Liquid Identity: My Keystone Project

My question reads; “What is the function of narrative on the formation of Identity?”

Anyone familiar with South Asia might recall that identity there is inextricably linked with religion. Religion is turn is tied to narrative stories. South Asia today is divided up largely between two nations, India and Pakistan. India, whilst officially a secular country, has a general unspoken understanding that it derives most of its heritage from the heritage of its Hindu majority; there are worryingly even some fringe elements calling for the re-definition of India as a Hindu country.

To re-assert its secularism, India has even adopted its forgotten Buddhist past as a sort of government sanctioned heritage: the bank notes, national symbols and even government architecture reflect this. Pakistan as a nation-state defines itself as an Islamic country, its heritage harkening back to the glory days of the Muslim Mughal Empire: Nations, of course, need their origin stories and historical periods to reference- by inventing a continuum they are able to create a sense of national identity and unity. Despite this, there are often large minority populations and centuries of history in these nation-states which suggest this is not necessarily universally true.

Yet there was a time where South Asia, as we know it today, was a hotbed of diversity, fluid identity and heritages; where multiple schools of thought and faiths existed, intertwined with each other, and where ideas did not rule over borders but rather men did. And as humans are, so the law was fluid, unpredictable, accommodating, flexible and grounded in context. Contradictions in belief was the norm, and those aware of this made this to be a thing of great beauty.

This was an India that still existed when my grandparents were my age- sadly lost now due to the partition of India and Pakistan- it is also a historical fascination of mine to see how identity was treated back then as opposed to how is treated now. It is for this reason that for my Keystone project I am writing a historical-fiction novel set in 18th century India, a time of great change and revolutions, titled ‘Sarkar’ or sovereignty.

My aim with this novel is to shed light on how vast different and more flexible identity was in these days. My hope is that it may cause some to reflect on the strict binaries imposed on South Asian society today. Take for example the Rababi people; whose historic profession was as travelling bards who also made a living singing hymns in Sikh temples. Despite this, they identified as Muslims, holding the Sikh Guru Nanak as their murshid, or guide. Unfortunately they have scattered and their livelihood has been disrupted since the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. For my project, I hope to interview elders of the Chand clan of Rababis to gauge their sense of identity today.


Monks from various schools of thought engage in discourse in 16th century India

Then there are the Meo, whom despite their identification as Sufis still retained many of their Hindu cultural and social practices, even intermarrying with the neighboring Hindu peoples. Unfortunately, in modern times they too have fallen prey to polarizing evangelicalism from both Hindu and Muslim far-right organizations.

Perhaps my favorite amalgamation is that of the Sindhi people; Muslims and Hindus both venerate the figure of Jhoolay Lal- for Muslims he was a great saint and for the Hindus he was an incarnation of Varuna, their patron water god. Legends and stories about him are interwoven among these communities such that though these characters might appear different, the Sindhis hold him to be one and same. The legend of Jhoolay Lal also has great implications for the identity of the now segregated Sindhi people.

This diversity is not only found in religions but also in terms of social professions; there are several communities in India which were historically able to reinvent themselves so as to increase their repute- People such as the Sayyids of Bohra or many Indian ‘Afghans’ were once farmers of Indian stock who passed themselves off as mercenaries of noble foreign lineage so as to appear more lucrative to employers; this was complete with an ethnic origin narrative of course.


The Third Battle of Panipat, which arguably began ethno-nationalistic thought in South Asia.

It is my love for this spectrum of identity (as opposed to the polarized identities has taken hold today) which makes me want to bring this period to life. I find it very delightful that my great-grandmother read Sikh scriptures in the morning and Hindu scriptures in the evening as way to make sense of the great jumble that was once personal religion in pre-partition India. I find it sad that this sort of thing would now be frowned upon. But still, I want to know how my ancestors reconciled this mess of belief, ethnicity and social position, because I dream we may see ourselves liberally as such again. I believe this is the best way for a country, plagued by polarizing sub-nationalism and sectarian-violence, to be truly secular in all walks of life.

working on keystone

Here is a photo of me working on what may or may not be my Keystone.


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