India at 70 — and unchained memories

Photo: Pixabay (thisisprabu)

A few chapters into Naipaul’s ‘The Middle Passage’, I began to wonder. Naipaul’s lack of empathy for Britain’s former colonies has been criticized by the literary world for years. In spite of this, the book made me question.

Making sense of an Indian life is hard.

I was born in the ’80s. Like many children who grew up then, I didn’t grasp how nefarious colonialism was. The wounds of partition and the freedom struggle were raw. I grew up listening to these stories. Gandhi and the Salt March. Jallianwala Bagh. The Revolt of 1857. But honestly, the people and places seemed distant and impersonal in the pages of newspapers and history texts. I frequently sought escapism. And the books I read back then — almost always written by English authors — didn’t reflect my reality in India, or my hometown, Sivakasi, where I saw heat, dust and poverty all the time. Even the South Asian (and diaspora) writers I enjoyed reading— Ruskin Bond, Sadat Hasan Manto, Arundhati Roy, Rohinton Mistry — invoked in me a deep love for India but the lives of their characters still seemed foreign, un-relatable.

By age ten, I used the words I heard around me and observed in the movies rather carelessly. The language of colonialism was spoon-fed to my generation (as it was to generations before mine); men who helped moved luggage were called ‘coolies’, those who served food were called ‘bearers’ and every house and school had an ‘ayah’. Everyone had a name, place and class they belonged to. Done and dusted, no questions asked. As an adult, I’ve wondered how I missed the weight of these words — I understood neither the context nor the impact it had on those it intended to demoralize.

Photo: An Indian Ayah (servant maid) helps a British woman with her child. This photo was taken between 1904–1906, when the Britain colonized India. (Wikimedia commons)

Worse, it took me long to learn the depth of this casual and vile contempt for the poor, and those who belonged to lower castes. It was violence that was normalized in my childhood. The world as I navigated it was simple: ‘us’ and ‘them’. My landlady once warned me about giving our maid more money. “These people will get greedy,” she explained to me, “Don’t be giving any extra money.”

I remember thinking: The Memsahibs of Colonial England may have left but in their place have sprung Indian uncles, aunties, Aiyahs, Annas and Ammas who mete out the same injustices using the same argument. Nupur Chaudhari quoted a Memsahib her paper in the Women’s History Review: “I am often told that a better a native is treated, the more ungrateful he is.”

I’ve heard this being said about servants even today.

In the Middle Passage, Naipaul explores this dilemma. He particularly describes — in emphatic detail — the utter sense of rootlessness that countries had to grapple with after colonists left. He also talks about the frustrating (and futile) pursuit of an origin story in racialized societies that survived colonialism. Central to his exploration of the effects of colonization on the Caribbean is the question that continues to plague India today: who am I?

I don’t know the answer. Although, I thought I did. Growing up, like many others, I adopted an identity that was handed to me; Tamil, Hindu, traditional, middle-class, Nadar, well-educated. Yet, none of these words captured who I was in totality. As an adult, it only left me feeling incomplete.

Photo: The Shiva temple in Sivakasi that we used to often visit as a family. Right near the temple was Ganesh stores, where we used to go buy toys now and ten. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

I was born in Quilon, a port city in Kerala but my family lived in Sivakasi for several years. I also spent time in Ketti, a town in the Nilgiris, where I attended boarding school for nine years. In 2003, my family moved to Chennai. Soon after, I went away to study in England, returning to India to pursue a career in Bangalore for seven years. My family eventually emigrated to Canada in 2012, and I followed, emigrating to the United States in 2015.

Today, I am a sum of all these parts; of people and places that filled me with joy, broke my heart, and filled me again.

So, ‘who are you?’ isn’t an easy question to answer. The question ‘where do you come from?’ is harder.

However, I know that many of my friends didn’t get an opportunity to turn to self inquiry. In my childhood, cruel jokes about Punjabis in Canada, Malayalis in the Middle East and Anglo-Indians were casual and common. As an Indian child, the most harmful stereotypes found a way into your life rather harmlessly — in jest. Children always made fun of two types of Indians: The traitors who left India for a Western country and traitors who still lived in the country after the partition and independence (read Anglo-Indians and Muslims).

