As it turned out, thinking critically about my favorite books, films, and music didn’t tarnish my appreciation for them—it only added a layer of understanding to the palimpsest through which I view the world. The tools I learned for deconstructing colonial texts became my tools for deconstructing the uncontested adulation I’d once harboured for all things white, Western, and British. In a roundabout way, it was my university education in English literature that gave me the building blocks I needed to tear down my vision of Albion and sort out what was valuable of the remains. I heard the strains of classical raags in guitar solos by rock dinosaurs, I listened close and read in their liner notes the story of my culture appropriated, decimated, pushed to the sidelines. My love was tempered and honed by the fires of decolonization, and when it emerged, it wasn’t so much love as an acknowledgement built through examination, questioning, and eventually, resolution.
For me, negotiating this difficulty means naming a difference between unabashed love for a culture and the ability to appreciate its artefacts while recognizing the problems within. It’s like appreciating the musical output of Morrissey: The Smiths have gotten me through many a heartbreak, but I have zero time for Morrissey’s opinions on immigration and his adoration of the far right. I can find the most profound of my sorrows echoed in “I Know It’s Over” without subscribing to the garbage politics of its creator. Art, to me, can hold meaning and value beyond and often contrary to the intentions of its maker—although I understand that for some people, this cognitive gap can be impossible to bridge, and I respect that view, too. I won’t make excuses for British xenophobia, nor for the racism in its very fabric.
The language I use, the very words and phrases which loop through my speech and writing have their primordial echoes in the books I’ve read, the authors I love, and the people I’ve spoken to most. The glut of English literary fiction I consumed as a teenager has left me with a touch of the ornate; the dystopian novels I devour now have me convinced of an impending global doom. All that you touch, and all that you see imprints on you, however vague or indelible that imprint may be. Even though I care little for religion, I love the pomp and circumstance of Hindu festivities and somewhere at the back of my mind, I can trace a thread to the time I was 13 and wanted to convert to Catholicism after reading too much James Joyce. The roots of my past and present selves unravel to the same point in my psyche. In the mishmash of varying, and sometimes diametrically opposing cultures that has been my world, I can see the strands coalescing. A love of science fiction, of the surreal, the magical, and the frankly off-the-wall—no matter where it’s coming from—these are elements which bind together my aesthetic and taste. And if I’m cherry-picking, borrowing from vastly different sources, I’m mindful of only adapting, and never appropriating.
As an Indian, I’m tied to British culture in ways that go beyond a colonial hangover—post-colonial trauma would be closer to the mark. While not inextricable, the influence that centuries of colonial rule left on India is not just limited to speaking their language. It’s there in the alternating worship of and disgust toward Western culture; in the way Non Resident Indians are set apart from we who live here; in the westward migration that represents the pinnacle of middle class Indian ambition; and the deference in which white tourists are universally held. White British culture is not mine, but its shadow continues to hover over my own. I cannot appropriate it because I’ve been assimilated into it—even though this assimilation involved quite a bit of my choice and a huge deal of my liking. And this gulf between assimilation and appropriation is what separates me, a once-professed Anglophile from a white girl in a bindi: Cultural dominance is not the same as cultural exchange.
Amidst the violence wreaked upon the culture of my birth by the culture of my choosing I keep my eyes open—clichéd though that may sound. I allow little to pass through my eyes and ears unquestioned, uncontested, or unexamined. When I feel an immediate affinity towards a new book or movie, I ask myself where the warm, fuzzy feelings are coming from. And if I have to read between the lines, needle out every last ideological knot that even hints at discomfort, I might feel less fuzzy, but I’m better aware. I actively seek out writers and artists of color in the media I consume, uncovering and uplifting voices which might otherwise be buried in a white avalanche.
It has taken me a long and convoluted while to come to my present, syncretic self, battling not only myself but the engulfing lure of Western culture that surrounds us. Walking this precarious tightrope has been my key to finding a rooted, grounded space where I can be the imperfect bundle of contradictions that I am. I’ll continue claiming this ground in between—it’s here that I can thrive. ♦