Monday, 13 October 2014

Is there any Joy in being an 'Ethnic Killjoy'?

An exhibit at the War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)
As I edge closer to (finally) attending my Australian citizenship ceremony later this month, I am wondering if a few pieces of paper will really allow me a greater sense of psychic belonging to this land. Perhaps after almost 12 years of being an outsider both in India and in Australia, I am simply looking forward to having a current address and a national identity that are somewhat congruent. But perhaps this inner outsider-ness is here to stay.

Perhaps this sense of looking in from the outside, this perpetual hybridity emerged much before the international migration experience. As a child of a Sikh family growing up in a largely Hindu city in a Muslim-majority state, and attending a Catholic school, I probably grew up with a greater ease with 'diversity' than similar-aged Anglo-Australians in the 1980s and 1990s. Still, not ever belonging to any semblance of a majority community or a numerically dominant ethno-linguistic group rendered me forever observant of what these inter-cultural interactions entailed. This is not unlike the Parsi girl in Bapsi Sidhwa's novel, 'Cracking Earth' who reflects on her insider-outsider status as India and Pakistan are being partitioned in 1947.

While there was no segregation in the school yard along religious or caste lines, I did wonder what impact the militancy in the state (Jammu and Kashmir) would have on our formative selves. The discord of our environment was most tangible for us when we witnessed a few bomb explosions at a stadium in the city where we were gathered to perform for the Indian Republic Day festivities. I don't recall us calling for a ban on the burqa, or otherwise ostracising our Muslim classmates. Yet, the recent flood in Kashmir has brought forth a tide of jingoistic nationalism and Islamophobia that I seldom associated with the place I grew up in. According to journalist Chirag Thakkar writing for Kafila, 'TRP-hungry television studios build a spectacle that is acutely wedded to a deep-rooted, pungent nationalism around catastrophe and relief in Kashmir'.

Perhaps I was indulging in a bout of diasporic nostalgia by romanticising my hybrid childhood experiences. But equally, it is likely that this inter-cultural utopia generated in the mind of a 10-year old that gave her a sense of belonging for the present and foreseeable future. It was accompanied by an implicit faith that most of her 'majority' and 'minority' comrades thought likewise. However, not being party to the last decade or so of neoliberal transformation and religious divisiveness in India has left me bewildered at the recent turn of events. Every other Facebook post on my news feed from a former school friend that implores the Muslim 'other' to glorify the rescue efforts of the army pushes me further away from this new essence of what it means to be India.

At the same time, the latest rhetoric about belonging to 'Team Australia' is alienating for me and a number of close friends and colleagues who do not share the same political beliefs as the current government. Yet, whenever I move out of this comfortable bubble (such as by tuning into the wrong radio station, or overhearing an uncomfortable conversation on the train), I am reminded of being on the fringes all over again. In a piece for the The Conversation late last year, I referred to this as being an 'ethnic killjoy' . There have been many occasions of late where my ethnic killjoy resilience has worn thin, and I have stayed quiet when I would have otherwise attempted to explain and elaborate. Perhaps I am adjusting to my officially bestowed Australian-ness and the killjoy will return once the citizenship pledge has been taken and recycled in the correct bin.