BOOK REVIEWS/REPLIES (2015): Dasgupta & Neelabh’s (2009) Indian by Choice

5 January 2015

Summary (TLDR Version)

Socially centred identity: try it, you might like it.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve already read this section this year, you can skip it; if you’ve read the previous years, I’ve updated it. Either way, it describes the aim of these book replies.

Three years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day and then write a book reply (not a review) for each one I finished (or gave up on).[1] These replies don’t amount to Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, &c., unless that struck me as somehow necessary. Rather, a book reply—as distinct from a reaction (review) or a response—focuses on what in these pieces I could not have said (or would not have known to say) except that the encounter of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I must at times necessarily say poorly informed stuff, &c. And while some people in the world may expect public speakers to possess omniscience so that they won’t bother to engage in a dialogue to uncover how to make the world a better place, then to the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or figure out what else we might do as part of that attempt to make our world better for us and everyone.

And someone won’t bother to take up their end of that bargain, that points blatantly to a central part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: Dasgupta & Neelabh’s (2009)[2] Indian by Choice

A summary for this graphic novel runs:

This book tackles the complex theme of identity; it is a journey of self-discovery through the myriad human relationships that help us to see things in perspective and in context. Written in the form of a graphic novel, it tells the story of Mandy — a second generation Indian born and brought up in Chicago. He is as American as they come — hot dogs, French fries, baseball and a love of all things American. He is, of course, no different from his clones who are in several other parts of the world — England and Australia, the Netherlands and Canada. They blend with their surroundings by assimilating the culture of their adopted home and denying their Indian roots and heritage. In the case of the hero of the book — he has even changed his name from Mandeep to Mandy. The goes on to capture his metamorphosis during a forced trip to India, at the end of which he chooses to be an Indian by choice.

The laboured or redundant quality of that last phrase “he chooses to be an Indian by choice” nicely captures the basic awkwardness of this book. Written by an Indian diplomat[3] particularly for his younger relatives who might, like the book’s main character, reject his Indian heritage on some various ground or another, it gently indulges in polemic on behalf of India, continuously negating Mandy’s various objections, &c., until Mandy (inevitably) changes his point of view.

I have to say, though: narrative inevitability does not necessarily work against the affective moment of that inevitable realisation. No one doubts at the beginning of a romantic comedy that the boy will get the girl—and in theory the genre rests on the notion that we can entertain ourselves with all of the complications, deferrals, and delays of that final culmination—but whether those machinations entertained us or not, we still have the opportunity to experience the rush of satisfaction when the boy simply does get the girl.

Of course, we quickly become critics of these things. Some will remark—no matter how well-done the ending—that it lacks sufficient motivation or comes about too easily. Queer folks will rail against the presumed heternormativity upon which the whole mess depends. Others may note that a sheer lack of talent—in the writing or in the acting—my simply ruin the moment no matter how earnestly we try to take it as meant. Yes. But these technical questions nonetheless all accept the premise that the payoff of a narrative inevitability has (or can have) affective validity, can come off as convincing.

Thus, despite the too often intrusively non-deft laying out of material and arguments and narrative arc here, it still manages to ring as a moment in this book that Mandy introduces himself to some strangers as Mandeep.

Reading the book in one way, the author comes from a historical position that understands the Indian émigré experience to the United States as ultimately an unsatisfying one for many who took that course. He underscores, in an essay afterwards, how US racism has subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) placed a cap on Indian achievement in the United States, embodying one of the most culturally successful immigrant groups. So, in light of that real, historical experience (for some) he sees aspirations toward or admiration of the Unite States as a kind of trap. Conversely, he underscores many Indian traditions—arguing even for arranged marriage—and rather pointedly ignores depicting cultural problems in India. People discuss these issues, but Dasgupta doesn’t show them to us. However persuasive or not, both of these gestures point to the question of Indian identity: i.e., if India doesn’t “work” for you, the United States, though tempting, does not really provide an answer and, in any case, India does have an answer, or at least the possibility of developing an answer, if we give it a chance. In the whole mix of these issues, it never really comes clear what exactly Mandy attaches to as a ground for asserting his Indianness by choice. Nonetheless, because the book establishes at the beginning Mandy’s absolute refusal to call himself Mandeep, simply on the level of narrative mechanics alone his choice to call himself Mandeep at the end resonates. Why he elects for this change remains obscure, but in a sense this doesn’t matter for the reader again, because, the sheer narrative inevitably of the arc sets up the reader’s response, whether that response actually happens (per the author’s desires) or not.

