So there she was, standing in front of me, in her green eyes, jet black wavy hair and translucent skin. Clad in a white gypsy skirt and a sheer purple top that had had strings all over, including that of the purple bikini top tied in a big bow at the nape of her neck; her hair, her skirt and the strings were fluttering in the light breeze – I am transfixed. “Get a grip!” I tell myself. Suddenly I realise that her hand is outstretched and she had just muttered something that sounded foreign. “Pardon,” I ask in an apologetic reply. She mutters something again, and I sigh in relief – She is speaking Spanish – “Me llamo Solita – Como se llama?”
And, in that moment – everything went still and did this 360 degree turn, like in the movies. You know, at that time when the protagonist re-lives something in their past lives or is doing some serious thinking? Only here, I was the one doing all the thinking, and it was dangerous as my thoughts then were precisely – ‘Does she thinks I am Spanish?! She does think I am beautiful. She thinks I am available. I could be anyone – Do I have to be me?’
A question we are asked every single day is ‘Who are you and where do you belong?’ As a child I found that to be the most unfair and difficult question of them all. India is a ‘unique’ land where one’s name can determine eighty per cent of one’s identity. It is not so for me. My name is unique, and my surname does not betray any particular state, caste or ethnicity, which often puzzles, sometimes even agitates, a fellow Indian. It is ironic that while travelling abroad, I get to tell the ‘aliens’ – ‘I am from India,’ and it is met with a hundred per cent acceptance. But in my own land, questions can come forth like the Spanish Inquisition – of religion, caste, sub-caste, father’s name, father’s occupation, place of residence, the list can go on. We must decode multiple identities – not simply embrace them.
So it could be that , lone Indian ‘straight’ twenty-one year old girls do not wear scarves tied in a coconut shell as a top or come to a far-away land unescorted on budget holidays or take cruises to remote islands to snorkel and indulge in adventure sports. And yet, here I was. Would she believe the truth? Or could this be the time I get to tell a white lie? As I reach out to return her handshake, I decide to go with the truth. Injecting a smile into every word and what I hope to be warmth in my own brown eyes, I reply. “Me llamo Chiteisri … Chee-tae-shree. But Pardon, No hablo español.” She looks at me in surprise, and I know what comes next. “Really! But I thought you were …” says Solita, “Yes, Yes – I understand.” I cut in quickly and add before I wave goodbye; “Hasta la vista – but ‘til then, the pleasure was all mine, mi amiga!” I step off the boat. I am back to being just ‘me.’ As I walk along, I tell myself that someday I shall write about this experience as this would be an interesting story to tell. But for now, the brief tryst at flirting with my identity had to come to an end.
I had met this pair of girls on a day cruise, who presumed I was a wandering traveller, quite like them. I thought Solita was nice and friendly when she approached me to take a picture of herself and her companion. In a quick round of pleasantries, I gathered that she was a student in the UK studying Ancient civilizations and was taking a gap year in Bali when she met her companion a month earlier. We had spent the entire day talking in English about river valley civilizations, about Bali, about the mundane and had become so absorbed in the conversation, that her ‘companion’ (read-partner) became more and more displeased by the hour. It was only when she invited me back to her villa for the night and introduced herself to me in Spanish that I had realised that her compliments all day were more than ‘friendly’!
That was also the day when I had ‘stretched’ my identity to a near-breaking point. I was neither a Brahmin, nor a student of law, nor a budding environmentalist and writer-in-the-making, nor a girl-child of a single mother, nor an English-speaking Hindu; I was not even an Indian. Yet, nothing in my conversation with Solita was a lie. I had talked of my love for books especially Harry Potter, of how much I knew about Barcelona through Spanish movies, of my desire to travel and see the world all my life, of how much I loved the water, enjoyed meeting fellow Cancerians and that I adored sunsets on the beach. They are the identities I love taking up; instead of conforming to the ones I am told to ‘belong to’ everyday.
I often wonder – Can our travel experiences, our daily interactions, our work ethic, our dreams, our quirks, our interests, our readings, our expressions, our actions also not define us? Can’t I have a truly meaningful conversation, friendship or romance with someone purely, despite this world where everyone seems to look for more divide; maybe… just maybe, I can find that one delicate common thread of shared values and aspirations that are rooted in humanity?
I would like to believe that I have ‘embraced’ multiple identities, and two key factors have influenced this notion – that I am my Grandmother’s grandchild and share an inherent desire to travel and be a citizen of the world like her, and of course “Books.”(Alexie, 18) Books that, as a lonely child- were extensions of my soul and my companions through busy airports, boarding schools and days back when I was invisible. Books that made me want to take more, see more and imagine more. Books that made me want to “refuse and resist” and “break down locked doors” (18). I too would “read with equal parts joy and desperation. I loved those books, but I also knew that love had only one purpose. (18)” But unlike, Sherman Alexie– it wasn’t about “saving my life” (18) – it was more to ‘save an identity or maybe ‘transform my life.’
