The Supposed Heritability Of Religion And Nationality

I am, supposedly, ‘Hindu’; my wife is similarly ‘Muslim.’ The scare quotes are there because we both regard our supposed ‘religious identities’ as ambiguous; we are not observant, but we were born into Hindu and Muslim families, and thus raised and acculturated into certain norms and cultural rites of passage–and their associated loyalties. (Such loose identification comes a little easier to me as the supposed object of my affiliation is, at best, quite idiosyncratically defined.) Moreover, most importantly, this is how the ‘rest of the world’ identifies us; bureaucratic form-filling forces into certain templates; our names seem to proclaim, quite loudly, our religious affiliations. This identification proceeds, inexorably, by its own inner logic to the small matter of our child, our four-year old daughter: sometimes we are asked, in tones that indicate the appropriate grave import of the query, how we will ‘raise’ her, by the dictates of which religion. And sometimes, she will be referred to as ‘half-Muslim, half-Hindu.’

This past week, I met an old friend of mine from graduate school; he is Australian, his wife is English; they have two teen-aged sons, born and brought up in England, but raised as passionate supporters of Australia in all matters sporting, cricketing or otherwise. Unsurprisingly, they love bantering with their mother about their unambiguous dislike for the English in those same domains. During my conversation with them, as we discussed their favorite cricket players, their mother protested–only semi-seriously–that they were ‘half-English’ and thus, not appropriately loyal to one of their ‘homelands.’ Her boys said they were ‘all Australian.’

Religion and nationality are too easily supposed heritable, natural kinds of sorts. As these descriptions–serious and semi-serious alike–indicate, so definitive of our identities, so fundamental, so constitutive, are these affiliations supposed to be that we inherit them, along with our genomic codes from our parents. The query, ‘what are you?’ can only be answered in two ways: you indicate your religion or your indicate your nationality. If you are an atheist or a Palestinian, you are out of luck in answering this query. (The related query, ‘where are you from,’ does not literally inquire into place of residence or place of birth; it means, instead, ‘what is your ethnic background–whether you claim it as your identity or not’?) We do not imagine other kinds of affiliations to be similarly heritable; the children of anarchist or libertarian couples are not considered to have inherited their parents’ political inclinations in quite the same way; the children of couples with differing political beliefs are not considered hybrids. I would love for this to be the case; it would certainly ease one of my many irrational parenting anxieties.

It is part of the success of the ideology of religion and nationalism that they have elevated themselves to the status of heritable qualities and attributes; the branding begins early and it is facilitated and supported at life’s many stages and turns by an elaborate infrastructure of language and description and social behavioral response. We all comply; we are conditioned to.


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.

Relativity and the Immigrant

As a postscript to an essay explicating the theory of special relativity–written at the request of the The Times (London), Albert Einstein wrote:

Here is yet another application of the principle of relativity…today I am described in Germany as a “German savant” and in England as a “Swiss Jew.” Should it ever be my fate to be represented as a bête noire, I should, on the contrary, become a “Swiss Jew” for the Germans and a “German savant” for the English. [originally published November 28, 1919; reproduced in Ideas and Opinions, Souvenir Press, London, 1973.]

A year or so ago, after returning from an academic trip to the University of Luxembourg, I wrote a blog post on some thoughts sparked by my trip. It began with me quoting a short note I had posted on my Facebook wall:

As an American in Europe, I am getting shit for (on this trip): Budweiser (as always), the lack of a really good football/soccer team (as usual) Lance Armstrong (a new one), and the fact that fifty million Americans think universal healthcare is a bad idea and worth repealing.

When I travel in India, I am frequently taken to task for–among other things–American foreign policy; one good gentleman told me, back in 1998, after the US had announced sanctions on India for its nuclear tests: “You go tell Bill Clinton to go to hell!” (I am also subjected to the usual rants about the decadence of American culture and morals.) At that moment, I am ‘American’. And of course, in the US, I’m often treated as an expert on all things Indian, and expected to listen patiently to ample hectoring critique of that nation’s many faults.  Then, I’m ‘Indian.’

This is straightforward. The converse treatment–of sorts–is far more interesting. When my American political activist friends seek to enlist my support for a favored political cause, my national origin is of little interest; at those moments, I’m straightforwardly an American liberal.  When my Indian friends and family seek similar subscriptions, my citizenship and residence is of little interest to them; then, I’m Indian all over again.

