The Identity Conundrum
The world-wide dispersion of South Asian peoples from countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is now a sociologically acknowle-dged phenomenon known as the South Asian Diaspora. Multiple migration and settlement from South Asia to Europe and to the Carribean Islands and thence to the American continent by coolies, indentured labourers, lascars, and traders in the days of yore have now undergone a sea change. Succeeding generations of highly educated and dynamic South Asians have won global recognition and accolades through individual achievements in almost every academic discipline or commercial enterprise. Multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity are essential factors of dispersion as much as they are representative vectors of mutual respect and universal goodwill. Significantly, voices of the women of the South Asian Diaspora, hitherto silenced, are now being heard loud and clear on both native and alien lands following the actual reconfigurations of ancient patriarchal systems of power. Today, I celebrate the positive attitude of the majority of our Bangali menfolk towards the upliftment of the womenfolk. We have fought long and hard and we have had our path lit by illustrious women who raged passionately to lead us out of the dark mangers to which female chattels were tithed by feudal bondage and denial of the written word. The bloodlines of the Bangali woman meets all cultures and languages, from the Arab to the Mughal , from the Hispanic to the Mayan Indian .Her face eludes the Cubist frame of Piccasso: she is multidimentional, a racial chameleon, made from clay and terra cotta,Gandhara, Harrappa, and Mohenjodaro. Aryan-Dravidian.
Truly, I too am of this race. Once, at Heathrow airport, a beautiful tall Hijab Arab lady, upon spotting me in the milieu in my long coat and trousers, suddenly came running up to me and with a radiant smile, said, “ La Arabia?”. I smiled back, and softly answered, “ No, Bangladeshi.” The light in our eyes and our smiles lingered in the air awhile and then melted as we each turned towards our own boarding gates. I am fluent in four languages and can get by with a smattering of known words and phrases in a few more, but at that singular moment in time at Heathrow , I wished I had cultivated the art of conversational Arabic, even though I can read the Quran and Arabic script. Today, as I look back on my life from the centre of the Doel Chottor, all rainbow colours merge in the white light of the Pahela Baisakh afternoon. I recall how, I too, have been a diasporic creature. Continental Drifter to and from the Indian Subcontinent, I have touched the waters of the blue oceans: the currents of the Arabian and the Pacific and the Atlantic have alternately swelled and soothed my soul.
My multiethnicity is no longer a mystery or cause for befuddlement for me. Rather, I am amused at the comedy of errors I and my other Bangali sisters end up re-enacting on the world's stage. We all have anecdotes we love to share. In Canada, all the way from New Foundland to Ontario, with my long skirts and my long black hair, black-lined eyes and pale brown face, strangers kept asking me, “Are you Mexican?” Ironically, here too, in Dhaka, I am often quizzed. Recently, lunching with an academic of the opposite gender at Bithika at Hotel Sheraton, in my starched sari and matching earrings, and chatting gaily in rapid-fire English, the chief waitress handed me my goblet of chilled fruit juice, smiled, hesitated, and then said, “ Are you madam. Perhaps, Sri Lankan?” I laughed out loud, and replied, “No, pure Bangladeshi.”
Rebecca Haque is Professor and Chair, Department of English, University of Dhaka.
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