A Cultural Stranger

I recently read Aatish Taseer’s, Stranger to History – a fascinating account of a son’s quest to understand his father through his religion, Islam. What interested me most were the author’s concepts of ‘Cultural’ versus ‘Traditional’ or ‘Historical’ Islam, which he uses effectively to describe his simultaneous affection for & disconnect from, a religion that’s as new to him as his famous Pakistani father. Estranged from his father before the age of two, he was brought up without any specific religion, by his Indian Sikh mother and grandparents in Delhi. His only sense of being ‘Muslim’ came largely from the fact that traditionally on the sub-continent, children follow their father’s religion. He is thought of as Muslim and largely accepted as such in the Muslim world (although not without doubts & questioning as we learn in due course), because his father is one. And there in lies his dilemma.

My edition of 'Stranger to History' by Aatish Taseer

What does being a follower of Islam really mean? Is it a dynamic state of being that changes in historical & cultural context or is it a static constant determined simply by the accident of birth, that remains unchanged & unmoved by circumstance? Is being a Muslim more important than being a citizen? What does being part of the global Muslim ethos really mean in the 21st century? Do Muslims everywhere believe in a uniform Islam? Should they? Do they aspire to the same freedoms? Is there a place for those that believe differently within the community? These are the questions he sets out to answer, in hopes of gaining insight into his life and his father’s, and he does so by traveling through a major chunk of the Islamic world over land, from Turkey, through Syria, The Kingdom (Saudi Arabia) and birthplace of Islam, Iran and finally to Pakistan and his father’s house. Along the way, he finds some answers and more questions and his thorny reunion (if it can be called that), with his father who is at best distant, difficult and a slave to his political compulsions, doesn’t make for a happy ending, just a real one.

Through his journey I learned a lot about Islam & the Prophet – how it began, the initial struggles, its eventual spread and its inherent uniqueness in offering a set of written rules for practically every part of life, including paying taxes, which I find fascinating, if a little overwhelming! I identified with the author’s feeling of camaraderie toward what he terms ‘Cultural’ Islam. He uses the term to loosely refer to the Faith that allows him to wear a religious thread around one wrist & the Sikh ‘kada’ on the other; allows his father to be a Muslim while enjoying a drink; and encourages Hindus and Muslims to pray together at certain shrines across the sub-continent, without comprising their Faith or identities.

This book hit a nerve, mostly because a lot of the questions Taseer asks of himself, his father and of Islam are similar to the ones I’ve been asking myself lately. My context though is not religion but culture. Questions about what it means to be a Goan living in Goa and yet feeling disconnected and rootless. It’s not a new feeling. I’ve felt this way ever since I was old enough to think about stuff like this! I couldn’t wait to leave Goa fast enough, way back when, and the first chance I got, I did. I thought then, it was a combination of the usual emotions that makes people restless – a desire to escape the past and a belief that the grass is greener elsewhere! And for the most part it was. I did want to get away – from my parents mostly and be independent, master of my own fate, an adventurer! I stayed away for 14 years, and can honestly say that if it were not for family, would have been happy never to visit! (I can almost see the shock and disbelief on the faces of my Goan friends!). The thought of coming back to Goa to settle down therefore, you can imagine, was tantamount to suicide in my book! Scary, awkward and painful, more so coz it was a choice we made.

This August, it’ll be two years since we moved back to Goa and while some things are easier, others are not. It’s the not that worries me. There seems to be a Goan sensibility that everyone is a part of but me! And it’s not to do with the fish-loving either (although I will never quite understand that!). It runs deeper. I don’t fit in. My views and opinions on almost everything from politics to people seem at odds with everyone else. My Mom says it’s coz I’ve lived away for so long, but that’s not really true coz I felt disconnected when I was in my teens, only then I blamed it on hormones & teenage angst! Where does it stem from, this reluctance to become part of what seems a happy Goan collective? Not from my family that’s for sure, they’re model citizens and cannot imagine a better fate than living & dying in Goa! Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve never felt truly at home anywhere, except for the years I lived in Bombay, coz I’m a city girl at heart and Bombay offers anonymity & privacy, which I prize fiercely. Blending into the background – that’s me. And yet sometimes that frightens and disappoints me. What does it say about a person, when all they want is to be left alone to live their life in peace, free from judgments and expectations? I always thought there was nothing wrong with that, but moving back to Goa, brought stuff back into sharp perspective.

