My chai-colored skin in a world literature class of otherwise milky complexions drew quite a bit of attention. It was in that university class that I suddenly felt intensely aware of my own Indianess, and actually, the Indianess in all of us.
First, a disclaimer: the fact is that I was never one to overtly express my Indian origin-not because I didn’t want to, but primarily because I didn’t have to. It was a given fact that my Anglo-name was more than enough to confuse most Americans and this, coupled with the evidence of my Catholic-faith, caused everyone oblivious to India’s 2-percent-of-a billion-Christian-population to assume by default that I must certainly be of a hybrid background?Indian mixed with something, in fact, anything else.
Still, in spite of my long-standing indifference toward the politics of culture and identity, while I was in that classroom setting, being the token brownie, I really had little choice but to suddenly and overwhelmingly develop a fierce empathy for all of the universe’s human beings not represented in that classroom.
Zealously and wholeheartedly, I took on the role of “Super-Defender,” defending the world’s people from the atrocities of everything that could even vaguely seem threatening via the hegemony of westernization. Asia, Africa, even Antarctica, had it been populated by more than just penguins, I desired to single-handedly defend each and every continent in hostile political discussions about colonization and the preservation of cultural identity.
It didn’t take long for our half Swedish, half Punjabi instructor to realize that if she ever needed to spark a debate, I was always ready, willing and able to go head-on in risky cultural combat.
I was armed, and admittedly, I was dangerous as well.
Case in point: one day, my peers and I were shown a scene from the film Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom, in which Indians are depicted eating chilled monkey brains for dessert. While most of my classmates found humor in the occurrence, I did not, and so, as had become the custom during the first half of the semester, I more than obnoxiously voiced my opinion:
“It wouldn’t be so funny if you understood the political ramifications of such a seemingly innocent scene,” I loudly retorted in response to the quickly stifled laughter, “What about the impressionable teenager in the Midwest who has never so much as stepped an inch outside of the limits of his 215 person town and who sees this film but has never seen an Indian person? Won’t he assume that all of us Indians are ritualistic carnivores or plain uncivilized savages?”
After coming off my pulpit, I looked around to see the terrible result of my sermon.
So many guilty faces. The laughter that was present 2 minutes ago had suddenly been replaced by the most awkward of silences and the most uncomfortable of downward glances.
But this was not what was most noteworthy. What was most notable in the whole scenario was that of all the guilty faces, the guiltiest one belonged to one particularly crazed individual: me.
What had I gotten myself into? Guilt was the last thing I could have ever wanted my classmates to derive from my uncalled-for response. Nevertheless, those very guilty faces served for me an eye-opening purpose: the faces made me realize that my continual defense of the world was never foolproof to begin with, in fact, it was always plain foolish on my part to believe that I ever had to provide a cultural defense to begin with.
After further reflection, I realized the true errors of my ways. For months, with a fine tooth comb, I had flipped through the pages of Rushdie, Achebe and Roy to identify the vile instruments with which stereotypes, hatred and violence are perpetuated. I did so in the belief that exposing this truth would create healing. But I was wrong, terribly wrong. Unwittingly, I had aligned myself with the victim while repeatedly crucifying the empire. And, instead of creating a solution, I had become part of the problem itself, becoming an Indian empire of my own?an empire which ruthlessly insisted on keeping bloody wounds open.
The practical aspect of my personal experience is evident every day. The way we insist on talking about the past, the way we insist on retaining labels, the way we don’t allow ourselves to move on. Repartitions, racism, wrongs, rights, it’s all a vicious cycle of blame, guilt and suffering and there and then in that classroom, it became obvious to me that my insistence on pointing fingers had been useless in creating a paradigm shift in the minds of my classmates.
The problem at hand was simple. I had allowed myself to become too “Indian,” too attached with an arbitrary identity created from its inception based on man-made geographic borders. Indianess belonged to me and no one else and this was the inherent problem. I knew that if I continued to exclude others from my circle of Indianess, continuing to debate oppressor vs. oppressed, no progress could ever be made.
The guilt that I had created was worthless but if I could cultivate understanding, this would be priceless.
A week or so later, I experienced what I like to think was an episode of divine intervention, a moment of grace during my semester of otherwise disillusionment.
Sitting in the middle of two students, I had no choice but to overhear their deep interest in the virtues of yoga and their passion for vegetable korma and saag paneer. Both students had traveled extensively off the beaten path, all over India, and both were fascinated by their consequent closeness to the ideals of God and love shortly after their many bharat yatras. It was obvious how much of their own identities were borrowed from the East. More so, it was obvious to me that their inclusion of India in their lives was necessary to the survival of Indian culture. It comforted me to know that I was Indian and that in their own way, so were they. I told myself, “If they could be as Indian as I was, there was no need for me to be on the defense with them or anyone else. After all, it is impossible to fight ourselves.”
According to Mahatma Gandhi, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”
After a semester of world literature and watching two students without an ounce of Indian blood be in love with India as much as I was, if not more, finally, it all clicked. Gandhi was right, “No culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.” But deeper than this is the reversal of Gandhi’s statement, “Since Indian culture attempts to be inclusive, Indian culture will surely live on.”
I finally got it. There was no need for my tiresome ranting and raving; India and the rest of the world would survive?even in spite of my crazy sermons.
Author: Diana M. Lewis- USA