The Self is Not the Territory by Vibha Shetiya


VibhaAs a teenager, I grew up wondering where exactly I belonged. Aside from the confusion resulting from straddling two entirely different, perhaps even opposing, cultures, my main concern seemed to center on which country was I from – India or Zambia? Or was I inherently British because of an education and upbringing enveloped by things English – values, books, magazines, not to mention people? Was I American because I grew up on TV shows like Charlie’s Angles, Wonder Woman, Six Million Dollar Man and Dallas that played a major role in fashioning my idea of the world around me? Perhaps I was Zambian because I had been living in that part of the world since the age of one. Or maybe I was from India because that was after all the land of my birth, to where I returned as an utterly confused and disjointed teenager who believed she now had to be “Indian” even though I could not relate so much as an iota to my immediate surroundings.

Looking back, I realize I felt the need to identify my sense of self with nationality. Ultimately, I reasoned, I had to be Indian due to many factors. For one, I looked Indian; I was brown-skinned with black hair and dark brown eyes. I now lived in India amid Indian people, Indian values (oh, so confusing), Indian music and Indian TV shows. And I was “born” a Hindu. So there I was – an Indian Hindu and so had jolly well behave like one. Of course none of this came with a manual on what exactly being Indian or Hindu meant. And so I looked to people around me, people I loved and whose approval my teenage mind so craved, and decided being Indian meant being who they wanted me to be. After all, how many times had I heard the phrase – “You’re in India now, so be Indian.”  And then as an adult, I came to America accompanied by even more potential for confusion; at times I felt the need to cling to my “Indianness,” at other times, I wanted to jettison it for fear of being denied entry into the great melting pot.

So who or what was I exactly? Zambian, Indian, British or American? There are a lot of things going on here, but I am going to focus on the nationality angle. Because, while the above situation may indeed warrant a deeper examination of who I – my identity as an individual – really was, how often are we, as people inhabiting Planet Earth, in all it multitudinal vicissitudes, told to express our loyalty to a specific nation?  To identify as an inhabitant of a particular square mileage, a geographic area which never wrote up its own biography?

That is the problem with nationalism or the modern idea of nation states; the identification of self with a particular territory, one which Benedict Anderson points out is a construct.[1] A piece of land within an artificially-created boundary, and by virtue of “belonging” to it (or it belonging to us?), we grow up thinking “Indian” or “American” blood flows in our veins, in turn preparing us to kill or die for this essential Indian- or American-ness. Nationalism is a very powerful and loaded concept, one which most of us – myself included – learn to internalize unconsciously. But rather than get pedantic, it would do well to see the examples staring us in the face to understand just how warped this concept can be: In 1947 upon independence from Britain, the colony of India was partitioned into the independent nations of Pakistan and India, its raison d’etre based upon supposed religious differences (I will save the devastating role of colonialism in all this for another time). The states of Punjab and Bengal bore the brunt of bifurcation – the division of Punjab into a Pakistani Punjab and an Indian Punjab in the West, and more than 1,500 miles away, Bengal carved into East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh) and the Indian state of West Bengal; in other words “Muslim” and “Hindu” states. Overnight, people were forced to identify as Indian or Pakistani. Did (or does) any one stop to think that the vast majority of Indians and Pakistanis shared more in common as a culture, than say Hindus in North and South India did, or that Hindus of West Bengal and Muslims of East Pakistan related more to each other than they did with their counterparts on the Western side of the sub-continent, Hindu or Muslim? What exactly did it mean to be Pakistani or Indian? Did people of these two nations suddenly acquire opposing physicalities? Did one community stop eating biryani overnight?[2] Did Punjabis start squabbling over who owned authentic rights to the bhangra[3] – the Punjab in India or the Pakistani Punjab? Being anti-Indian or anti-Pakistani now became a pre-requisite to declaring one’s loyalty towards the nation, “the motherland,” a sentiment that has remained in place for nearly seven decades since Partition in a region where patriotism is synonymous with the threat of nuclear war; in a region where the term anti-Indian or anti-Pakistani is sewn into one’s identity at birth.

But as Arundhati Roy so eloquently asks of us immediately following the pro and anti-American rhetoric after 9/11:

What does the term anti-American mean? Does it mean you are anti-jazz? Or that you’re opposed to freedom of speech? That you don’t delight in Toni Morrison or John Updike? That you have a quarrel with giant sequoias? Does it mean that you don’t admire the hundreds of thousands of American citizens who marched against nuclear weapons, or the thousands of war resisters who forced their government to withdraw from Vietnam? Does it mean that you hate all Americans?[4]

In the same way, what exactly did it mean for me to be Indian? Did it come with de facto conditions requiring me to be anti-Zambian, anti-Pakistani, anti-British and anti-American? Anti-Friends or anti-Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or anti-Victoria Falls? Did it mean I had to scrub off the vestiges of other cultures that had molded me into who I was (and just what detergent was I to use to do that)? That just as nations had been created artificially, I too had to be constructed into a particular human being regardless of whether it reverberated with the rhythms of my heart?

