The protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed novel The Namesake has a peculiar name: Gogol Ganguli. Although he is the son of Bengali immigrants in the United States, Gogol’s name does not relate to either culture. Instead,it is the name of the Russian writer Nikolai Gogol, who authored The Overcoat, the favourite short story of Gogol’s father, Ashok.
Gogol is in a struggle to find himself, his home, and his identity between his Indian heritage and the country where he resides. His character and name are emblematic of an ever-increasing group of humans all around the globe: the “in-betweens”, the “hyphens”. Millions and millions about whom Johann Wolfgang von Goethe might have said: two souls, alas, live in their chest! People you encounter in and outside Indian diasporas from Australia over Dubai to London and, in The Namesake’s case, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.
In a simplified binary view of the world, identity is created through a Self which demarcates itself from the other. The Indian, so goes the logic, is not the Pakistani and vice versa. The in-betweens, however, live in a third space—a location created through the conflict of their identities. This hybrid space might either be a concoction of the two, leaning at times to one, then again to the other side. Or something entirely different, which can either be an unfathomable abyss or the novelty changing the world for the better. Homi J. Bhabha, who coined the term, and who was as a Parsee very much an in-between himself, said: “The process of cultural hybridity gives rise to something different, something new and unrecognisable, a new area of negotiation of meaning and representation.”
Gogol belongs to the second generation of Indian immigrants. They differ from the first inasmuch as the first tends to be more stable when it comes to Self—having identity anchors which reach, at times, thousands of miles back to the country of their progenitors. This idea is represented by Gogol’s mother Ashima, who finds different means of staying connected with her forefathers’ home.
Salman Rushdie, whose novels teem with in-betweens, describes it as the following: “The effect of mass migration has been the creation of radically new types of human being: people who root themselves in ideas rather than places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves—because they are so defined by others—by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.”
Their vocal chords can also become places of cultural encounters. Their tongues split more than those of upper strata Indians in Delhi, who commemorate British colonialism in a compromise named Hinglish.
Thus, if there are no mango groves anymore, no Kashmir valleys or Kerala backwaters, in what ideas do these in-betweens grow their aerial roots? In what memories? What are these “imaginary homelands”, as Rushdie calls them? Seldom is it the politics of the country left behind. Although you can sometimes sense that the line of control reaches as far as, say, London suburbs like Slough, when there are again Indo-Pakistani altercations thousands of miles away.
No, the first answer that comes to one’s mind is language. Ashima speaks Bengali at home and reads Bengali poetry, trying to find comfort in the euphony of the language she grew up with. She will never lose her accent when she speaks English. It is the second generation in-betweeners who tend to feel more estranged from their parents’ mother tongue. Addressed by their mother in Bengali, Gogol and his sister Sonali/Sonia answer in English.
Yet their vocal chords can also become places of cultural encounters where languages and lingos meet and mingle, sometimes to an (almost) incomprehensible mishmash. Their tongues split more than those of upper strata Indians in Delhi, who commemorate British colonialism in a compromise named Hinglish.
No wonder Gogol and his wife-to-be Moushima mix English and Bengali in order to reinforce their own “shared world” as a married Bengali-American couple. Or look at the prose of Rushdie’s novels, which is itself a “Hobson-Jobson” hybridisation of language. “You samjhao that baysharram pair . . . that this sort of tamasha is simply not the cheese,” one of his characters says in The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Paragons of this phenomenon are the Jews. Human, but especially Jewish history, is a history of (forced) migration: “Exodus”, “Reconquista”, “Flight”, or “Deportation”, until some of them finally found “home” where they, in turn, made other people emigrate. Everywhere else, Jews still live as hyphens, whether Jewish-American or Jewish-Armenian. And what is the Yiddish language but a reflection of this potpourri?
specially after the Second World War, German-speaking Jews, particularly the writers among them—who lived in a “nowhere land” because they had lost their homes, their families, and lives as they knew it—had to question their relationship with their mother tongue, which was the language of their murderers. The Jewish-German-Bukovinan-American poetess Rose Ausländer (whose name ironically means foreigner), thus wrote in her poem Mutterland (motherland): “My fatherland is dead/they have buried it/in the fire//I live/in my motherland/word”.
