Essence over language
“I don't look into the mirror and ask myself 'Am I Bangladeshi or British?'” said Zia Haider while discussing multiple identities of South Asian writers in the session “Past Lives”, moderated by Indian writer Salil Tripathi. Despite his humorous and lighter take on the matter, the conflict and contradictions of identity is a central theme of much of South Asian literature, and of Haider's own work. For Shashi Tharoor, award winning author and former state minister of Kerala, and Namita Ghokhale -- author of the controversial “Paro: Dreams of Passion”, the issue is certainly relevant. They have often been questioned about the target audience of their books – whether it is for the West or for their fellow Indians.
“I belong nowhere or everywhere,” said Tharoor, even though all his novels essentially deal with being Indian. For many readers, the language of the text determines to and for whom the writer is speaking. The belief that Indian writers should not write in English, though diluted by the postcolonial generation, is still prevalent. Ghokale explains that for her, “Paro” could only be written in English but she wished that she could have written it in Hindi instead. About the translated version, she said “It was a joy to read it in Hindi and I was jealous of the translator.”
All three of these acclaimed South Asian authors do not cling to any of the traditional notions of national identity. Their cultural experiences are largely varied and their career as writers demand a degree of openness. The English language, for them, is a natural mode of expression but that does not rob them of their South Asian identities. “I did not think of it as foreign imposition; it was instinctive,” opined Tharoor. “You do not really choose a language. The language chooses you”. Haider, who left Bangladesh in 1971 for England, further said “My consciousness is closer to that of a non-citizen – a refugee. I feel at home there.” Such personal statements further shed light on the idea that our identities are too complex to fit within neat geographical boundaries.
Taking a light punch at his fellow writer Tharoor, Haider said, “I am not a politician; I don't need to wear a mask.” Honesty is of overriding importance for Haider, and he thinks the question of what cultural framework of reference the reader brings into the book is of considerably less significance. “Every writer should ask himself the question of who his readers are and then he should ignore that answer,” he said. For Zia Haider, the writer needs to be honest to himself, not to what is expected of him.