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I have no nationality – the best possible status for an intellectual.
Emile M. Cioran

In a recent discussion my dad and brother both made a similar point. We as a family and as Bohras lived Indian as well as Islamic values. This is to differentiate us from the obvious ‘other’ – Western and Secular values.

Not being short of the odd brain cell, I didn’t think that was the opportune moment to disagree.

I don’t deny that the vast majority of Bohras,  living in India and Pakistan, living in the homogeneity of northwestern Indian culture share a collective cultural tradition.

I deny that I share it. And I deny that this is something I should feel bad about. I deny that this is an aberration in any sense, shape or form. They didn’t say that. But they implied it.

I have self identified myself as a third culture kid. I live in the heart of cosmopolitan Hong Kong, the glitzy world of soaring apartment blocks and 80 storey office complexes.  I don’t share the expatriate, transient culture that my friends have all adopted. I’m clearly no white boy, and I don’t intend to act like one to fit in.

I don’t have any connection with local culture, that thrives in say Mong Kok or Ma On Shan. Its so obvious that I don’t belong there that even faking it would be pointless.

Which in my parents mind leaves India.

India as home.

It isn’t. Not for me.

India is your home. You were the ones who were born and grew up there. You’re the ones with the friends there. You know the streets. You know the shops. You are the ones who feel at home in the mobs of Bombay, who thrill, even if you will not admit it, in the sheer mass of humanity, in the sights and the smells and the sounds.

Mum is smarter then that. She intuits what I think when we land in India. She’s mentioned it before: “You’d never come here if we didn’t bring you”, “Back to being bored in Surat again”. Countless variations on a similar theme. And she’s right. There’s no resonance.

I’d never go if I didn’t have to.

All India is to me is a place that I go to.  Go to and leave on the first possible day that I can.  Religious events and functions, family events and functions. Stuff you have to attend. I don’t like being there. Not the smells, not the sounds, not the mob. Not the dirt, not the ignorance nor the poverty. This is what I see when I go to India. And there’s no person for whom that could be appealing.

My physical dislike of the place is highlighted because of the cultural alienation. I feel most un – Indian when I’m in India. It highlights how definitely I don’t fit in.

I don’t speak the language. Oh sure enough to get by, be understood by the rank and file and make my way around. But that’s not really understanding the language. My language skills are functional, and there’s no incentive to make them any better.

I don’t watch the movies. Frankly I despise them. For 15 years I’ve been saying that I’ll watch Bollywood when they finally make a grown up movie, and I’m still waiting. Not one person has recommended a movie as technically a good movie. Something other then a romance story that is so generic that script writing is more like coloring by number.

I don’t like the music, which is intimately tied to the movies and equally uninviting. As I’ve said so often before I like my music to be interesting, different sounds, and with  meaning –  not just spectacular choreography which is what all Indian music that I’ve ever seen, is.

I couldn’t care less about KBC or the mountains of soap opera drivel that so many people seem to revolve their lives around.

I can’t go on listing all the things Indian that I don’t care about. It’s politics, its history, its geography, its sports, they’re all there. My point has come out. I can’t identify with being Indian because I’m not Indian. Not in a sense that actually matters. Emotionally, culturally Indian. I don’t care about India: the country or the culture.

What I have are a set of values that are derived from Indian  culture. The strong sense of family, the integrated living, the strong reliance on family support are all part of my upbringing and ethos, deference to authority, deference to seniority, strict social politeness and so on. But I don’t think they are particularly Indian values. I know people of all casts colors and creed who abide by very similar values. Some of them are my best friends, and exemplify it better then many Indians who think they are living and breathing the values. And I know Indians who don’t abide by anything close to the Indian values creed.

India to me is the nation who issues my passport. That’s the sum impact of India for me. They let me go to places more interesting by providing the proper travel documents. Not that I’m not grateful for their contribution, but well, it doesn’t really deserve delirious patriotic accolades does it. And I’m trying to ditch that as soon as I can reasonably be sure of getting a trade up. The HKSAR passport looks quite tempting, but I don’t trust the Mainland government or our local policy hacks.

Which leads me to my conclusion. I’m not Indian. Just Brown.

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8 Comments

  1. india is not home for me either, but i don’t know if i would go so far as to say i am not indian at ALL. yes, the values we believe in are similar to those of other cultures, but there is still something distinctly indian/bohra about them. and before you remind me that being bohra and being indian are different, let me say that while they are certainly different, they are inextricably intertwined. our language, food, customs have indian components, just as they do middle eastern.

    i also find it interesting that you say you don’t identify with local hk culture. i am no poster girl for local culture, but i definitely identify with it. chinese food, soap operas, fashion is far more appealing to me than any other.

    all in all, i am happy to be a hong kong bohra girl 🙂

  2. totaally agree with Meryam… no.. i scanned… 😉
    um…. i can totaaly relate to local hk chinese and totally relate to .. deen..
    bohra is another thing.. Bohra in itself is a mix of i dunno what and i dun what probably islam and india.. i dunno.. but even within bohras.. there’s cultural diversity…. and minds that work in ………. well… VERY DIFFERENT ways..

  3. z, how do you separate deen and bohra?