First generation parents tend to reaffirm their own identity through their children, which they, again, in an act of emancipation incline to revoke by adhering more to their other identity or an altogether new one.
I myself started studying Hindi, Telugu, and Sanskrit, hoping by almost touching my gum with my tongue, that by mastering these oh-so-exotic retroflex and nasal sounds, I would someday be able to express the ineffable behind the word “home”. Teju Cole, whose novels revolve around the African-American in-betweens, expressed the intricacy behind it quite well when he wrote: “The word ‘home’ sits in my mouth like foreign food. So simple a word, and so hard to pin its meaning.”
Language is related to culture as a whole. Ashima finds a place of belonging, too, in Bengali music, and traditions like Durga puja, saris, these dotted cultural reassurances called bindis, and all the Indian food from mutton and chicken curry to chana dal and pineapple chutney. Gogol, contrariwise, embraces American culture with its peanut butter sandwiches and Christmases, whereby he often prefers this to his mother’s cultural offerings.
I remember this cultural in-betweenness best from South African friends with Indian lineage. Embracing their new culture, they were allowed to have boyfriends over at night—something unheard of for most Indian families until today. The Indian tradition, though, forced them always to keep the door ajar. In other words, it was another version of the universal parental if-you-really-have-to-do-it-at-least-do-it-behind-my-back.
Something like a clash of generations may ensue from this. First generation parents tend to reaffirm their own identity through their children, which they, again, in an act of emancipation incline to revoke by adhering more to their other identity or an altogether new one.
Oftentimes they not only lean towards the other culture in their obvious hegemonic form, but in its subcultural manifestation. Sonia, for example, becomes some kind of a goth—dying her clothes black, reinventing her jeans, and arguing with her mother about additional holes for her earlobes or blonde streaks in her asymmetrical shoulder long hair. Or think about these hyphen-Punjabis, who turn out to be notorious gangsta rappers and MCs, who wear symbolically for their hybrid identity a tathi instead of a durag.
Moushima, on the other hand, escapes in a completely new identity by reinventing and “[i]mmersing herself in a third language, a third culture […]”, French, to be exact. In Paris, she learns how to dress her new self in monochrome Parisian chic, and to cook, or rather burn, coq au vin. To indulge in innumerable amour folles and to imbibe one glass of red wine after the other, accompanied by an incessant chain of cigarettes—Gauloises bleu, I suppose.
It is only through their marriage that they re-approach their parents’ culture. Not merely by choosing someone from the same community, but also by having a Bengali wedding—including the shehnai music, the presence of a Brahmin, 20 pounds of gold suffocating the bride, rice poured into a non-ignited pyre, Ulu dhwani performed by the women, and everything else traditional “in-between” (no pun intended). It is, to some degree, symbolic of their identity as in-betweens that their marriage is bound to fall apart. In this case, because Moushima is retreating to her Gauloises and charred chicken—not to forget her old Parisian petit-ami, Pierre (in the movie).
There is yet another way. Sometimes, people like me who are characterised by the absence of their ancestors’ culture—in my case due to the absenteeism of my father—have a proclivity to actively rediscover it once they become aware of the void it left behind. Similarly, the character Shukmar in Lahiri’s short story A Temporary Matter only really becomes interested in India after the demise of his father.
But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.
In this act of “re-culturation”, they often become more Indian than Indians themselves and hence rather a personified persiflage than actual Indians. This means, for instance, tightening a dhoti and loosening it again while walking or eating tons of chilis, only to realise too late that the gut is not as easily Indianised as the taste buds.
An even more bourgeoise method of cultural identification was suggested by the Nigerian-British-Ghanaian novelist Taiye Selasi, whose debut novel Ghana Must Go revolves around the Ghanaian diaspora. In her essay Bye-Bye Babar she coined the term “Afropolitism”, a kind of cosmopolitism with African roots. “You’ll know us [Afropolitans],” she writes, “by our funny blend of London fashion, New York jargon, African ethics, and academic success”.
