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Mithu Sanyal: Identitti (Identitti)

Our heroine is Nivedita Anand. Her mother is Polish and father Indian (like Mithu Sanyal). She is a doctoral student at the University of Düsseldorf and has a blog called Identitti dealing with identity politics, critical race theory, cultural appropriation, gender, racism, postcolonial topics and related topics, as well as with the goddess Kali with whom she has had a close relationship since she was a child. Her blog is called Identitti but she also calls it A Blog By a Mixed-race Wonder Woman. Much of ther blog, she says, is about her discussions with Kali, dealing with such topics as her relationship to Germany and India, her two neither-mother-nor-fatherlands and the topics already mentioned .

She has a (white) boyfriend, SImon. He keeps breaking up with her and then coming back. Her previous boyfriend was an Indian living in Germany, who had decided to go to India to find himself. She is very close to Priti, her cousin, originally from Birmingham (England, not Alabama) but now in Germany,and they communicate regularly. At the beginning of the book she is interviewed about her blog on German Public Radio and it is here where we start hearing about the various issues she faces. The first one is Where are you from? to which she answers Essen, which is not the answer they are looking for. She tells the radio interviewer that she is from the Internet. She also discuses the issue of miscegenation, not just the Nazis but elsewhere such as the US and South Africa. Her mother’s doctor had even told her, when she was pregnant with Nivedita, that Mischlinge are more prone to depression. Nivedita is not close to her father (He didn’t know how to tell his story to anyone—not even himself, and certainly not his anti-racist daughter, whose rage against the system was only exceeded by her rage against him).

Nivedita’s guru/heroine (apart from Kali) is Charismati Saraswati. This is not her real name. Saraswati is a Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, speech, wisdom, and learning. Our Saraswati had written a book called Decolonise Your Soul, which became an instant best seller and later led to her endowed professorship in Düsseldorf. She also wrote a famous essay called White Guilt: Why nobody wants to be white anymore.

Saraswati had offered a course at Nivedita’s university on Kali so Nivedita enthusiastically signed up. Saraswati turned up late and then announced Okay, let’s start: all whites out. Nivedita had come with her room-mate Lotte, a very white woman (You just never really bothered to be Indian, she once said to Nivedita) who leaves and expects Nivedita to follow her. But you’re white,” Lotte said. “No, I’m not white,” Nivedita said, for the very first time in her entire life to a white person. So Saraswati becomes her mentor.

After the radio interview, Priti contacts her, not to congratulate her but to tell her that it turns out that Saraswati is white. It seems her brother in London has revealed the truth. It turns out the two had not spoken for thirty years and he was not aware she had changed both her name and skin colour.

Not surprisingly, social media goes wild, with the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland having a field day. The hashtag #fireSaraswati is soon trending. In her interview, Nivedita had said The people who accuse Saraswati of being racist just don’t get her. Above all, they don’t get what being white means to her. She also receives a torrent of online abuse and indeed, abuse from her friends (in reality, you’re just a white chick with brown skin You know damn well it’s pretty racist that my skin colour makes a difference to you. Indeeed, Saraswati does not feel that she is in the wrong and defends herself to Nivedita, her brother, who turns up and to Oluchi, one of her students and a sort of friend of Nivedita, who has made herself leader of the opposition toSaraswati.

Saraswati is quite capable of defending herself. Skin colour has absolutely nothing to do with race, and you all know it! and declares herself firstly transracial and then postracial.

The rest of the book is essentially the fallout from the revelation. We get a lot of social media comments (in an afterword Sanyal states that many of them are real but used in other contexts). We even get comments from Trump and Modi (also based on actual statements made by them in other contexts). More particularly a group of six – Saraswati, her brother, Nivedita, Priti, Saraswati’s lover, Toni and Kali – thrash out the various issues while following what the real world is saying and doing on the issue.

Many of the comments are well made and worth reading. I liked the tale from Hans Traxler: it depicts a monkey, a stork, an elephant, a goldfish, a seal, and a poodle standing before a teacher who explains, In order for us to achieve a fair selection, you shall all be given the same test: climb this tree. That’s equal opportunity. The monkeys always win.

There is a lot of discussion between these six and everyone else on the various interrelated topics – what is and is not racism, whiteness and what it implies, the English, the Germans and their history, post-colonialism, and where we are going or should be going on these and related topics. It’s 2020, and the time for new concepts is now. Why should we still keep thinking in black-and-white terms? If there’s such a thing as “genderfluid,” why shouldn’t there be such a thing as “racefluid”.

I enjoyed this book immensely firstly because it raises a whole load of topics about which I am fairly ignorant and about which I suspect most privileged white people are ignorant. Sanyal treats them seriously but, at the same time, is more than happy to mock both sides of the debate. In other words, these are serious topics, which, of course, they are, but we must be careful not to treat them too seriously. She also tells a clever story. Is Saraswati going to get out of her conundrum and, if so, how and, if not, what will be her fate and also the fate of Nivedita?

Publishing history

First published in 2021 by Carl Hanser Verlag
First English translation in 2022 by Astra House
Translated by Alta L Price