The stewardess emerged from the marble walkway of the Taj Mahal onto the winding streets of Agra. The roads were teeming with people scurrying around like red beetles. Men, women, children violently rubbed each other’s faces with lurid colors in ecstasy, sucking everyone that stood in their path inside their whirlpool of pink, green and yellow.
As the stewardess walked through the lanes, impromptu bazaars of trinkets popped up at every street corner, and Bollywood dance troupes filled up the roads, the movement of their bodies punctuated by the sitar melodies you would hear at every Indian restaurant outside of India.
The display screen instructed me to continue watching the airplane safety video, but I turned it off and closed my eyes, falling into a restless sleep.
Coming to Yale, I knew that my most daunting challenge would be representing my background. How could I best represent a hometown that most of my friends had never met anyone from, let alone visited? How could I shoulder the burden of representation when my singular narrative of Bombay would be the narrative that my friends remembered among those of its 14 million other inhabitants? How could I convince the people I met that some cultural experiences — being a teenager, for instance — were universal, while resisting the urge to either homogenize our experiences, or to distort and fetishize mine?
Reflecting on my first semester, it would be an egregious lie for me to claim that I never felt powerless in the face of this momentous responsibility. I still experience moments of intense personal questioning. That day on the plane, confronted with the Orientalist stereotypes of India that exist in the American cultural consciousness, I was reminded of the heavy burden of self-representation.
To struggle against ignorance is difficult, yes, but to struggle against centuries of stereotypes, to undo years of misrepresentation — or at least what I consider misrepresentation — feels impossible. I still wonder whether I have ever been able to persuade my classmates that neither cows nor camels roamed the streets outside my window growing up, that English is my first language and the first language of my parents and friends or that I have never been pressured by my family to have an arranged marriage.
However, the more important question is whether it would be moral for me to represent India through my truths. Layers of privilege are the bedrock of my experiences of home. My experiences represent those of a select educated elite in an urban metropolis, not of a country. I cannot speak for millions of Indians from smaller cities or villages, who did not attend high schools that prepared them for a Yale education or who could not attend college at all.
So how then should I represent myself? Should I represent myself as a member of the elite that exists above the common experience of India? However, by portraying myself as exceptional, would I be absolving myself of any responsibility I have to correctly represent my nation? On the other hand, by allowing my experiences to be perceived as the experience of every person back home, I would be glossing over the quotidian struggles of surviving in an emerging economy. Caught between Scylla and Charybdis, I often find myself back where I started.
As Chimamanda Adichie elucidated in her seminal TED talk, “The danger of a single story,” the issue is about the power of storytelling and representation. There are so many stories about America, Europe and our modern notion of the Occident that each narrative can be viewed as an individual constituent of the whole. However, a story that I tell about India threatens to construct typecasts and to further disempower a nation that has been marginalized in how its stories are told.
The only decision I can make then is to strive for authenticity — to represent myself as I perceive myself in my hometown. I certainly should not eradicate the most distinctive parts of my personal narrative in an attempt to avoid self-Orientalization. However, beyond emphasizing how I am different or how I am similar, I can choose to emphasize how I am unique — both in my position in the Yale community and in my role in my hometown.
The challenge of representation is not unique to me. Regardless of whether you live in the United States or outside, the challenge of representing the most unique parts of your background is victim to these opposing tensions. It is authenticity — however we define that — that becomes our navigator through the tempestuous waters of self-representation.
PRADZ SAPRE is a first year in Benjamin Franklin college. His column, titled ‘Growing pains,’ runs every other Monday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.