by Samir Chopra
I often ‘pass for Pakistani.’ In my Brooklyn, New York City zip code 11218, once supposedly the most ethnically diverse in the US, assuming another subcontinental identity, and especially that of Pakistan’s, is not an insuperable task—for someone like me, of Indian origin. I speak highly colloquial ‘street-level’ Urdu and Hindustani fluently, but more importantly, given Pakistan’s linguistic and ethnic demography, Punjabi; and I am brown-skinned. I can converse comfortably and knowledgeably about the game of cricket, inquiring into how the Pakistani team did in their latest encounter against their perfidious opponents, India; I buy spices and condiments at local Pakistani grocery stores, asking for them by name with practiced ease; sometimes, like a clichéd subcontinental husband, I mock complain about having to cook the night’s meal and how I need just the right combination of magical spices to emulate the far superior cooking of my wife; my most frequent interlocutors, young and middle-aged men from the Pakistani Punjab, offer a sympathetic listening ear and obligingly laugh at my jokes; I order food in Pakistani restaurants like a seasoned gourmand, entirely willing and able to consume those preparations that include beef in their list of ingredients; I do not shrink back in telltale Indian (read: Hindu) distaste when told that a curry contains beef. I could, with some narrative sleight of hand, even claim I am ‘from Pakistan’; after all, my father’s side of the family hails from a little village–now a middling town–called Dilawar Cheema, now placed, thanks to the vagaries of history and colonialism and nationalism, in Pakistan, in Gujranwala District, Tehsil Wazirabad, in the former West Punjab. Migrants and refugees and their children always have multiple identities; I’m American, but I’m also Indian. That latter identity, as I noted above, helps me, superficially at least, ‘pass for Pakistani’—an identity of much interest and curiosity to not just Indians, but Pakistanis themselves.
Of course, not all brown folk are alike, for I, given my linguistic capacities, and perhaps even my ‘appearance,’ cannot pass for Bangladeshi. I do not ‘look like’ a Bengali, even though most Americans might not be able, or willing, to tell us apart. But then, truth be told, I have little interest in passing for Bangladeshi. As a person of Indian origin, history, geo-politics, and culture often make it the case that—justified or not—Pakistan suggests itself as being of far more immediate interest to me; my ethnic identity makes it so that if I had any aspirations to ‘filling it out’ the Pakistani Punjab, as much as the Indian one, is where I would look. (Thanks to the ethno-cultural differences between Bengalis and Punjabis, my interactions with Bangladeshis are marked by a distance I find forbidding, even though as someone who grew up in one of India’s largest cities, I made many Bengali friends.) As residents of the subcontinent well know, a Punjabi Hindu and a Pakistani Muslim Punjabi have far more in common with each other than they do with a Keralite Muslim or a Gujarati Hindu.
Tales of friendship between Indians and Pakistanis based on cultural commonality are legendary in the diaspora but these tend to be more commonly made between North Indians and Pakistanis: those who speak Urdu and Punjabi on ‘this side’ and those who do so on the ‘other.’ South Indians, Indians from the North East, Gujaratis, Marathas, or Oriya folk do not tell such tales with as much alacrity or ease as North Indians—from Punjab, from Delhi, from Uttar Pradesh—tell these stories; they find it harder to pass as Pakistani too. Conversely, anti-Pakistani feeling tends to be stronger in the Indian North; emotions run rawer there; memories of the Partition and the various border wars are fresher; anti-Muslim sentiment is more easily stoked and channeled into such pursuits.
During these adventures in ‘passing’ in the American diaspora, I do not lie or dissemble about my ‘real identity’; when asked whether I’m Pakistani, I say I am not; when asked ‘where are you from’—it is not just white folk who ask me that question—I reply ‘India’ and in deference to the sensitivity of my Pakistani interlocutors’ sensibilities and to the previous cordiality of the conversation, I do not say ‘Hindustan.’ On one occasion, on my hearing my response to his question about my origins, my young interlocutor burst out in some surprise, ‘But you speak Punjabi like a Pakistani!’ Indeed, some Indian Punjabis—most notably, an elderly Sikh gentleman I once met on a train journey back in India—have commented on the ‘Pakistani accent’ in my Punjabi. I did hone my spoken Punjabi in this city by speaking to Pakistanis; I became a Punjabi, in the US, by interacting with Pakistanis. Perhaps the reason I can ‘pass for Pakistani’ is because, by some process of linguistic osmosis, I have ‘blended in’ with a neighboring identity, one distanced from me originally because of historical contingency but now made available to me again in this distant land.
