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American Born Confident Desi: An Anglophile’s Dilemma

October 2007
American Born Confident Desi: An Anglophile’s Dilemma

I must confess that I often wish that I was a BBCD (British Born Confused Desi) instead of an American one. The recent hoopla over the finale of the Harry Potter series has left me convinced that the Brits are perhaps the coolest people on the planet. Today, I am prone to worshipping Jane Austen and an almost prescriptive consumption of British cinema, and I feel guilty that I may have become an Indian American adult who embraces the ex-colonial mother a bit too much.

What does it mean when people like myself adore cultural artifacts that can now be seen as agents of imperialism? Was I supposed to be delighted, for example, when my aunt's mother-in-law in Bangalore called herself, with evident pride, "an anglophile"? This same woman lives in a hundred-year-old Victorian house with an aging yet wide open verandah in the oldest part of that city. Even in its dilapidated state, this home is perhaps more beautiful to me than all of the bungalows in the ritziest parts of Bangalore's Indiranagar.

As a visitor to India, the strange love between India and England was of course evident to me through all of the ways in which Indians have engaged with and accepted so many British cultural products and idiosyncrasies instead of American ones—at least for now. So, I know that I am not alone in my reluctance to cast off what may be perceived as a colonial yoke.

The irony is that my education has been comprised of almost nothing but studying treatises on the detriment of colonialism and imperialism. I've been lucky to branch out of my ABCD context through my humanities training and to learn about postcolonial issues that have faced Indians for generations—to question, for example, the benefits of having literary figures like Arundhati Roy and Kiran Desai (who write in English) stand for what it means to have an "Indian" voice.

This same intellectual context makes me aware that if I were to have been a British Indian, I would not be regarded as a model minority citizen in the way Asians in the U.S. are, for example. I would have already experienced far more racism than I have ever faced in this country. And yet, knowing all of this and believing what I do does not completely diffuse Britannia's aura for me.

If we put aside the fact that Harry Potter just happens to be good stuff, I think my real attraction to most things British is in fact similar to my respect for most things Indian: they are both nations bolstered by ages-old history. Being American, even with its infrastructural and economic comforts, has made me feel deeply deprived of any real history. The oldest "castle" in the U.S. is the Biltmore (just over a hundred years old).

I cannot explain today why Indian children in Bombay and Delhi are rushing to bookstores to buy J.K. Rowling's latest. But I can attest to the power of a voice that knows where it comes from. I can vouch for the awe that an antiquated cobble-stoned town in England can inspire in one such as myself, one who grew up in brand spanking suburban newness and for whom walking through the rice paddy fields neighboring her grandmother's three-walled village birth home is a remarkably romantic experience.

One day, some developer will tear down the brick duplex my parents owned in Philadelphia when I was born. They will build a McMansion or a Target over the site. But the three-walled house near Udipi will still be somewhere in that fielded forest. And I will keep reading my books and watching my movies, just for that powerful whiff of true belonging.

By Reshmi Hebbar

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