& occasionally about other things, too...

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

'It’s only oneself one ever discovers'



I’ve just finished reading MG Vassanji’s memoir And home was Kariakoo. It’s a book that one can’t read quickly; every ten pages or so, one is forced to pause, and reflect. It’s a book that’s disturbing and makes you uncomfortable. Later, I’ll reproduce some select passages from the book.

I want to end the year with a few passages from Vassanji's A Place Within Rediscovering India – a book that the Mint newspaper recommended to Narendra Modi when he became India’s Prime Minister.

Part memoir, part travelogue, part ruminations on identity, religion and culture, A Place Within is about India that we know and yet don’t know.

Here are some passages from the book:

•••••

W
hy this obsession with the past? I can only conclude that it reflects the deep dissatisfaction of unfinished, incomplete migrations, a perpetual homelessness in my life. My colonial existence – in which memory and the past were trampled upon in a rush to better our lot – and the insecurities of an unorthodox communal culture, in the process of extinction and reinvention by the exigencies of globalized living and modern politics have both created an uncontrollable and perhaps vain desire to know and record who I am. There are the ways of the mystic and the scientist to answer this question; and there is the way of history and fiction, which I find more compelling. In how I connect to the history, I learn about myself.

•••••

I
 always cringe at the terms ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’; they are so final, so unequivocal. So exclusive. For ‘Hindu’ – itself derived not from the name of a founder as ‘Christian’ is or a philosophy or attitude (of submission) as ‘Muslim’ is, but from a geographical marker, the river Indus – I often substitute ‘Indian’ for India’s primary identity is rooted in its ancient history and culture, which preceded those religious divisions. I imagined India as my ancestral homeland; to witness upon, upon my arrival, its divisions running so deep was profoundly unsettling. It was to be asked to carry an open wound where perhaps only an itch had existed; to accept difference at the profoundest level.

 •••••

P
artition had sharpened the separation and Muslims, it seemed to me, instead of asserting their essential and primary Indian-ness, shouting it from the rooftops and from their guts, had fallen into the trap of allowing themselves to be seen as a minority and as outsiders, accepting a primary identity defined by faith in a unity, in a unity (called the “umma”) that crosses political, cultural, and ethnic boundaries. But such an identity is often abstract and culturally rootless. How dangerous such a self-affirmation can become for young people who have witnessed in our own times – for example in the July 7, 2005, bombings in London – when in their frustrations about the plight of their “brothers” across the world, they run amok attempting to destroy the very societies that have nurtured them.

•••••

O
n the other hand, I come across Muslim sympathizers – in India as well as Toronto – who need their Muslims as the distinct Other, the antagonist to pit against the “majority” society they consider unjust, to which of course they implicitly and comfortably belong. To tell people that politically and culturally you don’t subscribe to this gulf among the same people, and that in matters of faith you were brought up in a very local Indian tradition that was a blend of the two faiths, is to appear naïve or quixotic. It is to meet a blank stare, it is to end a conversation.

•••••

O
ne of the ironies of the upsurge of middle-class Hindu nationalism is that this same class of privileged Indians is instrumental in shaping the new concepts of citizenship in Canada, Britain, and the United States, by their immigration to these countries and their largely successful struggles for equal rights even as small cultural, racial, and religious minorities. Their Western host countries, of course, no longer see themselves in racial or nationalist terms – which is not to say that such consciousness, especially in discussions of culture, do not exist. But it is always contested, and not the least by people of Indian origin. Affirmative action continues to be used successfully to redress a racist past, and systemic non-representation. In a reverse irony, many of the Indian middle classes, assured of their rights in their new, multicultural homes, turn around to support financially and promote militant nationalism in the native country. Many of them would wish for a Hindu India but not a Christian or Euro America or Canada.

•••••

A
fter my first Indian visit, I would be asked, back in Toronto, why I let the violence bother me. I did not live there after all, had never lived there, and I was safely here, anyway. I could have said that surely all violence anywhere should affect us; what came to mind instead was that I could not accept India’s embrace and turn away from the violence. It must in some way be a part of me.

Two necessary disclaimers.

I have already said that I find the labels ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ discomforting because they are so exclusive. They have not defined people for me in Africa (where we were simply called ‘Wahindi’ Indians), in the United States (where I lived for some years), or in Canada. I refuse to use them this way, perhaps naively and definitely against a tide; but I am not alone. I use the distinction ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ only in the context, and especially when it has been used by people for themselves or others, as in the Gujarat violence.

So deep is the suspicion when one talks of conflicts, that one has to state over and over that to describe the murder of a Muslim here is not to deny, let alone justify, the murder of a Hindu elsewhere, that a fanatic group does not represent an entire people, and there is no entire people, Hindu or Muslim, anyway. Attempts to create them, of course, have always been there.

•••••

W
hen I was a boy in colonial Africa, history began and ended with the arrival in Zanzibar and Mombasa of my grandparents or great grandparents from Gujarat. Beyond that, nothing else mattered, all was myth, and there was only the present. After a few years in North America, I came upon the realization that that ever-present, which had been mine, my story, had itself begun to drift away towards the neglected and spurned stories of my forebears, and I stood at the threshold of becoming a man without history, rootless. And so origins and history became an obsession, both a curse and a thrilling call.

•••••

T
his country that I’ve come so brazenly to rediscover goes as deep as it is vast and diverse. It’s only oneself one ever discovers.


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