    • remainsofthedesi
    • Posted June 7, 2007 at 6:38 pm
    • Permalink

    hey…this is quite interesting…because I come from ethnically complicated origins and am exactly the reverse…”not brown, just an Indian” …and I too get parts of my ethnic family’s cultural past shoved down my throat which, though I respect it, I do not identify with it as “mine”. For me, India is home…my place of origin…but even so it is a home in which I do not fit easily. All I know is that when I travel to other places in the world I am even less at home. In India I am rarely initially identified as Indian…and that can be an irritating beginning to each and every new conversation…if you are unusual then people want to hear your life story over and over again. But between myself and those intimates who are with you to ride the tide of strange times…I have my own grab-bag of India; my own random collection of memories, films, backwards conversations and upside down flips into the rabbit holes of accidental encounters…because if you begin to feel you are from a place and everyone feels you are from somewhere else…no matter where you go…you are constantly finding yourself thinking about how best to imagine your space, your life and what you want to do with it…because since there are so few other people in a similar position…few people can give you advise that points you in a direction that has much bearing on your past and your future.

  4. You don’t identify with India, Think it has nothing to offer, lots of things that’s wrong with India.

    Well! So?

    You may not be an african, an american, an european, an australian. You are not a lot of these and much more.

    Still I don’t get what you want to say? India has lots of problem! We do! So?

    Break that last relation too! The passport!

    -Punds

    • mtalib
    • Posted June 7, 2007 at 10:17 pm
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    @Meryam
    I agree with you that there is a strong fusion between Indian and Bohra culture.

    I’ve always seen the end product, my personal values and beliefs, coming out of my Bohra identity rather then being derived from Indian cultural roots. I don’t see them as equals. I see the Bohra identify as superior and the Indian identity as subordinate – the Indian identity is the expected default position to fill in the gaps. For me the default position is the one I’ve grown up in, as I think you’ve said it is for you. That culture is “Indian – based” not Indian.

    I’m sure you must have seen, having gone to the great Afrikaner stronghold of London, the half amero-indians in the US of A and our own slightly wonky Bohra culture, that there’s a lot of scope to be bohra outside of the Indian paradigm. And going by what my cousins tell me, there’s a lot of space for the miniskirt and the night club inside the India bohra paradigm too.

    @remainsofthedesi
    Your grab bag perhaps articulates my whole post in a few words. I don’t have those memories of India.

    There are no people like that for me. For me these memories are formed in the places I grew up and with the people that I grew up with. People who aren’t in India, and the majority of whom aren’t actually Indian. Naturally this means India feels like a strange place to me, made stranger by the expectation of others that I belong, a force you’ve experienced in reverse, the expectation of not belonging. I think I’m more adapted to people presuming I don’t belong.

    @full2faltu
    Put simply, my parents expect me to be Indian. To see India as my homeland and keep the migrant mentality alive. Except that I’ve lived all my life in this migrant land, and I feel at home here. India to me is the foreign land. And I have no intention of ‘belonging’ to a place to make my parents happy.

    I’m also exceptionally curious why you’re commenting on a post when you’ve clearly not understood it.

  5. I commented to get this reaction. Your distance from India is understandable but the things you are critical of India are dear to me and many Indians. We are strange people! You like it or not. The same way you like your present community and country.

    Being critical to a foreign culture is human tendency. Americans being critical of British, British being critical of French, French being critical of Belgians. The list could go on.

    My point is if you are not feeling Indian, don’t blame India for that. You have the right to be a citizen and adapt to the present country and the culture there. Having an Indian passport gives you an Indian identity, legally at least, whether you like it or not.

    I guess the first thing you do is give up that identity. Its not an advice but a suggestion. You cannot remain an Indian and still blame India for your identity crisis.

    Sorry if you feel offended by this but a feeling of belonging comes from feeling for the country and not just owning the country passport. For me you are just a foreigner like any non-Indian.

    I may also feel distant from your country, your culture, your movies, your music. But atleast I accept that you are different from me.

    We are different my friend in culture and ways but about being passionate about the country/community, we are same. You about yours and Me about mine

    Let stay this way!

    Thanks
    Punds

    • mtalib
    • Posted June 8, 2007 at 5:57 am
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    @full2faltu
    I’ll respectfully disagree. A feeling of belonging comes from the people that live in the place with you, the memories you take with you and the confidence and happiness that brings.

    It has precious little to do with the geography or the wider polity. Most people, especially in a country as wide as India I would doubt think beyond the state or regional level. A wider nationalistic patriotism might be how some people manifest this, but I know very few people who adopt the “my country right or wrong” approach.

    I don’t believe that I have an identity crisis, I’m very much at home with the current tote bag of cultural influences on me and I’m comfortable with that mix. It’s those that presume I’m a committed desi and, am and should be, nothing more that raise my ire. And that’s what this post is about.


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  1. By 'I'm not Indian. Just Brown'. at Blogbharti on 06 Jun 2007 at 4:37 pm

    […] Mohammed Talib tells us why he’s ‘not Indian, just brown’: I don’t speak the language. Oh sure enough to get by, be understood by the rank and file and make my way around. But that’s not really understanding the language. My language skills are functional, and there’s no incentive to make them any better. […]

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