Obviously, the author intends this gesture on Mandy/Mandeep’s part as an embracing of an Indian identity, but most simply it points to a moment of human transformation. It points to a moment when a mind has changed away from a chauvinistic attitude. One can argue if this amounts to little more than the swapping of one cultural chauvinism (a US-centred one) to another (an India-centred one), and we would have to cull carefully the non-polemic aspects of Dasgupta’s text to see if the points of view presented by the various spokespeople of an in India show more breadth of feeling, thinking, and spirit than Mandy (as essentially the only extensive representative of a US-centric worldview). One could look closely at the overlaps and dissimilarities between US and Indian acknowledgments of their social problems and the basic attitudes taken toward those problems. &c.

Whatever might result from that, it remains not explicitly clear why Mandy/Mandeep changes his mind, why he becomes willing to introduce himself with an Indian name. Obviously, the positive experiences he has disabuse him of his pre-existing prejudices against India, but the fact that he goes from expecting to have a hideous time in India to actually enjoy himself doesn’t suffice to explain a transformation of identity. One would expect, if he begins not simply by knowing little about India but actively putting up walls in his imagination about what India “means”, then what experiences depicted in the book break down those walls?

Again, it seems as if Dasgupta takes the shift from “expecting to have a terrible time” to “having a great time” as somehow very key. This happens on a rather extended trip to Goa that only involves people Mandy’s age, as well as some European activists who Dasgupta makes serve as spokespeople both for India’s way of doing things and against the Eurocentric paradigm. Whether or not this Eurocentric speaking exercises some greater authority over Mandeep’s imagination remains unclear. Dasgupta does not give us a moment where Mandy says, “Wow, I never realised that” or the like after hearing something from white people.[4]

This episode doesn’t dispense with the prevailing polemic elsewhere in the book, of course. The main difference consists in the fact that Mandy has the voices of age-peers (from a diversity of ethnicities) ringing in his ears, rather than a typically older and Indian-only point of view. This itself seems a slight on Dasgupta’s assertion about the value in India of importance placed on (extended) family. Of course, by then, Mandy has become more accustomed to India, but his shift to “having a good time” comes explicitly (1) during a vacation away from his most immediate relatives and (2) in a setting most removed from his obligatory reason for going to India in the first place, to attend a family wedding.

Certainly a respite from family responsibilities can often foster more a sense of “having a good time” than meeting the demand (and burden) of performing familial roles, but this point or argument seems directly contrary to the value of familial obligation espoused by several Indians in the book, most of all by the man and woman who agree to an arranged marriage. As such, by design or by accident, it seems as if Dasgupta uses an extra-cultural illustration to ground how Mandy (and thus the reader) may change their mind about “having a good time” in India.[5]

More briefly, Dasgupta simply resorts to the “argument” that “you can have a good time with friends in India,” which hardly could function as a ground for a shift in identity.[6] When Mandy returns from the trip, his emails home gush what a great time he had but I recall no emphasis whatsoever that he, for instance, feels a strangely stronger kinship or closeness with people, a certain je ne sais quois he can’t put his finger on that makes his interactions with age-peers in India qualitatively different than back at home.

Dasgupta also incorporates a love interest into the story,[7] but provides a “heart-wrenching”[8] denouement by making Mandy part without having that love-interest arc fulfilled. Strategically, this sets up that Mandy will have to return to India, even if he had not already had a change of heart about visiting the place. By the end, he states he originally could not have believed he’d ever want to come back, but now does. Having a love interest waiting only makes that that much easier for him.

