Enough Identity Already

The second conversation I have with many Pakistanis is about where my family is from. I always respond that my family is from "the other Hyderabad," which everyone seems to have heard of, probably owing to its historically large Muslim population. I am always asked whether I speak Urdu or Hindi, and am slight embarassed to say that I speak neither language. It's at that moment when I feel the gap between us grow slightly.

I sheepishly try and claim some stake to my brown skin by saying that I speak Telugu (truth is, I can understand it on a basic level, and speak it very little). Not a single Pakistani I've met has heard of Telugu, though, which seems to indicate that Pakistani familiarity with India is restricted to Bollywood media consumption or proximity. Those Pakistanis that do get over to India don't go to South India. Maybe the food is too spicy.

That gap I mentioned will always be there. Do I have to choose sides? I come here to Pakistan saying over and over that I'm an American. At what point did I become American anyway — when I was naturalized? Or was it when I landed in the US as a two year old? I've wanted to answer this question, or maybe escape it. But neither has happened in 36 years. I've decided to ignore it.

Too many authors from the sub-continent have written about exile and identity. Or about some sort of spice. It's like a curse. Yesterday I explored Saeed's, the largest bookstore in Islamabad. Bookstores are small windows into a society, and also an indicator of our globalized society. Yes, there was Harry Potter in all his glory, and Hillary's biography next to that by a member of Osama Bin Laden's family, but I was impressed with the volume of material written aboput Pakistan and Afghanistan — a much broader selection than I've ever seen in the U.S. Many of the books were accounts of the British in the region. Their exploits, the way they set up the civil administration, how they explored the Hindu Kush, where they drank tea, etc. And of course a number of books about Jinnah. Disturbingly, though, while reading the backs of nearly every novel by a S. Asian writer I'd find a variant on the following summary:

"An engrossing, exotic tale of identity and loss. [Fill-in name ]'s latest novel examines the return home of [lead character] to the land of her birth, and where her grandparents struggled under a leagacy of colonial rule. A novel of exile and return, of memory and struggle set amid the contrasting landscapes of spice bazaars, villages and the courts of kings, this is an example of [author's] finest work to date."

If you think it's not true, take a look at on Amazon sometime.



  1. […] I’ve been loathe to write this post until I’ve had sufficient time in India, and I won’t do it justice without much more though, but I wanted to at least begin writing about it. One of the things I wondered prior to arriving in India was how I would be received as an Indian-American. Increasingly, even if I ignore my heritage, it’s obvious that others place a fair amount of emphasis and meaning on it. […]


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