The Jungle Book
When Vinita Belani, Artistic Director of Enacte Arts, asked writer-director Vijay Rajan to lead a stage adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book,’ he says, “My face twisted into a pained grimace.” In this edited excerpt, Rajan reflects on the two worlds which shaped his hyphenate identity.
The personal reflection was previously published in full on thecollectiveis.us
I didn’t want to adapt The Jungle Book, but I kept my reservations largely to myself, knowing that the book was well-beloved, and as always, appreciating the challenge of finding my way into work that wasn’t inherently attractive to me. Why did I hate The Jungle Book? Sure, structurally, I found Mumbai-born Rudyard Kipling’s storytelling haphazard and episodic, but that was something I could easily see working past.
A Toxic Love
Of course, there was also no question that Kipling was an unapologetic imperialist. His poems “White Man’s Burden” and “Recessional” are execrable treatises of British responsibility, superiority, and right to rule. But even imperialism has inside of it a toxic love. The truth was, in the late 1800s, Kipling loved India and Indians much more than many of his peers; he freely admitted to adapting several of his stories and the very concept of animal-fables from The Panchatantra and The Jataka Tales, well-known ancient Indian folklore. Concepts like cultural appropriation or even the inherent injustices of segregationist thinking were for future generations to discover. As racist as Kipling seems now, many of his own British compatriots thought of him as not nearly white supremacist enough. My hesitations were not political; in fact, I believed updating the work of such a problematic and influential figure was filled with potential. So why, on some visceral level, didn’t I want to be connected to The Jungle Book?
Stereotypes & Belonging
I realized there were two reasons.
For one, throughout my childhood, most of my friends’ exposures to India were through Hollywood; I can’t count the number of times I was asked if my family back home rode elephants to work or ate chilled monkey brains. The Jungle Book property, especially, had become a cultural ambassador for the country in which I was born, promoting ideologies in which the subcontinent itself had no voice. Even the name Mowgli, which Kipling claimed meant “frog,” has no Indian source or meaning; it was just a nonsense word made up by Kipling. And yet for so many Western audiences, it had become the first “Indian” name they knew. I felt an automatic hesitation to associate with any material that had so stereotyped my upbringing.
Two, Kipling’s central thesis had always fundamentally bothered me. As an immigrant raised between two worlds, raised equally on The Panchatantra and Aesop’s Fables, I should have been the primary audience for his work. But the book completely failed to mirror my experience, the deep sense of simultaneous belonging I felt to two different cultures, and the balance I walked daily between the two. I never felt that Kipling nailed what it felt for one to feel dual citizenship even while being constantly pressured by external forces to fit more fully within one culture or the other.
The Jungle Book asserts Kipling’s belief that while one may visit and feel great affection for people of other races, ultimately, they belong with their own kind. I could get along with Americans, learn their ways, and have fun with them, but in the end, I should go back to “my” people.
Again, I remembered the visuals of the ubiquitous Disney adaptation where, after all of his adventures with the animals, all it took for Mowgli to want to reintegrate into human society was a girl’s twitching hips and batted eyelashes. It was a confoundingly simplistic, stupid take on belonging.
Though born in India, I moved to the Americas when I was four years old. Throughout my childhood, I visited India frequently. Soon, I was comfortable in either environment — but I made sure these two cultures did not intersect in overt ways. They were two unconnected halves of myself; I came to see any overlap as dangerous. Over the past fifteen years, I have begun to recognize that this burning need to keep the two halves of my identity separate but equal was a result of my own colonization. (What a mind-bending realization, to know that I did to myself what others had historically forced upon my people.) I want to tell a few stories from my childhood and adolescence that illustrate why I felt this need to self-colonize.
When I, as a child, heard about the kerfuffle involving Crayola branding its peach-colored crayon as “flesh”-toned, I was as taken aback as many of my white peers. Believe it or not, in elementary school, I had been shading my hand-drawn people that default peach color myself, without any reluctance or objection. I had so thoroughly separated my Indian identity from my American one that within the school schema, skin color variation had ceased to exist within my mind. Also, in my early fiction writing, most of my leads were white people — and my stories were devoid of anything that could remotely be considered global or Indian. I learned early that the best way to “assimilate” into American culture was to present as familiar a face as possible.
Yes, in the privacy of my parents’ home and on our trips to India, I was familiarizing myself with the Mughal empire in Amar Chitra Katha comics, speaking and reading and writing Tamil fluently, enjoying Indian food, setting off firecrackers during Diwali, and falling in love with the Hindu epic The Mahabharata — but around my American friends, I listened to only American music, talked about only American movies, ate only American food.
