Daily editor questions culture, community By NADIRA HIRA EDITORIAL STAFF India celebrated 54 years of independence yesterday. And Indians all over the world, myself included, celebrated with her. “Oh, here we go,” any semi-conscious reader should be thinking. A suspiciously South Asian byline and a column about the wonders of an independent India in the modern world. No doubt you’ve already identified the punch line: “And then I realized how important this independence has been to me…” Not so much. I attended Santa Clara’s “India Festival 2001” and Fremont’s “Festival of India,” held the weekends of Aug. 4 and Aug. 11, respectively, for strictly academic reasons. My research assistantship in the Cultural and Social Anthropology Department —not my deep-seated desire for ethnic and cultural bonding — placed me at these events, ready and expecting to be out of place and eventually found out for the fraudulent Indian that I am. (More on my fraudulence later.)
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Instead, I came upon fairs full of people, parades showcasing the many faces of Bay Area Indians, teenagers cruising and families — traditional and non — enjoying themselves. And I fit in perfectly. Why? Camera slung over my shoulder and reporters notebook in hand, I became to the people around me the young female Indian writer / photographer / journalist, an obvious pillar of the community and potential role model for six-year-old brown girls everywhere. Again, not so much. But, while I will continue to struggle against those labels as long as they feel as pretentious to me as they do now, they immediately afforded me the freedom, confidence and authority to observe and interpret my surroundings in ways I never had the opportunity to before. What I saw, though — once I started looking — I found profoundly disturbing. Of course, the hundreds of people in attendance were there for the community, and that made sense. They should want to be together on the anniversary of their simultaneous emancipation and unification.
But the efforts to foster community — and, in so doing, create one positive image of Indians in the Bay Area — could not mask the reality of seemingly irreconcilable differences and a refusal to acknowledge the presences of conflict and stratification. In short, Indians gathered in Santa Clara and Fremont to celebrate how far they’ve come and to take pride in the place they’ve created for themselves here. But the preoccupation with projecting the perfect picture left them taking far too great pains to deny the problems and struggles — the fears — that also face their community, as they would face any immigrant group. This was most apparent in Fremont, where some 100 protesters turned out to denounce what they saw as the illtreatment of Sikhs, a religious group, in India and to advocate the creation of an independent Sikh nation, Khalistan. Relegated to a small side street and surrounded by unabashed revelry, these men, women and children together seemed to me the most telling representation of this day’s ugly underbelly. While I don’t pretend to understand
Thursday, August 16, 2001
the depth or breadth of their cause and am in no position to make any judgments on it, I felt for the protesters because they were the day’s embarrassment, and the vast majority of the people they wanted to reach blatantly ignored them, much the same way those people choose to turn a blind eye to poverty, overpopulation, conflict and so many other inescapable, if seemingly distant, national ills. And, yet, despite this, I loved being there. I loved the bustle, the smells, the sounds, the life. I loved the way the causes resonated with me. I loved the familiarity, and I loved the acceptance. But why? Because it all put me in touch with the neglected but ever-present Indian inside me? Or because I miss New York, and this reminded me of the city? Because I find suffering romantic and want to repent for drifting away from public service in my time at this fine institution. Because, as much as I hate to admit it, I buy into the hype as much as the next person? Let’s be honest: Indian is in. What with Gwen Stefani’s bindis and Madonna’s yoga, Indian women’s corner on the Miss World and Miss Universe pageants and the profusion of everything from Indian-inspired music to furniture, there’s no escaping the successful takeover by all things Indian of the rest of
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the unsuspecting world. So the cynical part of me is inclined to believe that my own unexpected emotional connection to the events of recent weeks is merely a result of the commercialization of Indian culture. Never mind all this talk of ancestral lands and inherent brown-ness. Except that the familiarity and acceptance I mentioned not long ago did not come out of trends and consumerism, though that is not to say that it came out of something more profound either. I felt what I did and was received the way I was because I look Indian. Had I been any other ethnicity, the experience would have been far different, regardless of my cultural context. In any other color, even if I knew all the songs, spoke a language or two and was married to an Indian man, I would be cute and obsessed, but I would not be Indian. And therein lies the rub, I suppose. I am the Bahamian-born daughter of Guyanese parents who moved to the would-be New York section of Connecticut and raised their four children in an ultra-liberal home surrounded by everyone but Indians. But I’m ethnically Indian, and that means that, no matter how fraudulent I deem my own Indianness to be, my face gives me claim and access to a culture that always played
second fiddle to Americana in my house. How strange. How odd that one can seem to identify so deeply with a community at a tie as happy as this, but not know whether that relationship is based in culture or commerce. How absolutely bizarre that, even as I struggle to decide what shade of “Other” I want to be, there is a whole group of people who don’t need my input or permission to check the box they’ve already resolved to put me in. I think I celebrated my first Indian Independence Day yesterday. It seems one wouldn’t think so by looking at me, but perhaps I’ve delayed because I didn’t have independence to celebrate. And maybe I still don’t. I am not independent from the cultural connotations of my long black hair and nose ring, and Indians, as a community, are not independent from the struggles that still face them — that face us — in India and abroad. It’s easy to hate the British Empire for robbing us of our identity, both national and individual, and attempting to quash our will to decry and fight injustice, but what do we do when the obstacles are each other and ourselves. I’m not entirely sure I should celebrate again next year. Nadira Hira is a senior majoring in English. E-mail her your comments at email@example.com.
Thursday, August 16, 2001