I can no longer associate with my Indian identity. It represents what I stand against. So, like Riz Ahmed leaving Britain, I am breaking up with India.
By Lavanya N
I think I have hit the backspace key more times while writing this than any other piece. I write it with a meandering hesitation. I write it with the realization of losing the last stray remnants of my cultural identity. Most importantly, I write it in awe of how Riz Ahmed has encapsulated the rampant Islamophobia being faced by Muslims, especially in post-Brexit and Johnson-governed Britain, in his latest project The Long Goodbye.
Ahmed released The Long Goodbye on March 6 this year in three parts: a short film, a 15-track album, and an upcoming live stage show to be performed in the UK and US. The album charts Ahmed’s allegorical breakup with Britain, reimagined as a person named Britney, and tells a deeply personal story of the end of an abusive relationship through a combination of songs and voice messages from key Muslim and South Asian figures like Hasan Minhaj, Mahershala Ali, Mindy Kaling, and even Ahmed’s mother.
In a recent BBC interview, Ahmed made it a point to stress that the project is personal rather than political, with the intent to inform and educate people who are privileged enough not to face systemic Islamophobia-rooted racism. What really got to me was seeing the short film and its mirroring to the February 23 North East Delhi pogrom. It is unequivocally horror; more specifically the real-life horror of Muslims being targeted and shot dead without hesitation by white supremacists, as neighbors look on from behind the curtains in their windows.
However, what Ahmed has really done, for me, is inadvertently echo the feelings of conflict in identity for a South Asian, specifically Indian, millennial from the diaspora and the challenge in understanding my place in the geopolitical mess of a world we live in. The outcome of the CAA, and the actions of the Modi-Shah government in general, have made me question my relationship with India and dissociate from my Indian identity entirely.
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The coronavirus pandemic may have recently taken over the news, but Indians have been witness to, and at many times complicit in, the horrific realities of the CAA since December last year. There have been more than 65 deaths, 175 people injured, and over 3000 arrests. This is excluding the revoking of Section 370 in Kashmir (which granted it special status) and the subsequent internet shutdown that lasted nearly half a year, the fee hike at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and the passing of the Transgender Persons’ Bill (which serves as erasure rather than the protection of the community’s rights).
As a former, yet permanent member of the South Asian diaspora, I can confidently back up the conflict-in-identity notion Ahmed explores in the track ‘Where You From.’ This is not just because of the challenge to identify with a single culture or a harmonious combination of each one you’re attached to (a whole other can of worms), but also because it is muddling to understand my level of sociopolitical privilege at a time when the actions of my ancestors and family members have led to what has been predicted and dreaded for years: the ethnic cleansing of Muslims from India.
I grew up in the UAE; a country where the government is exclusive to royalty, media and freedom of expression are tightly controlled, being queer or trans is illegal and subject to imprisonment and deportation (I am both), and blue-collar workers are regularly subject to mistreatment and illegal employment practices.
One might assume I feel this way because of the UAE, but there is another reason. Savarna diaspora members are largely complicit in the Hindu nationalist agenda, given that most of them raise their children in a bubble that accommodates caste and class erasure. It allows them to control the choices being made by their children, and ultimately get them to conform to bigoted patriarchal practices that propagate that caste and class erasure. Any second-generation member, who is not a cis able-bodied male, breaking out of that mold means them facing fear, public shaming, and eventual blackballing by community members.
If I had to describe my upbringing in Ahmed’s words from the song ‘Any Day,’ it would be, “You’re too busy tryna control me to ever love me.”
For me, coming back to India burst that bubble quicker than you can say, “Aap chronology samajhiye.” Understanding my caste and class privilege both filled me with disgust and made me work towards trying to dismantle these systems that have been in place for centuries. The truth? It will never be enough.
The unfortunate reality is that second-generation Savarna diaspora members generally tend to conform to this ableist bigoted view of perfection. They either decree themselves as apolitical (dismissing Indian politics as corrupt) or completely distance themselves from their Indian identity until it is something they can use to describe themselves as the oppressed race.
India as a nation was built to benefit cis able-bodied Savarnas and its enablers, no matter where they live in the world. While centuries of erasure cannot be undone, Savarnas (and Brahmins in particular) need to take a stand against Brahmanism and use their privilege to protect Muslims, Dalits, trans and queer folk, and other minorities from oppression, as Dalit scholar Suraj Yengde has put forth. At the same time, while my privilege is indelible, I cannot associate with my Indian identity anymore. It represents everything I stand firmly against. And so like Ahmed leaving Britain, I am ready to break up with India.
Lavanya (xe, xem, xyr) is a writer, actor, and editor who once had a penchant for irreverent bios. Xyr writing examines the intersections of entertainment, culture, politics, gender and sexuality, mental health, and society. You can find xem on Instagram and Twitter.