On most occasions, my passing is not deliberate; I do not intend to deceive. But sometimes I do. I did so during a cricket game, the Twenty20 cricket World Cup final in 2007–between India and Pakistan. That day, I had been watching the live telecast at home on my computer, content to cheer on the Indian cricket team in splendid ghettoized isolation. But thanks to a rare power failure in Brooklyn, the telecast failed. I went looking for relief and succor. I found it in a neighborhood Pakistani restaurant with a large screen television, packed to the gills with a loud and enthusiastic Pakistani audience. Being the solitary Indian fan in a Pakistani stronghold during a cricket world cup final did not suggest itself as a pleasant activity in that hothouse atmosphere; this is a sports rivalry with a distinct and often troublesome edge. I asked for the score in Punjabi; I might even have introduced a tone of solicitousness in my queries about Pakistan’s prospects as they chased the Indian total. When Pakistani batsmen scored runs quickly, I joined in the celebrations, calibrating them in a way only apparent to me, so that I could reassure myself I was applauding the way any polite spectator would, and not as a ‘traitorous’ Indian one. When Pakistan lost, I showed ‘good taste’ and did not celebrate overtly or loudly; I quickly left before texting some jubilant messages to Indian friends in distant locations and time zones.
Why attempt to deliberately pass as opposed to just being mistakenly identified? I tried to pass as Pakistani during that cricket final for the most mundane of reasons, just so that I could ‘enjoy’ the final in ‘peace’; I did not want confrontations in a close, frenetic space in which nationalist passion can run unbridled. On other occasions, a voyeuristic urge overcomes me; like a curious anthropologist, I want to know what that mythical creature ‘the Pakistani’—the one that Indian writers, critics, journalists, historians, ordinary street folk, all claim to know so well—is really like; and I think that—besides making actual friendships!—one good way to observe Pakistanis in their ‘natural habitat’ is to blend in, to disguise myself, to speak the ‘local lingua franca,’ to talk loudly of common tastes and loves and dislikes and hates, culinary, musical, or sporting. This artifice yields unexpected dividends at times. Once at an Eid party attended by my in-laws and wife, I found myself among a group of Pakistani men talking passionately about Pakistani history; in their midst, I found a frank discussion of the incoherence of the two-nation theory, of the disastrous rift between East and West Pakistan, of the betrayal of the ideals of Qaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah by those who followed him. I sensed the candor on display would cease if my companions knew of my ‘Indian’ identity; I held my tongue, not saying anything that would give the game away. I was privy to a rare conversation; I was happy to pass; I learned more than I would have if I had proclaimed my Indianness, attempted to participate, and provoked predictably defensive maneuvers on my interlocutors’ part. Perhaps from deceptions like mine, greater truths may emerge.
Such masquerades are the stuff of spy fiction, of course; Indians could theoretically be recruited by the CIA to serve as double-agents in Pakistan; grow their beards, circumcise them, teach them Punjabi and Urdu, and you have a working undercover agent on your hands. In real life, Indians who travel in Pakistan tell a common tale, of how they passed for Pakistani till their ‘cover was blown’; how, for instance, while shopping or hailing a cab, they used a chaste Sanskrit word in their spoken version of Urdu, an alert Pakistani picked up on it and asked them, ‘Aap log Hindustani hain?’ (Are you folks Indian?) In the Bollywood movie Deewaar a young Indian man crosses the India-Pakistan border to try to rescue his father, who is being held in a prisoner of war camp by the Pakistani Army; he needs no disguise, but is still caught when he uses a pair of Indian matches in Pakistan; his accent or appearance did not give him away but a manufactured object did. That artefact bore the stamp of the nation in a far more distinct fashion than its human members did, who in order to gain a distinct identify must use the loud proclamations of a nationalist ideology instead. In making movies which show Pakistanis as being so similar to Indians that ‘passing’ is as easy as just strolling down a Pakistani street, talking in Hindustani to the locals, Bollywood is taking a risk with Indian nationalists. It is personalizing Pakistanis in showing them as humans that Indians could be like; they are not faceless enemies; they speak ‘our language’ and eat ‘our food’ and listen to ‘our music.’
My passing earns me some easy acceptance in these ‘venues of deception,’ but otherwise no great financial or material advantage accrues to me. Neither am I seeking any; my deception is not self-interested or malevolently directed. I do not think I will be abused, turned out, charged more, or refused service, if the fact of my national origin were to be common knowledge; here, in America, such behavior would be illegal and just plain bad for business; Pakistani and Indian businesses do not want to lose the other community’s members as customers. Pakistan and India might have an edgy geopolitical relationship, one marked by a great deal of posturing in public spaces, but the micro interactions that take place in the great subcontinental diaspora tend to be regulated by far more mundane matters. Here we are, whether we like it or not, leaving behind some of the preoccupations that so dominated our lives at ‘home’; an Indian’s dollars will send a Pakistani child to college just as effectively as an American’s will. And vice-versa.
