Belonging as a Perpetual Outsider

By Diksha Singh

There was one thing about informal gatherings that constantly bugged me, irrespective of where I lived or the people with whom I hung out. It was the conversation trails that traced our families and native places, the routes that elicited stories of belonging and personal culture. My friends would often narrate how a bride was decorated, how people ate during a wedding in their hometown, or how their grandma dressed distinctly and told stories.  With these narrations, they would sometimes add the pinch of nostalgia that relayed their connection to their homelands. The coconut tree that grew in their backyard or the chai-biscuit stall that developed with them over the years. 

These conversations made me feel distant, as I never had many stories about hometowns and cousins. I never had stories about one place, rather small stories of the many homes that I inhabited. My father had a transferable job, and thus we shifted living spaces every three to five years until my father retired. It appeared as if my friends had an anchor, a port, a comfortable home from where they had sailed for higher education and work. And I? Whenever I looked back at my past, all I had was a blurred set of multiple temporary homes. No anchor. 

Now, it isn’t true that I don’t have a hometown. Because I do; technically, it is the native where my parents were brought up. So, I supposedly belong there. But really, only my parents do. 

Growing up, I always threw a tantrum when we moved to another city in India. As a person with an introverted personality, the possibility of uprooting life in one city and planting it in another appeared impossible. How on earth was I to make new friends in a new school and a new classroom? 

It was not that I despised change and new beginnings. It was the abrupt endings that irked me. A life devoid of life-long friendships. Every time, it felt as if something invaluable was lost prematurely, as if there was more potential left, as if there were more corners to explore in the old city, as if there were more jokes to be cracked between friends. 

There were two other consequences of moving periodically – one, I lived in other states more than my “own”, and, two, I mostly surrounded myself with people of different cultures. The second consequence caused me more heartbreak and mental trauma. Towards the last decade of my father’s service, surrounding myself with friends from other cultures was not a choice anymore. It was a given for ten long years—my ages through thirteen and twenty-three. The catch in the last place was that everybody else was localised except for me. All of them had the same language and culture. All of them belonged to the same, single state. Now, this is where I became a perpetual outsider for ten years. 

After the initial shock that everyone in school was from Kerala, I made a few friends and interacted with them in English, which was difficult for me. I always had pictured English as an academic subject that I had to learn as part of the syllabus. I never thought I could use it to converse with friends. Gradually, I improved my language and even enjoyed spending time with my new friends, learning a new language and their culture slowly. 

Over the next ten years, I made many friends in school, college, hostel, and workplace. I learned Malayalam to an acceptable, I-can-live-and-travel-on-my-own-here level. In fact, I was even proud of myself until 2019, to have spent so many years as a non-Keralite in Kerala. I thought I did a good job, notwithstanding how a few people had discriminated against me, how few friends had kept secrets from me, and how some men had treated me differently and less respectfully. While some incidents were intentional, some others were unintentional.

In 2019, I commenced higher studies at a national institute established in Kerala. Here, Keralites were no longer in the majority. Naturally, I was excited at the prospect of meeting people from other cultures, and I wrongly assessed myself as being perfectly capable of handling the transition. After two years, I realised that I was so wrong. In this new place, I interacted with Keralites and non-Keralites simultaneously. I soon found that neither was I a hardcore Keralite, despite knowing well the language, people, movies, and culture, nor was I a “proper” non-Keralite, because, hey, I had not interacted with one in the past ten years, except for my family. 

I was neither here nor there. I was a little here and a little there.

With time and some disagreements and conflicts, I reckoned I was harbouring insecurities and a desperate “need to belong”. When I was with Keralites, I tried to fit in by being as good as I could be. I never considered treating them different, but my trust was broken a few times.  When trust is broken because people think you are not one of them, it leaves an indelible scar on your psyche.  

When I interacted with non-Keralites, I expected to belong to this category as well quickly. But I hadn’t lived in North India for most of my life, a few conversations in, and I soon realised that I was different here and the hint that even they considered me out of place left me a bit shaken. I didn’t realise that falling into a category mattered to me. I was even ashamed that I bothered being part of any one of the communities. Why? Because everybody else belonged to one? I don’t know.

The realization struck me heavily, and I remembered each chaotic incident where I was mistreated. I realised I wanted to fit in, how a jigsaw puzzle piece fit with another in a picture, but I wanted to become a piece that could fit in multiple images. I realised I was insecure about being an outsider and insecure about being left out. But despite all the efforts, I was still left out by some individuals. And thus, I realised I probably didn’t belong anywhere. 

At first, these realisations troubled me immensely. But with time, and with more conflicts and interactions with both Keralites and non-Keralites, and a little help from books like “Belonging” by Umi Sinha, I understood that perhaps it isn’t necessary to belong anywhere. I can freely be what I am. I should remember that these incidents are only a few, and many have treated me exceptionally well. I shouldn’t let such incidents cause heartache and trigger the insecurities as and when they like. 

