Asha or Lata?
|Artwork: Karen Haydoc|
When I speak English, I am regarded as an educated Indian. When I speak Hindi, Indians always know that I am Bihari. When I use constructions such as ‘hence-it-would-not-be-wrong-to-conclude’ or, unfortunately, words such as ‘problematic’, people might guess that I’m an academic. But there is no speech act, no distinctive utterance, accent or ideology that makes people nod in recognition of something that distinguishes me from my other identities, and say, “Ah, a Southasian.”
And yet, I have presented myself as Southasian, and acted as a Southasian, and often anxiously worried that I wasn’t enough Southasian. All this happened when I travelled outside India for the first time, to get a degree in the United States. In the early years, I never came across the word. Maybe I was moving in the wrong company, splitting my time almost equally between Biharis and Marxists. The former were just Biharis, but the latter were all internationalists. Not a trace of Southasianism among them.
But then came a period of several years when I wrote poetry and became a Southasian. I would go to literary festivals, and declaim poems about mistaken identity. A fair deal of ethnic culture would be on display at such events. A short documentary would be screened about Bharat Natyam, Faiz, Nusrat or even cricket in New Jersey, and the voiceover would offer a few lines of nostalgia and then bitter, sarcastic observations about the wilful blindness of the dominant culture in America or Canada. The word marginal would be used a lot. Samosas would be on sale. One would have to wait for people to tell you their names before one could guess, tentatively, whether they were from India or Pakistan – or any other place in Southasia … (“Bangladesh? Oh, I’m sorry! Dhaka?”).
There was something quite exhilarating about the mixing that took place at, say, the Desh-Pardesh festival in Toronto. The Tamils and the Sinhalas might be funding their separate, warring armies back home, but their children were happy to be reading their poems together about arranged marriages, or oppressed mothers, or lesbian love, or how-I-love-to-lick-the-chutney-from-your-fingers-and-find-in-the-dark-forest-of-your-eyes-my-lost-roots or some such sensibility. We were all definitely, defiantly, Southasian.
I’m sure the more serious ideologues would say that this banner of Southasian-ness helped people with some degree of shared history come together in the face of a culture that did not offer you as many chances as it did to its own. And I, too, would argue the same.
But that would still leave unanswered what exactly it is that we share. What, in other words, is Southasian in our identity?
Shared and meaningless
Over the past few years, I have struggled with that question, and never quite figured out the answer till I read, just the other day, a page in a new novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes by Mohammed Hanif, who heads the BBC’s Urdu service. At one point, the reader is introduced to an officer in the Pakistani intelligence, Major Kiyani, who is “a man who runs the world with a packet of Dunhills, a gold lighter, and an unregistered car.” When the quiet, brilliantly chilling Major has the novel’s unlucky narrator in his car, he reaches into his glove box and starts rummaging for a tape.
“Asha or Lata?” he asks.
Among the tapes is visible the ivory handle of a grey-metal pistol, and that might have been the Major’s point in opening the glove box. But this is what the novel’s narrator makes of the above question:
To tell you the truth, I really can’t tell the difference between Lata and Asha. They are old, fat, ugly Indian sisters who both sing like they were teenage sex kittens. One probably sounds sexier than the other, although I can never tell. But across the country, battle lines are being drawn between those who like Asha and those who like Lata. Tea or coffee? Coke or Pepsi? Maoist or Leninist? Shia or Sunni?
The man from the ISI poses his query just before driving our narrator to the Lahore Fort, where he will be thrown for the night into a filthy toilet that doubles as a cell. It is a startling question. Mixed with the intimacy that the torturer always imposes on his victim is this other intimacy, the intimacy of a larger culture that is at once shared and a bit meaningless. That is exactly how I feel about being Southasian. It is an identity that makes conversation possible; at the same time, its assumptions of just how much is shared can appear presumptuous and somewhat absurd. It can often appear incongruous, like the Major’s question.
I don’t mean to be wholly dismissive. Let’s remember that even our narrator’s rant against my dearly beloved Lataji and Ashaji is spiked with its own intimacy. His barbs hit home because he knows them well. Too well, in fact, to claim innocence or complete ignorance of their singing voices.
As a writer, I like the in-between position, turning away from the demands not only of a narrow nationalism but also a faceless regionalism. So, will art be drawn from one’s roots in a town or even a mohalla? The truth is that an aspiring writer in Barauni is also able to watch “Baywatch”. Isn’t that a part of her or his local culture now, too? This is the new reality.
During the previous decades, the new era of globalisation meant that Southasians migrated elsewhere to work as cooks, chauffeurs, doctors, engineers, travel agents, hoteliers, smugglers and money launderers. People from Southasia could be found in other corners of Asia and every part of the West. It came as no surprise that it was Southasians such as Salman Rushdie and Pico Iyer who were singing the anthems of rootlessness. If you were a Sylheti working in a Russian-owned garment factory in New York City, you were representative of a new way of being in the world. This was the condition that, during the 1980s and 1990s, in a more upscale version, Rushdie et al were celebrating.
In more recent years, the world has come to the countries of Southasia, in the form of outsourced capital but also as new forms of culture, which bring changes but which are also themselves changed in the process. And what we are seeing in Southasia is a different confidence about being true to one’s own histories, and yet also being receptive to the wider world. A book such as A Case of Exploding Mangoes is also a part of this change.
Hence-it-would-not-be-wrong-to-conclude that, given the ways in which Southasia is changing, a set of identities will emerge, historically mobile and vital, that will help to generate a prolific dialogue in the arts. Writers and other artists in the region will have a lot more to say to each other. It won’t just be Asha or Lata anymore. It isn’t already.
~ Amitava Kumar´s recent novel Home Products (Picador India) was short-listed for the Vodafone Crossword Prize.