But does it provide a ground for a change in self-identity? Insofar as she habitually calls him nothing but Mandeep, then his change of name plays along with or makes itself amenable to the point of view of the person he finds himself romantically attached to.[9] So, if simply his grandparents and family in general adding them to their family as Mandeep doesn’t prove enough to motivate him to adopt, even outwardly, a change of identity, and if the social unit of age-peers also cannot motivate that change, then the calling and self-interest of romantic love, from a woman he finds attractive, seems to do the trick.

Again, if Dasgupta’s earlier feint “you can have a good time with friends in India” frames a most banal or basic way to put it, then here he similar resorts to something equally banal and basic: “you can fall in love in India” (or, more specifically, find a spouse). But here again, just as the shift from expecting to have a terrible time to having a great time in India involves only that and no necessary linking of identity, here also a shift from having no interest in getting married to falling in love and finding someone who tempts you to consider it does not in any way automatically involve some shift in ethnic self-identity.

Earlier, when Dasgupta resorts to “going on a vacation with friends,” he (unintentionally) undermines the Indian valuation placed on familial obedience, and does so (unintentionally) in his attempt to appeal to a non-Indian readership (particularly the younger generations). The same occurs here with the love interest. The notion of marriage, breached already and defended in its arranged character, gets distinctly set aside in this moment of not-yet-met love for Mandy. If he decided to come back and propose marriage, (1) what familial forces will intervene if someone had prearranged something for Mandy’s love interest,[10] but, much more probably, (2) what sort of obligations will Mandy find placed on him, not just by his Indian family but also by his India bride, when he proposes marriage. Just as he might start calling himself Mandeep to assent to his would-be-bride’s point of view, he might very well go through the motions of the obligations of an “Indian” marriage.

But since none of this comes to the forefront of the text, Dasgupta’s deployment of “love interest” in his argument to a change of self-identity seems pretty disingenuous. Of course, in India itself what constitutes a “real” Indian marriage remains open to cultural debate—or at least it gets debated in some circles. The issue doesn’t boil down to Mandy conforming to some dogmatically correct notion of identity, and Dasgupta generally goes out of his way to eschew dogmatisms—admittedly dogmatically so. &c. The issue, rather, hinges on in what way “having a good time with friends” or “finding a spouse (falling in love)” qualitatively differs in an Indian setting compared to elsewhere. Dasgupta, like a wily diplomat, appears to use “local dialect” (an appeal to friends and to romantic love) to motivate an adoption of identity that in general very radically differs what “having a good time with friends” or the forms of “romantic love” mean in an Indian settings.

That he does this at least a little semi-consciously seems arguable, since he specifically contrasts the destruction of the value of the Hindu undivided (extended) family with the sort of familial arrangements that money permits (more stand-alone nuclear families). If we take this contrast as between a socially oriented sense of self compared to an individually oriented self of self, then what it means to “have a good time with friends” or to “find a spouse (fall in love)” mean very different things. The difference between a love-marriage and arranged-marriage makes this contrast in the starkest possible way.

Of course, if we imagine socially centred identity in contrast to individually centred identity, then we may readily and immediately see that the former category has the broader conceptual reach; i.e., within a socially oriented family structure, the “unregenerate egotist” who insists on an individually centred identity remains a member of the socially centred family nonetheless—the son who goes against the wishes of his parents to marry the woman they have selected for him remains their son nonetheless.[11]

So behind the appeals Dasgupta deploys (i.e., “being with an extended family,” “having a good time with friends,” and “finding a spouse/falling in love”), he depicts the inclusivity of a socially centred family and identity structure as it “deals with” his individually centred self-identity. If Dasgupta’s feints or attempted arguments hinge on “being with an extended family,” “having a good time with friends,” and “finding a spouse/falling in love,” then the master-feint overall for the entire book boils down to: “try it, you might like it.”

This invitation presupposes a great deal: most of all one’s welcoming into a (socially centred) family structure in India but also a degree of economic well-being not at all guaranteed amongst all families in India.[12] Nonetheless, Mandy’s change of name signals his acknowledgment of the socially centred family he experienced being a part of. Occidental individualism supplies no end of unpleasant sounding phrases for this, e.g., Mandy assents to the refusal of his extended family to call him by the name he wants for himself. He gives in to them, to their gentle, relentless pressure. The trade-off for that means he gets steeped in the depths of his family, perhaps in a way he has not experienced in his own smaller nuclear family. At root, his shift in identity hinges on his accepting his family’s naming of him over his own.

