Last autumn, I was forced to pick and choose pieces of my life that I wanted to bring with me to university as I packed to move halfway across the world from India. I tried to fit in as much as I could within the stingy baggage allowance. My belongings sat piled against each other: the soft folds of sadness over having to leave the comforts of the familiar pushed against the hardbound spines of the books listed on my reading list. I vividly recall the argument I had with my mother: I refused to remove my copy of “India after Gandhi ” by Guha, a book I wished to carry as a personal read rather than academic requirements. In hindsight, I did not know that as I struggled to make space for both Guha and Perry Anderson, it would be a sort of foreshadowing, a kind of a microcosm if you will, of a life that I would come to become familiar with. A weighing sense of dichotomy between my culture, languages and history that amalgamate to shape my ‘brown’ identity and my surroundings.
Over time I’ve come to realise that they feel the heaviest in the careless moments which hold no significant value in the grander scheme of things. As I set my bag down on one of the wooden desks of the Upper Camera, and start to pull out my books and laptop, subconsciously I notice an array of my belongings tumble out alongside and realise each one carries with it a neatly packaged bundle of thoughts, musings and uncomfortable histories. Half an hour passes; they hang there uncomfortably, while I pretend to pay attention to Dworkin’s essay on ‘Rights’. I can no longer hold back. As discreetly as I can, I pick them up, one at a time, and caress them softly.
Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish’s words ‘our love is an inherited disease’ echo in my mind. Never does it seem more true than in that moment in the warm- yellow lamp stained stillness of the Bodleian Libraries. I realise that being ‘Brown’ runs deeper than an extra shot of melatonin in my skin: it’s the conditioned familiarity and subsequent comfort I feel in the prolonged ‘a’s and the rough edged ‘r’s in my name, the sliver of hope that age-old Hindu prayers extend to my anxious mind and my perennial dalliance with history, community, love and grief.
I question the relevance of the perceived gap I feel between my surroundings and myself. I wonder if this dichotomy is real or whether it’s a consequence of the internalised postcolonial lens that I’ve been conditioned to view myself through that leads me to constantly feel like an outsider, tipping around carefully in measured steps, as one does when one feels as if they’re intruding in someone’s home.
I am now compelled to come to terms with facets of my identity and reality, that I wasn’t particularly aware of since I naively assumed that they were natural; and they were, in the limited world that I lived in before coming to oxford. There are culture shocks I’m still coming to terms with (Marmite, really?!) and ideas and histories I’m still struggling to convey.
I’ve come to recognise my role as a translator of sorts, as I struggle to choose and translate between cultures. While I adapt to a new culture, the guilt of leaving behind my own habits and traditions weighs me down. This guilt turns into frustration, widening the apparent chasm of ‘otherness’. I often think about the fragments of my past and how, if at all, significant they are to my identity. I wonder if I’m being foolish in wanting to cling to the suffering of familial and communal history. The questions become notably heavier as I pause and ask myself: How can I not when my past, present and future are stained with my ever- present dalliance with my deep rooted history and the familial connection I feel with loss, pain and fragile resurrected ambitions. I’m not sure where the boundaries lie. I’m not sure if there are any to begin with.
Over the next few weeks, this column will seek to unpack the echoes of poetry and politics, familial history and acquired loss that I subconsciously carry with myself as I navigate the maze of deadlines, libraries, bops and friendships at Oxford.
Artwork: Ben Beechener