Belonging” by Umi Sinha was an overwhelming and much-needed embrace that I forgot about my insecurities. The story travels through three generations of a family which lived in India and Britain during colonial times. The complexities and feelings that arise when you spend your childhood in one place and adulthood elsewhere are brilliantly portrayed in the book. The author doesn’t shy away from displaying affectionate feelings for people of another land, and she does it effortlessly as if it is like loving people from our land. 

The book and some magnanimous individuals had a significant impact on my mind. They made me realise that it is perfectly alright if I don’t fit into any categories. Perhaps, before being accepted by others, I need to accept myself and be grateful that I witnessed various cultures while growing up. Moreover, these experiences have made me look beyond mistreatments and helped me become more empathetic towards others. As humans, we all tend to be sceptical of uncertainties, of unknowns, and of people of different cultures, states, religions, and countries. Maybe it isn’t so tragic when locals try to protect themselves from outsiders. Sure, I would love to be accepted without hurdles and potholes, but I do understand the motivations behind avoidance and scepticism and frail trust. 

And, despite all the uncertainties, there have been individuals who have graciously, slowly or immediately, accepted me and embraced me. My heart beams gloriously whenever I think of my dearest friends and well-wishers and guides. Sure, there have been difficulties, but there have also been a lot of colours, a lot of seasons, warmer winters and rainy summers, a lot of slippery slopes and ascending bonds, a diversity in perspectives and a potpourri of diverse talent and ideas. And perhaps, a blurred past of multiple homes is perfectly and wonderfully complete.  

Author bio:

Diksha adores reading, writing, and drawing and is currently pursuing her PhD in Management Information Systems.

To be forgotten- The way a camera forgets the photographer

By Kashvi Chandok, EIC

I have a problem with documentation, which is to say, I have an obsession with documentation. This is more of a self-confession than an exposé, but being young in the age of surveillance compels you to look at yourself from a distance. Most days I wake up nursing the feeling that life is passing by dreadfully fast and if I don’t live every moment of it, even more so, if I don’t document myself living every moment of it, it’ll disappear into fragments of thin air.

Credits: Moya Mawhinney

For a few years now, I have walked with this lipid realisation of how transient everyday moments can be. Life passes by when you’re reading on the school bus, when you’re shuffling through your playlist in the metro, making eye contact with masked strangers, and so on. There’s something about wanting to live a prodigious life that is so conducive to manifesting an alternative life that most times I feel like I’m living in motion, neither here nor there, but in this daydreaming amnesia of what reality should be. 

For most people of privilege and access to literature and the media, our lives imitate art more than the other way around. In “Cruel Optimism,” Lauren Berlant, discussing the “genres for life” says that we want to think that our lives have an overall trajectory, much like the plot of a book, and that if we could just figure out its arc, we could write it ourselves. For me, the trajectory has often been about visualising my life, if not in the future, then in the present: as an escape. It’s not this longing of abundantly unlived daydreams that troubles me. If anything, it’s in imagined lives that we truly break away from the enigma. Yet it’s the performance in which we often manifest our desires that interests me.

The Self in Self-Documentation: 

Recently, I came across a class called Intentional Documentation on Skillshare which claims that effective visual documentation, i.e., documenting yourself doing menial or mundane chores, can help you live a mindful life. The class description is quite interesting: “There is something beautiful about capturing pieces of your life in a thoughtful way and having these moments to look back on. Their value is immeasurable. They can create a sort of loose outline of your past. They will become portals to see where you’ve come from and what you’ve been through. This class is all about the cultivation of those moments. “

These ideas of viewing oneself from the lens of the other are not new. Some of the early origins of self-documentation have emerged in the form of portraits. Self-portraiture is an art form that dates back to Ancient Egypt, and artists like Rembrandt, Albrecht Düre, and Frida Kahlo have all explored, even based a majority of their now remarkably considered works on this artform. Most of these artists used it as a chance to portray themselves as the main characters and heroes of their own tales. In fact, it is still viewed as a chance to capture a side of yourself that nobody else sees. 

In a study conducted in the UK, it was found that self-portraits or photos of the self were the 2nd most popular category of photographs after “friends and family”.  If we view the self-portrait genre through the perspective of document theory, we understand that they serve as some sort of referential system to provide proof, relevancy and meaning. But in a world where we use devices to track our own behaviours, make web pages for our professional portfolios, autobiographies, visual self-portraits, and other specialized types of information about ourselves, how do we differentiate the self from the document? And who is really the archivist of our identity?

The Affect:

Every moment that we live is governed by an immeasurable and indescribable feeling that is individual to oneself. Sometimes in mid-summer, I would be sitting under a fan and a suspiciously wistful sensation would seep through me that I had lived this before. I recognise this warm air, this sense of mundanity that transports me back to a school day when I was 15 and passed notes to my friends in between math classes, or to a trip I went on with my family, where I bruised my knee and sat in front of a local chemist store eating ice cream. Yet in all these commonplaces of shared feelings, my sentiments differ by my current state of being. This is how the “affect” concept works in correlation to our memory. 

A few weeks back, while having a phone call with my Modern Theater professor for a paper, she introduced the “affect-concept” to me. Talking about the theory, Eric Shouse wrote in M/C Journal that unlike emotion, which is social, and feeling, which is personal, “affect” is considered pre-personal: a nonconscious experience of intensity. In more literal terms, affect theory refers to unconscious forces in our minds like sensations, atmosphere, feelings, experiences, moods, etc that govern how we look at the culture around us. 