Sherman Alexie is a renowned writer and an inspiration to many today. In his story ‘The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me,” he speaks of his Native American childhood, where he took to reading voraciously as a boy and overcame the obstacles of an institutionalised backwardness and racial discrimination. The joy of reading gave him refuge from those dire circumstances back then, and has brought him out of it today. ‘Superman’ is the manifestation of the power of imagination and toil; he takes to his people in appeal to “save their lives.” He says that despite all the books he read, he is still surprised he became a writer – but an aspiring writer like myself, genuinely is not surprised that he is one, and a great one at that.
If I look at myself ‘from the outside looking in’, I am aware that I have all the ‘ingredients’ that could make me a fine writer. I have an eye for detail, a thirst for knowledge, a good vocabulary and am someone who is driven by empathy. There are a number of causes that I care about, so my parents thought I would fight for them as a lawyer. But the truth is that I am a watery-eyed doe in a profession that is meant for a wily fox instead! My learning while studying the legal system in India only showed me how far it is for enabling justice to those who seek it – sensitive that I am, I am better as a legal counsellor rather than an advocate as I am unable to detach any emotion to my potential client. I believe writing is where one need not detach their emotions. In fact Alexie’s piece is where simple words depict powerful emotion e.g. – “Those who failed were ceremonially accepted by other Indians and appropriately pitied by non-Indians. I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky.” (17)
The raw emotion in his piece speaks to me in volumes; he had an inherent fear of failure and was determined to prove everyone wrong. I no longer fear of failing in a profession merely because I believe my heart isn’t in it. Here there is a fear because my heart is wholly into it; there is nothing I want more than to be a writer. One who can emote, evoke and empathise. The fear is whether it shall serve that purpose for which I took to reading and writing – to transform and transcend my identity.
The doubt herein also lies in whether I have achieved what Bharati Mukherjee calls “the trauma of self-transformation.” (283) In her essay titled ‘Two ways to Belong to America’ she describes herself of having adopted a “cultural and psychological mongrelisation” (281) in her “need to feel like a part of the community,” (283) vis-a-vis her sister Mira who firmly chooses to remain an expatriate Indian. She emphasizes that we are ultimately who we choose to be; that forms our identity. Both Bharati Mukherjee and Sherman Alexie have observed or absorbed their conflicts and identity crisis in a manner that they put it across effectively.
It seems as if each of them has been able to transform their crisis of identity, into positions of strength. Instead of being bounded by the door of a stereotype – they broke those down, collected those very pieces into something that makes them who they are today- mightier, smarter and better.
Good writers are well-known but the greatest writers are immortal. They were not born great – they became so after having been able to encompass all the triumphs and failures in their lives and in doing so, some part of their identity would have been sacrificed for another. Jane Austen is someone who is known for her literary prowess today – and not because she chose to remain a spinster in 17th Century England. Shakespeare’s work is hailed as that of a genius – the speculations about his appearance, his sexuality and his religious beliefs do not matter anymore. Samuel Langhore Clemens is just another name, but Mark Twain is someone whose boyhood adventures are re-lived and re-told through his characters everyday to a playful child in some part of the world. Will there be a day when my being Indian or Spanish, gay or straight, married or single shall not matter anymore? Will Solita be able to read my stories to her grand-children someday and say that ‘I met her in November 2008,’ with pride and affection. It is my turn now – to take my own identity crisis, my experiments and experiences where I studied it or underestimated it or flirted with it; and turn them into stories for people across borders, cultures and eras. But will it help me transcend this life, this age and this identity?
Annie Dillard asks “Which of you want to give your lives and be writers?”(141) I want to say ‘Yes! I will.’ I will sacrifice everything in a rooted identity, if to become that one writer who can illuminate others. I only ask – will I live up to it and in all sincerity – will that be enough? __________________________________________
Alexie, Sherman. “The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me.” 50 Essays. Ed. Samuel Cohen. 3rd ed. Boston · New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.Print. 15-18
Mukherjee, Bharati. “Two Ways to Belong to America.” 50 Essays. Ed. Samuel Cohen. 3rd ed. Boston · New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2011.Print. 280-283
Dillard, Annie. “Death of a Moth.” A Portable Anthology. Second Edition. Ed. Samuel Cohen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. 2007. 139-42.