Passing For Pakistani And The Two-Nation Theory

I often pass for Pakistani. In my zipcode, 11218, once supposedly the most ethnically diverse in the US, it isn’t too hard. I speak Urdu, but perhaps more importantly, given Pakistan’s linguistic and ethnic demography, Punjabi; I am brown-skinned (but not all brown folk are alike for I, given my linguistic capacities, cannot pass for Bangladeshi); I can converse, comfortably, about cricket; I slip into stores and buy spices and condiments, asking for them by name, with practiced ease; I order food in restaurants like a seasoned gourmand, entirely willing and able to consume those that include beef in their list of ingredients. I could, with some sleight of hand, even claim I am ‘from Pakistan’; for after all, my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab. I do not lie or dissemble; when asked if I am Pakistani, I say I am not. On one occasion though, on my hearing my response to his question about my origins, my young interlocutor burst out, in some surprise, ‘But you speak Punjabi like a Pakistani!’ Well, I did hone my spoken Punjabi in this city by speaking to Pakistanis.

On most occasions, my passing is not deliberate; I do not intend to deceive. But sometimes I do. Most notably, I did so during a cricket game, the T20 cricket World Cup final in 2007–between India and Pakistan. That day, I had been watching at home, content to cheer on the Indian team in splendid isolation. But thanks to a rare power failure in Brooklyn, the telecast failed. I went looking for relief and succor. I found it in a Pakistani restaurant with a large screen television. Being the solitary Indian fan in a Pakistani stronghold during a cricket world cup final did not suggest itself as a pleasant activity at that moment; I decided to go undercover. I asked for the score in Punjabi; I might even have introduced a tone of solicitousness in my queries about Pakistan’s prospects as they chased the Indian total. When Pakistan lost, I did not celebrate overtly or loudly; I quickly left before texting some jubilant messages to friends in distant locations and time zones.

My passing earns me some easy acceptance in these ‘venues of deception,’ but otherwise no great advantage accrues to me. Neither am I seeking any. I do not think I will be charged more, or refused service, if the fact of my national origin were to be common knowledge. Pakistan and India might have an edgy geopolitical relationship, but the micro interactions that take place in the great subcontinental diaspora tend to be regulated by far more mundane matters. I am not a solitary offender in the passing business. I presume that, just like me, many Pakistanis pass for Indians, and see no reason to loudly and explicitly clarify their nationality or national origin in their otherwise anonymous interactions with Indians and Indian establishments.

Perhaps these easy passages–back and forth–between one supposed identity and the other suggest other zones of contestation of the two-nation theory.

No Matter Where You Go, There’s Home: Robert Viscusi’s Astoria

This morning, while out for a errand-laden walk–visiting the pediatrician’s office, shopping, and getting an influenza vaccine shot–in this bizarrely gorgeous East Coast January weather, I ran into my friend and Brooklyn College colleague, the poet Robert Viscusi, with whom I work at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. I admire Bob for his erudition, wit, and writing, have learned a great deal from him over the years, and consider my meeting-time jousts with him among my most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding campus experiences ever, so it is to his work that I devote this brief note.

I own two of Viscusi’s books: the difficult, yet rewarding, quasi-autobiographical novel Astoria, which introduced me to, among other things, the Stendhal Syndrome, and provided an acute, poetic glimpse of the Italian-American experience that seemed to speak directly to me, also an immigrant to the US; and the short collection of poems titled A New Geography of Time.  The inscriptions on the latter reads, ‘To Samir Chopra, From the land of the sphinxes, Bob Viscusi, 10/17/12, Brooklyn.’ But it is to the former that I am paying attention today.

When I began reading Astoria, I found immediate resonances: it is a tale of loss and discovery, of parental connections and sunderings, of new beginnings, and pasts left behind. It is about mothers and sons, and families, transplanted. It is not an easy book; when I first reported this to Bob, his response was to suggest reading it aloud. I complied; it worked. When a poet turns his hand to a novel you must not follow him all the way; continue reading him as you did before. For as Viscusi describes Astoria in the prologue:

It’s sort of a novel in the form of a poem in the form of three essays about the meaning of history.

I mentioned the Stendhal Syndrome above. What role does it play in Astoria? Quite simply this: the narrator of the story suffers from it. He was first afflicted at the tomb of Napoleon in Paris, two years after the death of his mother. He discovers she is, to him, Napoleon. As he moves through this world, he finds that his journeys, no matter how far-flung, never take him beyond Astoria, her home, a Napoleonic empire. He carries her, the strongest and most distinctive imprint on his persona, a ghost in the corpora, with him, wherever he goes. But she is Astoria, so he takes Astoria everywhere. Some of us want to go home but are told we can never do so; yet others, it seems can only go home again and again.  As Buckaroo Banzai might have said, ‘No matter where you go, there it is.’

Home, of course, is our most familiar resting place, where we seek to return, for comfort and succor in times of adversity, when confronted with the world’s strangeness. It sticks to us like a skin. The immigrant’s journey’s are often termed a sloughing off of this cover, but as Viscusi notes, it persists, screening, vetting and transforming, quite uniquely, everything that seeks entrance into our bodies and minds. Astoria  shows us among (many!) other things, how we take our homes and histories with us, wherever we go.

Grazie Professore!