Questions of Identity
Hi, I’m Nilambari and I’m here to share my ideas on a few subjects from Carnatic music and Kerala to Cinema and Historical math & science . Born a Mallu but having lived variously in Andhra, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, I am fairly comfortably multilingual and enjoy exploring languages (such as Telugu) and the cultural nuances transmitted through them.
While I enjoy our classical musical tradition (Nilambari is one of my favorite ragams), it must also be said that I do enjoy other forms of melodious music. However, rap or heavy metal is not my cup of tea or more correctly filter kaapi. I enjoy movies too but am a bit picky and choosy about the kind of movies I will watch. In general, I have a very high level of curiosity on most subjects which stems from a wish to understand what is at the root of the various topics that interest me. I will try and share with you my thoughts on various areas that pique my interest and hope you will enjoy the journey and be a fellow traveler.
Today I start with sharing a few thoughts on the question of identity with reference being only to the geographical territory of India. A great ancillary read for this essay is Why India Is A Nation.
Below is one of the popular links from a movie of the 1960s which glorifies the legacy of our mathru bhoomi India.
Now, let’s start…
What is identity?
To me, identity is intimately connected to geography and language. I believe it is good for both to be in agreement so that the identity formed is secure right from childhood. When I say agreement, I believe that if one is a Malayalee for instance, it is good that the formative years or childhood years are spent in the geography that is the birth place of Malayalam and the resulting culture. This means that a Malayalee child is better served if s/he spends childhood in Kerala. In earlier times, that was indeed the case for the large part of the population of India. However, post independence, the need to earn a livelihood meant that many people left their land of birth to look for livelihood options elsewhere and eventually ended up making a life in their karma bhoomi and not janma bhoomi. Their children were born in the new home. The parents carried the culture and language of their janma bhoomi and hence had a secure identity. Their children however, being born in a new place did not have it easy. They spoke the language of their parents at home and followed a culture that was passed on to them from their first generation displaced parents. At the same time, the children were exposed not only to the culture of the new place, but also various other influences some of which will be discussed below.
A child born to immigrant parents learns to adapt and interact seamlessly when moving between the inherited culture and the lived culture. The negative, though, is that over time a sense of rootlessness about intrinsic identity starts creeping in. Added to this sense of confusion is the acquiring of English skills as a pre-requisite to a “good education”. The newly immigrant parents working hard to fend for themselves and their small families generally gravitate to schools offering English as the medium of instruction since they believe they are providing for a bright future for their child. They believed that “English opened doors“.
The small and nuclear family is one of the first departures from the culture of their original land. Immigrant (not extremely poor), reasonably educated parents are most often found staying as a nuclear family without the traditional Indian joint family support structure. This forms a significant break with the parent culture since the joint family is an absorbing and cushioning medium for the shocks that life deals out to people. It must be understood here that the entire family is coping with the changes that the move away from the homeland forces individuals to make.
It is inevitable that in time, the parents also adopt certain ways of the local culture into their own lifestyle thus beginning to modify the primary identity. This adoption happens either through necessity or through own volition. For instance, if a Malayalee lives in say a place like New Delhi, s/he is forced to make certain eating habit changes. For example, coconut oil is an essential ingredient in Malayalee cooking for that is the oil that is geographically abundantly available in Kerala. However, the Malayalee in Delhi would not be able to cook with coconut oil since it is not widely available and even if one can procure it, it is rather expensive and cannot be an everyday option. Thus, it becomes an adaptation out of necessity. So, a dietary change has already happened in the displaced Malayalee household.
The parents with fond nostalgia for the coconut oil of their culture adapt to the locally available oil for cooking. The children, being used to the local oil right from birth either begin to consider coconut oil as an exotic indulgence or even begin to dislike it. Thus, there is a subtle shift away from the original culture. This is highlighted as an example to say that there are multiple small shifts away from the original culture that eventually becomes a blend of various ingredients locally available in the new place adapted to the original one.
Indeed the cross fertilization makes for an interesting study and does shape the individuals of the first generation immigrants differently from the origin culture. In many ways, it exposes the children of such displaced parents to pluralism early. The child learns to navigate between different worlds and this is a precious skill that stands her/him in good stead in adult life. The flip side of course is that a certain rootlessness begins to make itself apparent in the child which can create disorientation regarding a secure identity. This rootlessness starts getting accentuated when the child begins schooling thereby getting introduced to English to add to the mother tongue and the local language exposure. Soon, the three language formula in Indian schools and the insistence on English in urban, upmarket schools starts working on the child. The thought processes start getting framed in English–another step away from the parent culture.
While the child usually does follow and speak the mother tongue at home, more often than not, reading and writing in the mother tongue is not learnt. Thus, another link to parent culture via literature in the mother tongue is lost to the child. Access to the local culture and language is also alienated as a result of the imposition of English. English literature and English discourse starts replacing original or even local culture and discourse. Slowly, the narratives favored by English speaking peers and intellectuals start to seep into the mindset and psyche of the child. The result is a growing alienation from the roots and a growing disdain for the original culture. This happens because English language discourse hardly respects the regional language’s intelligence or culture.
As the child grows and as English replaces the original tongue as a medium of expression, the child begins to inhabit a world rather divorced from the reality on the ground. Thoughts, ideas, ideologies and worldviews begin to resemble what the English narrative propagates. The result of this slow indoctrination is that the child becomes confused about his/her identity. At home, parents still live according to some of the customs remembered from older times from their land of birth. The child on the other hand picks up some amount of the old homeland narrative, but increasingly also believes in the English narrative that is shaping his/her thoughts. This rootlessness created as a result then leads to a quest for identity for a small minority. Most go through life without resolving this confusion which leads them to commit many blunders along the way. The few who address the problem start out with a directionless, general quest. However, they finally find out the reasons for their restlessness and then work towards correcting that imbalance. If they are persistent, they eventually work back towards their original roots.
However, sometimes the journey back to roots can also leave one dissatisfied because the root culture has also been exposed to the vagaries of time and has changed complexion. Those who eventually retrace their steps back to their roots then look for those elements in the root culture that can be adopted by them. In a way, the displaced seeker has a much wider angle view of his/her original culture and is able to see the distortions and changes that have happened to the original culture. A person still immersed in the original culture is more prone to accept changes without much questioning thinking that change is the only constant in life.
In conclusion, displacement from original culture has both positives and negatives. The positive is that for those who understand that they are grappling with a rootlessness, it is a rather enriching journey to get back to the roots. They have the wider exposure to be able to appreciate better their own traditions but for those who do not understand or study this restlessness that they experience, they live a life where they are continually trying to grasp at an identity that will neither be wholly theirs nor be fulfilling. It’s a privilege to be born and to spend your life in your homeland. However, if you are displaced, see it as an advantage to understand your mother culture better. Make sure you recognize your restlessness as actually the manifestation of rootlessness. Be a seeker and find your true identity. Love your motherland and the language and culture that defines it; for ultimately you are defined by it whether you like it or not.
Before I end, here is an excellent talk by Shri. Rajiv Malhotra who touches on some other aspects of identity especially among the urban youth of India who today are going through some very confusing times as a result of the shrinking of the globe and the pervasiveness of a global culture.
I Leave you with a montage that certainly defines who I am. Until we meet again…