The concept was proposed in reference to the French-Romanian playwright Ionesco’s works, and we were talking about the difference between theatre performances and readings of those performances. The visual and theatrical elements of a stage assimilate the “affect” on its audiences through the performance of sounds, visuals, gestures, and lighting. At the core of photography and videography lies this concept. So does the concept of self-performance in documentation.

André  Lepecki, a well-known performance studies professor and author, says  “If performance’s life is in the present, its plunge into unconsciousness is what guarantees its persistent (yet a temporal) presentness, for the unconscious reveals only a temporal present tense of memory… remembering as total surrender to memory is a very effective way to elude the passing of time.”

Similarly, capturing these motions in photographic form exposes performance’s unconscious citation while also utilising photography’s power to call to presence through vision, memory, and imagination, even if it is a temporal presentness. The rhetoric of the main subject and, dare I say, “main character” isn’t merely a cynical technique of manipulating others. Revolutionaries may use heroism as a narrative to make sense of their own lives and the decisions they have made. But what about the heroic construct of people living ordinary lives? Are the principles of that skillshare class based on factuality?  Is there anything heroic about coming home to unwashed dishes? Is there anything of significant posterity that deserves to be preserved when I’m separating the whites of my laundry? 

Exploring the performativity of performance in visual documentation 

Traditionally, in Greek, photography means “light writing”. When I sit down to place my phone to capture a shot, I first observe the direction of the light. Will it make me more defined? Do I want to look defined? Can a human even look defined? Or will it make me more obscure? A bone-figure thrust into body dysmorphia. But desire is often a demanding emotion, ravaging one’s body from within. I have these terrible lingering longings for love, experiences, and travel, which manifest through photographs as vessels for preserving those sentimental moments when they finally arrive. 

I am reading, but I’m also performing the act of reading. The frame of building something that surpasses the ethos of one moment is refreshing. But in perceiving myself from the 3rd person’s lens, I alter myself. To think of it, self-concept is primarily a social phenomenon. To establish a sense of self, one must treat the self as an object and observe it in the same way that others do. From one’s perspective, creating a self-concept entails integrating self-perception with the perceptions of others. 

It is this distance from the reality within our pictures, videos, and documentation of the self that interests me. Szarkowski seems to agree with this idea when he says that a photographer’s factuality of pictures was different from reality. He says that the subject and the picture are never the same things, and why would they be? The image, the documentation in question, would survive the subject and withhold memory. Perhaps, the image propels the subject to be looked at from a new perspective, forming an alternate remembered reality. 

But the function of memory is itself quite fickle, what stays and what doesn’t, who is to say? In performing while creating the memory, the truth value of the self-portrait of the self-portrayed photograph is diminished as the artist performs their body repeatedly in such a way that the creative subject, who is both the author of the image and the performer in the image, is unduly enacted as a representation. 

Identity, Surveillance, and Keeping Yourself at Arm’s Distance.

Some of my early memories of seemingly innocuous surveillance have been in grocery stores. My mother would be at the cash register where I would stare at the tiled computer screen to see how I was looking through my back. I would move around, fix my hair, and even try to face the camera while trying to catch a glimpse of myself on the screen. It wasn’t until I started to write this essay that I realised how these extremely common, almost forgettable moments are modern-age ways of how we see ourselves. 

The phenomena of constant surveillance propels an insidious anxiety to unconsciously act as a version of ourselves that is being “watched,” and if we’re not comfortable with the amount or manner in which we’re being watched, a fear of being irrelevant arises.  Perhaps the most significant impact on our identities comes from interactive surveillance. We live in a world where privacy is an arduous concept. Recently, I saw a bunch of “influencers”, maybe some masquerading as activists and entrepreneurs beneath their socialist facade, promoting a smart wearable that monitors heart rate, sugar levels, and everything-that-sums-up-your-cellular-existence levels. The device allows people to communicate information about themselves and their health via social media, “gamifying the body,” as they say. Isn’t this a form of meticulous documentation of every aspect of their lives? Even the invisible ones? 

The fear of being invisible is not just rooted in existentialism but in the way we see and want to be seen. We’re all stories wanting to be told, of finding an arch, a narrative which doesn’t peak until it’s too late. But one cannot always live in the moment and walk with this spearing burden on the shoulder to create art out of ordinary life. This is the curse of artists, isn’t it? To spend so much time finding meaning in the banality of common life is to develop a mechanism of romanticising yourself, in all your mundanity. Even if it means rendering the gravity of lonesome some strength. There’s so much beauty in recording one doing house chores, or leaning against a wall with curled telephone wire smiling, or sitting alone by the sea shore. Quite cinematic in its perseverance, isn’t it? The art of capturing a scene in itself is emotionally two-dimensional,  only shining a light on what appears and not what goes on inside a person. Yet, it is documentation, the capturing of one in movement, in transience, in the humane backdrop of fleeting moments that we find beauty within, wrapped in all our ugly acts of performances.