Cultural identity is a funny thing, the way it changes and morphs over the course of a generation or two. I identify as American or Indian-American most of the time. My roots are firmly planted in American soil, I was born here and raised here, but I’m bilingual and brown and of indeterminate religion. Most people, when they look at me, will assume I’m from another country before they assume I’m from the land of apple pie and Bruce Springsteen.
It’s especially interesting given that I live in a very immigrant-heavy community. Queens is incredibly diverse, and the odds of hearing English spoken on the 7 train are outweighed by the odds of hearing Spanish, Bengali, and Chinese. I was walking past the Laundromat last night and a woman called out to me in Spanish, saying she was selling cheese empanadas. A moment too slow, I responded, “Huh? I’m sorry, I don’t speak Spanish.” She then repeated herself in English. And it’s not precisely true that I don’t speak Spanish…I do…it’s just that it’s not my default language and I don’t quite understand it if caught off-guard. But in the neighborhood, it’s spoken freely and frequently and I’m often thought to be Latina by mistake.
“I’m Indian,” I tell people, when they ask. Only you know what…? That’s not precisely true either. As I sit here today, on India’s Independence Day, it occurs to me with some amount of amusement that I’m technically of Bangladeshi/East Pakistani origin.
Just as my parents moved to the US in the ’60s, their families moved from East Bengal to West Bengal. And there’s distinct cultural difference between the two. Bangal vs. Ghoti, Purbobongo vs. Poschimbongo. And, of course, it’s now Bangladesh vs. India. The accents are different, the colloquialisms, even the food.
It’s Kolkata and its suburbs I visited as a child; it’s India that I grew up connecting to. I only went to Bangladesh once, and have incredibly vague memories of Dhaka.
Independence has sticky connotations for many Indians who grew up in the border states, as it officially came with the Partition. In 1947, Punjab and Bengal were both split and divvied up between India and Pakistan. It was a bloody time, a tragic time. And I’ve never quite understood how B’desh, which is clear across the other side of India from Pakistan, ended up a territory of that country. Neither did they, because Bangladesh seceded and became its own sovereign nation in 1971.A scant seven years before I was born.
Independence is not an easy thing, to declare oneself a sovereign nation and stand on one’s own requires sacrifice: blood, sweat and tears. But I’m proud to come from not just one, but three countries that did exactly that.
None of them are perfect, none of them magically solved their problems –in fact, they created more problems — by becoming autonomous.
But that’s a life lesson for all of us. With freedom, with autonomy, comes incredible responsibility. Squander it, ill-use it, and the fight to be who you are without accountability to anyone else is all for naught.
I identify as American or Indian-American most of the time.
I identify as Mala every minute and every hour of every day of my life.