Cover image by Nahal Sheikh
Note: This article is a personal narrative of one British Indian woman, exploring struggles with multiple identities and migration. It is not necessarily generalisable to every reader.
Trying to get our black and maroon gowns fitted and arrive at the graduation venue on time, in the pouring rain, made the July morning in a vibrant and bustling city a chaotic one. It was all worthwhile, however, seeing our family members’ eyes sparkle with pride. I did not mind too much that we had to sit through long, formal and, might I stress, boring speeches by higher authority figures about our achievements made in this esteemed institution. In all honesty – although aware of its arguable pretentiousness – I was swept away by the grandeur of the graduation ceremony. That is, until I found myself standing up for the British National Anthem, which left me feeling in flux. I was part of a community, yet alone.
God Save the Queen bellowed around us. The heavy drones of the orchestra – in particular the pipe organs – and the cacophony of students and their families trying to sing along surrounded me. Everyone was standing, except for a few of my peers – mostly international students, but also two white British women who sat ahead of me. I felt at odds with myself; staring at the laminated page in my hands, trying to read the clearly demarcated words.
“Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us…”.
Once again, I was acutely aware of the brownness of my skin and my former migrant status. I am Indian. I was born in India. The large majority of my family lives in India. Yes, I obtained British citizenship nine years ago – solidified by the little burgundy passport – but, as someone who occupies both Indian and British spaces and identities, why did I struggle to resonate with the lyrics of this ‘song’? (Perhaps reductively labelled). It was technically a song and my two white peers may have been anti-monarchists or anti-royalists. Perhaps they might have just not cared to stand up either. Nothing more, nothing less. But as I held onto the laminated page, I was reminded of the citizenship ceremony, years before, where my parents and I had stood facing a framed image of Queen Elizabeth II and – not totally unlike this graduation ceremony – pledged our allegiance to the monarchy and the country. We took an Affirmation and recited verses of God Save the Queen from a similar lamination.
If you are born British, you do not have to do that. The British passport denotes your national membership and symbolises your allegiance without you having to attend a ceremony. But it does not denote or symbolise your national belonging. As a former migrant, I – like many others – have held citizenship to two or more nations. That does not necessarily mean we belong, but it does not necessarily mean that we are non-belongers. Harbouring multiple identities, such as being Indian (or maybe just ‘South Asian’ as that is what I mostly identify as) and British, means that you hold multiple positionalities and memberships to multiple communities. I simultaneously belong to all and none. These are the joys and not-so-joys of being a migrant, a child of a migrant or part of the subsequent generations. We are as much, for example, Indian as we are British – whether we feel like it or not. Our ancestry dictates this. Our citizenship dictates this.
Why is it, then, that the shades of our skin are perceived by others as dictating the extent to which we belong in the British space – is Britishness policed? I suppose that when it comes to God Save the Queen – or King which was used up until Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne – many of us migrants or people of colour are reminded of the colonisation of our ancestors, as many of our now post-colonial homelands were forced to take on this ‘song’ as their national or royal anthems. ‘British India’ was no different in this matter. I suppose that we are also reminded of a few of the reasons why colonisation occurred: Europeans and Britons viewed our people, lands and resources as a means to source their wealth. Our shades of brown were deemed as reflecting inferiority, which somehow justified this violence from their standpoint. So, when I looked over at my white British peers, I wondered how they felt sitting amidst a swarm of standing students. I wondered whether their hearts were racing with adrenaline at this small but poignant act of resistance and, ultimately, whether they were aware of their whiteness and recognised its privilege that allowed them to remain sitting during the National Anthem, without having their sense of (national) belonging being questioned. But looking back, something that we already know was reaffirmed: whiteness is seen as the norm in a racialised world and, therefore, it creates a sense of belonging.
I also wondered why Britishness or national belonging is gatekept through citizenship and passport politics. I still felt British when I had my Indian passport, perhaps more than I do now. Does that mean I am, in and of itself, less British now? But I suppose that is something else – seeking to loosen the ties with your home country or ethnic homeland in hope to integrate further into this ‘Great’ Britain. Funnily enough, being British and, I guess, not being a migrant anymore, but a national citizen, has made many of us miss ‘home’ more. We miss the lands we left or never got to see; our grandmothers’ roti (type of flatbread); the humidity that leaves a continual dampness on your skin; the heaviness of the monsoons; the stories of a changing and globalising village or city that our parents knew but we never got to fully immerse ourselves into. We try so hard to fit in, scrambling to fit the pieces of our identities into some confusing puzzle, to integrate ourselves within the white-majority British society – to try and understand what it means to ‘belong’ and what it means to be at ‘home’ – that we sometimes forget that our sense of home can be in more than one place.
We all hold multiple identities and every single one of them is worth celebrating. It is okay to feel neither here nor there, and ever so in-between all of these spaces, places and identities that we have sought to navigate to understand ourselves and our heritage. It is okay to question where, and whether, we stand (or sit) as migrants within Britain.
Article by Anushka Chaudhuri