The Color of Joy
On festivals, identity, and the limits of 'community'
Photograph by Sam Manns at Unpslash
Every once in a while I come across #brownjoy on Twitter and wonder about the place of cultural identity in the philosophy of happiness.
I get the explicit political meaning of the hashtag, when used in Europe and North America. Brown joy takes after the notion of ‘Black Joy,’ the recognition that both Black history and resistance include the materiality and possibility of happiness. It makes happiness a tangible goal of political movements. Along similar lines, in places where brown bodies--South Asian and Latinx people--are the minority and are subjected to oppressive forces, happy brown faces can be faces of resistance. #Queerjoy follows a similar logic. Hashtags make one’s subscription to the logic legible to members of the same (and opposing) communities as well as to recommender systems (a type of algorithm) that, then, reinforce the sense of belonging by finding others who will either like one’s post or troll them.
I understand how the psychological state of happiness is entangled with social questions. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to pursue happiness by way of cultural identity (ethnic and/or religious and/or gendered). The culture I was raised in (Indian-Bengali-Hindu) told me that flaunting my happiness in front of others will draw the evil eye and one way to protect my happiness is to, well, hide it. Another way is to hang chili and lime at my door to ward off the evil eye. But it is not the evil eye I am concerned with here, today. I am concerned with the ethical tension inherent in seeking happiness using my own identity as a framework, the contours of the self as the means to find happiness.
Photographs by T, Rashmi Bhatia, Mohd. Aram
Autumn in India is the season of festivals. One celebration leads to another. Durga puja, in which we--Bengali Hindus--worship the ten-armed goddess ends in Dussehra or Dashain, which quickly leads to Kojagori Lakshmi puja. Ethnic communities originating in western India observe Navaratri (with garba and dandiya raas). These Hindu festivals often coincide with Eid-e-Milad, celebrating the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Diwali follows in Northern India, which overlaps with Kali puja in the east. And so on.
Every autumn the Indian diaspora simulates the subcontinental festivities, transplanting a Durga puja here, to the basketball court of a local high school; holding a Garba there, in a metropolitan convention center. And every autumn, since moving to the US in 2011, I puzzle over the lengths to which I will go to accept or refuse the invitation to define myself in terms of my ethnic origin, class, caste, and religion.
To the first Durga puja I attended in the US--I was a graduate student in Columbus, Ohio, then--I wore a saree with a halter neck blouse, only to be told by another graduate student attendee to cover my upper back with the pallu before bowing in front of the Durga idol. “Why?” I asked. She had no answer. She probably thought the brown skin showing on my back would shame me, disrespect the Goddess. I paid no heed--it was a matter of my beliefs against hers regarding the right way to worship; my belief being there is no right way. Besides, her remark premised on prudery and hetero-misogyny was not that extraordinary--it could have been made anywhere, in Calcutta even. What was actually outstanding about the puja in Columbus was the tortured manner in which the attendees insisted on defining themselves as Bengali Hindus through costume, cultural programs, and everything else.
This was a celebration of similarity based on social arrangements, while also feigning oblivion about the nature of the social arrangements. Why, for instance, in a ritual worship organized in a school’s basketball court and on dates deviating from those of the festival according to the Hindu calendar, all changes made for convenience, did they still have a man (most likely a Brahmin) play the priest?
Expressions of cultural identity at the Durga pujas I have attended in North America seem to be motivated by the fear of losing that identity. Fear imposes stringent duties--children of immigrant parents, born and raised in the US, sing and dance to tracks they have little engagement with beyond the days of the festival.
But to wage a war against possible loss, one needs to first define what one is saving. The cultural identity at stake is barely described or understood in practice, other than perhaps as a certain way of feeling.
The Location of Joy
In Whereabouts, Jhumpa Lahiri, the author co-opted by the American culture industry to represent and celebrate the Indian American identity, tries to dull this way of feeling. Her protagonist is in a push and pull relationship with solitude, her family, an unnamed city, life. Lahiri first wrote the novel in Italian, abandoning both the language in which she, however reluctantly, first found fame, and the cultural identities familiar to readers of her previous work.
