It turns out all I want to find in literature, whether I write or read it, is a little piece of myself.
When I read literature from the US, Latin America, Japan, and the Middle East, they all spoke to the voices inside me, in some combination of complicit knowing or curious unknowing. If I so freely submit myself to most books and they return to me, by way of reward, some mongrel sense of self, what was this overwhelm I felt when it came to reading Indian literature? What changed when it came to reading about what I should know? What of these worlds that I should intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually recognize, if not seamlessly fit into?
Despite the pressures I felt, I presumed to know many of these narratives, be familiar with the mythologies, have partaken in some histories by way of collective experience. Then it struck me, like a thin veil lifting off the face. When we yield to our preferences, we consider our choices instinctively, not always intelligibly. None of our attachments to literature are automatic; they are discursive, pro-active, subject to interpretation. My answers, I suppose, lay in the should-ness of it all. I was afraid that when I’d read Indian literature, I wouldn’t feel Indian enough. I continued to reason. I expected our relationships to be pre-conditioned. But it was disheartening when much of such reading revealed to me what I should alreadyknow but didn’t. In the best cases reading yields a familiarity over strangeness, but here, the responsibility of not knowing seemed to hold far greater consequence for me.
For all my patronage of the arts, perhaps, in general, I was not reading these Subcontinental stories as stories but to measure out a representation of myself, and I felt swept up in the discursive politics of having to belong to the specificities of a culture when I identify as being much more fluid as an individual. I am drawn to multi-dimensionality in people as much as characters, which is not to say the ever-growing population of Indian protagonists lacks depth—far from it—but often, every once in awhile, I wanted to experience an aligned familiarity in the world of art that could make home feel more like home.
I grew up speaking English at home. Though I was exposed to a few languages, like Punjabi, Hindi, Sanskrit at rituals, and then French at school, I’ve always considered English to be my first language. My friends at school often teased me and called me a “foreigner” because I responded in English to their Hindi. I remember in particular a friend telling me, “You have an accent,” and I couldn’t understand why she would say so since our understanding then was to ascribe accents to people who spoke different languages and were from other countries. “This is just how I talk,” I replied to her, but it left me feeling self-conscious.
Despite such experiences, while growing up in New Delhi, I didn’t think I had to define my Indian-ness. It was a pre-judgment, just conditioning. For the most part, I enjoyed a freedom of thought. My focus was always on the I in individual, not the I in Indian. Like hot tea I’d been steeping, for years. I was so entitled to my agency I presumed all my actions generated from individual instinct, untouched by some collective or social identity.
When I took myself out of the Subcontinent and ended up in the US, I was struck by how much larger the world really is, and perhaps I started to pay undue attention to where I ended and others began. At a college orientation event, our class dean called out names of countries and asked us to stand if we were from there. They’d wanted to convey the extensive diversity of our general student body—almost 30 percent international, from over seventy-five countries. When India was called I stood up, suddenly feeling very Indian. When people asked me where I was from I, of course, said India, though once again many of my Indian friends were unconvinced. “Okay, you’re Indian, but where are you from?” they said. “Delhi,” I said emphatically, and when they coddled their disbelief I added, as a joke, “Okay, I’m from Fiji.”
The more I dove into these measured responses, the more complex the definitions became. The original question exploded—from broadly asking how Indian I am, there came accompanying questions like what kind of Indian I am, and for me, such territory was more alienating than it was informative. Even so, I couldn’t shake the truism that no matter who they are or where they come from, all people are people. If I had a certain way, so did everybody else. A universal logic dictated by individual quirk. When my friends and I spoke, some rolled their Rs, some inhaled sharply before making an exclamation, some drawled, some undertook deep-set throat-work. It’s like music, and music is music everywhere.
With people, I realized quickly that their stories are announced as swiftly as their presence, molded by their rich backgrounds and multi-dimensional perspectives. Similarly, certain cultural movements, gestures, and colloquialisms had also manifested in me. While a vivid inquiry into someone’s life-hive indeed helps us understand who they are a little bit better, more importantly, no matter where they come from, people always sound like themselves. At the heart of it, every narrative is a personal story.