It’s a cultural thing. Or is it? You tell me. One is expected to do the right thing, be strong for one’s children, for one’s parents, be willing on occasion to sacrifice individuality for the sake of societal acceptance and the greater good (whatever that may be). And while one is being advised on how to do all of the above, the underlying hypocrisy is revealed. I see that rules and principles are broken and bent at will, if the rewards are big enough…usually monetary. That rules do not in fact apply to all, only to those who do not have the means to get around them. That corruption has come to mean ‘being practical’ and that ‘being practical’ is an accepted way of life. All of this and more scares me. The insistence on trivial religious practices and superstitions simply because it’s been the done thing for centuries. The desire to conform, to not be the one who rocks the proverbial ‘boat’, to accept the unacceptable out of fear or worse nonchalance. Wouldn’t it scare you? And the scariest thing of all – knowing for a fact that even though you can fight against the system, you can’t ever win, coz to do that requires unity and these days unity is like a rare metal…precious & scarce. This is not the way of life I want for my son.

Goans by Mario Miranda, a famous Goan cartoonist!

But not everything that bothers me culturally is earth-shattering and system-related. I can be petty! Or not! I like people to be punctual and the Goan lack of respect for time, drives me crazy. ‘I’ll be there in 10 minutes’, is best interpreted as ‘I’ll be there when I feel like. Don’t wait up!’ I have lost count of the number of times I’ve called up people after days to remind them of an appointment they didn’t bother to keep nor cancel. “Couldn’t you just call and say you couldn’t make it?” I ask, only to be met with sheepish excuses or more often, awkward silence. (It’s been two weeks since we called the guy to service our ‘Inverter’, a contraption that gives us electricity during Goa’s infamous power outages!) It gets my goat more than anything else, especially when I hear people bragging about Goa being such a paradise to live in…beaches need cleaning people and tourists need facilities, and as far as I know self-cleaning sand and self-developing infrastructure have not yet been invented! And don’t even get me started on driving and Goan drivers…complete disregard for every traffic rule combined with supreme confidence & pride, in the ability to get out of every scrape through political connections, and a healthy dose of road-rage especially when caught in the act, best describes it!! Compared to these, the penchant for gold displays and a tendency to equate over-the-top with ‘good’ taste, seems inconsequential. I know you agree!

When I complain about this, most Goans answer me with this completely inscrutable and to me unacceptable defense, ‘It’s a matter of time. You’ll get used to it. Things work differently here in Goa.’ They say it in a rather superior, irritably smug kind of way that excludes me from some secret formula they are in on! “Get used to what?” I ask. To unprofessional behavior and lackadaisical attitude? To the tattered state of infra-structure which results in random power outages and water shortages & an Internet connection slower than a turtle? “What if I don’t want to?” I persist. They look at me sadly amused, again with a secret knowledge that I will eventually surrender to this way of life coz what else is there? I don’t know what it is that makes me so unforgiving of their presumptions. They all seem happy, successful and at peace with their assimilation. And yet here I am, struggling to hold on to my individuality and the things I believe in, against all odds. And no, I do not think that sandy beaches, great cocktails, the famous Goan ‘susegaad’ lifestyle, and the fish (especially not that!), make up for all the stuff that bothers me. Coz I ain’t living on no beach!

Regardless of the rant, I don’t hate Goa or Goans 😛 (Hah! You don’t believe me! Don’t blame you ;-)) It’s just that sometimes it feels like you have to love fish, gold and land (the Holy Trio!), to fit in and I couldn’t care less about all three! So where does that leave me? Bemused and bewildered! Perhaps that’s why I identified with Taseer’s dilemma. I have a Goan pedigree. Indeed, in my case, there are no doubting Thomases! Why would there be? I’m born to Goan parents with impeccable pedigree, married into another family with equally impressive credentials and belong in a sense to the Goan Hindu elite. But that is the key isn’t it…everything says I belong except my own sense of disconnect. For the most part, I make the right noises now in public. “Yes, Goa is beautiful” I say, (No problem there!) 🙂 “Where else could I possibly want to live!” (Anywhere but here comes to mind! No matter what Goans think, Goa is not the first and last beautiful place in the world!). I don’t blame for thinking that though coz they hate to travel and the thought that any place comes close to Goa is sacrilege. Perhaps it’s easy for them to feel that way, coz to them Goa is home!

