Coming to Terms With Hyphens: The Politics of Identity

Poonam Sachdev

Writer’s comment: My first quarter at Davis, my very first course was Professor Flavell’s Four Narratives of Self and Nation. Although the title didn’t conform to my idea of a typical literature course—no mention of Homer or Shakespeare—the reading list sparked my imagination as I signed on with all the eagerness of a re-entry student. The narratives were from England, Japan, Australia, and the United States, all a long way from my original home, yet they evoked a sense of having been there. This sense of déjà vu made me realize that although our individual time, space, and experiences differ, underneath we are linked by our stories of conflict and our attempts at resolution; that our sense of being and belonging depends on how we imagine ourselves. This paper reflects on the possibility of creating for ourselves a sense of unity. I would like to thank Professor Flavell for helping me explore the plurality of my self and for encouraging me to write.
—Poonam Sachdev

Instructor’s comment: Poonam Sachdev’s essay is a sensitive account of the complex ways in which her sense of personal and communal identity has been constructed and reconstructed within the changing rings of family, school, friends, and nationhood as she has moved to and fro between Assam, India, and California.
        The course compared narratives and images of self and nation, focuing on how certain authors (Jill Ker Conway, Basho, Ishiguro) and artists (Hogarth, Bernice Abbott) built up a bounded sense of personhood by establishing cultural frameworks that colonized time and space and created a familiar world of the “everyday.” In the process of self-making, identities and processes of identification are in constant flux, dissolving and reassembling into new metaphors and new lines and shadows as each person interacts with others and searches for his or her own voice.
        Invited to apply the theoretical framework of the class to a self-study, Ms. Sachdev creatively used theoretical works on the making of self and community (Anderson, Kondo, Verdery) to build an autobiographical essay that reminds us that the politics of cross-cultural encounter are always shaped by metaphor. She also persuaded me to read Tagore, for which I thank her warmly.
—Kay Flavell, Critical Theory Program

In essence, the hyphen defines my “self,” for my life is a mosaic of hybrid cultures. The many faces of India are reflected in the plurality of my “self.” I have come to understand that “identity is not a static object but a creative process . . . an ongoing—indeed a lifelong occupation” (Kondo 48). Engaged in this “creative process” I find that part of my “self” is derived from the roles I play—mother, daughter, sister, wife—and part of it is motivated by who I want to be. This search does not follow a straight path to some neatly labelled goal but meanders through time and space and the inner reaches of my soul. It is a spiritual quest for my ideal self in a personal and national sense, one that is inspired by Tagore’s poem (Gitanjali #35) written for India and her people during their struggle for self-determination:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action—
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

         When India awoke to freedom in 1947, she witnessed the rubble and landmarks of empires and dynasties that had marched across her terrain and left their stamp on the land and the people, infusing the culture, shaping the politics, affecting the economy, colouring the fabric of India and the future of her communities. If one were to search for a single narrative of India, it would be impossible to find, for it is a jigsaw puzzle of many little narratives. Each one is indispensable in constructing the whole, for each is imbued with the nuances of individual interpretations of language, habit, and social norms that define its unique culture.

         India’s multi-layered history can be unearthed in any city or village one might pass through: The Red Fort, the Qutab Minar, and King Edward’s statue stand as monuments to the Mughal dynasty and the British raj; some roads are still named after British lords, and the Plaza and Odeon are popular cinema halls in New Delhi, small reminders of our colonized history. India’s national identity cannot be defined by a homogenous view. She, too, has a plurality of “selves” that struggle to find a creative expression of unity that allows her diverse elements to flourish. Multiple religions and ethnicities make up India’s diverse culture, sometimes knitting it together in multi-dimensional hues, but more often tearing it apart in multi-ethnic ferocity.

         India as we know it today came into being under colonial rule; her national identity was imposed to facilitate British dominion. This idea of nationhood was successfully employed by the freedom fighters to unite India in her independence struggle. The lofty ideals of the Indian Constitution embody the Gandhian vision of a secular nation in which the rule of law was to be derived from a code of morality and justice. But the visionary ideals that were meant to unite India in her new-found freedom are exploited by politicians who nurture their own power agendas. Claiming to define and protect national and personal space, their policies unleash the parochial elements in the human psyche that construct “narrow domestic walls.” At play are the “global, societal, and institutional contexts in which different groups compete to control this symbol [nation] and its meanings” (Verdery 39). According to Verdery, “in modern nationalisms, among the most important things to have in common are certain forms of culture and tradition, and a specific history” (38). India’s “specific history” has shown that her varied traditions and cultures are ripe for exploitation. The “opiate” of religion and the “phantoms” of ethnicity become the bones of contention within her teeming population. The voice and vision of Tagore and Gandhi are lost in the violence that rocks India’s hope for stability and jeopardizes her “national” identity.
         Harmony in this divisive and volatile climate seems to be the pipe dream of idealists, merely the muse of poets.