Obviously, billions of people have found this arrangement agreeable enough, but Dasgupta does leave out of the picture the very real, and still socially unsolved, problem of social (or familial) nonconformism, where by nonconformism I mean an individual insistence on some mode of social (familial) expression that the family will not or cannot accommodate non-destructively. Perhaps the two most recurrent types of this involve homosexuality and elopement, i.e., cases of children not marrying as parentally or socially desired.[13]

So even if your socially centred socio-familial structure can support your individually centred self-identity, the practice of your individualism will forever mean something different to the socially centred world you enact that in, even when you do nothing disagreeable. If you ever cross the line, however, the disjunction between what you “mean” and what the world says “it” means can have devastating consequence. This does not argue in favour of individually centred identity, of course—Dr Patch Adams calls the nuclear family humanity’s most destructive invention (the radiation at the heart of the nuclear metaphor should, indeed, have given us pause). Jung (1921),[14] in a different vein, declares Occidental individualism flatly inimical to healthy social life:

It is obvious that a social group consisting of stunted individuals cannot be a healthy and viable institution: only a society that can preserve its internal cohesion an collective values, while at the same time granting the individual the greatest possible freedom, has any prospect of enduring vitality. As the individual is not just a single, separate being, but by his very existence presupposes a collective relationship, it follows that the process of individuation must lead to more intense and broader collective relationships and not to isolation (¶758).

A [social] norm serves no purpose when it possesses absolute validity. A real conflict with the collective norm arises only when an individual way is raised to a norm, which is the actual aim of extreme individualism. Naturally this aim is pathological and inimical to life. It has, accordingly, nothing to do with individuation, which, though it may strike out on an individual bypath, precisely on that accounts needs the norm for its orientation[15] to society and for the vitally necessary relationship of the individual to society. Individuation, therefore, leads to a natural esteem for the collective norm, but if the orientation is exclusively collective the norm becomes increasingly superfluous and morality goes to pieces. The more a man’s life is shaped by the collective norm, the greater is his individual immorality (¶761).

Or, from yet another example, Achebe (1980)[16] noted with respect to the African understanding of “individual” and “community”:

For me it’s not a question of [community] imposing its will [on the individual]; it’s a question of finding a balance which I think is important and which seems to be lost in the Western conception of man and his destiny.

In this balance the individual is important, but his importance is not so overriding that it is the only thing worth considering. This uniqueness and importance of the individual is limited by importance and the will of the community. It’s a question of balancing rather than one dominating the other. For instance, I don’t want to give the impression that the individual is unimportant in Ibo society. I don’t know of any culture which gives the individual a greater uniqueness than the Ibo culture.

Among the Ibo, the individual is so important that he is assigned a distinct creative agency. Every single person is made by his own “chi,” it’s not just one God making everybody in his image. Among the Ibos the individual’s uniqueness is really pushed to the absolute limits as far as I am concerned, so nobody can teach the Ibos about uniqueness of the individual. And you find it manifested in their political system and their social organizations. Heir concept of separate creators makes the Ibos difficult to govern because very man has a clear notion of his own destiny and does not rely on his neighbours for any kind of justification.

Yet this concept of the worth of the individual is always limited by another concept, the concept of the voice of the community. For instance, Okonkwo’s extreme individualism [the Things Fall Apart] leads to working against the will of the people and to self-destruction. And anybody who wanders off beyond what is accepted as appropriate for the individual, or a person who sets himself in opposition, quite often is heading for destruction. At the same time, I have to say that sometimes it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition. Because there is trouble, difficulty or pain, does not mean that this should never be done. Because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience (122–3).

From the above, we see no argument for merely socially centred realities as well, even without remembering that we may call fascist any social system that maintains itself at the expense of its members. Jung, in a passage nearby to the one cited above, denounces mere collectivism as well, and Achebe (perhaps too favourably) speaks of those times when “it’s in the interest of the community itself than an individual set himself in opposition”; sometimes a society must destroy an individual thread in the social fabric to realise its own excessive narrowness; “because sometimes you find that the only reason why society can move is that one individual comes out and suffers and the community gains by his experience”.

