The Internet Personified: My Indian identity
My esteemed friend,
I have been making edits on my book. It is a Sisyphean task if there ever was one, as soon as I finishing marking up a chapter with my red pen and my neon highlighter, I will get a bright idea about how I should change something in the chapter before to make it "flow" better and tighter and all those things that you want your book to be, not some sort of bloated beast, washed up to shore. It's quite ironic, because all these years, I have been blithely advising people to stop “fiddling” with their books and just wrap it up already, coming from the smug position that I did that all my writing was unmitigated genius and barely needed a few passes with a red pen to make it amazing. Luckily, I changed my position quite soon after my first book (god, so many edits) but I still did not have more than one or two looks at it myself before sending it on to the waiting editor at the publishing house. Then, as the editor worked on her feedback, I worked as well, and my finished books are only as tight as they are because they had two sets of eyes looking over them. God, I hate editing my own work. My eyes just glaze over as I read my prose over and over again. I have about a zillion new ideas for different books which I want to begin writing immediately. However, this time, for the first time since I have been published, over ten years ago, I am going to be submitting a full manuscript to publishing houses instead of being signed on in advance of the MS being written (I don't know who's going to buy it yet, but one hopes for good things) and so I am clutching it to my bosom and refusing to let it go. I do have to eventually release it, however, so I'm giving myself another couple of weeks of tweaking before I send it into the world.
It struck me though, as I work on this book, that I don't think I have ever written a single character who wasn't North Indian. I mean, I've had secondary South Indian characters before, but all my leads, my main guys, my POV people have been as North Indian as they come. This has never occurred to me before, and then as I was thinking about it, I started to think about identity. As writers of fiction, we tend to tap into the deepest, most personal parts of ourselves to tell a story authentically and truly. Which is why you'll find a lot of the author's own personal life makes its way into a story: Black people write about Black experiences, Asians write about Asians, Indians write about Indians and so on. And then when you start to split India down into various states and subcultures and experiences, it gets even more specific. You'll sometimes, but not often, find people writing about things you'd think were not super familiar to them, like Kazuo Ishiguro and Remains of the Day for instance, but mostly, you write what you know. (IF you are writing realism, not obviously science fiction and fantasy and all those genres.)
Why then, was I, a Malayali-Telugu brought up in Delhi hybrid, writing only North Indian people? Where was my Malayali-Telugu brought up in Delhi heroine? I don't think I'm writing from a remove, if anything, I am too much like my characters, I often write the socially awkward woman with a deep inner life. The only explaination for this is that I guess at some deep level, I identify with the North more than I do with the South. I am essentially, despite the accidents of my birth and my name, and my love of a certain kind of spicy food, a North Indian person. I am able to follow more Punjabi than Malayalam (not a lot, but I can keep up if I listen closely). But then you have the fact that my (spoken) Hindi is terrible, lack of practise making me into a caricature of “the English speaking urban elite memsahib” trying to communicate.
It made me wonder, writing down all these things: who am I? Am I connected to anyone else? Am I alone, unmoored from the rest of my country because I feel like I don't care about the same things everyone cares about? Does that make me “Westernised” even though my concerns and my aesthetics and other things that make up part of my beating heart and soul are so very Indian? I say “North Indian” about my characters because I need to make them something, no one just appears in this world without any family or connections, especially if you live in India, but they could just as well be surname-less characters, continuing to exist in Delhi without any of that spiderweb of relatives and family and identity that keeps us in one place even as we move along. (Since I am an Indian living in India, I don't consider my skin colour on a daily basis, because I am surrounded by people who look like me, but yes, I'm aware I'm brown.)
But if I had to choose which family structure to expand about, what diet to give my characters, what language they spoke in at home, I'd pick the Delhi Punjabi. I have been picking the Delhi Punjabi, which is so weird because they are only units I observed from the outside. From the inside was my own family in Hyderabad and Cochin, and yet, I never write about them. It occurs to me now that maybe that's because moving my grandparents and aunts and uncles and assorted cousins from Hyderabad/Cochin to Delhi is too much for me, they are as welded into their homes as I am to mine. But surely, I could have had a character like me, unmoored by family ties except for parents, floating around the city with no other kin?
I go to parties where there are members of the media. In Delhi that means they are mainly either Bengali or Malayali. Knots form, languages are spoken. I am introduced to the Malayalis as one of them, but they soon see me for what I am: a cuckoo in their nest. We make general Malayali conversation: oh yes I like beef fry and paratha too (I think it is parotta on Malayali menus, but I can't be sure, and once again I am reverting to the North Indian spelling) and then they drift away and I drift away also. Because my father is from Kerala, my daily food when I was growing up was either Punjabi (the cook) or Andhra (my mother), and for that, I find no knots of people at parties. All the Telugus are IT people har de har and so I have no one to discuss menus with. Sometimes I think people even forget that's part of my non-identity identity too, but it's there, I even had a Telugu nanny for a few years growing up, so I understand the language (though I am shy of speaking it so my tongue is frozen.) These media Malayalis, they have made Kerala, at least, a part of Delhi's lexicon. The same can't be said about the rest of the South, although the Tamilians are making a stab at it. But then you watch them, your friends with their clear cultural identities, and you see how sure of themselves they are in groups of the same lot of people, and you drift between groups, not willing to even slip into Hindi because you think they'll make fun of you for your accent (the curse of the shy narcissist: someone will always be talking about you, obviously, but you hate it.)
This reminds me of being an only child: in the '80s, it was a rare thing to be. Now, so many of my friends' children will be only children. Some of them will face the same problems I have: family-ed but unfamilied, Indian but not Indian enough. Maybe I'm just an early adopter, a pioneer. Someone has to do it.
Meanwhile, I'm sticking to writing my characters as they come to me: write what you know is my favourite truism and what else do I know but our Delhi lives? But I am sneakily changing one character's last name in this draft. Nothing else will change about him, just his last name, and a first step for me.
I wrote this in Open about two different books and the dead mothers that tie them together.
A short but perfect link list:
I am not the only one considering my Indian identity, so is Amartya Sen in this terrific interview.
God, this is GOOD literary criticism and also very funny.
The journalists on the "royal beat" and also why does the royal family remind me of those seamonkeys you used to see advertised in comics in the '80s?
Have a great week!
Where am I? The Internet Personified! A mostly weekly collection of things I did/thought/read/saw that week.
Who are you? Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, writer of internet words (and other things) author of seven books (support me by buying a book!) and general city-potter-er.
Follow me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Got sent this newsletter? Sign up here to subscribe!
Forward to your friends if you liked this and to your NRI friend who supports Modi long distance if you didn't.
Also, write back to me! I love to hear from you.