What am I?

A British-Bengali writer on her own “passing” to live a life in Britain.

What am I?
Photo: Al-Amin Sarkar/Alamy Stock Photo

The eponymous hero of Rudyard Kipling’s novel, Kim, a young Anglo-Indian who grew up in 1880s Lahore, cries out at the end of the novel after a period of “passing” as an Indian:

What am I?
Mussalman, Hindu, Jain or Buddhist?
That is a hard nut.

“Passing” for Kim was to transcend identity. He was moving between Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist identities and when forced, getting by well enough as a British military cadet in colonial India, being groomed to become a spy. When I arrived in London in the early 1990s, I found the city no less intriguing than an Ajaib Gher, Wonder House, as Rudyard Kipling’s Kim called his beloved Lahore Museum. Just as Kim’s formative years were spent in British India, with him passing as a “native” Indian — an act he performed seriously, passionately and sometimes playfully — over 100 years later, I was trying to live in London as pukka a Briton as possible. I had to face that typical fate of the ex-colonised: suddenly finding myself amidst the actual experience of the former empire, and the challenge to prove my worthiness, to assimilate perfectly, so I would be able to put together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that was the England of my imagination. Sooner than I thought, the heat and the hyacinth of my past years fell away as I strove to fully belong in my adopted city.

But what made my “passing” different from that of Kipling’s Kim, was that I was passing “up”, while Kim and Kipling’s other characters were passing “down”, using their privilege as the coloniser. The concept of “passing” usually refers to performing “up”, as appearing more privileged than the position one is assigned by society. It was used to describe light-skinned African-American slaves and slave descendants who fled to freedom under the cover of whiteness. Passing is a process of crossing over, often secretly, from one identity to another higher status one, for safety or opportunity. It is the acting of living or imitating a life belonging to an identity other than the one you have been assigned by society, and the “passer” is someone who actively emulates this new identity’s traits, hiding or omitting their own. Oscillating between assigned and assumed identities, the passer does not always anticipate the ultimate emotional weight of their decision.

My “passing” had been germinating long before I came to London to become British, even before I was born. It had been passed on to me by the realities of division and the ruptured identities that my ancestors had suffered. I was not a midnight’s child of the Indian subcontinent, but my birth coincided with the tumultuous years of its final split. The partition of India at the end of British rule in 1947 created independent India and Pakistan as majority Hindu and Muslim states respectively; but it failed to create two clear-cut nations: a third force was brewing, and it was not content with this division along religious lines. East Pakistan, formerly East Bengal, refused to pass as Muslim, and so a conflict broke out in 1971 — the war to create Bangladesh.

Overnight, my ancestors were compelled to assume yet another ethno-national identity, and make it their new reality. But this rebirthing process is never easy: it is also a process of deracination, and there is an immense sense of discord. As passing is a state of going in and out of communities or social categories, it inevitably leads not only to personal disorder, but also to social disorder. The most scrupulous and extreme of these performing acts will often remove the last contact with the memory of one’s past, even one’s family.

I was the grandchild of a remarkable oral historian, a thin dark woman with very long hair of a ripened jute colour, who was caught between three countries, two religions, and much more. She had to witness the split of her India twice, the multiple changes of her national flag, while her own life remained stationary in a self-imposed spiritual and political enclave. She remained stuck in the no-man’s land created out of the haphazard splits and multiple definitions of what was once her Hindustan, the Land of the Indus. Was it a land for the Hindus or was it for everyone? Why had one half of Hindustan — the name given to India by the first Muslim travellers and colonial invaders — been split and renamed as Pakistan? When had Hinduism and India become one? Why were Hindu nationalists seeking to pass India off as Hindu? What does it say about Pakistan that the people of Bangladesh had not wanted to be passed off as Muslim before all else? In recent years Indian leaders have been engaged in even more identity politics: who is the most Hindu of them all? And in Bangladesh, the battle continues: between the defenders of Bengali secularism, and those who ask, who is the most Muslim?

My grandmother lived in the aura of her own making, and her son, my father, was her most obedient disciple. The mother-son team murmured contradictory statements, mostly to themselves about themselves — that they had some Persian, Brahmin or even Buddhist heritage. Who would question the veracity of this founding myth? A six-foot olive-skinned man that was my father, is not your usual Bengali. Hiding behind my desk, memorising history and physics, I often wondered: why was he so “phorsha” (light-skinned) and so tall, like an Aryan invader from four millennia ago? The old woman was a tireless disseminator of stories whose notes of incongruity and anachronism were never challenged by her rapt audience, because reinstating disbelief would mean “the end”. We could not imagine life without a “next instalment” in the ever-evolving narrative of our family saga — religion, conversion, self-erasure, and reconstruction, new and old cultures, passing, travelling, disappearing.

The place where my grandmother found herself living at the end of her life, Bangladesh, is one where belonging was so fluid that you literally just had to swim across a muddy river to go to the other side of identity, to a different country: the Indian state of West Bengal. I grew up in such a place on the amorphous border between two Bengals. If only it were so easy to cross over from one self-hood to another; if only identity were as simple as two sides of a muddy river.

Her world had seen an almighty shattering split of society and geography. As her country had broken into three, this discontinuity would be echoed in the split religious identity of her family: herself, her son and her grandchildren. Indian. Bengali. East Pakistani. Bengali again. Bangladeshi. Hindu. Religiously ambiguous. Muslim. Hindu-Muslim. Her progeny became the confused third entity, the Bangladesh of (un)belonging. She did not live long enough to see me, her eldest grandchild, go to England, study the “old Indian” ways of Hinduism and Buddhism, and — after all that studying and re-exploring — decide she was going to have a Jewish family, she was going to live in Jerusalem and speak Hebrew. I wish I could tell her about my many rebirths.

Passers are the inventors of new history, reinventors of self. From its original reference to light-skinned African-Americans hiding their racial identity as black, passing has not passed out, but has expanded taking into its conceptual fold other modern identity transformations — both individual and group. Not only “white-looking” people of colour, but also gay and trans individuals, the low-born, the religiously marginalised, the privileged “reverse-passers” like Kipling’s characters and “trespassers” accused today of cultural appropriation, even entire communities like the Jews, the Armenians, all the immigrants of the world — turned a story of displacement into a history of regeneration. Passing is the story of triumph of a chosen identity, even if the choice is made under coercion, circumstances or adventure. It embraces the splendour of personal metamorphoses: from one to many selves. And when you have multiple personae, either you are resigned to living all of them at once, as part of your unique being, or you are left perpetually hankering after a “true” self, forever searching for an answer to Rudyard Kipling’s question in “Kim”: “What am I”?●

Lipika Pelham’s new book, “Passing: An alternative history of identity” is published by Hurst. — she has previously written a book about her years living in Israel: The unlikely settler.