On Asianness

Please bear with me as I do some introspection, I know this website was originally intended to be a criticism blog but I’m too lazy. Pretend that I’m a cultural text (which I do believe is the case) and that this is a critique of that.

Sometime around the Summer of 2015, a little more than a year after I permanently moved to the UK as a tween, I felt a significant pang of an inevitable identity crisis. The language I was thinking in, the very constitution of all that I am as an experiential being, was changing. I was never particularly good at Malayalam, the language spoken in the Indian state of Kerala, for someone who was ostensibly a “native speaker”. I could never get my head around “ra/ര” and “zha/ഴ” which meant that I could not consistently accurately pronounce the name of my hometown അതിരമ്പുഴ without someone laughing at me. My time in Kerala was not one of fond memories – I went to a catholic convent boarding school which I utterly despised. I was lonely and perhaps depressed. Our move to the UK, where my dad had lived and worked for 10 years by then but I had only visited in the summer months, was not entirely done out of economic sensibility but out of a desire for my betterment. My more socially successful at the time teenage brother held some resentment towards me for this, or so I think. Forcing a 15-year-old to abandon his world because his little sibling was just a bit too sad is not ideal, and that was something I had always contended with but never confronted him about. Anyway, digression. It was never as if I held a particular fondness for Malayalam which I had always associated with this childhood loneliness. But it was still the language my mother sang me lullabies and children’s poetry in – even now when I sit alone, I sometimes recite Kunjunni Mash’s “പൂച്ചപ്പാട്ട്” (Cat Song) to myself, one of his least philosophical works simply about a cat who licks clean a plate of milk, a childhood favourite. 

But I lacked any continuity from “പൂച്ചപ്പാട്ട്” to, for example, Thakazhi’s novels “ചെമ്മീൻ” (Chemmeen/Prawns) or “കയർ” (Kayar/Rope), to the great literary tradition of this obscure but renowned language. I forced my way through OV Vijayan’s “ഖസാക്കിന്റെ ഇതിഹാസം” in a deeply staccato manner, followed by immediately devouring Vijayan’s own English adaptation “The Legends of Khasak”. That was the deepest I ever got, which if you know anything about Malayalam literature is shallower than the shallowest you can get. Anita Nair’s translation of Chemmeen sits in a cardboard box that says Xbox Series S under the printer in my parent’s living room. I bought it six months ago, but I could not get around to it before I moved to Japan. Or maybe I did not want to. Maybe I find it embarrassing that I cannot read a foundational work of literature in my “native language” which hasn’t been my “first language” for seven years.

I suppose this is the point I started identifying as “British” – which ironically is so Indian of me, to tie identity to language in such a major way. I would not become a British citizen for another year. To be honest, the political situation in India certainly contributed. The post-colonial Republic of India is an illusory state held up by propaganda. An illusory state of egalitarian multiculturalism, of secular liberal democracy. The state’s subjugation of its indigenous peoples and their ongoing reactive struggle against one of the most formidable militaries in the world sometimes pokes its head through this illusion, alongside various other communal struggles, riots, genocides, acts of imperialism and colonialism. Words like “Maoist”, “Naxalite” and “Anti-National” break through the constitutional wall of “SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC” before it comes down on them once again, covering up such slurs, putting the illusion of perpetual harmony back up.  Hindutva and the RSS-BJP tore down this illusion upon their landslide election victory against the architects of this illusion, the Indian National Congress, in 2014, around the same time I had left the country. I increasingly found myself alienated by a discourse that very violently removed me from its conceptions of national identity even if that existing conception that did include me was illusory as I now know. Even as a child not very educated in politics (though I figure I was more educated than the average child since I had attempted to read whatever books that were left in our house from my mother’s MA in “Gandhian Thought and Peace Studies” (which she has never had a use for but I tell her constantly to try to do a PhD at SOAS or something)) this strange identity struggle left me unable to conceptualise my “self” for quite a while.

Where did this leave me? “Asian”, though I certainly did not really feel like I had much choice in that. In Britain, I’m racialised as “Asian”. I fill out forms where I tick “Asian” when I register for university, when I apply for a job, when I subject myself to the surveillance state in a new way for the first time. So. “Asian” it was. I never really interrogated this racialisation. I was “Asian”, the region I come from was in “Asia”, non-debatably. But it was hard for me to find any commonality between the Asia I experienced as a child and the Asia that existed in the inevitably orientalist imagination of the society that had now racialised me as “Asian” and the infinitely diverse Asia that existed beyond both of these. Until I went to university, and I read Said, Okakura, Tagore, Anderson, until I had intense discussions with one of my art history professors who is Japanese but had moved to the west as a teenager on what Asia means to both of us, until I wrote about various Asias exhibited in museums in Britain. I still cannot articulate what actually this Asia I found for myself is, and until a few weeks ago it was an Asia that only existed in disparate fragments of critical theory, art history and post-colonial writing as interpreted by my very uneducated brain.

Two weeks ago, after two days of intense travelling to get to my university dorms in Japan, I was waiting for the train to start my final leg of the journey at Chubu Centrair International Airport in Nagoya. I was about to collapse from exhaustion, so I go to Family Mart to buy a bottle of water where the cashier approaches me using the self-checkout machine and slowly enunciates every syllable in 分かりますか as if that would mean anything to me if I didn’t know any Japanese. Upon my return my seat was taken by an obviously Tamil family. Tamil is somewhat mutually intelligible with Malayalam, which is a language I still speak despite only being with my family, so in my curiosity I attempt to eavesdrop on their conversation. For the next 20 minutes I just get frustrated and questioning my sanity because this language I should be intimately familiar with the cadence and rhythm for in my soul just sounds like actual gibberish. Finally, I see their check-in baggage tags – Bangkok. They were speaking Thai. At that point I realise – here it is, the Asia I was looking for. The Asia of infinite diversities and commonalities. 

Over the next couple weeks here, things just make sense to me in a way that I never realised they could. Even if my Japanese is not impeccable, I feel in tune with the flow of life here. As the deeply humid air gives way to riotous rain, I am reminded of the Monsoon – of the district collector announcing days off school due to flooding, of an intense loneliness that I had not felt since I was 11, of the identity crisis that characterised my teenage years. But this time I feel happy. As the old woman managing the Please Café in Yamate treats me as if I am stupid preventing me from ordering any food and getting stuck with an iced coffee I didn’t really want, I feel embraced by the world.