I am not a solitary offender in the passing business. I presume that many Pakistanis ‘pass for Indian,’ and see no reason to loudly and explicitly clarify their nationality or national origin in their otherwise anonymous interactions with Indians and Indian establishments in the diaspora. These tiny ‘misunderstandings,’ these tiny ‘errors of identification,’ these easy passages–back and forth between one supposed identity and the other—suggest zones of contestation of the two-nation theory whose praxis has ensured the subcontinent’s partition. They show that Indians and Pakistanis do often ‘look like each other,’ and ‘sound like each other’; for one group of people at least, we are ‘the same.’ Under some political and material circumstances our identification with each other, like my identification with a Pakistani, can become automatic, reflexive, and unthinking; I would unhesitatingly spring to the defense of a Pakistani I saw being racially abused on an American street; I would be defending him against someone who could abuse me similarly. Because we know we can pass for each other, because we know that the Other’s classification schemes would lump us into the same category, we find solidarity too. (Sometimes, Indians accuse Pakistanis of trying to ‘pass for Indian’ by using the term ‘South Asian’, all the better to enjoy the fruits of an inclusive category that elides their now-geo-politically-problematic identification with Islam. As one highly articulate young man put it to me, “Using the term ‘South Asian’ means that Indians get all the brickbats directed at Pakistanis, while Pakistanis get all the bouquets directed at all things Indian. Call yourself ‘South Asian’ and you avoid the trauma of being labeled a Pakistani in the post 9-11 world.”)
There are further twists in these tales of subcontinental passing. Indian Muslims do not want to pass as Pakistanis, but are identified as such sometimes, maliciously or not; many are the Indian Muslims who have been accused of being ‘Pakistani’ for all the wrong reasons by overzealous patriots with a narrowly defined conception of Indian identity. Some mistaken identifications are more benign. My wife is Muslim, a second-generation Indian-American, but American and Australian friends of ours have often persisted in thinking of her as Pakistani. She is, after all, brown and Muslim; apparently the only two markers of being Pakistani, but a set of characteristics that actually—as again, the subcontinent’s Muslims will testify—ropes in millions more. A young Pakistani barista in a local coffee shop, with whom I’d struck up conversations in both Urdu and Punjabi, blurted out to me one day, “I knew you and your wife were Pakistani the first time I saw you two.” He knew my wife’s name; he saw I was brown; it was a reasonable conclusion to draw. Not an accurate one, but a reasonable one.
Of course, mistake a Pakistani for an Indian or an Indian for a Pakistani and you might get the odd bristle or two as well; all brown people are not alike in matters of patriotism and chauvinism. A more nationalist or patriotic Indian or Pakistani is likely to be deeply offended when told that Indians and Pakistanis are the ‘the same’; he will bristle and point out we most certainly are not, that an ocean of differences separates these two ‘nations.’ Which brings me to my final point. These confusions, these mistakes of identification, these facile deceptions, they speak to an ongoing, post-Partition struggle to construct a viable national identity—on both sides of the border. Seventy years after the Great Partition, fantasies of subcontinental reunification are easily set aside—a snowball in hell has a better chance. Indians and Pakistanis know the world has devised a distinct identity for them; a divergent history and set of memories has seen to that. ‘We’ might have started out as ‘one’ but we are now far apart. ‘Our’ national humiliations and joys are distinct; we are perceived differently by the world. This is a world with a post-colonial history; we occupy different positions within it thanks to our different alliances. India speaks to a different set of cultural, intellectual and political associations; Pakistan to yet another.
‘Passing’ then, is where it all comes to an end. Indians will not identify as Pakistanis and Pakistanis will not identify as Indians. There might be pretensions to changing identities when it comes to gender and more controversially, race, but Indians will not try to become Pakistanis or vice-versa. The rare case changes citizenship but not identity; this kind of ‘transitioning’ is not well-defined. National identities are socially and politically constructed by action and thought and history; even more explicitly and contingently than race or gender. Changing citizenship is easier; passports can be taken on, oaths of citizenship uttered with varying degrees of sincerity; many engage in precisely such rituals every year. But no Pakistani will claim he ‘feels Indian;’ no Indian will say they feel like they are ‘really Pakistanis’ and have been so along. We’ll remain content with passing, with enjoying the occasional fruits of these labors of deception, separated by space and time and an ever-diverging history.
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Samir Chopra is Professor of Philosophy at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His academic interests include pragmatism, Nietzsche, the philosophical foundations of artificial intelligence, philosophy of law, the legal theory of artificial agents, and the politics and ethics of technology. Samir blogs at The Cordon, ESPN-Cricinfo, and at samirchopra.com. He can be found on Twitter as @EyeOnThePitch.