One does not have to belong to the bespectacled Marxist intelligentsia to sense what is wrong with this concept. These “cultural mutts” who are characterised by their high mobility, consumerism, and proclivity for pop culture merely represent a minor elite. How would, say, Indo-politism work for labourers in Dubai, who toil under such horrific conditions that they have a high probability of being shipped home in body bags?
If we speak about a diaspora finding home in their Indian inheritance, we also have to remind ourselves, as already touched upon, that its narrative structure is fictional due to its spatio-temporal alienation. At least, to a certain degree. Rushdie again puts it in a nutshell: “But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.”
The English language has no word to accurately express this binary phenomenon. Whereas the German word Geschichte as well as its Sanskrit counterpart itihāsa [so (iti) truly (ha) it was (āsa)] express the conceptual juxtaposition of the real and the imagined much better. This is also why the literature of hyphens, the new “Weltliteratur” (to plagiarise Goethe) is of paramount importance: story-telling is the very nature of the in-between.
Finally, there is another imaginary home, which Mascha Kaléko—another deracinated Jew of Galician-Russian-Austrian-German descent—expressed in her poem Die frühen Jahre (The Early Years) as follows: “As home I chose, for me, love.’ I mean not the above-mentioned love for a culture or nation, but actual inter-human love. It is this kind of love that keeps the Gangulis together, despite the fact that Gogol tries to loosen its grip at times.
It can be Janus-faced, though: While Ashima finds a home in the love for Ashok, it is the very same love that makes her betray another love—one for Bengal, which she has to leave behind for the sake of her husband’s career. Still, there is probably no better migration than the one for love.
I was gifted a Russian name, Grisha, which adopted a K. I was lucky enough to find that Krisha was also an Indian, though a rare, female name, thereby reflecting hybridity of an entirely different kind.
Having said all this, I think it is quite clear that the first generation is not necessarily much happier than the second. Unlike her husband, Ashima suffers from the melancholy of arrival (and sojourn). She has difficulties accepting her new home, where people wear shoes inside.
Nevertheless, it is usually the second-generation migrants who are more afflicted from this in-betweenness than their parents. It seems almost as if Gogol attempts to escape the third space by rechristening himself with the name Nikhil. This is an interesting choice, for on the one side it connects to his former identity—as the writer Gogol is called Nikolai by his first name. On the other side, Nikolai re-enters the binary sphere, since it stands either for the Indian Nikhil or the American Nik, if abbreviated.
Like Gogol, I was gifted a Russian name, Grisha, which—thanks to some phonetic accident—adopted a K. Unlike Gogol, I was lucky enough to find that Krisha was also an Indian, though a rare, female name, thereby reflecting hybridity of an entirely different kind. I chose my name nonetheless to be Indian.
In any case, Gogol does not solve his identity crisis by renaming himself Nikhil. Even though he loses his virginity as Nikhil, gets drunk with a fake ID, grows a goatee, and starts smoking Camel Lights at parties and while writing papers and before exams, Gogol discovers Brian Eno, Elvis Costello, and Charlie Parker.
o matter how much we assimilate or integrate ourselves, for most of us there always remains a remainder of our intrinsic otherness, which causes this sometimes just latent Fernweh (pain of distance). Gogol is no exception. He belongs to these OCIs (Overseas Citizen of India) and PIOs (Person of Indian Origin) who are so uprooted that they might, like Malcom X, adopt X as a surname, symbolising their “unhomeliness”.
Deracination can have serious political implications, too. For instance second or third-generation Middle Eastern immigrants radicalised themselves in Europe before fighting in the name of the Islamic State.
They are like Bishan Singh in Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh, which revolves around the exchange of inmates of a lunatic asylum three years after partition. Singh seeks his home yet nobody knows where it really is, in India or Pakistan. While Singh is eventually told by a guard that his home will soon be in Pakistan, another says it will be in India. He decides to stay between the wire fences of the two nations “on a piece of land that had no name”.