If Hollywood was determined to paint me as exotic, then I would do what I could to be as unexotic as possible. It became a core survival instinct. This introduced a psychological separation between my parents and myself as well. When friends came to my house, I wished my mother wouldn’t wear sarees. To take another example, my parents, feeling no need to have a fireplace, had walled it up and used it instead as a Hindu prayer altar. Every time my friends reacted in surprise, I found myself waving to them as if to communicate wordlessly, “That’s just my parents; it’s not me.”
The one time that I did try to express my Indian side backfired hard. I was one of the few Indians in my high school in a predominantly white suburban area in South San Jose. Freshman year, we were supposed to bring in a song that we liked for a music appreciation class, and I don’t know what compelled me, but I brought in a Tamil song I loved. I remember how, as the music played, half the class fell into an uncomfortable silence and half into derisive laughter. I got through the rest of my presentation as quickly as possible and decided if there was a next time, I’d just shut up and bring in a song by Green Day instead.
Three: in my first screenwriting class in college, I submitted an ensemble piece featuring a lead cast of mostly white male and female characters. Even the lead characters who were minorities (and none of them were Indian, of course) were highly assimilated, as reflected in my own friend groups. My professor called me into his office and extolled the benefits of writing what you know. I understood at once the underlying message of what he meant: you are a foreigner, you cannot possibly understand and write “default” Americans, so you should write about Indians. “I am American; America is what I know,” I wanted to snap, knowing that if I ever did write anything related to South Asia, I would be stereotyped into being “the Indian writer” instead of being able to aspire to simply be “a writer.”
Code-switching between worlds
In the Indian community, those of us in the first generation of immigrants were frequently scornfully called ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) by the more “authentically” Indian generation before us. Though technically I was not American-born, apparently, I had moved here young enough to fit the label. I hated that term. I did not feel confused by anything. I felt perfectly comfortable in Indian circles, and I also felt at home in non-Indian circles. I knew who I was. Hell, I knew both worlds to a degree that they couldn’t fathom; after all, I was code-switching like an expert.
The point I am making with these stories is not that I was confused or broken, but that external voices wanted me to be. I always felt like I belonged to both. When in one environment, I never felt a loss or a longing for the other; I just understood that most Indians and Americans wanted me to be incomplete in either culture. There was a fundamental belief that I should fully belong in only one, that culture was somehow not like language, and that while bilingualism was an aspiration, biculturalism was an impossibility.
Individual multiculturalism, even though that is what describes me best, was a double-edged sword. I knew that if my friends understood that I was completely at home watching a three-hour Bollywood movie or praying at a fireplace, I could not be so fully one of them. I also knew that if my extended South Asian family or my parents’ friends caught me listening to U2 instead of A.R. Rahman, they would consider me incompletely Indian. I was told I did not have the right to completely inhabit either culture.
“He’s not really Indian,” my white friends would say with dismissal or relief. “He’s not really Indian,” my extended family and uncles and aunties would say with dismissal or derision.
(I recognize that things have changed now; it’s amazing to me how many South Asian kids are in Bay Area schools, how much the youngest generation champions cultures from around the world, and how multiculturalism no longer necessarily comes with a side of embarrassment. This makes my experience even unique from my nephews’ and niece’s. First-generation immigrants stand alone, disconnected from their parents’ more natural foreignness and their children’s unquestioned assimilation.)
So. I self-colonized.
Self-colonizing to fit in
Being overtly Indian didn’t seem worth the cost or the effort. I let it go, surrounding myself with close friends from every other part of the world, throwing mental roadblocks myself against close associations with South Asian peers. I let it be enough that I was Indian on the inside, known only to myself. I knew how East Asian storytelling act structures affected every story I wrote; I knew how my American political worldview was influenced by an intimate knowledge of another country’s history; I knew that I spoke and read and wrote Tamil even better than some of my cousins growing up in Tamil Nadu; all of that had to be enough.
To reveal my Indianness only brought trouble, judgment, and even career stereotyping. I made a conscious choice. Since America was my home, I would mostly only participate in and express my American half.
While my sister had an arranged marriage, my parents never even brought it up with me. To their credit, my parents never doubted my Tamil identity; any conflicts between us had very little to do with their understanding of my ethnic assimilative identity. As I grew older and moved away from Indian popular culture, though, I know my mother did miss talking to me about Indian films, troubled that I cared to connect in fewer and fewer ways in the language in which she was most comfortable. But that’s the life of an immigrant — one in which your children are guaranteed, by your own choices, to increasingly become strangers to your world.