I cannot separate the aesthetic value of Whereabouts from Lahiri’s ethical courage to embrace the unfamiliar, the other, instead of holding on to what she is expected to represent. It is another matter that the culture industry in America manages to pull off feats that turn virtues of artists from minority communities into problems (though these are not the artist’s problem). A review in the NPR while appreciating Lahiri’s style, her move away from “generational and cultural friction,” her exploration of “places geographical and emotional,” misidentifies the geographies and cultures Lahiri depicted in books like Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.
My only social media post on Whereabouts has to do with my calling out NPR for confusing South Asia with Southeast Asia. They, of course, ignored it.
If one considers cultural festivals celebrated by minorities as celebrations from the margins, they seem ethically beatific (to those who believe, however superficially, in equity and justice), but they aren’t.
Some years I skip the Durga puja celebrations in the US. This year I showed up at one with my partner. The founder member of the Durga puja pulled my partner aside and asked, “Can you blow the conch shell?” He said something to the effect of ‘sort of.’ The woman replied, “Good. You can take the responsibility next year, since you must be Brahmin--I figured from your last name.” My partner came running to report this bit of casteism to me, not because he was astonished that people in the Indian diaspora hold on to beliefs of caste supremacy (Brahmins as the highest caste, followed by Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras). After all, the State of California sued the company Cisco, operating from the Bay Area, for casteism in the workplace (the case was withdrawn last week and will be taken to a different court). It was only the nakedness of the woman’s question that surprised my partner because people--especially genteel Bengalis--often play ‘caste-blind’ in public, put on a show of inclusivity.
When the woman cornered my partner, she did so propelled no doubt by her belief that my partner was an insider--one of her kind. Similar assumption--the assumption of sameness--causes people to casually betray their bigotry before family and friends: for example, when another Bengali Hindu watching an India-Pakistan cricket match with us pretends to be surprised by a woman in full burka waving the Indian tricolor (never mind that India is a secular nation) or complains that because of affirmative action in India, there are no jobs anymore for Brahmins.
What is our responsibility toward people who think they can share their bigotry with us because we are ‘friends’?
“Call out” is my go-to tactic in such situations. I distance myself from an acquaintance’s bigotry when I recognize it (for I, too, am surely not prejudice-free)--and eventually, waltz out of their social circle, feeling righteous for a bit, before having to admit that my call out accomplished nothing of great significance.
The pursuit of cultural identity extorts happiness.
What, then, are the roots/routes of unadulterated joy?
Community Durga pujas, subjects of my attachment and detachment, are a “recent” phenomena in the US. Though Bengali immigrants have streamed into the US at least since the late nineteenth century, as Vivek Bald discusses in Bengali Harlem, many of the early immigrants were Muslims or Sikhs. The enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act in the 1960s led to the influx of Bengali Hindu professionals like never before and the first community-organized Durga pujas are supposed to have been held in the ‘70s.
Many Indian Bengali professionals who gather under one roof for Durga puja in places like Sacramento today are working under conditions of indentured labor (that’s H1-B visa, for you), though their salaries and possessions will ostensibly belie the precarity of their status in the US. So, I do not take the ability to gather in celebration, to wear sarees without having to explain, to speak in our mother tongues, for granted. Yet, I also recognize the capability of the relatively powerless to exploit and abuse each other. The Indian upper-caste employees in Cisco discriminating against their colleagues may share the precarity of their legal status in America, and yet…
I come from a family of refugees and economic migrants. A few years before India’s independence and Partition, one of my grandfathers came to study in Calcutta, India, from Faridpur (in present-day Bangladesh). He remained in the city after finding employment. His siblings followed and by 1947 most of his family was on this side of the border. Those who remained on the other side (East Pakistan then) later came as refugees. I do not know for how many generations my grandfather’s family was in Faridpur, but I do know that the family lived in Calcutta for about a generation and a half to be dispersed again. The differences in political circumstances notwithstanding, my migration to the US follows an arc similar to my grandfather’s. I came for graduate studies and have thus far stayed to work here, under conditions that are not always hospitable. My cousins made similar journeys to other places and nations. We are a family with many moving parts, fragmented continually by accidents of history.
The Durga puja celebrations I attend in North America though (and perhaps this is true of other festivals in the diaspora as well) seem resistant to the idea of movement. They simulate practices, food, and culture of an imaginary, static homeland, avoiding any critical scrutiny about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of the celebrations.