Whatever real necessity this involves, its ritualization—through exiling, scapegoating, and both literal and figurative (human) sacrifice—becomes a social problem simply in its habitual character. The very real confrontation Achebe argues for never temporalizes in an expected way but, more or less by definition, recurs unexpectedly. Whatever wards or techniques a culture has to deal with their periodic self-exposures, to make them pre-emptive and regularised makes them subject to mechanical repetition and institutionalisation, and hence ties them precisely and ironically to the very power structures that self-exposure (or individual nonconformism) puts in the public sphere.


[1] I planned also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests. I haven’t followed through on this yet.

[2] Dasgupta, A., & Neelabh. (2009). Indian by choice. New Delhi: Wisdom Tree, pp. 1–136.

[3] “Amit Dasgupta is a serving Indian diplomat, whose professional work has taken him to several countries where he has had the opportunity to meet and interact with a number of persons of Indian origin. He is an Indian by birth and by choice; his hobbies range from cooking to photography and chess to writing”

[4] Rather unnervingly, it seems that the artist, Neelabh, used Brad Pitt as the model for the white male in this episode.

[5] One cannot completely ignore that Mandy’s family seems fairly well-to-do as well, if portions of them may simply bail out on vacations to distant places at the drop of a hat. On the other hand, Dasgupta doesn’t direct his text to people not in a pronouncedly middle-class status.

[6] One would have to depict a qualitative difference in what “having a good time with friends” means interpersonally for people in India compared to people in the United States (or elsewhere) to start to make this a ground for a change in identity.

[7] At the risk of getting it grossly wrong, it seems that Dasgupta deploys this love interest in a much more delicate and circumspect way than a US romantic comedy would. In other words, he writes it as one would in India, not in the United States, despite the fact that his male protagonist in this case comes from the United States. This shows up simply in the total misdirection and obliqueness that the story takes; generally, US readers will not even track the details, I’d venture, except to know (like Mandy’s profession of his name as Mandeep at the end) that of course the boy will get the girl in the end. The circumspectness of all of this more resembles the kind of evasiveness found in a Jane Austen novel, while most of the signals (to the reader) that the romance occurs at all comes out in the (traditional) teasing directed at Mandy.

[8] I have to put this in quotation marks. The author means for this parting to have emotional resonance—and maybe it will for certain readers. Similarly, the gesture should sell itself as an inevitability—and maybe it does. Still, the very conventionality of it makes it not deserve the adjective “heart-wrenching”. When the gesture succeeds in reaching its aim, then the word heart-wrenching (without quotation makes will apply, but only then.

[9] Dasgupta goes out of his way to show Mandeep professing his name to white people on a plane, i.e., to people who have no relationship whatsoever to Mandy’s experience of India. It suggests that his change doesn’t rest simply on gratifying the point of view of the woman he finds himself romantically attached to.

[10] Narratively speaking, if Dasgupta were to consider this possibility, the romance never would have germinated at all in the book. A family member would have stepped forward to inform Mandy in no uncertain terms, “You will have to look elsewhere, cousin. Someone has spoken for her.” We might then get a Romeo and Juliet Kerala-style, but Dasgupta does not at all sent out to tackle this question. One can hardly fault a reader who wonders about its threat, however.

[11] Unless disowned or otherwise denied access to family life in some way.

[12] The basically secular quality of the family depicted also could play a huge role in more orthodox settings.

[13] The breaking of any serious taboo becomes ground for a social/familial nonconformism necessarily punished by a society/family. Impurity represents the most widespread form of this, with violations of food taboos as perhaps the most recurrent version of will impurity. (Violations of taboos against menstrual blood would seem less often deliberate.)

[14] Jung, CG (1976). Psychological types. A revision / Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[15] In Jung’s text, he italicizes orientation and indicates with “(q.v.)” its cross-reference in the glossary.

[16] Egejuru, PA (1980) Towards African literary independence: a dialogue with contemporary African writers. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

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