Narrating Nations

A friend of mine recently pointed me to this article and then went on to say that it made her embarrassed to be Indian because this is what Indians do. For a fraction of a second, I almost agreed because it seems in-built in us to be embarrassed of where we come from. I’m often anxious about being seen with my parents because they might be too Indian, I speak with an American accent (or ‘almost no Indian accent’, as I’m often told) so I won’t be too foreign and I’m frequently asked for my Indian opinion on Slumdog Millionaire, the kama sutra, and apparently the Salahis since MrsSalahi wore a sari while crashing Obama’s party. Finally, Trish also recently pointed me to this which definitely made me embarrassed to be Indian since the person who wrote it was Indian as well. In all these situations, the idea of being Indian is assumed to be homogenous, and a priori to the rest of the discussion. However, our lived experiences usually tell us that there is no such singular, universal concept of being Indian. This leads me then to the following questions:

What purpose does the idea of a nation serve?

What kinds of discursive practices exist around national identities?

And finally, what power relations do these practices enact, who benefits and who doesn’t?

While I’m still not certain about answering the first question, I will try taking a stab at the second. As far as I’ve understood it, the inherently contradictory discourses about national identity oscillate between the idea that there is a quintessential national identity (things that are essentially American, Indian, etc) and the idea that we are ‘always already hybrid’ and now live in a globalized society. The extreme of this argument is to question the idea of authenticity itself and render this need for origins unnecessary. And yet, we cannot shake off this notion of ‘authenticity’, the ‘truth’ of our countries and nationalities. Even in today’s multi-cultural, multinational existence, we are still searching for the ‘real’.

Often, I am asked to veto ‘Indian’ things, “is this real Indian food? are these ‘real’ Indian clothes?” and often, I even reply with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’, as if I, merely by being from the country, inherently know every single facet of my nation. This question of authenticity also plays out in other ways. For example, I was recently told (and often worry) that because I am from a city and I’m middle class, I’m not the ‘really’ Indian. The ‘real’ Indian is apparently rural, poor and lives in the hope of being saved by magical ‘development’ and I, by my presence in academia, am here to represent their voice in this important space. Hence, I often find myself wanting to speak for this rural poor or marginalized that I do not know of, especially in academic circles, merely because I have a vague, hazy picture of them at the back of my mind, inciting me to discourse. It is this “fragment of darkness that [I] carry within [myself]: a general signification, a universal secret, an omnipresent cause, a fear that never ends” (Foucault, 69) that leads me to constantly question both my validity as an Indian and at the same time, speak as an ‘Indian’ since it is a secret that only Indians understand and all Indians understand. The nation is thus a problem of truth.

The Empire Writes BackExtending this logic, post-colonial theory is then described as an act of resistance, a method of ‘writing back’, explaining our position in the world in order to gain legitimacy. And hence, anyone who reads and sympathizes with post-colonial theory is in fact supporting the resistance, no matter where they’re from. Therefore, studying post-colonial theory or

‘development’ theory provides the academic with intellectual legitimacy. And yet, one cannot escape the same relations of power that existed earlier but manifests itself in different forms. Another common practice of such theory is to describe the colonizer as the only power within the colonized country and the cause of all misery. While it is true that colonialism has been the primary cause of poverty in large parts of the world, a simple binary view of colonizer and colonized doesn’t, I think, provide a better platform to speak of resistance from. The first concepts of development led to idealizing globalization and modernity, but now, there occurs a fetishizing the ‘local’, the ‘indigenous’. Everyone wants to let the subaltern speak.

But simply switching sides in the binary (from supporting the modernization ideal to supporting the fetishization/exotization of the ‘native’) hardly seems to be of any real use in the fight for the betterment of the ‘native’s’ condition. Are we not in fact reinstating the same power relations that already exist? By explaining ourselves over and over and still having our distorted truth misrepresented back at us (whoever this ‘us’ is) are we not, in fact answering this incitement to discourse that is the cornerstone of Foucault’s repressive hypothesis?

Now the question is, do we not speak at all? My answer is that I don’t know. My only way to navigate these situations that constantly arise (especially debates about cultural authenticity, development and being asked to narrate my identity) is to analyse what the power relations in such discourses are. As Lydia often tells me, we must constantly be aware of the situations of micro-power that arise and not fall into patterns of discourse that reinforce them. For example, when I’m asked whether this is the first time I’m eating salad in my life, the conversation is functioning on the basis of an inexcusable ignorance disguised as curiosity about other cultures. However, if I am asked to explain the complex relations of the caste system, I consider it a genuine question since the answer requires a lived experience of that system and an awareness that it is not as simple as it appears in Wikipedia.

Lakshmi is a former graduate student in the M.A. Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University. Her academic interests include critical theory and cultural studies as applicable to two specific areas – the institutions of education and their functioning as a site of knowledge, power and ideology and the effects of new technologies and popular culture on the process of identity formation, especially within marginalized groups and sub-cultures. This year, she will also be working as a Teaching Assistant for the Introductory class of the CCT program and working on her thesis which will examine the ways in which terrorism shapes national identities in Indian visual media.