Sand in her hair, corset drenched, Viola from the ‘Twelfth Night’ finds herself on a windswept beach in Illyria, understandably disoriented after surviving a shipwreck she asks “What country, friends, is this?” and then, more pessimistically “what should I do in Illyria?” For the audience it’s the start of Shakespeare’s great comedy about identity confusion, ignorance, insanity, (the Bard understood the hilarity of the human quest to make some sense), but our heroine’s opening lines also speak of the age-old anxieties of arriving on foreign shores.
Feelings of being displaced, uprooted, unsure, of being barefoot and without home, whether of one’s own volition or not, of wading into the problematic muddiness of self-definition. I attach the immigrant experience to all of this and more (nostalgia, loneliness, reinvention, hope…). When I reflect on the journey my own parents and grandparents made from India to the Middle East to Canada, knowingly entering the unknown, weathering the tempest, I think about the idealism and courage that accompanied that decision to carve out a place in the world, and the ability to feel that free and that powerful. As for myself, being a child when I followed their nomadic trail there was no real choice, I was more like Viola and less of the narrator, I wasn’t following a dream or planning ahead, my ship was blown off course, it hit some rocks and I was where I was. My surety and clarity crumbled away. I went to school and felt stupid. Some loud-mouthed kid criticized the colour of my hair. In P.E. I played soccer and scored against my own team (unknowingly, not with purposeful rage). It was challenging for all of us, I was just more aware of my own discomfort. I remember our collective happiness when yellow flowers began sprouting miraculously on our front lawn; and then our collective astonishment when our neighbours complained to the municipality that our mini garden of Eden posed a health hazard, because dandelions shouldn’t be grown in such abundance and certainly not with such enthusiasm. J I became increasingly aware of how others saw me, how I sounded, I wanted to know the magical formula for ‘normalcy’ that others had memorized. W.E. Dubois eloquently called this mad state of mind “double consciousness” : “the sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Mad and sad is this pursuit because there is no clear measurement or formula for what is normal or natural, nor should our worth be quantifiable. What seems most natural to me is diversity, you see it everywhere in nature, it defines life on this planet. Of course it took me a while to come to this and other realizations. Before moving to Canada, when I was quite young I possessed a world and inter-planetary view that was highly distorted (to put it mildly). I lived in Sharjah, which is in the United Arab Emirates, which is a pint-sized country that sprouts futuristic skyscrapers, (which from an airplane window is simply an expanse of sand), and I literally believed that I lived in the center of the universe; that my world was wielding the conductor’s baton used to produce the celestial ‘music of the spheres’. Sharjah was Earth, Earth was Sharjah, it represented what was ‘normal’ and ‘familiar’, warm and fuzzy. Other countries I believed were literally on other planets (seriously I believed this). What proof did I have? None. All I can say is thank goodness I received an education. My world was the ‘known world’, everything outside its boundaries was shrouded in mystery, everything else was ‘different.’ And what did not have a name (since I did not even know certain countries existed) was simply consumed in darkness. My young ignorant, egotistical self had a lot to learn, many things I still had to name and less tangible forces I would try to define; I had (and still have) a fertile imagination; I was definitely a sheltered child, the youngest living in an extended family setting; and, of course, at that age, I could not see too far past my own needs and happiness. It was a very comfortable and cohesive and solid sense of self, and the only kind I needed at the time. I can perceive now the danger that accompanies this sort of comfort, this retreat to the familiar, this labelling of what ‘normalcy’ encompasses and what ‘difference’ means. My sense of place is no longer so firmly cemented in terms of geography, but is grounded in what I have learnt and keep learning from my experiences, and from those of my family. My grandfather’s stories of adventures at sea, of putting a padlock on his school’s doors so he wouldn’t have to attend class, of playing cricket in Mumbai’s lanes, still resonate deeply with me. He is one of the best storytellers I have ever met.
At the end of the Twelfth Night shipwrecked Viola reveals her true identity, gets the man of her dreams and lives happily ever after in Illyria, so it’s fair to say that she learns to settle in. Despite the hardships faced she finds her sense of place, and as one of the stronger, more textured17th century female characters, all I can say is ‘more power to her.’ Idealism renewed, stability restored, the play ends with a bountiful feast and yet in subtle Shakespearean fashion, a final song darkens the mood, suggesting that this sense of idyllic comfort is always short-lived, that “the wind and the rain” of change is as old as this world, that Viola’s journey into the unknown has no end in sight.