         I was born into a free India, but my life was influenced by the carry-over from her colonial past. The tea plantation community where I grew up was a miniature model of colonial times that still flourished in a time-warp. Assam is geographically and culturally so remote from Delhi that plantation life was a world unto itself. Even the clocks operated on “garden time,” which was an hour ahead of Indian Standard Time. Our lives were defined by the monsoon rains and the pruning and plucking season; the landscape of tea bushes stretched as far as the eyes could see. The insistent call of the brain-fever bird urged us to “make more pekoe,” and the cry of the jackal reminded us that evening was near. Home was a beautiful, sprawling bungalow with wide verandas designed to catch the breeze and lush gardens ablaze with bougainvillaea, poinsettia, and golden shower. On the boundary demarcating one plantation from another were billboards announcing the vernacular name of the plantation and the usually British name of the company that owned it.

         The people of Assam speak Assamese. Each state in India has its own language, which is jealously guarded as the unifying factor of its communal identity. Thus it has been hard to impose Hindi as the national language. Instead, odd as it may seem, English is the unifying lingua franca of India. It is the intellectual language and the language of the government. The legacy of the raj survives also in the structure of the government and the educational system. Although I grew up speaking some Assamese, more Hindi, and understanding Punjabi, English displaced my “mother tongue.” It became the vehicle that allowed me maximum mileage in communication. St. Andrew’s School in Darjeeling was a British school for all practical purposes. My school blazer had a Latin motto, and every Sunday we were required to go to church and sing “God Save the Queen” at the end of the service. If it hadnn’t been for the climate and the sight of Mt. Kunchenjunga to remind me, I might well have thought I was in England, especially when on the fifth of November the whole school celebrated Guy Fawke’s Night and burnt his effigy on a bonfire. In that atmosphere it was hard to remember that we as Hindus should, more appropriately, have been celebrating Diwali.

         I was almost twelve years old when my parents decided it was important for their children to go to a school that also taught Hindi and emphasized Indian traditions, where India and our sense of “nation” would be constructed in a more authentic atmosphere. When I first transferred to Welham Girls' High School, I spoke English with a British accent and barely knew any Hindi. My first hyphen manifested itself as I realized that a brown face with a British accent was an anomaly. Despite my British prep school experience, I had not seen myself as being other than Indian, but my inflection in speech and manner made me appear “foreign” at Welham. I purposefully lost my accent, molding my speech to the Welham norm because when you are twelve years old it is more important to have friends. Until the time I finished high school, my boarding school and the tea plantations were my “imagined community,” which I knew to be a part of the larger nation—India. Back then, when asked where home was, it was enough to say “Sangsua Tea Estate.” Sheltered within the nucleus of my family, my “imagined community” was secure. I did not know then that national identity and ethnic identity do not always coincide, that economics and politics were conspiring to write a bloody chapter in the history of Assam.

         The riots that shook Assam in the seventies also shook up my home and shattered the vision of India as a unified “national” entity that I had until then whole-heartedly endorsed. The peaceful somnolence that had defined the mood of Assam changed tempo to one of violence and unrest. Communities imagine themselves as nations “regardless of actual inequality and exploitation” based on a “deep horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 7). Assam’s need to define her national identity on these terms erupted into a ferocious student uprising that protested the presence of all non-Assamese people in Assam. Black graffiti on white-washed mud walls read GO HOME INDIANS—GO HOME FOREIGNERS. It was my first concrete image of displacement. Another hyphen came into being. Overnight, Indians were foreigners within the boundaries of their own nation if they lived and worked outside the state they ethnically belonged to. Suddenly, Assam was only for the Assamese. Their sense of nation had shifted from a whole to a part. I realized then that India was no longer a large nation made up of many states, but many nations bound within a state.

         “I want the world to be your oyster,” my father used to say, and I would try to imagine what he meant. When I was little it seemed incomprehensible that the vast world could be an “oyster” that would comfortingly enclose me within itself. Yet, raised on this refrain and the notion that a good education is the key that opens all doors, I found that my curiosity awakened about the world outside my family, school, and tea. What was to be my function in the scheme of things, I wondered? As I finished school, then college, with vague imaginings about a career and “discovering” the world, my dreams bumped into the predetermined expectations of the socio-cultural environment into which I was born. According to custom, the next step for a young woman on the threshold of life is marriage. She needs a Mrs. in front of her name and the bindi on her forehead for society to validate her womanhood. As I approached the watershed age of twenty-four, by which time I had to be married or be considered “on the shelf” for life, I wondered a lot about the world which was to be my oyster. What does the world mean to one who cannot digress from a predetermined destiny, who has to follow an invisible but palpable timetable set by society? What is a woman’s “self” if it doesn’t come into being until it is united with her life partner?

