As 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. 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? Did Punjabis start squabbling over who owned authentic rights to the bhangra – 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?
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.
 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London: Verso, 1983).
 A popular meat dish brought to the sub-continent in the middle ages by the Persians.
 The bhangra usually refers to the traditional dance form of the Punjab region.
 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.