On Saturday, 23rd October, a day before the Indian and Pakistani cricket teams faced off at the ongoing T20 World Cup, and both teams demonstrated support for the Black Lives Matter movement, with the Indian side taking a knee, many of my Bengali acquaintances from the puja in Sacramento marched to the California Capitol protesting the attack on Bangladeshi Hindus during the Durga pujas in Comilla, Bangladesh, the ensuing rampage, and the desecration of an ISKCON temple in Noakhali.
For Indian Bengali Hindus this protest is easy to participate in--the critique here is externally directed, at a nation-state where Hindus are the minority. Just as it is easier for the Indian team (prodded by its ‘management’) to show solidarity for a movement about racial justice originating outside India than making statements about the trolling and attacks on the Muslim player currently playing for the Indian side or the plight of the Kashmiris in India.
And it is simpler, too, for me to catalog wrongs and call out when I can put distance between me and bigotry. The moment before distancing is the moment when I feel the demand of critiquing from the inside. It is an excessive responsibility. An impossible responsibility, too, given that the instant in which I become attuned to the discordant notes in someone else’s pronouncement I have already become alienated. I cut myself out--for what? To save myself from (committing) cruelty? And, then again, I find no joy in abstinence.
In Ayad Akhtar’s novel Homeland Elegies, a meditation on both the outside and the inside of cultural identities, a character tells the narrator “Use the difficulty; make it your own.” As a writer and academic, I suppose it is inevitable that I do. I have written over a thousand words here using the difficulty and it will certainly not be the last time I do so. However, what of joy? Is there joy in using the difficulty, digging into it, unraveling it? Maybe. One joy in my dispersed family is to share photos and videos of how we celebrate festivals in different corners of the world. In fact, it is safe to say that our overlapping routines during festivals evoke a sense of belonging, however fleeting. This year my parents, uncles, and aunts confined to their respective homes, observing COVID-related restrictions, streamed the puja in Sacramento to catch glimpses of me and the events in which my partner and I participated. There is some joy in that.
And I know there’s joy too in dressing up as an Indian witch this year --inspired by the movie Bulbbul--for Halloween in the US.
Photograph by T. Prep to dress up as Bulbbul.
Postscript from P
Speaking of identity and festivals, the recently celebrated Karwa Chauth made me recognize how women (particularly in northern India) participate of their own volition in a practice that above everything else, seems to give them a very solid feeling of being part of a community, a sisterhood even.
While I’ve never really understood fasting, and never practiced it as a ritual in the name of well, anything, it’s only recently that I’ve come to the understanding that while the tradition itself might reek of patriarchy, only a fool would believe that it’s about a husband’s long life. Clearly, it’s a day when the tribe badge shines bright for the women who choose to keep it, brighter than the awaited moon, brighter than their own highly bedecked selves. And that badge for me is all kinds of #hardrelate.
Growing up in Sharjah, our clandestine phooljhadis and diyas, rangolis masquerading as hospitality decorations during Diwali -- you could not be seen celebrating a Hindu festival publicly in the Muslim-majority UAE-- were the stuff of pure joy for me. There were mutually agreed upon “work breaks'' for adults (read: parents), because everyone (including their non-Indian/non-Hindu bosses) understood the importance of time out for celebrating festivals - there was no secular garb needed. All of us looked forward to these weeks and the endless house parties (sometimes I feel like my folks invented this very particular way of having fun) with family friends across the desert. Fun road trips to Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai, dressed in “Indian” attire often hand-made/stitched on her favorite sewing machine by my mother. At these parties, all the desis would unite, profusely shed tears over Chitthi Aayi Hai, and participate in that ancient but never-old ritual of sharing food as communion.
And the color of joy? That for me remains cola-black, harking back to the secret Pepsi’s my brother and I consumed in cars during Ramadan. Sipping the thrill-laced cans, I still feel the taste of those days on the tip of my tongue.
More from T & P
P was the guest on #sayftychat earlier this month, representing Khabar Lahariya, to discuss Feminist Representation in Indian Media.
T spoke to Dr. Neelofer Qadir about forms of unfree labor, capitalism, and stories in the Indian Ocean world for the Narrative for Social Justice podcast.