By the way, the in-betweenness of language also sees itself as reflected by Bishan Singh, into whose vocal cords it sometimes seeps, making him babble some English-Urdu-Punjabi like: “Upar di gurgur di annex di be dhyana di mung di dal of the lantern”.
The deracination of the in-betweens is not necessarily just a personal traumatic experience but can have serious political implications, too. In the worst-case scenario, the loss of identity culminates in ideological refuge. Predominantly, these sanctuaries consist of Weltanschauungen, which offer the rootless a clear picture of what their identity is supposed to look like. They do so by cutting right through the identities of the in-betweens, making one part the inimical “other”, while reinforcing in its reflection the other part—the alleged “good” identity.
It was, for instance, not unheard of that second or third-generation Middle Eastern immigrants radicalised themselves in Europe before fighting in the name of the Islamic State. They blasted themselves into pieces somewhere in a country they could hardy locate on a map, and for a God they were quite indifferent to just a few months before. Realising only too late, if at all, that their entire narrative was fiction—including the promise of 72 virgins, which did not even turn out to be pomegranates.
Often enough the homeless who live like strangers in a stranger’s land find a roof over their heads in some inconspicuous holy house. This sees itself somewhat reflected in Kiran Nagarkar’s novel God’s Little Soldier, where the protagonist Zia Khan becomes consecutively a Muslim, then a Christian, and, finally, a Hindu fundamentalist.
But this deracinated dangling in the air, this Geworfenheit, to use an existentialist term, might also have the total opposite effect. Again, Rushdie found the words: “The migrant suspects reality: having experienced several ways of being, he understands their illusory nature. To see things plainly, you have to cross a frontier.” Being innately able to regard the world from at least two different perspectives, they may realise how arbitrary identities are, and how they depend upon your chosen narrative.
The life of an in-between is the life of a hyphen. As unstable as that might sound, as much as you stand in the middle of nowhere, it can be the link of two worlds. At the end of the day, we are all hybrids, between here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, before and afterlife, male and female.
Hence, the in-betweens can easily decipher the fiction behind ideologies, which are nothing but identities turned political. Even though they might be inevitable to a certain extent, the offspring of the third space have the capability to see them for what they are: lies. Or rather “lies that bind”, as philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah called them in his homonymous latest book. In some way, in-betweens are a personified insult to all far-right ideologies that insist upon cultural, national, and sometimes even racial, purity.
There is yet another reason why the aerial-roots experience can be a boon. The aforementioned experience gives the in-betweens, at least to a certain degree, the freedom to choose where to grow their own roots themselves, and to pick the cherries of the culture of their own choosing.
The life of an in-between is the life of a hyphen. As unstable as that might sound, as much as this can make you stand in the middle of nowhere, it can be the link of two worlds. I for my part have tried to select such stereotypically German characteristics as reliability, precision, persistence, and integrity, while concomitantly drawing from the Indian heritage and its hospitality, family values, artistic ornamentation, and chaotic creativity.
At the end of the day, we are all hybrids, somewhere between here and there, yesterday and tomorrow, before and afterlife, male and female, and so forth. Modern life is nothing but a constant renegotiation of these binaries, and the holes between. We should even question this dual perspective on being in a post-structuralist manner, as it does not do justice to reality. The post-modern supermarket of identities makes us all ever-metamorphising butterflies, putting identities on and off like a coat, identities which exceed the binary.
As far as our homes are concerned, I have to cite the German existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, who once said: “Home is there, where I understand and where I am being understood.” We are being understood through language in cultures and by people who we tend to love. I guess there is not much left to say, but: Mera passport hai Germani/ Ye patloon hai Englistani/Sar par lal topi Rusi/phir bhi dil hai Hindustani! (My passport is German/This pair of pants is English/The red cap atop my head is Russian/Still, my heart is Indian!)