I’ve done little for either of these two demographics to brag about so I cannot provide an exact analogy to the examples Einstein provides. Winning a Nobel Prize or two might help; then perhaps both nations could proudly claim me as their own. And no doubt, were I to become an axe-murderer, I would be rapidly disowned by by both nations; America would cluck over my unredeemed origin and India would point to my corruption by the US–those damn decadent morals all over again. Sports fanhood is another interesting domain: I’m often drafted in as an American fan during the time of soccer’s World Cup, and of course, when it comes to cricket, I’m treated as Indian.

My identity is a matter of much perplexity and fascination to me; it remains an ongoing of project of both discovery and invention. It is made as interestingly complicated as it is by these sorts of external understandings of it (and I’m sure, by my bilinguality); I fulfill roles and serve as target or ‘person of interest’ for a wide variety of interests, each driven by its own ends. My attributes receive selective attention depending on these interests and ends; then, one is highlighted at the expense of others and made central, essential, distinctive.

Note: I had always thought of Einstein under several different headings: ‘American academic’, ‘German physicist’, and ‘Jewish’. When I first read this justifiably famous quote of Einstein’s I was struck by how despite the prominence of Bern and Zurich in his biography, I had never regarded him a ‘Swiss Jew.’

Traveling With the Right Kind of Passport

Amartya Sen introduces us to his Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny with the following rather well-known little story:

Some years ago when I was returning to England from a short trip abroad (I was then Master of Trinity College in Cambridge), the immigration officer at Heathrow, who scrutinized my Indian passport rather thoroughly, posed a philosophical question of some intricacy. Looking at my home address on the immigration form, he asked me whether the Master, whose hospitality I evidently enjoyed, was a close friend of mine. This gave me pause since it was not altogether clear to me whether I could claim to be a friend of myself. On some reflection, I came to the conclusion that the answer must be yes, since I often treat myself in a fairly friendly way, and furthermore, when I say silly things, I can immediately see that with friends like me, I do not need any enemies. Since all this took some time to work out, the immigration officer wanted to know why exactly did I hesitate, and in particular whether there was some irregularity in my being in Britain.

The petty harassment and humiliation at this story’s core–caused by the failure of imagination on the the immigration officer’s part–is here artfully pressed into service as prologue for a philosophical discussion of the problem of identity; Sen does not dwell on it any longer.

Sen’s story does however remind us that passports, markers of citizenship, serve as guarantors of convenience and bulwarks against all kinds of threats, including the psychic ones that Sen was subjected to above. When I became an American citizen in December 2000, and began traveling with an American passport (my first journey with it was to New Zealand in March 2001), I suddenly became aware of how significantly the anxiety I associated with overseas travel had been attenuated: my pre-travel preparations became shorter; I did not have to deal with queues at consulates and embassies; I did not have to decipher bureaucratic documents to figure out visa requirements; I did not have to subject myself to inane questioning from immigration officers; and so on.

The world suddenly appeared a much more tractable space. Nothing about me, as far as I could tell, had changed: I professed the same political and religious beliefs; my physical composition–give or take a few pounds–was the same; but I was now a much more desirable person, no longer a possible societal threat, a possible burden on the exchequer of those nations who had sought extensive bank guarantees before granting me even a tourist visa.

Shortly after I became an American citizen, a friend of mine caustically suggested I had been lazy and insufficiently “loyal” to my former nation. I was stung at first, but then forgave him. He did, after all, travel with a European Union passport.

Note: Ironically, since obtaining US citizenship, the one country I did have to get a visa for was my country of former citizenship, India. My trials and travails with the processes that entailed have been described before on this blog.









Losing and Gaining Citizenships

I became an American citizen more than fourteen years ago. Ironically, my decision to do so was prompted by my leaving the US–for what was supposed to be a two-year stint as a post-doctoral fellow in Australia. I was then a permanent resident of the US, equipped with the famed ‘green card.’ Subject to certain restrictions, I could travel in and out of the US but not wanting to deal with the INS hassling me during my extended stay overseas, I decided to apply for naturalization.

