Hyphenations: Of Poets, Cultures, and Continents


ZEE JLF@The British Library

An idea developed in the United States some time between the 1890s and the 1920s of a hyphenated America. Former president Theodore Roosevelt disparaged Americans of foreign birth or origin. A ‘hyphen’ was an epithet used as a derogatory term that stood against everything the United States later went on to stand for – or did in the pre-Trump era – liberty and diversity.

With this hostility towards foreign cultures as a backdrop, A. K. Ramanujan, who joined the University of Chicago in 1962, would often remark to his colleagues and students that he was the hyphen between Indo-American. He managed to create an illustrious career for himself through his critical understanding of national and cultural identity or, in his case, the duality of it. Born in the southern part of India at a time when the trajectory of the British Raj showed it heading towards an end in India, he was exposed to an ‘inconsistency in the cultural context’ as explained in his essay ‘Is There An Indian Way of Thinking?’ with his father being a Sanskrit scholar and expert astronomer who talked about political leader and Civil War veteran, Robert Ingersoll with the same amount of passion.

As a Professor of Linguistics and Professor of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, delivering lectures on Yeats was as natural to Ramanujan as teaching Tagore or classic Indian folklore to a classroom with an English-speaking majority. His translations of free-verse poetry from Tamil, Kannada, or Malayalam put his students through the precision and rigour of South Indian languages and his published translated works from Kannada like Speaking of Siva (1973) put across the richness of his native culture to the more new and unfamiliar Western side of the ‘hyphen’ he described.

A.K. Ramanujan died in 1993 at the age of sixty-four, eighty five thousand miles away from his hometown in Mysore. In his book, When Mirrors Are Windows: A View of A.K. Ramanujan’s Poetics, author Guillermo Rodríguez talks about how, through his understanding of the Indian culture and folklore, Ramanujan affected his creative self and disseminated the context of poetry and identity in a country where the poet, translator, and writer’s language was undeniably foreign. Leaving a legacy beyond the myriad of anthologies his poetry has been a part of, Ramanujan, brought together his two worlds tying the culture he was born in to a language he had mastered.

The idea of hyphenation in this context is a state of limbo between two contrasting cultures. The definite identities that manifest from each of these cultural influences often clash, leaving the person conflicted and hanging between them by a thin line – the hyphen.

Historically, this has led to conflict, resentment, and confusion in people. Writers and poets, who fall through this process of assimilation, draw differences between the adopted culture and their birthplace and identity.

One such poet is Daljit Nagra, a second-generation, British-born-Indian (notice the hyphens), whose poetry is evocative and soaked in two cultures through Punjabi-inflected English. In his poetry, Nagra oscillates between the two cultural identities he struggles with: Indianness, with cultural signals to his origin like saris (‘her hair was beehive’d in a honey-coloured sari’) and Nehru (‘these sepia shades of tall-trees and slant-parks were home for … Jawaharlal Nehru’); and Britishness, the culture he was exposed to being born and brought up in West London. Where these two conditions collide or coincide is the grey area where the ‘hyphen’ is twisted into poetic verses.

In his poem Digging, Nagra brings to the forefront how expatriation slowly pulls him out of his roots but the remnants of his culture avoid dislocating him completely. ‘With left leg stretched, wiping sweat from my thigh, I shave hairs in the shape of a passport photo,’ there is an urgency to not reduce poets, whose identities are suspended between contrasting cultures, to their backgrounds.

A similar struggle of belonging is the subject of Arundhathi Subramaniam’s poetry where she writes that she ‘stammers through her Tamil’ but would want someone to ‘grant me a visa to the country of my birth’. The sheer fight and raw struggle to not lose their identity in the process of imbibing a new culture is what Subramaniam embodies in her work – a poetic revolt against her mother tongue and her homeland being subjects to change.

The line ‘I know what it is to live in a place where the mind’s ink has many tributaries,’ by Subramaniam manages to successfully word the predicament of the Indian-origin hyphenated population. The identities of such individuals often carry a mark of their ethnicity, nationality, and upbringing. The internal conflict leads to the person being a mere war ground to their cultures.

However, the right concoction of cultures can lead to an enriched self-perception of the individual. Ramanujan built a landscape out of the languages, fluid cultures and identities he housed within himself – and succeeded in constructing a window that overlooked the dynamic terrain of the Indian culture meeting the Western Sun at a horizon that formed the most intricate of hyphenated lines.

– Aditya Sinha

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