Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Changing worlds, changing identities

I was reading about the dramma caused by Joel Stein's column in The Times, the complaints of Indian American community and the subsequent apologies tendered by Stein and Times, and also the opinions of some Indian opinionists about the issue.

The editorial of Sagarika Ghose in Hindustan Times was clear in its advice for the Indian emigrants - if you are going to be in the global marketplace, learn to laugh at yourself and also learn to live with the communities that host you. It criticised the ghetto mentalities of Indian communities and advised them to stay at home in India, if they do not want to adapt to the culture of their adopted homelands.

Another editorial in HT by an Indian-American, Anika Gupta, complained that being an emigrant kid growing up in US, she was forced to learn to laugh at herself since the majority is incapable of understanding diversity. Thus they have had enough and can't be expected to take such irresponsible comments from a person like Stein in 2010.

I agree with some parts of both the views and yet have some problems with both of them. Sagarika Ghose's views are expressed in a superficial and insensitive way. Anika Gupta's view is perhaps too close to her own experience and thus lacks the necessary detachment.

I think that people have a right to express their feelings. If this debate was not about cultures and identities, perhaps we could accept others' feeling without much problems.

If I grew up in a calm area surrounded by green farms and clear skies and today I find that place covered with concrete houses, busy highways, speeding cars and increasing pollution, no one is going to get upset if I decide to write about my feelings, and about how I miss the old days. There will be people who are happy at the change, who look at the change as being "development" and appreciate the comfort of having shopping malls and cinema halls, but even they can appreciate that you are remembering something else, and don't argue about your right to remember the old times with nostalgia.

But the place where you grew up, if it has changed because many emigrants speaking different languages, eating different food, wearing different clothes are living in that place, it is not polite to say that you miss the old times when things were different. If you say that, it is automatically taken to mean that you are a racist or an ignorant conservative.

I don't think that is the best way to look at it - I think that we human beings can appreciate the good things about the changes, and yet miss parts of the past, before the change happened.

On the other hand, being emigrants is complex business. Understanding your own diversity and negotiating how you can live with the culture that surrounds you, can be painful and difficult, at least for some. So you have the right to express your difficulties and ask for respect.

Thus, in my opinion, both the view points are legitimate and should be expressed, without worrying if someone is going to get offended. I agree that emigrants need to express their own issues and difficulties, but we can't ask others to shut up and not say what they feel.

So for me Joel Stein also has equal right to remember the old days before their neighbourhood changed. I can understand it and empathise with it. Even I feel a bit like that, every time I go back to Delhi and look at the way city has changed in the past thirty years. It doesn't mean that I am negating that emigrants don't have difficulties in defining their own cultural identities and negotiating with majority cultures.

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