In taking on American citizenship, I lost my Indian one. From then on, I would need a visa to travel to India. My feelings about this state of affairs, as can be imagined, were mixed. (As a post from last year indicates, I’ve paid a certain price for this decision.) On one hand, I had not lived in India for over thirteen years and seemed unlikely to return to take up residence any time soon, if ever. My academic career often required me to travel–for conferences, for instance–and possessing a passport that meant fewer trips to consular offices was always going to be a blessing. More to the point, I had spent those same thirteen years in the US and was enmeshed in its life and politics (and tax regimes). On the other, losing my Indian citizenship felt like a significant distancing from a shared past and culture and history, from family and home. I don’t know if I ever thought of it as a betrayal of any kind–though some unkind friends of mine did urge this interpretation on me. I did however feel I had self-consciously turned my back on an older me.

But at the time, I don’t think I gave the loss much thought at all. I had been thirteen years gone from India; notions of ‘home’ had grown more confused in my mind. I did not find myself in the grip of an existential question of any sort, but rather, considered myself to be dealing with a far more mundane concern: which travel document would work better for me? Because I had become stranded in a voluntary exile of sorts, because my identity had become a more confused entity, questions of citizenship did not feel as infected with nationalist or nativist urgency as they might have.

As I was sworn in on that cold December morning in 2000, I realized it was the first time I had deliberately chosen the citizenship of a nation. My Indian one had come to me by birth; my passport had been mine to ask for; a set of allegiances lay waiting for me to take on. Here, I had inserted myself into the process of gaining a nationality; previously, I had been born into the role. My older passport had been the culmination of a long series of experiences that had reinforced my nationality; my newer one was the first indication of my newer one, the first contributor to the building of a new edifice of identity.

A Tale of Two Independence Days

Today is July 4th, Independence Day in the USA. That is some forty-one days distant from another Independence Day, August 15th, which will be celebrated in India. I have not ‘celebrated’ August 15th for many years. It meant there was a political speech being telecast live; prime ministers spoke of national achievement and sacrifice; I tuned out. It meant the national television channel would show documentaries on ‘freedom fighters,’ men and women whose service to the ‘nation’ always put  mine to shame. It meant I would be reminded, yet again, of the words of a stirring speech by the most un-Indian Indian to ever be Prime Minister. I never saluted a flag, never sang the anthem on August 15th. (I sang it on many other occasions, always standing to attention when it played.) The ‘freedom struggle,’ despite the best efforts of history books, national broadcasting systems, and political parties, remained a dim portion of the past I shared with my ‘fellow citizens.’ I knew about, and vaguely sensed, Independence Day, but it passed me by every year, without fail.

I never failed to find Nehru’s speech moving though. And I never failed to appreciate the day off from school.

On August 15th, 1987, I caught a flight to New York via London and left ‘home.’ I cracked the expected joke for anyone that cared to listen and humour me: I was free at last, gone over the black water, over the oceans. On December 1st, 2000, in down-town Manhattan. I took the citizenship oath for my newly adopted nation. There were many others present that day, a veritable United Nations of origins, saying the magic words out loud. Then, my American passport handy, I flew off, to another land, elsewhere, Australia, to live and work there for  two more years. I was very confused about nationality but I was not confused about travel documents. I needed them; some of them made life way more convenient, they meant easy passage through airports, friendlier customs and immigration officials the world over. Getting a visa to go to India felt like a small price to pay for that convenience.

So now, Independence Day comes six weeks earlier, with a bigger number attached to it. (Sixty-five back in India, two hundred and thirty-six here.) I live in New York, in Brooklyn. I teach American pragmatism, Dewey in New York City. This is a less sober holiday, more of an open invitation to hedonism. There’s more beef being cooked,  for one thing. (I will celebrate July 4th, in all probability, as I have for many years now, by attending a barbecue.) There are fewer reminders of freedom fighters, but more flags are visible.  I still don’t salute a flag, I still don’t sing the national anthem. (I stand to attention for the Star Spangled Banner in sports stadiums but don’t place my hand over my heart.) The English are still dastardly, that much hasn’t changed. (There is a greater fascination with the Royal Family though.)

And I still appreciate the day off. Nations are  good for holidays at least, a small compensation for their otherwise immense burdens.