Sea of Hyphens

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

The first year in my hometown, a regular conversation starter would be, “Where are you from?” It naturally follows with a surprising look whenever I say, “ Well I am from here.”
“No where are you actually from.” This conversation is only justified until I say, “ Oh well I am an African –Indian.” Suddenly that explanation seems credulous, but to be frank, hyphenated- identities are the most confusing. If you pitched a tent on that hyphen, it would explain where an identity would belong, on a thin line.

It’s different in London though, it’s far too multicultural, there are no freakish eyebrows questioning how Indian I am. Somewhere around noon, I got off a train at Liverpool Street. My friend directed me through streets that never shied away with it audacious graffiti. Keeping it as a surprise, she told me always visit a place without any knowledge. After crossing some crowded lanes, we finally halted and I read the sign, ‘Brick Lane’. Below the signage, I saw some familiar script, somewhere between Hindi and Urdu. In a moment I realized, “Isn’t that Bangla?”
She looked at me and said, “Yes it is.”

Being a tourist, I was completely oblivious of its colloquial name, Banglatown. Famously known for two things: curry and bargain deals. I’ve been to Chinatown, but there was something different about Brick Lane. I always assumed that communities settled in and made a few changes with a pop up of cultural restaurants and stores, nothing beyond that. But to have a signage written in another language,in London, truly meant something -the community must have shared their space of living. Especially when you enter a restaurant filled with Bangladeshis, your borderline of being an Indian itself is vanished. Suddenly there’s a sense of unity where you want to be a part of their collective space too. And if this experience could only surprise me more, I met someone across my table. He was telling me how he has conflicted thoughts about the two places he belonged to.  He eventually said, “ I’m just a mongrel who cannot really define a space of his own.”

I couldn’t define it too, am I in Banglatown or London and why has my nationality shifted from Indian to Asian in a jiffy?


Where does one really belong? Moreover, what is one made to believe of the space they live in?

“ Separate places become effectively a single community “ through the continuous circulation of people, money, goods and information”  (Rouse 1991, p.14)

In James Clifford Essay, Diasporas, he raises pertinent points on how different societies accommodate other cultures but more over deal with certain tensions.  He looks into how multi-cultural societies co-exist with the ‘political ambivalence’ and how do people learn to eliminate, reject or include their cultures into a space that’s not even their but also theirs. (Clifford, 1994, p.302)

The Bangladeshi citizens have made their impact in the space of London both politically and socially. In his first issue of Diaspora, Khachig Tololian writes, "Diasporas are the exemplary com-munities of the transnational moment."  (Clifford, 1994, p. 303) Especially with many of them being elected to the local councils in Tower Hamlets and Newham. The festival Baishaki Mela – an annual festival hosted in Weaver Field every May and the Kobi Nazrul Centre (named after one of Bangladesh's most celebrated poets), are now established in the cultural scene of East London.
On the contrary
“ Words such as minority, immigrant and ethnic will thus have a distinct local flavor for some readers.”

Despite successful transculturation, there’s still a feeling of displacement. According to the survey, 54% of the Bangladesh population is located in the inner Borough and a majority of them reside at Tower Hamlets, located at Brick Lane. And even though there’s been a lineage of three generations, there’s still a gap of calling this a second home. There’s still an outlook of many being viewed as minorities. Sometimes when it comes to makings a space, the percentage of hybridization is also very controlled. As Clifford says, “Diaspora exists in practical, and at times principled, tension with nativist identity formation. “ (1994, p.808)

Spaced Out

How much is one meant to believe as their living space, is there an intentional feeling of displacement inculcated within the inhabitants?
Diaspora discourse articulates, or bends together roots and routes to construct what Gilroy describes as alternate pub (1987), forms of community consciousness and solidarity that main fixations outside the national time/space in order to live inside, with a difference.  (Clifford, 1994, p.308)

Clifford raises a point that the sense of displacement is ingrained. It’s hard to pin who plays the bigger role in this. Most of the Bangladeshi families make London their second space.
Usually this happens when ethnic families try to preserve memories, vision practicing storytelling about the ‘original’ homeland. Clifford continues to say that there’s also an acceptance that one cannot be fully accepted by the country. The nativist identity also makes a way to show that settling is not the easiest option, thus many believe they will also be returning home. (1994, p. 304)

On the contrary, this overlap of border and diaspora experiences in late-20th-cent ever day life suggests the difficulty of maintaining exclusivist paradigm attempts to account for transnational identities.

My conversation was coming to end, I still wondered why he used the word mongrel, no definable type. It took me to the hyphen, despite the fact that you live in space for years, there’s still a hyphen drawn somewhere. Your space has two faces. “Diaspora is different from travel (thought it works through travel practices) in that it is not temporary. It involve dwelling, maintaining communities, having collective communities from home.”(Clifford, 1994, p.304) But what if dwell has a different meaning, living with insecurity. Diaspora as word has the word divide rooted in it which eventually takes a toll emotionally and culturally. Perhaps, diaspora is the one that makes one feel like a mongrel.

So we finish our meals, put on our coats and walk among the sea of hyphenated identities.


Clifford, J. (1994) ‘ Diasporas’ ,Cultural Anthropologies, Vol. 9, No. 3, Further Inflections: Toward Ethnographies of the Future, pp.302

Cronem, D. (2005) Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK: some observations on socio-cultural dynamics, religious trends and transnational politics London: University of Surrey Available at:

Gillan, A. (2002) ‘From Bangladesh to Brick Lane’, The Guardian, 21 June. Available at:  (Accessed: January 2,2017)

Rouse, R (1991) Mexican Migration and Social Space of Postmodernism, Diaspora Vol)1) , p.83-89

(2014) ‘Bangladeshi London’, BBC Available at: (Accessed: January 2, 2017)

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