, as I took two flutes of prosecco from the next waiter’s tray and handed one to her in a silent toast.