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I have never been to India, but I am still Indian

01 May 2018

“Oh wow, so you’ve never been to India?”

“Have you really never seen where you’re from?”

“I’ve been, it’s an amazing place. You really should visit and see your heritage”

I, and undoubtedly many people reading this piece, have often been subjected to this line of questioning. Seemingly backed by good intentions, this casual quizzing often perpetuates a one-sided dialogue that results in an isolating experience. The surprise that often greets me when I inform people that, “no, I’ve never been to India”, but “yes, my family is from the Punjab region”, feels comical at times, whilst it simultaneously thrusts me into the spotlight of proving my “Indian-ness”.

As a British Indian, I sometimes feel like a more wholesome Voldemort, living with two faces and flitting between how I truly am and how I assume I ought to present myself. Naturally, as a result of this conflict, my replies to questions like the above are often accompanied by feelings of shame and unworthiness.

I often resort to humour, perhaps muttering a self-deprecating joke centred around how terrible or lazy I am for refusing to engage with my heritage. I succumb to expectations – I constantly feel forced to justify myself and why I’ve never visited India – whilst I’d love to, your girl is also quite busy and just hasn’t got around to it yet.

From speaking to friends in similar positions, there seems to be a mutual feeling of being untethered. A close friend described it as being caught in limbo; you’ve not visited India, so are unable to claim that identity, but similarly, your “Britishness” is being called into question.

By being told you “ought” to visit India, you are being reminded that you cannot claim this country (Britain) as your sole home. You have not proved yourself worthy of declaring either title or identity as your own, so are imbued with a feeling of “otherness”.

“By suggesting the visit is obligatory, the conversation becomes reflective of the suffocating expectations of society”

It is important to remember being encouraged to visit India is not the crux of this issue. I greatly enjoy hearing people talk about various experiences they’ve had in India, and am thrilled to be given recommendations of places to visit or sights to see. The problem arises when the tone of the conversation shifts and your identity is brought into question.

By suggesting the visit is obligatory, the conversation becomes reflective of the suffocating expectations of society: the individual has a duty to respond to or engage with their cultural identity in a conventional and palatable way. It is irrespective of whether the individual in question is a first, second or third generation citizen, as it stems from preconceptions based on your appearance – particularly, the colour of your skin.

It also implies the gesture of visiting India is embedded with a performative quality, suggesting the visit is heavily reliant upon “keeping up appearances” rather than forging a deeper connection to your heritage. Performativity is a thread that runs deep in relation to blended identities, and often creeps into daily life as part of cultural assimilation.

It is a survival technique, a means of self-preservation, for existing in a society that often praises conformity and exercises intolerance to those who fail to fit in a clearly defined box. In an attempt to keep up with social expectations, I sometimes fall guilty to exercising similar behaviour. For example, in group settings I have occasionally downplayed the spiciness of a food, acting in an attempt to seem “more Indian” and internalise any potential embarrassment.

“Hinging upon a feeling of self-doubt, you wonder whether you can be ‘Indian enough’ or ‘English enough’”

It is all part of a questioning cloud, one which often floats above the heads of those struggling to define their identity. Hinging upon a feeling of self-doubt, you wonder whether you can be “Indian enough” or “English enough”, and how you must act in order to fulfil both of these credentials.

Representation in the media is, to nobody’s surprise, hardly nuanced, as depictions of British Indians are few and far between. Thus, there are few reference points in order to help you build a better understanding of yourself. That is not to suggest there needs to be a reference point or frame for this dual identity, but it needs to be made clearer that there is no typical way for a British Indian to behave.

Everyone is subject to different experiences that shape their identity and sense of self, and this extends to the way you choose to engage with your homeland, or wherever you decide to define as your homeland. Whilst I have yet to set foot in India, I would have no qualms as identifying myself as Indian.

Your relationship with your heritage can be conflicting, confusing and wonderful, but most importantly, it is defined by you. So, if the person quizzing you cares an unnatural amount about why you have never been to India, then next time why not ask them to just pay for your flight?