Dilemma of the coconuts (Part 1)

Farzana Versey July 12, 2010

A woman sitting in Washington has the gall to announce to the world that India’s 160 million Muslims are not terrorists. Two weeks ago I talked about the expatriate’s angst; now it’s time to deconstruct the cannibalism of the emigrant arriviste.

Farah Pandith is only the tip of the kulfi of neo-totemism. As the US special representative to the Muslim community, her role is to parrot what ‘we Americans’ really think: "It's not America versus Islam. The president has talked very clearly about the fact that Islam is part of America."

So is Rastafarianism. That is not the point and it is careless statements such as these that make the non-residents such an assault on our sensibilities. Ooh-aahing over Indian and Pakistani kumbaya trifles overseas is hardly an issue. It has to perforce be a symbiotic relationship of convenience. The diaspora of identity is a lot more complicated.

The migrant tends to shove ‘expert’ knowledge down our throats, we transform into village bumpkins with tribal laws. Those returning from annual trips give us their cumbersome take on why they left, how they made it despite all odds and then there is the account of the turbulence they encountered — mosquitoes, dirt, traffic, and the people trapped in these lands. Had they taken back some paintings, ornate knick-knacks and calligraphy to decorate their atheist walls it would have been fine. But, no. They have a political plan on how the home country should be run. Look at the west, they say, and flash their branded idealism, which may one day be showcased in a Simon & Schuster book or they might beget progeny who will return to find that the high-on-testosterone romanticism has turned to dust in the land of their ancestors.

Tariq Ali, the London-based Pakistani writer, had organised a sweeper’s strike despite his feudal and privileged upbringing. He was all of 16 then. Was it the hormonal orchestra that peaked into a moment of reckoning or was it sudden realisation of injustice? Or was he just another voice of protest amidst the thinking chandeliers?

Packed off to Oxford to avoid being relegated to a Pakistani lockup, he chose to become a Leftist instead of a brown sahib. When asked if he was a champagne Leftist, he rightly derided such nomenclature to the Victorian and Puritan streak among the British. In France and Italy communists do enjoy their food and drink. So, should Tariq Ali have been grateful for his claret or be deemed ungrateful to the adopted cause? Would he have been as successful had the sweepers not inspired his ideology?

V S Naipual had quite a different dilemma when he returned to his roots. He wrote in An Area of Darkness: “And for the first time in my life, I was one of the crowd. There was nothing in my appearance or dress to distinguish me…In Trinidad to be an Indian was to be distinctive. To be an Indian in England was to be distinctive, in Egypt it was more so…I had been made by Trinidad and England; recognition of my difference was necessary for me. I felt the need to impose myself and didn’t know how.”

Here was a man who had the best of two worlds and yet wanted to make a mark in the third. He subsequently found a way when he started justifying the Hindutva ideology. He had finally succeeded in imposing himself. His could be the personal nirvana of an aging flower-power westerner, but he shrewdly used a sepia-toned ancient heritage as his frame of reference. Engaged in marketing ruins as history, he does not realise that you cannot pickle a living culture.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th,


Yusaf Khan | 11 years ago | Reply Enjoyed reading this article. Ms. Versey as always writes very well; specially love the sarcasm. "...might beget progeny who will return to find that the high-on-testosterone romanticism has turned to dust in the land of their ancestors". So very true!
sharifL | 11 years ago | Reply Well written. We coconuts have problems to adjust with the new culture. There are the first generation ones like Tariq Ali and there are those who were born in the west. Famous from this group is Hanif Kuraishi, whose writing shows the problems of being here and there and may be nowhere. I am a first generation, but have learned that human rights are more important than any faith or culture. I like Paki food, listen to bollywood an ghazals, but also drink, believe in equal rights for women and minorities. I am doing alright. Yes, I do not belong here or there, but keep on trying.
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