Having a particular identity, identifying with a specific culture, community or region can be a beautiful thing. But who dictates what that identity should be and should feel like? Who decides it is time to reduce the self to a particular individual shape that will map itself upon a specific nation?

It has taken a long time, but I am finally realizing that eventually I’m just a person. I identify as a woman, a woman who has been produced by various experiences – good and bad, beneficial and disadvantageous, liberating and stifling. What nationality those experiences are, I’m not exactly sure, but I’m beginning to understand that it doesn’t matter anymore.

I’m just me.

[1] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).

[2] A popular meat dish brought to the sub-continent in the middle ages by the Persians.

[3] The bhangra usually refers to the traditional dance form of the Punjab region.

[4] Arundhati Roy, Come September, title of talk presented in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on September 11, 2002. Emphasis is mine.

Vibha Shetiya was born in India and raised in Zambia before moving back to India as a teenager. She has been living in the US since 1999. She has degrees in journalism and religion and a Ph.D in Asian Cultures and Languages. Vibha moved to Albuquerque in 2014 from Austin where she completed her dissertation on feminist versions of the “Ramayana,” an ancient Hindu epic. She teaches at the University of New Mexico.

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Categories: General, Hinduism, Identity Construction, Women's Voices

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14 replies

  1. Great post. I think people often don’t see each other (and themselves) in all their hybridity and complexity, instead relying on these really oversimplified constructs of nation and culture, and then imposing what they think they ‘know’ on the world around them. It’s so important that we keep disrupting nationalistic and related ideas in the current political climate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kavita. Yes, I agree that given the current times we need to question nationalistic and related ideas – religion being one of the strongest.

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  2. Good post. I know a number of Moslems and Christians who were born before 1947 in what is now India. They are grateful to be able, now, to say they are Canadians, rather than having to explain that yes, they were born in Indian and no, they are not Hindu.

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  3. Thanks, Vibha Shetiya. On the identification of self, there is an ego problem we all struggle with. But deeper than the ego, there is in everyone of us also a true self — fresh, solid, at ease, loving and compassionate — at least that’s how the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh describes it. And we can, all of us, honor that true self always, and follow it, regardless of our outward diversity.

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    • Thank you, Sarah. We humans by virtue of being social creatures, are always going to look to our surroundings to “belong” or make sense of the world we live in. I think it’s important that we be aware of the fact that things we regard “natural” are often just constructs, and that we be allowed to question the world we live in without the fear of excommunication. That we be allowed to develop the way we see our selves, and that it’s okay if the self doesn’t necessary coincide with what it ought to be.

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  4. In South Asia nationalism replaced religion as a communal rallying point, for nothing can exist in a vacuum.

    Perhaps we should encourage people to identify with international airports? “I feel most at home in Flughafen Zürich”

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    • Oh yes, nmr, nationalism and religion have an intricate and complicated relationship the world over. In addition to airports, we could maybe identify with city libraries or bakeries or different colors! Of course, given human nature and the need to “belong” to a particular group whatever it may be it won’t be long before we hear that ” ‘greens’ declare war on ‘blues.’ ” Sigh.

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      • I find all this fascinating. I keep going back to what I found out when I had my DNA done and it did not coincide with what I expected. Nor did my DNA match the literature, music, and cultures to which I feel most drawn. Perhaps the world would be a better place with a lot less war and strife if we focused most on what makes each of us the best and happiest we can be rather than focusing on nationalism, a specific religion, and where we think we came from, etc.

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      • Thank you, Juliana. You add yet another dimension to it all – DNA and expectations. I couldn’t agree with you more about the harm that focusing on nationalism and religion has done.

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  5. A thought provoking post, Vibha.

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  6. You ask some major existential questions, especially in terms of colonialism, freedom, separation, and nationalism. I like your answer: you’re only you.

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    • Thank you, Barbara. As a friend pointed out, identifying as a woman may be giving in to a particular construct too. Judith Butler has brought to notice the fact that the category of sex can also be an imposition. I say I identify as a woman because I have often been made to feel weak or powerless because of my very social status as female. Those experiences in turn have shaped me into recognizing the fact that I need not see myself as lesser just because I am a woman. In other words, I am always conscious of the fact that I am a woman in a male-dominated world.

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