Translation of identity

October 18, 2020

Part 2 of Tales from Diaspora explores Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heart and how feelings of rootlessness perpetually bother those who change countries

“Reading made me enter a narrative, a myth.”

– Hanif Kureishi

Most writers will tell you of a past steeped in discrimination and bullying; even virtual ostracism. Writing usually sequels a journey on a hard road filled with tough questions of identity. Writers take to penning it all down because that gives them the meaning, an escape that their reality lacks. I have yet to come across a writer without a personal longing for the subject he/she talks about. Pakistani Anglophone authors are the same.

Like Ghose, Hanif Kureishi is an interesting case in point of Pakistani-British descent, who is known for works such as the Buddha of Suburbia and countless novels, short stories and featured dramas. His book, My Ear at His Heart is an account of the author reading his father’s old diary. Coming from a well-known Madras family, his father came to Pakistan in 1947 in the wake of the partition. In 1950 he moved to England. There, he married a British woman, and it was in Bromley that Kureishi was born.

My Ear at His Heart is Kureishi’s account of the author reading his father’s diary which narrates the family’s memories, how relationships were affected by distance, how rootlessness perpetually bothers people who change countries, and what effect racial profiling and bullying has on these individuals. About the colonial yoke, the writer comments: “The British may have gone, but there is still dependency. Nothing can be done without the ‘big guns’.”

Kureishi laments the enigma of being on foreign soil, yet not wanting to return home. The reason he gives for this conundrum is that he never felt the country of his birth tug at him. While that was true, he never felt connected to Pakistan either. So while he longed for home, he belonged to none. While he evades the onus of belonging to one land and developing nationalistic fervour, he yearns for it immensely. Though, he does not know which country to yearn for, India or Pakistan.

It is particularly interesting that people in the diaspora are constantly searching for their past. This nostalgia is what they try to find their identities in. Kureishi opens his father’s book thinking that it“…will tell me a lot about my father”.

He further says, “I seem to be opening a door on my past, preserved in words - some clue or key to my father’s life”.

Family history creates inroads into one’s past, roots and hence identity. When the past is recaptured, it leads to a discovery of the self. It opens a window into a cluster of appurtenances which heighten an acute sense of identity; and hence, belonging.

Kureishi and Sara Suleri (another Pakistani Anglophone writer) share the love for reading, books and writing which was inducted in both by their parents. They feel their lives revolve around the ambit of writing.

“Through books, I was entering a narrative, a myth.”

Like Ghose, who began to stammer once in England, at the age of seven, Kureishi experienced an intense learning disorder where he “…couldn’t retain any knowledge”. Because of this predicament, he faced acute racial bullying.

The divide between the East and the West might not come across so obviously due to the globalised world we live in now, but the inroads leading from one to the other are fraught with unbridgeable differences. 

Kureishi goes beyond the mere psychological dark side of living abroad and shows us the bare bones of the American Dream. In one of his short stories, Decline of the West, where the American protagonist, Mike, is laid off his job and is trying to tell his family about it – the author comments that even with a heightened sense of security, the world in the post-9/11 era is, in fact, a much more dangerous place. With no psychological security or emotional peace, as America seeks a desperate exit from the ‘graveyard of empires’ (Afghanistan), the country promises less financial happiness to its nationals. Mike thinks that his being laid off is, “a punishment for years of extravagance and self-indulgence; that was the debt which had to be paid back in suffering… all they had asked for was a continuous material improvement.”

In one of his other short stories, My Son, the Fanatic, Kureishi beautifully weaves a tale about the nature of fanaticism which is not solely religious in nature. It is a tale of a son turning overly religious living in England. His father (Pervaiz) retaliates and eventually physically tortures the child (Ali) for his preference of religion over his father’s promiscuous lifestyle. At one point in the novel, Ali tells his father, “The Western materialists hate us… how can you love something which hates us”. Kureishi comments, “There was more to the world than the West, though the West always thought it was the best.”

Homi Bhabha once wrote, “Meaning is constructed across the bar of difference and separation between the signifier and the signified”. Hence identity is certainly a constructed thing and is mutable. More meaning is added into an individual life faced with opposition. The oppressed and the voiceless are merely ignored and deliberately silenced. It is the feeling of alienation after being oppressed that leads to the translation of one’s identity; once we un-plot our lives, do we reach the higher consciousness of ourselves?

Claire Chambers, in her article in daily Dawn, Children of Equal Gods proved Frantz Fanon’s description in The Wretched of the Earth, of the world, turning into a “Manichean delirium”. This means that we see everything in terms of black and white, good and evil. Whoever is not from amongst us, is definitely evil. She says that while children face racist hatred in schools abroad, it is “on the street that adults are confronted with the white gaze of misrecognition.”

The divide between the East and the West might not come across so obviously due to the globalised world we live in now, but the inroads leading from one to the other are fraught with unbridgeable differences.

For the West, the “East is a career”, said Benjamin Disraeli once.

But for Edward Said Orientalism is not purely a political sphere of knowledge where one tries to control or manipulate ‘The Other”, in fact, it is a “certain will or intention to understand” the other half of the world that is the Orient. When this sensibility kicks in, the stage is opened up for writers such as Kureishi who bring their bit of the world to the attention of a wider world. When their oriental works are read in the West, their discourse has a better opportunity of being received with sympathy. The break between East and the West and the eventual rootlessness it creates in expatriates is also better understood since ultimately it is all a matter of arriving at a better understanding of the differences.

The writer is a columnist and an author of A Child of the New Millennium Stories and Essays from Pakistan (2015)

Translation of identity: Part 2 of Tales from Diaspora explores Hanif Kureishi’s My Ear at His Heart