I was glad that I wasn’t considered a traitor. Later, I was deeply disturbed at having perpetuated this violence at such a young age.

When I moved to America in 2015, another battle of words ensued. My search for association flung me right into the minefield of feminist thought. The most prominent word that was used around me was ‘Decolonisation’, which refers to a process of ‘undoing colonialism’ not just as a country but also as individuals.

I still find this a tricky endeavour.

Is it possible to erase a past? If so, how far does one go to ascertain purity? In the West Indies that Naipaul describes, descendants of the indentured and enslaved have grown up building a past they didn’t have and developing a ‘borrowed culture’ from colonists. Few among these descendants know where their families truly come from or what beliefs made their culture. Their ties to the origin story had been sliced and brutally sawn off by colonists. In places that have been colonized, like America, the ghosts of colonization still haunt generations of African Americans and Native Americans.

I’ve observed that for Indians (in India), the festering wounds of the freedom struggle hasn’t fully healed. Instead, it led some to embrace the language of revolt, rejectionism and revivalism in an effort to be freed from a painful past.

But as we know, the past lingers.

Photo: I’m the kid in the far right. This is an old photo of my sisters, my mum, my grandma, uncle and I at a family picnic.

When I was sixteen, I began to ask my parents questions about their families and read a lot of Indian non-fiction trying to make sense of my life. But it felt odd and disconnected. I had no idea why Akbar or the ruins in Harappa mattered to me. I didn’t find an identity in religion, which was central to Indian life. In college, when I began to tell people that I was agnostic, the word sound alien even to me.

I felt incomplete.

My disillusionment led me to question. Not in a fierce, intellectual way. Say, in a theosophical way; I thought about what I believed in, researched the food I ate at home, what my family did before my birth, why they did it. You get what I mean. I collected memorabilia from my mum; photos, books and cookware. I looked up and read books on amazon. As regional translations sprung on bookshelves, I bought and read them voraciously. I thought about who my friends were; the classmates I had in school and college.

It was an attempt to unravel and understand who I was.

Photo: A photo album filled with ancestral photos that my mum gave me last year. (Meera Vijayann)

I found social clues everywhere. Here in the US, the old colonialism of my childhood manifested itself in new ways in the world of hyphenated identities. Indian Americans, Indian-Africans, Indo-Caribbean, Indo-Canadians and Indo-Fijians each spurred and rejected each other as quickly as they sought each other to force traditions forward. Religiosity and rituals, I realized, formed an umbilical cord to a motherland that, for some, remained only in an imagined past.

In his book, Naipaul described the tendency. He compares Trinidadian Indians (who were forcefully brought over to the Caribbean as indentured labourers) to the African communities coping with an identity crisis in the West Indies. His words are brutal: “The Indian, with no such problem, was content with his narrow loyalties. Whether he knew his language or practiced his religion, the knowledge that a country called India existed was to him a pole. He felt no particular attachment to this country.”

Was India merely a pole to me?

After spending 28 years in India, I can say, without doubt, that it isn’t. But I admit I don’t feel the same attachment to India as I did when I was 21. When my family moved, my piece of home left with them. I felt incredibly alone in Bangalore in the last two years I spent there — the occasional meeting with cousins, friends, and uncles felt empty and unfulfilling. The loneliness didn’t lift when I moved to the States. When my husband and I went on walks, we talked about it all the time. Both of us were caught in a state of ‘in-between’ feeling neither at home in the US nor in our home countries — India and Canada.

Seventy years on, I think it’s time to we pursue an origin story, not as a country, but as individuals. It isn’t enough to learn from the pages of textbooks about India or each other. This might open doors that have been sealed shut and let the light in. The origin story is never found in the chaos of academia, politics or fundamentalism.

It lies in the scaffolding of our individual lives.

If the word Indian must mean anything, it must begin with earnestly asking ‘Who am I?’. Perhaps then, we can come to terms with the past and make more sense of the present.

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