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Columns
February 24, 2016

#TheHybridLife: Juggling Several Identities

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Salil Sojwal

On multicultural populations and complex identities…

Amsterdam! The exclamation is in his eyes. His mouth is poised to ask: “But, why?” I have just told my English friend that I am going to the Dutch city of canals. We are sitting in the cafe of the Tate Modern on a lovely, late autumn afternoon in London — a throbbingly cosmopolitan metropolis where a new restaurant, happening spot or imported (or parachuted) billionaire sprouts each day. I copy his order and sip a flat white — first time I’ve heard a coffee called that — it’s a less ebullient cappuccino with the foam sliced off with a tantalising pattern of a little heart-shaped palmier in the middle.

Outside, the Thames ambles on, with Renzo Piano’s towering, glassy edifice, the Shard, and Sir Norman Foster’s Gherkin looming, like icy sentinels on the other side of the Embankment. A steady stream of people, several rows thick, passes by, without a break. Earlier, while walking to the Tate Modern from Blackfriars station — the stop is on a bridge over the Thames — I was practically carried along by the surging crowd moving towards Millennium Bridge and the Tower of London. Surprisingly, I almost never heard a word of English being spoken. It was a moving babel of tongues: German, some Slavic language or the other (at least to my untutored ears), Italian, Gujarati, Bengali, Punjabi, Polish, lots of French, and yes, Spanish; and a few other languages I couldn’t fathom.

Where are the Londoners, the English? I exaggerate with this facile question. Many of the metropolises in the more affluent countries have increasingly variegated populations. Come to think of it, the Native Americans, once condescendingly referred to as Red Indians, were the indigenous people of the land who were corralled and held in reservations, their population dwindling, their culture and rituals fading.

Sensitive Relationships
There could well have been others before the Native Americans: who knows who came first. Many white Americans now pride themselves on having a few drops of Native American blood enriching their gene pool. And many slave owners in the South of the United States, it would seem, had impregnated their slaves. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, and the principal author of the country’s Declaration of Independence, had a long-term relationship with his slave, Sarah ‘Sally’ Hemings; he is said to have fathered a few of her children. A Merchant Ivory film, Jefferson in Paris, depicts this relationship with sensitivity.

Closer to home, on our Subcontinent, the original inhabitants were pushed elsewhere, up many hills or further south into the peninsula. There are countless, similar narratives elsewhere of successive invaders subjugating those who preceded them, often sending them out of the more habitable terrain. But not before ample mingling took place in most civilisations. Purity of race, culture and language is largely a myth.

And even more so today, in our age of increasing mobility. This threatens to be another era of displaced people and mass migrations. The spectre of hundreds of thousands of desperate migrants congregating on the borders of Europe, to escape their countries which are being ravaged by terror and war, is already upon us.

Now to rewind to the Tate Modern cafe and the unstated question: why leave heaving, multihued, cosmopolitan London for relatively calm, little Amsterdam?

“Van Gogh! I want to see his energetic brushstrokes and dizzying swirls in The Starry Night, up close and personal. And of course, his sunflowers before their wobbly yellows fade,” I reply, my voice a bit tetchy. He hasn’t been the first to wonder why we are not spending more time in London, or heading to Venice or Istanbul.

To be honest, Van Gogh and Rembrandt were the sirens drawing us towards Amsterdam. But little did we know that a whole new world awaited us, beyond the two Dutch masters. It was behind the imposing, heavy wooden door of 401 Herengracht Strasse, a tall house overlooking one of the major canals, where we stayed for a few days. It had been recommended to us by a Dutch friend. It was a cultural centre — a most unusual one at that.

Change Makers
Everybody knows Anne Frank’s house and tragic story — after her diary was published and a film based upon it was made. However, there are other ‘safe houses’ here, including Number 401. Two Jewish schoolboys and many other men and women were given refuge here during World War II when the Germans occupied the Netherlands. An artist Gisèle d’Ailly van Waterschoot van der Gracht and a German poet, Wolfgang Frommel, hid them in the tiny apartment on the third floor. The two encouraged those hiding here to use art and literature to help them survive and remain sane.

Which brings me to the point of this column. Founded by Gisèle after the war (she was nearly 101 when she died two years ago), Number 401 also houses the Castrum Peregrini, loosely translated as the pilgrim’s stronghold or castle. This is an innovative cultural and exhibition space — a sort of intellectual playground — that uses the wartime history of the place as a point of departure to encourage the change makers of the present, as well as those grappling with the problems of our times like the rising number of displaced people, growing intolerance and complexities of identity in a rapidly morphing world.

During a cultural evening at Castrum Peregrini the day we arrive, three dancers explore their struggle with conflicting identities. Rohit Bhatt, 21, lives with his family who are part of a community of puppeteers from Rajasthan and struggles to reconcile his two selves: his traditional upbringing and the radically different world outside it. Kofi Antonio, a choreographer-dancer from Ghana, explores his identity through dance. “I am an African and partly European because an ancestor of mine converted to Christianity…. But now I know that I am neither, I am Kofi, that’s me.” At the end of his performance he takes off all the four masks that he wore: two are black and two are white. What’s left is him.

All of us balance several worlds. Undoubtedly, many outside Tate Modern that afternoon, also juggle several identities.

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