In my last post, I made an allusion to the accusations of inauthenticity I’ve faced because of my short hair and versatility in the kitchen. Initially, I used to get flustered and offer up piecemeal explanations, sharing stories of how I used to have waist-length hair until such-and-such happened, or pointing out that I make a mean biriyani (Kolkata-style, no less!) too.
Lately, I’ve realised that I disappointed both the stereotypical expectations of the ‘host community’ – in my case, the fairly ethnically-homogenous communities I’ve found myself living and working in – as well as the self-appointed arbiters of cultural purity of my ‘home community’.
For the former, my impeccable English language skills, English-speaking and obviously highly-educated parents, and stories of a standard of living higher than I’m able to maintain here didn’t quite fit the expected mould of an obviously-demarcated ‘Other’: I detected actual disappointment in not finding any Slumdog Millionaire or BBC documentary-like markers in my narrative. I remember feeling positively apologetic that I couldn’t answer an earnest inquiry about my father’s office-going transportation by offering up stories of commuting via elephant.
food is an excellent metaphor when searching for monikers of identity.
On the other hand, it is only now that the stories of my experiences in the many little South Asia-s dotted across London have stopped making me wince and become funny anecdotes. On one representative occasion, I accompanied my married, heavily-pregnant, salwar-kameez-clad friend on a shopping expedition to one of these places: the looks I received from passers-by, especially the men, made me look down at myself repeatedly for the bejewelled skimpy bikini I must surely have been wearing. (I don’t think I can win: well-meaning colleagues have often asked me if I dress that modestly because of religious constraints.) The shopkeepers obviously addressed only my friend: I couldn’t have made up their exaggerated starts of astonishment when I turned out to be the one with the language skills. In different ways, they seemed to be suggesting, we were both impostors.
Here, as in so much else, food is an excellent metaphor when searching for monikers of identity. I see nothing sacrilegious in combining soya sauce and tandoori masala when marinating chicken; nor am I convinced that this experimentation qualifies as ‘fusion’. I remember my classmates in India dancing around the classrooms and dormitories to the Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys; what is so intrinsically different about my listening to Rabindra Sangeet in London that I need to defend how much of this or that I am?
And yet. And yet. Recently, at Diwali celebrations in a mid-sized southern England city, the entire community turned out in force on a clear but bitterly cold night. I fielded lots of excited questions from people speaking in all kinds of accents who had been drawn to the colours and sights – no-one asked if I was authentic enough to answer; they just wanted to know. Men and women – bankers and engineers and doctors during the day – in colourful saris and dhotis did the ceremonial walk with traditional musical instruments: sturdy Clarks’ shoes peeked from under the billowing garments, summing up the fusion of multiple identities. Nearby, stalls selling samosas and pasties did brisk business. Jalebis sold like hot cakes (pun intended), alongside glasses of hot chocolate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone flounce off, pronouncing the scene too traditional in a very strong Indian accent.
All was right again; the balancing act had re-commenced, as in front of us, good triumphed over evil in a mishmash of English narration, Sanskrit shlokas and Bollywood music.