A Secret Indianness
I must admit, though, that this summary of my self-colonization lacks the necessary nuance.
Because there were ways in which the two halves of my identity intersected; it was just in secret ways. I was always Indian subversively. When I struggled with poetry in college, having always been more natural with prose, I used the syllabic linguistic structures of Tamil as the breakthrough cryptography through which to understand sonic assonance. (For example, I never understood Tolkien’s contention that “cellar door” was a particularly beautiful phrase until I wrote the syllables out in Tamil, read them as a foreign speaker, parsed out my aversion, and reappraised the letter “r” from within Tolkien’s Eurocentric context.)
When I made my short film Withdrawal (2015), I directed my lead actor during a moment when his character had just lost his wife, to act with the subtext that I had seen the actor Kamal Haasan use in the film Nayakan (1987) — because that was still the most primal expression of on-screen grief I had ever witnessed. When I wrote my very first fantasy story, the only way I could think to make it as meaningful as I wanted was to construct it around the four acts of dharma, kama, artha, and moksha, a story structure initially espoused in the ancient Upanishad, seismically different from anything proposed by Aristotle or Freytag.
No one ever knew how I channeled my South Asian upbringing into American assimilative competence, not even my significant others or closest family.
On many levels, I enjoyed that the intersection between the two halves of my identity was my own personal secret. I had rebelliously recognized that embedding my South Asian heritage as subtext within a Western candy coating was the secret loophole by which I could claim what I knew I was owed. Time and time again in my life, I have found that what has made my work successful to Western audiences was my drawing upon my secret Indianness. I so enjoyed the subversion of having such a familiar impact on Western audiences with such foreign processes, techniques, and materials. I felt I knew exactly how far I could push an exoticism before it became unrelatable; my code-switching, as big a burden as it had been in my childhood, had become an increasingly relied-upon superpower.
So what changed? Why, over the last decade, have I increasingly become able to be overtly Indian? Simple. America changed. The industry changed. Attitudes toward diversity changed. Global acceptance became a public relations good. Over the last ten years, my “secret” Indianness became an unfashionable and dated tool. In fact, it would impede my salability.
It’s been strange to live in a world where diversity is prized by corporate institutions for fear of being branded irrelevant or having their stock prices plummet if they don’t have enough dark faces on their promotional materials, where it is demanded that I be more overt in my foreignness to sell my work through more succinct soundbites. Suddenly, it was cool to come out as an Indian. I had to fight decades of assimilative muscle memory to force myself to open up, to use the “brown flesh” crayon after being trained not to reach for it. But I’m slowly retuning my code-switching. My Indianness has become more and more overt in my life and work. I have written a South Asian script or two (though they too are global and multicultural rather than local in perspective).
The Key To Decolonization
An underlying irony of assimilation is that the materials of colonization are the same as those required for decolonization. Imperialist tactics and their psychological effects must be studied, deconstructed, and recontextualized. And The Jungle Book — in which Mowgli is pressured to choose fealty between two authentic sides of himself, written by another man for whom India was both a home and a burden — seemed an apt target. And if old rules were to be thrown out the window, what better way to do it than to have a writers’ room with so many young voices?
I found great humor in the process of working with a roomful of mostly South Asians, supplemented by open-minded and creative white and non-South Asian voices. When the scenes developed in EnActe Conservatory were finally given to me to adapt, they were an eclectic jumble of discordant voices, and somehow, I had to put it all together into a cohesive narrative.
Knowing both Western and East Asian storytelling techniques, I found more than enough in my toolbox to ensure that each piece had a place. My greatest challenge was keeping the diverse voices alive on the page. As I turned a series of eclectic scenes into a full manuscript, I found that the key to my own decolonization was found in the satisfying intersection between reckless, childlike rule-breaking and intentional, measured thematic; I had to let go and trust in my own ability to code-switch, to reconcile the two worlds from which I am descended.
This is not to say that everything I write from now on will be South Asian-themed. My decolonization is certainly not complete; there will be years more of epiphanies choices and growth as I better and better navigate these two concordant sides of my identity.
But it’s a cautious first step toward a world that might finally be beginning to understand that biculturalism is not a crime, but the key to global unity.
By Illustrated by John Lockwood Kipling – Low-resolution scanned image, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1709838
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