         In India, a woman is born to fugitiveness. Her real home is not the one she is born in, but the one into which she will marry. By giving up her name to accept that of her husband’s family, she symbolically sacrifices a part of her “self” to accept her place as an integral part of a whole unit. As she embarks upon the creation of a little world, the family, she must accept that the importance of a woman’s place in society is grounded in the family. While the father is the head of the family, the mother represents the soul of the family. According to ancient Indian lore, the head and the soul of the family were equally important and interdependent. The ideal of mutual respect and familial love bond the family into a strong unit—the very core of society. But somewhere the wisdom of the ages has lost its way in the often treacherous tangles of the material world, and values have shifted to give more importance to the male, who is traditionally the bread winner. Paradoxically, the woman—who nurtures, makes the family the center of her existence, and puts its needs before her individual ones—holds a subordinate place in the family and in society. In the power struggle between man and woman, material vs. spiritual, provider vs. nurturer, the material world wins. The story of a woman’s search for “self” in twentieth-century India is a changing, challenging, difficult one. It requires ingenuity, courage, and strength to achieve self-actualization while establishing order and continuity, and above all, a secure home for all those who depend on her.

         I think of the song my mother sang to me when I was little: “Now I’m grown up with children of my own / I ask my mother what lies ahead? Will there be rainbows . . . ?” To that, the universal answer was: “Que será, será; what will be, will be.” It must be fate, then, that brought me to America.

         That was fourteen years ago. Now I’m grown up with children of my own. We have fitted into the California way of life; our children play soccer and baseball, eat hamburgers and pizza. Our weekly routine is defined by their practice sessions and school activities. We take out the garbage, mow the lawn, and are careful not to grumble about these chores because at home in India we had servants to do them. No, we are true Californians subscribing to the yuppie, suburban way of life. As we light up the barbecue on Memorial Day weekend and watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July, I can almost convince myself that I am a “naturalized” American. Is this what my father meant when he wanted the world to be my oyster? Then the fifteenth of August comes around, and as I rush through my busy day I recognize with a vague twinge of guilt that it is the Indian Independence holiday and worthy of celebration. But the fifteenth of August does not fit into this nation’s plan, and it slips by with only a token nod of acknowledgment as I explain to my children what this holiday means for us. A brief historical reference as we rush to soccer practice. The “us” is dissipated in the context of the environment we presently inhabit. This is a moment when I recognize my marginality, a moment that marks my peripheral existence in a culturally unnatural habitat. A disquieting voice asks, “Where do I belong?” Moments like these bring a lump in the throat, a homesickness for the sights and sounds of home, for a cultural cohesiveness. For the diyas and mithai of Diwali, for singing the arti with the whole family and then celebrating with firecrackers the epic moment that symbolizes the victory of good over evil. I pull out the little electric lights to substitute for diyas and light up the house in early November even though passing neighbors remark on an “early Christmas.” Sometimes I explain about Diwali and how Indian festivals follow the lunar calendar and don’t always fall on exactly the same day each year. How can I let the nuances of my culture lose their flavor in the bubbling melting pot? They have a unique identity, just as each “self” has a unique identity, which throbs to an inner rhythm even as it sings a collective song.

         “Culture is no refined thing or system, but a meaningful way of being in the world, inseparable from the ‘deepest’ aspects of one’s ‘self’” (Kondo). The “deepest aspects” of my self are imbued with the nuances of my culture, and I must find a meaningful way of making the world my oyster. As I come to terms with my British-born, British-educated, Punjabi-Assamese-Indian-American self, I am reminded of Frost’s words: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out, . . . / Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I have come to think of hyphens not as dividers separating identities, but bridges bringing nations and cultures together in a reverent namaste—the divine spirit in me bows to the divine spirit in you.

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1983.

Kondo, Dorinne, K. Crafting Selves: Power, Gender and Discourses of Identity in a Japanese Workplace. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Gitanjali: A Collection of Indian Songs. New York: MacMillan, 1971.

Verdery, Katherine. “Whither ‘Nation’ and ‘Nationalism’?” Daedalus 122 (Summer 1993): 37-46.