I remember a tattered copy of Bharati Mukherjee’s Jasmine constantly lying around the house when I was growing up. It was the first Indian diasporic book I had ever known. It was only much later that I realised Jasmine was a critical piece of DNA code in Indian literature, for it would become the go-to novel for many Indian English writers.
Stories that traced a long journey across the seas to the country where dreams come true. In the 1990s it was fashionable to say you had an uncle or an aunt living in the United States. At school, classmates would tell stories about their American-accented cousins who waltzed in every summer and grimaced at the dirt, the mosquitoes, and the overly-spicy food. These realities would translate into fiction in the coming years.
Back to the future
I am thirty-two when I read Aatish Taseer's article, “The Day I Got My Green Card” published in the Wall Street Journal. A story that chronicles his long battle with identity: his family is from India and Pakistan, but he was raised in Britain. The narrative brought in eerily familiar themes from the past: a sense of hope, the identity crisis, and the joys of flinging low-hanging cultural fruit at the reader.
Jhumpa Lahiri might be the best example of this. Here were Indians grappling with their past, Indian idiosyncrasies clawing deep into their new American lives. The East-West stereotypes grew starker and bolder in each story. The Indian parents and their American-born child, the in-laws visiting and manufacturing new ways to drive their global children crazy, and my personal favourite, the caricaturing of the arranged marriage.
It wasn't uncalled for. The 1990s and early 2000s reflected many truths behind the pages of fiction. It covered the emotional complexities of generations of Indians who had made lives in America, debating the cultures and practices to keep, and the ones to discard. But most of all it celebrated a victory, the end of a marathon. The fact that a family had made a life in America, in spite of herculean cultural battles, signified triumph.
The aspiration and accomplishment was unmistakable in Lahiri's first novel, The Namesake. A near-fatal accident in the story becomes the shovel that unearths a main character’s more adventurous side. This adventurous side, in no uncertain terms, is the character’s arrival in the USA and the subsequent raising of his family.
Most diasporic writing that made it to popular culture danced around America's assimilation wonders, its gigantic roads and supermarkets and its mini South-Asian ecosystems that created comradery and comedic confusion. The West cashed in on India's exotic flair, with the book covers featuring embroidered saris covering taut bellies, silver anklets on brown feet, heavily kohl-lined eyes, and perfectly round red bindis.
Bridging the East-West irony gap
Then the internet happened and with it India sucked in its over-populated belly and exhaled. Now, it was a new globalised universe. Indian teenagers knew much more about the rest of the world, their outlook not limited to episodes of Friends. Politics and global interconnections were made, the central nervous system of the reading and debating population exploded with electrical storms.
We were talking call centres, mixed economies, labour rights, reverse immigration and “New India”. Silicon valley-bred families trekked back to the home country, inserted their children in international schools, bought swank houses, and resumed life almost seamlessly thanks to the fruits of globalisation. The only thing they had to sacrifice were decent roads, basic waste management, and an efficient civil administration.
Now we needed a new story, one that laughed at the ironies. The ones that talked about how similar our global issues were, but how they were just applied differently. One that contextualised systems of power and how they affected our morning breakfast. The discerning reader had no time for the black-and white smugness of India VS the West.
Aravind Adiga came in with a roar, the first to make globalised India twirl on the literary axis, and then there were new independent English writers in the country. We had finally understood the spectacular significance of nuance.
Undermining tales of prejudice
And we were doing so well up till about last week, when I read Taseer’s article. An author of considerable power, he took the non-fiction literary narrative two decades back. Some are celebrating his story as heart warming and evocative of America's immigration glory, and even at worst it's being appreciated for its heartfelt composure.
“Welcome home, sir,” the immigration officer said when I presented him with my green card at John F Kennedy Airport in May. Three very sweet words, and they made me smile: As a South Asian male, with a Muslim name, I had hardly ever before entered the US without being carted off to secondary screening.
The first lines reek of the familiar mix of tension-joy in the books I had read so long ago. Taseer's cultural and physical journey is complicated in all the right ways. Although British born, his cultural identity has travelled from India, Pakistan, the UK and, finally, the bumper prize, America. At long last, the end of the marathon.
The takeaway seems part of a larger propaganda, a small attempt to rectify the many follies and burps the global world has picked up on the world's biggest power. Is the fact that Donald Trump is seriously being considered as the next president of the USA, a man who has quite literally said the words “ban Muslims” just a blip on Taseer's radar? Granted he says he is a dark horizon, but he is optimistic: “This may be an odd thing to say, with Donald Trump darkening the horizon, but perhaps it is in times like these that we need most to be reminded of who we are – or, at least, who we are capable of being.”
He allows for scant understanding of South Asia's battle with accepting and approaching homosexuality. He generalises with aplomb:
The sort of places that haul people away on charges of sedition and blasphemy also generally give a rough time to two men wanting to get married. (As a legal matter, same-sex love is punishable by life in prison in Pakistan and is “against the order of nature” in India.) I was tired of countries like these. It was what I hoped my emigration to America would allow me to turn my back on.
I want to giggle. America legalising national gay marriages is precisely a year old. Does South Asia have to get on this programme? Of course it does. But to demonstrate such a cardboard vision of how the East looks at homosexuality, as ignorant, vile peasants who know nothing of human decency, is pushing us back to that same narrative we worked so hard to move from. Taseer's article overwhelms with its archaic black-white stereotypes of both America and India.
Thanks but no thanks
His one experience can indeed be supported by many beautiful and happy ones many South Asians have had (I am a US passport holder myself, and never had a racist thing said to me), but it singlehandedly dismisses the intricacies of recent history. When we filter the article down to its grain, we are left with one throbbing emotion: a sense of gratitude. Taseer’s Green Card application process with his spouse goes without a hitch, the experience so humane that he could have wept.
Perhaps it was a humane experience for Taseer, but if we were to extend that description to other sections of America's public servants, namely the police, the black population would have much to say (and have reason to fear for its life) much like other people of colour who happen to be imprisoned in severely skewed racial ratios. The danger of glorifying one experience with systems of power? It dismisses the most savage of experiences others have had.
Perhaps it's the amount of unadulterated glorification that I struggle with, this unabashed old narrative of being saved by Red White and Blue. This is not to say South Asia should be given a better rap. It has numerous social problems, many very dark, and there is no contesting this. Human idiocy and cruelty is something we globally struggle with.
But the tale of turning your back on the crude and the ignorant, only to be saved by America, is almost inexplicable unless it is meant to be a paean to the so-called American way. It’s 2016, and a lot of people have understood the complexity of South Asia. This space is too diverse and too self-conflicted for the right answers to emerge easily. People’s lives are dense with the history of inter-crossing, in a land where the exceptions are just as many as the stereotypes.
Yes, Aatish (if I may), America was built on immigration. Much of its innovation and technical and operational sophistication are results of immigration. Yet, this bait never gets old. We are living a time when our worlds are getting closer, our cultural coding being dissected with sharp abilities to contextualise, compare, and cross-check. And in this time, where histories are known, social ironies poked at, and our cross cultural realities mirrored, Taseer comes in and gives us a children’s book, one with cheerful pictures and almost no text.
A personal story built on old surface-level exoticisations and mass generalisations. A story that has been told with a dangerous assumption; that we're all bright-eyed children ready to turn our backs on our dark, lost country, just waiting to be saved by the American Dream. And almost unbelievable, coming from the writer of books such as The Way Things Were and even The Temple Goers.