Saturday, January 2, 2016

The problem with writing about India

Being in India is amazing. Or rather it's not; amazing is a silly word to use. It's diluting and reductive and doesn't begin to describe what being here is like, what I've seen and heard and eaten and felt. But the words to describe India are hard to find and putting them together to recount all the stories of the people I've met and the sights I've seen is even more difficult.

The thing is, writing of India is more than a little complicated. For one, I don’t want to misrepresent my own culture—or half of it, anyway. I don’t want to feed into the U.S. orientalism of Indians or Asians in general. And as my new friend Sara says, it's important that we don't share the stories that are already told, those that depict a very particular view of India, those that propagate stereotypes of in-your-face vibrancy or painful-to-see poverty. After all, India isn't Bollywood. India isn't Slumdog Millionaire.

In writing on a public platform for an audience I don't wholly know, I'm afraid to describe what is different in India, to speak of dirty streets and misogyny and spicy foods. I know that to some degree, friends and family and other readers who have been here know what I am describing and are aware that this is not all that India is, that this is not true for all of India. But for the readers who do not know, whose only impressions of India are those in movies and other media that show only one facet of Indian life, my descriptions do nothing to tell them what India is really like. In describing the way I feel walking down the street or going about what is slowly become a routine here, I am afraid to feed into an idea of India that, while not wholly untrue, is in not truly accurate.

What comes to mind when you think of India? As someone who was born here, I think of my grandparents and their homes. I think of the many family members who I rarely see. I think of faloodas and hot weather and shopping. But more than these images, I think of a feeling. I remember how being around my family makes me feel comforted. I think about a sense of home that comes with the dissonance of not fully belonging. And I feel so much more, things I'm still trying to cognize and understand and rationalize and process.

Another issue with writing of India is that I sometimes get overwhelmed by the millions of stories of Indians and Indian-Americans that aren’t told. For one, while my Indian-American peers and I have experienced more subtle racisms than overt acts of violence or brutality, there are thousands of individuals who have dealt with much more. A few days ago, about half of us from our CIEE group visited an NGO called Shaheen. We met with about thirty women who had dealt with experiences such as rape, child marriagedomestic violence, and adversity finding educational opportunities. 

When I tell you this, when I share diluted snippets of their experiences, I want you to keep in mind: this is not what India is. This is not all that India is. This does not only happen in India. This is not a reflection of India, but it is a human rights issue that is to be understood across many dimensions.

It gets to the point where I hesitate sharing these stories. Even in the selection of photos, I try to stay away from just photos of cows, stray dogs, palaces, and forts. These are the images of India that are already shared and overshared. It's not that doing so is wrong in and of itself. Rather, it's that I want to post consciously and I urge you all to consume consciously as well. As Sara and I were discussing, there is no final answer, no clear right or wrong. There’s no resolution or big solution to all of this. But that doesn't mean you stop trying, stop questioning.

At the same time, rather than avoiding speaking of India altogether, I feel compelled to share these stories because so few people talk about these issues. The absenceor rather inaccuracy of representation and lack of a thorough presentationof Indians and Indian-Americans in American media is astounding and frustrating to me. In The Karma of Brown Folk, Vijay Prashad writes, "In the United States the bulk of the desi community seems to have moved away from active political struggles toward an accommodation with this racist policy." I too have found in the Indian-American community a tendency to accommodate ignorances rather than to resist struggle, to question, or to act. With this in mind, I can't help but feel a sense of duty; if I don't talk about this, who will? If I don't stand up for myselffor ourselveswho will?

It disenheartens me when people don't stand up for themselves or when they are unfazed by subtle racisms. On one hand, it's a sign of accommodating themselves within the system, acquiescing to centuries of racist and imperialist ideology and orientalism. On the other, it adds more pressure upon me. Why aren't all of my peers politically involved, equally frustrated with the inequities and injustices? It makes me question myself and my convictions. Am I taking this more seriously than is needed? Am I making a bigger deal than is necessary? 

But then I think about how this is how this sort of ideology and discourse functions, that with injustice comes a tendency to internalize misogyny, racism, etc. and to transform self-worth and one's experience of oneself. Across the board, whether you consider experiences of disability, race, gender, sexuality, and other groups that are or have been systemically disenfranchised, there are those who have had to be responsible for their people, who have had to be the pioneers of their communities. Of course, I in no way mean to suggest this is what I am; rather I remind myself to be grateful for those who are and to perhaps borrow a bit of their courage, passion, intellect, and bravery. It might be that this frustration and this unrelenting passion is a reflection of my youth. But it's 2016 and I'm tired of accommodating ignorances and apologizing for who I am and what I stand for.

You might be asking, what is India? If it's not just bad traffic and street dogs and spicy foods, what is it? Well the thing is, that can't be said. Of course, it isn't possible for me to sum up the entirety of what a country is in one blog post. But for me, India is family. It's a weird sense of home closely tied to the contradictory sense of not fully belonging. It's an educational experience of understanding another way of living my life and being or becoming myself. It's early mornings and late nights and a sense of calm amongst chaos. So yeah, there is bad traffic and street dogs and spicy foods, but India is just so much more.

~ V

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