Here came the existential onslaught: Who am I? Can I be whoever I want to be?
Moving anywhere and back again involves adjustment and variation, even if it’s a journey made from home (a feeling) to home (a place of origin). A few years later and now back in Delhi, I sat cross-legged on my bed one day. From a prolonged hesitation to read Indian literature I had stumbled onto an unwillingness to write, now unsure of what I was supposed to sound like. How does the modern Indian writer—one that’s seen the world and wants to write about it—take the traditions that have sculpted them while conforming to the West-centric (de-)stabilizing definitions of art and literature?
Can I be whoever I want to be?
I stretched back on the freshly laundered sheets and meditated on the blank ceiling, to the street calls of a raucous vegetable seller making his afternoon rounds. One can hear them milling about most neighborhoods in the city, their calculated baritone listing the fresh sabzi stock of the day with an almost boastful sincerity. I needed only to hear him, to see him. I didn’t know anything about him, I realized, and felt deeply burdened by the thought. As writers, how can we be entrusted with exploring the human condition when so many of our interactions are imagined, not real?
Ultimately, the world I’d come to know intimately was populated by people who were more similar than different to me with regards to opportunity but also so much else. I shied away from describing collective identities in fear of leaving out the truth of someone’s experience, which, by my own merit, I discovered was not in the least bit copyable. Was I back to thinking of the I in individual?
India—mythic, bountiful, extraordinary though it is—is also vastly incomprehensible. Languages, religion, clothing, and diet change faster than from one state border to the next. There are cities I’ve never been to, villages I don’t even know of that exist, people whose lives will never ever be mine. Of the 780 languages counted in India’s most recent People’s Linguistic Survey, I can speak and understand only three and a half.
Everything felt strange, even me to myself, like I was suddenly disconnected from the outside world. I was forced to ask some profoundly unsettling questions: Can your own country and culture feel so estranged to you that you treat it as if it is someone else’s? I was overwhelmed with a confusion of tongues, and of the soul.
Of all our metaphysical capabilities, I sincerely appreciate the self’s ability to remain in flux. I continued to ask questions and stayed close with the discomfort when the answers weren’t immediately disclosed to me, as they often aren’t. This pressure, but really ineptitude, to claim to know every possible experience works neither in writing nor in real life. Growing as a person and as a writer are not exclusive experiences for someone whose navigation of life is to write themselves through it—which is what most writers say. Eventually, I’ll admit I tied up all these loose ends with a great deal of self-acceptance.
If reading is a kind of authorship and to want to write is to want to read yourself in the world, it occurred to me that like clothing and dress, how we engage in the arts and literature is also a form of self-expression. As a reader, I am free to choose, without guilt, experiences I want to participate in on the whole or in parts. As a writer, I am simply comfortable representing myself singularly in voice and spirit. If something is true for me, perhaps it could be true for you too, whoever you are. So I decided I’d write naturally, how I wanted to write; a gesture I carry forward equally, from text messages to my first novel.
Reading or writing, any stories told to us at first appear foreign and by virtue of the human fact, we hope to see a bit of ourselves in anything we see, even if we don’t wholly recognize it. On any given day to be who you are has to be enough, and if some parts of you appear unrecognizable from time to time, let them; they’re just like characters in chapter one.
I picked up renowned Indian novelist Arundhati Roy’s 1997-Booker-prize-winning novel The God of Small Things to read as my first Indian novel as an adult—efforts that are steadily blooming into the canon and the contemporary, and also around the Subcontinent—with the newfound awareness that I could read ‘Indian-ness,’ and really all our identities, as constructions. I was no longer searching for similarity or difference. I was searching for myself, and truth be told, so long as you belong to yourself you will always belong somewhere.
Dipti Anand is a poet, writer, editor and curator. Her writing has appeared previously in Enormous Eye and the Aerogram, and is forthcoming in two anthologies. She has an interdisciplinary master’s of arts degree from the Center of Experimental Humanities at NYU, among other adventures. She lives in New Delhi, India, where she is working on her debut novel. / www.diptianand.com