What then is our identity? Have we no identity at all who act differently in different countries? Are we like chameleons taking on the colour of our environment wherever we go? This is certainly not the aim before us. Rather, I see ourselves as a Third Voice. I am neither only German nor only Bengali, I am nourished by German culture, but I spread myself into Bengali culture, and in the process I have transformed my inherited Europeanness and have absorbed some traits of Bengali culture. In that process I have become, I hope, a more evolved individual who has, to some extent at least, been able to choose the cultural influences that shape his life. I don’t feel determined by the culture of either country which would be limiting and provincialising me. Instead, I desire to be an individual who has, ideally, taken from both countries what is most supportive of my talents and character. This is the opportunity we all have who live out the tensions of a multi-cultural life in a positive manner.
However, as we all know, diasporic Indians are in the danger of becoming conservative Hindus or Muslims. The lack of their accustomed supportive cultural and religious environment induces such people to withdraw into themselves. They perhaps want to contain the entire cultural and religious wealth of their country wholly within themselves. Such insularity is positively dangerous. Rabindranath has spoken against cultural and religious insularity with his entire life. Cultural and religious traditions can be maintained only by continuously evolving them. Culture and religion are not static, museal entities. They will be living cultures and living religions only through constant change, only by always adding new traditions to old ones. The people of the Third Voice do not fall back on insularity and conservatism in order to maintain their identity. They wish to give a positive shape to their individuality by creatively mediating between the two cultures of which they are a part through their life example.
I presume that “loss of family” is the most difficult and painful experience Bengalis must face in the United States. In Kolkata or Dhaka they were known by and respected for their families and family connections, by the family guru and the teachers they or their relatives have had. In a new country all that no longer counts. All of a sudden they are stripped bare to their pure individual’s worth and professional merit. This must be a traumatic loss which takes many years to overcome. Unless they move entirely within the diasporic community, newly arrived Indians just have to face American society and prove every centimetre of their worth which at home was a gift of birth. Conversely, my greatest hindrance to integrate into Bengali society was the fact that I have no family. My German family is of course unknown in Santiniketan, and I have not married into a Bengali family whose cultural traditions could then have devolved on to me as a signal of my identity. Hence, I have no “family label” and was considered at Santiniketan as a “foreign student” long after I had gathered two Ph.D.s and my hair had turned grey.
The people representing the Third Voice could learn from Rabindranath who, steeped in Bengali culture and moulding it, has nonetheless been a personality to whom other peoples of the world could relate. Rabindranath touches you as Bengalis to whom he belonged culturally, and he is able to touch me, a European, simply because in him Bengaliness and universal appeal have been fused into a unique individual. Rabindranath neither only and simply represented Bengali culture, nor did he belong only to the world. He evolved his own personality and generously gifted that personality to Bengal and to the world.