“The zealots of purity are yelling out louder, everywhere.”
(This interview with Jonathan Gil Harris first appeared in the Mumbai edition of The Hindu under the headline ‘Becoming Indian’ on February 8, 2016. I am revisiting it on the occasion of the release of his new book — Masala Shakespeare.)
Jonathan Gil Harris has a fascinating trajectory. He was born in New Zealand, studied in England, lived in the United States of America for two decades, and now calls India his home where he is Professor of English at Ashoka University. He is also the author of The First Firangis, a curious mix of autobiography, history and speculative fiction. He dips into archives, and his own bodily experience, to tell the stories of firangis, or foreigners, from faraway lands who moved to India and built a new life.
Excerpts from an interview:
In The First Firangis, you write, “Wherever I go, my body carries with it the imprint of its past environments. But it is always becoming different in its new ones. It is always becoming another.” How do you navigate this in-between-ness?
No matter how much you try to embrace a new identity, there is always another one putting you on the back and saying: Hey, I am here.
When I began writing this book, I decided to treat my body as an archive. I began to observe its transformation through food, clothes, language, weather. My body was altered in fundamental ways, like that of other firangis who became Indian.
What does ‘becoming Indian’ mean to you?
To me, becoming Indian is about moving in the direction of Indian-ness without fully coinciding with it. Many years ago, the actor Raj Kapoor said: “Mera joota hai Japaani, yeh patloon Inglistani; sar pe laal topi Roosi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani.” (“My shoes are Japanese, my trousers are English; the hat on my head is Russian, yet my heart is Indian.”) We live in a hybrid, global world. We take on elements from here and there. Unfortunately, the zealots of purity are yelling out louder, everywhere.
What are the dominant stereotypes about India in the so-called Western world?
The big one is that Indians are deeply spiritual; that they are in touch with some higher truth. Therefore, people in the West think that India is a good place to come and find yourself. The assumption is that India is a homogenous place. They are shocked when they see fair Kashmiris, or people from the north-east. These folks do not fit the Western idea of what Indians look like.
Would you say that your experience of being firangi in India is determined by your gender and your race? Other foreigners [living here] do not have the same experience as you do. The Tanzanian woman who was assaulted by a violent mob in Bangalore recently was a victim of racism…
What happened to the Tanzanian woman was horrific. The experience of migration is not the same across the board. Everyone has a different kind of access. My race and gender, on their own, do not determine my experience. It is determined by the race and gender that are assigned to me in India. While I was researching this book, I wanted to include more stories of firangi women who came to India, but it was hard to find even a vapour trail of their stories. Eventually, I did include some, but not as many as I would have liked.
What do you think of India’s response to Sonia Gandhi as a firangi?
At times, I think that Sonia Gandhi has been a victim of a great deal of whipped-up hysteria because of her race and gender. Whatever one thinks of her politics, she has been a very committed Indian in many ways. Also, her Hindi is not that bad. People make her out to be a foreign interloper who is an alien to Indian traditions: some kind of evil Christian woman from pardes. That is not true. India has had a long history of foreigners being part of the local culture, and working in the interests of the local culture.
Have you been accused of cultural appropriation?
I was expecting to be. Actually, it is a term that I have had difficulty with. It presumes that becoming Indian is simply about culture, and that culture is something that can be possessed. The process I describe in the book is more about adaptation at a bodily level in this new terrain. It is less about me taking on elements of India, more about India getting under my skin. I write, for instance, about my experience of the infamous Delhi belly.
It is interesting that one does not ask migrants from Bangladesh about cultural appropriation. However, one is used to the idea of white Europeans as sleazy architects of what was to become the Empire. I was trying to imagine a very different encounter between firangis and Indians, especially because the firangis who came here in the 15th and 16th century were not colonisers; many were here to escape poverty and religious persecution.
You are an avid follower of Hindi films. What do you think of the ways in which firangis are depicted in Hindi films?
There isn’t much nuance, but that does not bother me. I do not go to Bollywood looking for realistic representations. I love masala. Many of my Indian friends cringe because these films are not formally or aesthetically interesting. I like them because they represent a politics of possibility, a politics of pluralism that is under threat. You have the snow-capped peaks of Switzerland and the bastis of Mumbai. The title of the film appears in Hindi, Urdu and English. The spoken language is never shuddh Hindi: it incorporates and celebrates multiple languages. I deeply cherish the idea of masala as riposte to a certain idea of India that is being sold: the idea that India is one thing, one identity.