Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Multi-Cultural Identity Crisis

Yesterday was Onam and I am back at home in Hyderabad on a weekend break. Many people spam me with SMSs wishing “Happy Onam” and several other creative lofty messages. The TV is full of celebrities talking about their memories of the festival – going to temples, spending time with family and the food and all that. Perfectly normal I guess especially because nostalgia always feels good – it is always the present that feels unbearable but if someone were to ask me the same question, I’d be wondering what my memories are of Onam or for that matter, any other festival.

Diwali and Dusshera are no Malayalee festivals (despite what the rest of India thinks) but as a child, bursting of crackers and holidays was fun and the festival name did not matter. And now at 27, all festivals seem to be the same – office holidays and nothing to do but spend time browsing or watching TV. I wonder whether some of us celebrate festivals merely to feel a part of our society; the feeling of being all alone in the crowd (the Malayalam phrase – Aalkuttathil thaniye- remains my favourite expression) can be depressing.

All this makes me ask questions about my cultural identity as an individual. Why do people think it is weird that you don’t actually have any special liking for your festival and look at it as just another day in the office? I find it difficult to justify this and then home grown Keralites are happy to throw snide remarks at non-residential Keralites for ignoring their cultural nuances.

Living in Mumbai now as a non-Marathi speaking person is perfectly fine as long as you are not a celebrity. Even Big B and his wife have to spell out their love for Marathi to avoid being boycotted by the oldest hooligan family in Maharashtra. Somehow, I fancily wished that either he or somebody in the industry would stand up for my right to speak the language of my choice in this country but other than the Commissioner of Police, no one ever did.

Instead, the Big Man apologised and even said that his wife spoke chaste Marathi and the papers reported how so many Bollywood actors could peak Marathi fluently. Christ, did it matter if they could not? Does this make them less eligible to stay in Mumbai? The "forced" resilience of the poor Mumbaikar is not of only the Marathi Maanus but of all the hassled people who are part of this metropolis.

A friend volunteered that if you go to the South, you need to speak their language, then why not in Mumbai – this is the classic Tamil Nadu effect where the image of TN overshadows the presence of other states (I can recollect a colleague of mine telling me in jest not to speak “South Indian”). I am not going to stand up for any state’s interests but does it even matter if someone in another state speaks their language or not. Forget about MNS; we probably are too much in love with our linguistic identity to care about the feelings of others, whether it is the lungiwallah or the UP-Bihari worker.

Coming to religion, there was an NDTV or CNN-IBN report that I had seen recently that spoke about the difficulty that Muslims found in finding a house to stay in the cosmopolitan melting pot Mumbai. And I’m sure, it is not restricted to only Mumbai but many parts of India where we have such a negative perception of Muslims because some motley group of jokers masquerading as protectors of Islam are killing people everywhere. Does the skull cap and beard put us off so much that we are not willing to trust anyone from their community?

Last week, there was a lot of media coverage on Salman Khan’s family celebrating Vinayaka Chaturthi and how secular his family was. He also gave us a couple of sound bytes on how the family believed in all religions and secular principles. Just wondering how media would have covered the story if he or any other Muslim were to complain about the din and ruckus being created in the name of this Hindu festival – a perfect communal angle spoiling his image and creating space for MNS and the rest of their ilk to make a commotion.

For all our progress in our economics, just tell your parents that you love a non-Hindu [Corrected as per Deepdowne's comments below- a person from another religion and not just a non-Hindu] and would like to marry her and all hell breaks loose. After all, we are torch bearers of our religion and cannot afford to pull down the hopes of our community. Remember the Rizwanur Rahman murder case– where the police and the families worked together to separate the couple, leading finally to Rizwanur’s suicide, a wonderful example of “Shining India”. There are so many people who are willing to die in the name of religion but very few who want to live in its name.

And then, there is this nationalistic feeling that engulfs so many of us, especially during cricket matches. The yardstick of patriotism is measured by how much you stand by your country or its narrow interests and beliefs. When I hear cinematic cliches like “I am an Indian first and only then a Hindu/Tamilian” and other patriotic outbursts, I cringe in my seat. Yes, I am an Indian but something stops me from screaming this from roof tops. I am born to an Indian couple and therefore, an Indian but this by itself is no achievement or symbol of divinity. But we do invest a great deal of pride in being born here and even deride other nationalities and cultures – US has poor cultural values, Singapore is less than the size of Mumbai etc.

In debates, we stand by the greatness of our country and its cultural diversity and historical greatness but how does that matter? Arvind Swamy jumps on the burning Indian flag in Roja to extinguish its flames and I wonder how the audience or defenders of our nation’s interests would have taken it if Mani Ratnam were to show the hero sitting silently even when the flag burns. There would be a PIL, surely, demanding that Mani apologises to the nation and deletes the scene for hurting the feelings of millions and of course, violent protests. There is always a vociferous group of people waiting to get hurt at the drop of a hat and taking the rest of the nation to ransom, all in the name of protecting our poor democracy.

These are times when symbols of patriotism become greater than the patriotic feeling itself. So, Manmohan’s India prefers to trade with Myanmar’s junta and welcome the Chinese premiere rather than stand up for Aung Sang Suu Kyi or the Dalai Lama – c’mon, aren’t our economic interests more important? Is there any point in supporting such lost causes?

Do I need to identify myself as someone who speaks a specific language, belongs to a specific region, a specific religion/caste or even a specific country? I feel like renouncing any form of identity that links me to any of these features and call myself just a human being. Living as a human being is a blessing which we need to cherish and there’s no greater common point that exists between me and anyone who reads this, except the bond of humanity.

As Gandhi says – “If you want to give a message, it must be a message of LOVE”, being an educated Indian Keralite upper caste Hindu is not very different from being a poor Somalian uneducated Muslim; at the end of it, we are human and we all need love. And this loves needs to transcend barriers, barriers that we have created so that we need not share our happiness with the rest of the humanity.