Will we always have kaleidoscope identities?
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Will we always have kaleidoscope identities?

How to resolve the dilemma that the children of Indian immigrants face as our dual identities clash, writes Ami Dalal.

india Updated: Feb 23, 2006 17:24 IST
Ami Dalal
Ami Dalal

Even more so thanour parents, whose memories are firmly planted in the India of their childhood, the children of Indian immigrants are torn between two worlds.

One consisting of our parents' mild hysteria that the motherland should not be forgotten: panicked anecdotes peppered with yearly visits to India, forced dress-ups to Diwali parties, awkward introductions to every Indian family in thepostal code, and sullen Sunday mornings listening to bhajans at the local temple.

The other is an unspeakable longing to fit in with the kids and the culture we grew up with, a craving for ranch dressing and onion rings, sagging ripped pants, beers surreptitiously sipped at rock concerts, slouched shoulders, and the leggy soccer chick you'd take in a hot second over that next-door-Priya whose good grades are something your mother thinks is a selling point to you.

As the daughter of two Mumbaikars, I was born in the United States and spent most of my life as an expatriate, shuttled every three years to another country because of my father's job. My childhood stint began in the countryside of Belgium, followed by a monotonous three years in suburban Houston, a plunge in the equatorial blip of Singapore, rounded off by a temperate spell overlooking the mountains of Venezuela.

Negotiating my own identity, which has traveled through four continents and grown roots in not one, has been like navigating a Thesean labyrinth or trying to assemble one gigantic puzzle from dozens of boxes. When trying to pinpoint my cultural identity, I am as hard-pressed to do it as the rest of us.

Identity for us, the children of immigrants, is something we must manufacture ourselves, "a shaky edifice," writes Salman Rushdie, "we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved." My own trajectory has been more unstable than others, with the only constant factors being my parents and my older brother.

For me, identity is far removed from geography, from citizenship, and from sepia-toned memories. Its foundation rests upon my nuclear family and what is unchangeable in my character - which, off the top of my head, consists of a tablespoon of impatience, a pinch of moodiness, and a dash of daydreaming.

Like the primary shades of a color wheel or a Rubik's cube, these fundamental elements combine in innumerable permutations depending upon where I am living, what I am doing, and who I am spending time with.

A constantly evolving identity is what we, the offspring of Indian parents, must contend with. We have one foot tapping out a beat from Missy Elliot's latest hip-hop album, and another thumping a wooden floor with flat-footed Bharatanatayam thwacks. We watched the Bollywood flicks that our parents rented from the Indian grocer, and on the weekend traipsed out to arts festivals to watch the French film, Amélie, with our new beatnik friends.

We are inundated with Indian, Western, and global culture -- from which clothing racks do we pick our cultural ensemble from? How do we resolve that which pulls us back-and-forth between choice and obligation, individuality and tradition, East and West, our parents and ourselves?

Homi Bhabha, professor of English at Harvard University, proposes a solution. Bhabha was born into the minority Parsi community, which originates from Persian migrants who arrived in India during the 7th century. Without a fundamental set of religious texts or cultural canons - the Parsi novel, Parsi music, or Parsi art - Bhabha declares that "what is interesting about Parsis is their sense of a negotiated cultural identity."

Bhabha believes that an objective, in-between space emerges in the overlap of two opposing cultures. Within this space, which he compares to a stairwell connecting upper and lower stories in a house, different cultures can interact to create an unanticipated hybridity of values, identity, and ideology.

Instead of choosing between being Indian or Western, and keeping a strict separation between the two, Bhabha suggests that both can connect and fuse into a hybrid culture. Extending on his theory, I suggest that we pick what we like most from each culture and tailor-make an identity to our own liking.

Take a look at the percussionist, Suphala, who studied tabla with Ravi Shankar's tabla player, and just released an album, The Now, which blends traditional beats and electronica. Or fashion designer, Ayesha Depala, who combines Indian textiles with the style of early Parisian couturiers and works in London, Dubai, and New York. Or Bally Sagoo, who triggered the explosion of modern Bhangra pop music in 1994 by fusing old Bollywood hits with hip-hop.

Though many of us are probably torn between our allegiance to our parents' world and our own, the choice does not have to be mutually exclusive. Being a part of one does not eliminate the other. Though it may be confusing to straddle two different cultures, the options to forge our own identity are limitless. We can customize our identity as easily as a Dell computer, a freedom that our parents never had.

So, go ahead, take that leap, throw on a bhandini dupatta with camouflage cargo pants and glittering gold hoops, snap the headphones of your Ipod Shuffle on your ears and turn it to the Carib beats of Iggy Marley and the classical ghazals of Ustad Khan, and don't forget to grab a ladoo and a couple of Oreos on your way out the door.

First Published: Feb 06, 2006 14:35 IST