By Jayant Sharma
Films and novels on identity crisis for Indian immigrants, especially for the second and third generations, in their adopted homelands – Britain, United States and Canada, primarily – have been legion. Even celebrities and well-known personalities such as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, Sunita Williams, Kalpana Chawla, Kamala Harris and Nikki Haley among others have not been untouched by identity crisis in some form and degree.
It is this one single identity, among multiple other identities, that shines through Hindi-Vindi, a soon-to-be released English feature film that tells the coming-of-age story of Kabir born in Australia to an ‘Aussie’ father, James and an Indian mother Richa. Her death creates a void in Kabir’s life that brings him and his grandmother (who lives in Mumbai) together in Sydney. Their day to day encounters produce different outcomes for the protagonists, but the language barrier is frustrating for both Kabir and his grandmother. While Rihanna, an Australia-born girl acts as the translator for a while, Kabir eventually embraces Hindi as part of his search for an identity.
Second generation Indian immigrants in Australia, as distinct from the postcolonial migrants who dared to move to and settle in Britain, US and Canada, beginning in the early 1940s and the 1980s through the mid-1990s, are confident and assertive.
Celebrated writer Salman Rushdie once described the migrant as “perhaps, the central or defining figure of the twentieth century”. But why just the twentieth century, migration, whether individual or collective, has been an act most central to the human condition through the ages.
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Rushdie, himself a migrant to western shores (from what was then Bombay) was partly right for the simple reason that the previous century opened up numerous channels of transportation that helped people to translocate. This “emblematic” figure – the migrant – irrespective of nationality, language, culture, or a shift from a rural background to a modern metropolis, and for the most part, has often been labelled as “the Other”.
Today, when the population of overseas Indians is about 32 crores, according to the Ministry of External Affairs, immigrant identities are often considered at once plural and partial. As Rushdie says, sometimes they “straddle two cultures”, while at other times they “fall between two stools”. This picture of a “split immigrant” has been portrayed in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novels that have dealt with complex themes such as identity, belonging and dislocation.
Like Rushdie, many of the South Asians who travelled to the West suffered “triple dislocation” – they not only lost their place, entered into alien languages and found themselves “surrounded by beings whose social behaviour and code” were “very unlike” and, at times, “offensive”, to their own. It is in this sense that migrant translocation caused breaks in the roots, languages and social norms. “The migrant, denied all three, (was) obliged to find new ways of describing himself, new ways of being human,” writes Rushdie. Those who were born and grew up in the US have been pejoratively referred to as ABCD or ‘American Born Confused Desi’.
The clash of identities, especially between second-generation Indian immigrants, anywhere across the globe, has been very prevalent. Language as a marker of identity, is an example. In the US, as in Britain and elsewhere, second generation Indians feel that they would be stigmatised for speaking in their natives tongues in what they consider to be their birthplaces.
What compounded the immigrants’ settling down issue was the series of restrictive measures that receiving states institutionalized and enforced from time to time to underscore that states have the right to open its borders to those it wants in as citizens and those who must be excluded or debarred. The “quality” of immigrants, based on their perceived and real ability to benefit a receiving state’s economy, have dictated policy, while several other legislative measures have served to cause, negative impacts on civic trust, goodwill, and democratic participation by reinforcing stigmatizing representations of certain groups of immigrants and citizens.
In the past, Canada would often be held up as an exemplar of multi-culturalism within the larger framework of the liberal politics of belonging and inclusion. It is only now, say, for the past 10-15 years, that critics of multiculturalism have been charging that “minority recognition and accommodation creates political disunity and separateness and/or that it fosters majority resentment against minority communities”. But staunch liberal egalitarians continue to stand their ground that “individuals have legitimate interests in their culture, language and identity and that public institutions must fairly take those interests into account”.
Beyond the West, Australia and New Zealand are now preferred destinations for younger cohorts of upwardly mobile Indians with well-paying jobs and lining up to live there for good. Some adventurous Indians have even made non-English-speaking countries in Europe as their homes. For these immigrants, culture and language, which symbolise both group identity and survival, just as jobs and work are important, is paramount. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2021, the country recorded over 800,000 Indians or 3 percent of the total population and some are second-generation settlers.
Till a few years ago, Indians faced challenges in Australia, which today’s generations of expatriates dismiss as “aberrations”. They see themselves as the “best of India who can contribute to Australian growth”, especially when Quad “partnership” and increasing and more frequent conversations at the highest levels of the two governments is paving the way for smoother inter-continental relocation.
It will take a while for the so-called “successful immigrant” image to stick. Admittedly, there are gaps in cultural integration – as is wont to be in a new land of interest – but much depends on how cultural artefacts such as Hindi-Vindi are able to bridge the social divide and how the likes of Kabir and his Aussie friends negotiate cultures, nations and identities. Much also depends on how “attractive” Australians find this new and emerging “ethnic plurality”.
(The writer is Co-founder, Producer and Writer of 24Six Films, Australia, 40U40 Most Influential Asian-Australian 2022 & a first generation Indian settled in Sydney, Australia)