Sometimes I think people can sense the charade, smell my underlying discontent. Perhaps that’s where the real problem lies, in people defining me within set parameters, trying to fit me into their idea of what a Goan should look like and behave. Or perhaps it’s me, trying to fit in, knowing I never will and not really wanting to, that leads to the stress. Or perhaps it’s the original small-town ethos, that made me so happy to leave all those years ago. A place where everyone knows (or thinks they know), who you are, is free with unsolicited often bad advice, and where attempts to assert one’s individuality are often met with stubborn resistance and narrow-mindedness. That’s the Goa I left, and in many ways the Goa I returned to remains unchanged. Perhaps that’s what scares me more than anything…the resistance to change and even scarier, the inability to consider that some change might be for the better and that in the long run, all change is inevitable!

I guess what I’m wondering is, how long does it take to feel like you’re no longer a stranger to your own culture? And all I can say for now is…as long as it does.

There…now you know why I like to call myself Crazy Goan Girl 😛

p.s. For those of you still awake after reading this post…read the book 🙂

10 thoughts on “A Cultural Stranger

  1. I experience a lot of the same feelings you express, Harsha…I think it’s because I’ve lived all over the place. I was born in Ohio, but never want to go back there to live. I was raised in Ontario, but with my mom gone, I no longer feel like my home is there (and the place I grew up feels smaller and more redneck every time I visit). I spent 13 years in Moncton, New Brunswick, but was driven out by the inability to speak French…I lived in a wonderful close-knit neighbourhood there for three years before we left, which I miss. I’ve lived here for 13 years now, but don’t have a lot of good friends, or any sense of the community that I felt in Moncton. Since moving to the country a couple of years ago, I have my dream place now, but still haven’t quite reached happiness…sigh!

    Hugs,
    Wendy

    1. You know Wendy, I think that’s the essential piece I miss back in Goa. Friendships…In Bombay, where I lived for 10 years, I had loads of fun family, friends and a sense of belonging which came from being a city girl at heart. I felt most at home there. 4 years in Singapore were average…the best things about that time frankly was the money we made! It’s a great country, but not a place I would want to settle in…too controlled and rather insipid for my liking. But I made some great friends and because most of us were not working we spent a lot of time together doing stuff. I miss that here in Goa, where everyone is busy and even if they are not, their idea of fun is rarely a coffee and book-talk…sigh…Also with Ishaan now in my Life, it’s tough to find time to meet up…I guess this unsettling feeling is a bit of everything right? Will it get better…I can only hope…for the both of us!

      Hugs, H.

  2. I’m still awake…!
    Well, I too find myself disconnected from the social expectaions at time, but its great fun feeling different sticking to your convictions … and being part of the bandwagon to the the extent that you enjoy and want to!
    Also.. something I would love to share… a broadminded but well balanced upbringing, not sticking to a strict identity has made life real fun. I find myself blessed!!
    ( CAn switch from a nav vari to a bikini with equal ease… from abhang to jazz!!;)
    Its great to read your posts… you have a superb flow of language. Tho’ I do not post a comment alwys.I look forward to reading the book… seems my kind
    Love always!

    1. Hey Pitu!! I always look forward to your comments 🙂 I agree with you about the broad-minded upbringing…I have had a similar kind of childhood but my parents are very conservative at heart…more so ever since they came back to live here. I sometimes wonder whether that will happen to me too…but when I look around and see you and others like you (hard to find!), I still have hope. Loved the switching from nav-vari to bikini 🙂 Wish I could…afraid the bikini bit will take a LOT of work 😛 Luv, H.

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