The Question of the Authentic Indian

A Review of Shani Mootoo’s Out on Main Street

In a striking short story titled Out on Main Street, the writer and visual artist Shani Mootoo deconstructs the idea of the authentic Indian identity, countering it with the notion of hybridity, which arises out of (post)colonial actions and legacies, cultural collisions and globalisation. Mootoo herself is a culturally-nationally hybrid figure. She is of Indian descent, but was born in Ireland, raised in Trinidad, moved to Canada at 19, and identifies as queer. This short story reflects the actual complexity of these intersections as they manifest in reality; it is set in Canada but is written explicitly in Trinidadian vernacular, mixed with some French and Hindi, and the narrator is a Trinidadian lesbian of Indian descent in the midst of encountering other similar types of mixed-identity characters. The effect makes the reader question and then debunk, in the context of this specific piece, what exactly constitutes a “real” or “authentic” Indian. Mootoo, through displaying such hybridity in her writing, both of and in the language, pokes holes in the myth that there is even such a thing as an “authentic” Indian (or any nationality/culture) and how ridiculous it is to have a set of standards for cultural/national purity in a world replete with increasing cultural collisions.

Mootoo sets up her argument right from the story’s introductory paragraph: “Janet and me?….we is watered-down Indians – we ain’t good grade A Indians”. Already, we are introduced to the concept of what it means to carry the label of “Indian”. Where there is “watered-down”, there implicitly is purity to act as a counterpoint. Mootoo makes it clear that her protagonists, both the speaker and Janet, are of Indian descent and also look it – their skin is the appropriate shade of brown, but nothing more. At the same time, the narrator and Janet speak both to each other, and to us as readers, in their language of comfort and seemingly birth nationality, which is Trinidadian vernacular. Mootoo implicitly attaches Indo to Trinidadian, to create a hybridity right from the beginning, that immediately calls for the reader’s attention. Meanwhile, she also begins alerting us to the stereotypical standards we prescribe to ‘real Indianness’. For instance, “grade A” is a soft allusion to the commonly held idea that Indians are academically driven, studious and straight-A students; this becomes a prescription for the perception of a ‘true Indian’, that the hybrid figure does not meet. They are different, diluted and thus, inauthentic.

Mootoo continues to tease out other methods of “watering down” or diluting the authentic Indian. There is the “kitchen Indian”, someone who only engages with the Indian culture by eating its food, but does not perform any other aspect of prescribed Indianness. We are prompted to question ourselves as readers about what our own standards for a ‘real’ Indian are, which will additionally alert us to the perhaps alarming thought that we actually harbour these standards, even if subconsciously, in the first place. The parameters for authenticity most likely differ from person to person but there will be common themes: raised in India, eating Indian food, religious – most likely Hindu, wear cultural dress, speak Hindi well, good at math and science, fairly conservative, observe tradition consistently. Straying from or stretching out these parameters results in a feeling of both cultural and national dissonance, both in a person’s internal and external space, and a resulting hyphenation of their identity to accommodate the unwieldiness of that complexity i.e the hyphen-born hybridity present in Indo-Trinidadian. Hence, that dissonance is exactly what would cause someone like the narrator to proclaim “all a we…is cultural bastards”, suggesting they have been proven illegitimate to bear the title of mono-cultural, pure, belonging authentically to the identity that perhaps only their physical body reflects. In other words, they are born outside of the culture they should fully be inhabiting, and this externalization or displacement makes them a “bastard”, an illegitimate child, whose physical features reflect their mother (culture) but their expressions of personal identity often stem from elsewhere – in the narrator’s case, being born as ethnically Indian but their language and disposition being distinctly from Trinidad.

There are several other types of hybridity Mootoo inserts into this story. Firstly, the narrator is a butch lesbian. Many prescriptions for the model Indian woman, largely stemming from Indian society itself, place pressure on women to perform a high level of docile, sweet femininity, to be “so femme that they’re redundant”, like the narrator’s girlfriend Janet. Indian society also has a long history of shunning homosexuality. By simply existing as who she is, the narrator, alongside the femme Janet, already challenges and pushes against these pressures while simultaneously feeling and inhabiting them.

In a later instance, we meet the “Chum-chum brothers”, cafeteria servers who appear Indian, and who mock the narrator for not prescribing to the authentic Indian standard for language, which would be a flawless performance of Hindi. Ironically, the brothers turn out to be from Fiji, therefore exposing they are ‘inauthentic’ Indians themselves; they too are immigrants, and products of an interesting postcolonially-motivated history in which indentured labor from South Asia was taken to places such as Fiji, Malaysia, Kenya and the Caribbean many generations ago. The very event of one of them mocking the other for not meeting some pure cultural identity standard that neither of them have, or could ever have, begins to feel completely absurd. Thus, Mootoo effectively rips another hole in the myth of there being any kind of purity or authenticity of identity in the first place.

What emerges is a narrative where space is made and filled by a variety of Indians who are expected to be impure or deemed “watered down”, by themselves, by other cultures, by similar “cultural bastards” and by all types of Indians. The expectations differ and so do the realities. In Out on Main Street, white men walk into an Indian cafeteria and offer a Muslim greeting because that is their perception and reaction to their model of the Indian. This standard is unmet. The Fijian-Indian servers place an expectation on the narrator’s language to reflect, seamlessly, her Indian heritage, by speaking good Hindi and performing an idealized femininity. This too is unmet. A critical Indian woman, cheekily called Giraffebai by the narrator, places a pressure on Indian males (in this case, the servers) to be respectful even though she believes they are not, in retaliation to Western expectations placed upon all Indians to be “sexist and uncivilized”. These are complicated chains of expectations placed upon the Indian identity from all directions, both from outside and within, which coalesce into the prison-like fencing of a model for authenticity – which, in reality, does not exist beyond our own trappings of stereotype and prejudice.

“So tell me, what yuh think ‘bout dis…” Mootoo asks us in the final line of her story. What she really demands of us is to go back and question the assumptions and pressures we place on people to perform mono-cultural identities that conform to what they are supposed to be rather than what they actually are. Mootoo urges us to see the myth of cultural authenticity for what it is – a myth. An Indo-Trinidadian is not just Indian, but specifically, Indo-Trinidadian, emphasizing that equal space is given for both to exist side by side, and respected as legitimate that way, both within notions of Indian identity and Trinidadian identity. And aside from inhabiting these hyphenated realities or hybrid identities, these figures are also so much else, regarding the many other intersections and permutations of other aspects of their identity, such as their sexual orientation. Mootoo pushes us as readers to ponder ways to make space for hybridity and to accept it as real and authentic too. That hybridity does not make anyone less or diluted or improper, or deserving of chastisement, shame, mockery and most importantly, a sense of failure. Ultimately, we are reminded that no one is and should be considered a failure for being who they are, but rather, the failure lies in our ability to accept the complexity of what that actually means for various human beings and their complicated yet completely valid sense of belonging.

 

 

Artwork by Nimisha Bhanot

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