What is My Identity?   Leave a comment

“One Out of Many” is a short story written by V. S. Naipaul which portrays the live of Santosh, an Indian cook who employed by a Washington governmental worker. As he moved out to Washington to follow his employer, he saw the world which he never saw before. Furthermore, he had to face to a decision whether if he must defend his culture or adapt to the situation he felt estranged. The short story frequently displays his confusion regarding his identity and culture, because, as a foreign newcomer in plural country, he becomes the representation of his country. Thus, this paper will discuss on how the short story represents the identity problem of an Indian worker in Washington.

The narration builds the character of Santosh as an innocent man who estranged by his new circumstance. Santosh, who formerly an employee worked in Bombay, has to accompany his employer to live in Washington. Moreover, Santosh looks very excited when he heard about that invitation. However, Santosh’s excitement tends to his arrogance, because he expresses his excitement by saying that “[i]t pleased me that he was jealous” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 17) to his friend. His arrogance comes into being because there is a notion in his former place that lives in Washington will economically be better. It can be proved in his statement on the very first paragraph which says “[m]any people, both [in Washington] and in India, will feel that I have done well” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 15). But, on the last statement of the said paragraph, he seems rejecting that notion, because he put the word “but” at the end of the paragraph.

Besides his excitement regarding his migration, he found that live with different culture is hard. In the journey to Washington, people on his plane looked him as a strange person.

When we settled down I looked around for people like myself, but I could see no one among the Indians or the foreigners who look like a domestic. Worse, they were all dressed as though they were going to a wedding and, brother, I soon saw it wasn’t they who were conspicuous. (Naipaul, 2002, p. 18)

Santosh’s innocence in dressing leads the attention of people around him, because he only wears his domestic wear. Furthermore, Santsosh also feels the other passenger’s dress looked awful, because he thought that their dressing is like the formal dress which people usually wear to go to wedding. We can see that Santosh as the only one who wears domestic suit feels alienated because the different way of dressing.

Not only by dressing, but also by his lack of knowledge about foreign exchange. He cannot differ or calculate the rate of U.S. Dollar and Rupee, so that we he have to buy something, he always miscalculated and bring the anger of his employer. In addition, it leads to the treatment of the stewardess who not giving him smiles while the other passengers are got. The innocence about the foreign exchange also happened when he was in Washington. He was given an advance payment by his employer. But on the same day, he spent all of his money, which should be for nine days, because he forgot the currency is different with India’s currency.

The cultural difference between Santosh and his surrounding in Washington makes him uncomfortable. Usually, he can walk with bare foot in Bombay and got no problem with that. Different with the condition in Washington, he cannot even get a service for a cup of tea. These treatments make Santosh want to go home to Bombay. In addition, when he saw “many people who looked like my own people” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 24), it doesn’t make him more comfortable. In fact, it disturbs him because these people are actually different with him in the way of pronunciation and accent, although they had the same appearance with Santosh.

Nevertheless, in his early days in Washington, this place is depicted as a place where everything is irrational, because the culture is different with his culture. In addition, his meeting with a lot of hubshi bothers him, because in India, there are few hubshi he can find and “it is indecent and wrong for a man of our blood to embrace the hubshi woman” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 29). So, he thinks that he should not settle with the hubshi, because it is a shame for him to live among them. But, his meeting with a hubshi girl becomes his turning point. As he went to supermarket, he met a hubshi girl who seemed interested with Santosh. Furthermore, he got English lesson by her and their relationship became closer. This event makes Santosh realizes of his existence after he feels alienated by his surrounding before. Since then, he took so much care of his physical appearance. The physical appearance of Santosh and his employer is also very important in this plural country, because, as his employer said, he and Santosh became the representative of their country. So, when they wear clothes improperly, it can harm the image of their nation (pars pro toto).

When Santosh realized that there is someone interested with him, he suddenly “became obsessed with [his] appearance” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 29). He always observed his face in the bathroom mirror. And finally he became conscious of himself, whereas in Bombay, he scarcely looked in the mirror. This event, however, shows that Santosh is started to fit into Washington culture. In addition, he started to learn English both from hubshi girl and the television. The television becomes an important media to introduce American culture to him, because beside English, he also learned American culture. The television makes Santosh compares himself with the television artist by questioning that “are you as handsome as that man?” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 30), so that he need to look himself into the mirror.

The event when he looked in the mirror becomes important. As Lacan argues:

We have only to understand the mirror stage as an identification, in the full sense that analysis gives to the term: namely, the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image-whose predestination to this phase-effect is sufficiently indicated by the use, in analytic theory, of the ancient term imago. (2004, p. 991)

As he identifies himself, he realizes that there is a transformation in him. Firstly, he realizes his existence indicated by his increased obsession with his appearance. Secondly, before he put more concerns in his appearance, he is innocent like a baby in Lacan’s hypotheses. After he sees his reflection in the mirror, he then realizes that there is another Santosh. The reflection one represents Santosh who is still pure and has not contaminated with American culture, while the Self is the contaminated one, because the real one is started to follow the lifestyle of the American and no longer pure from the view of culture. It can be seen when Santosh memorized his experience in the airplane and in the café, he felt that he is embarrassing, because he wore rough, dirty clothes and bare feet, whereas in that time, he thought that there is nothing wrong with his appearance.

I was glad I had a place to hide. I had thought of myself as prisoner. Now I was glad I had so little of Washington to cope with: the apartment, my cupboard, the television set, my employer, the walk to the supermarket, the hubshi women. And one day I found I no longer knew whether I wanted to go back to Bombay. Up there, in the apartment, I no longer knew what I wanted to do. (Naipaul, 2002, p. 30)

However, after Santosh realizes and changes his appearance, his perspective about Washington is totally changed. While he always thought that he is like in the prison, he now became comfortable with his life in Washington and no longer wanted to go home, and this is very different with Santosh before he realizes his appearance. By this changing, he feels like he has prevailed to get into the society of Washington. He is no longer the alien from India, because he has been equal with others from the points of lifestyle, language and culture. This consciousness also makes him confidence toward his slavish identity. He realizes that his life won’t be spent forever to serve his employer. He had been changed from the object of his employer to the subject of his employer, because he can decide what will he does to his employer.

But in Santosh’s narrative, the American culture is represented as destructive, especially the emergence of hubshi in the surrounding. He often imagined the hubshi woman “as Kali, goddess of death and destruction” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 33). Along with his relationship with the hubshi woman, he gets a moral decadence. He had been raped by the hubshi woman. The rape symbolizes the shift of his identity, because his identity “is raped” by the American culture as he acquaints the hubshi woman. The physical size of Santosh and hubshi woman also symbolizes the cultural power between them. Santosh who has a smaller body cannot handle the power of the hubshi women who has a larger body. So, Santosh is failed to defend his body and culture of his own. Then, he becomes dirty viewed by the body aspect and the cultural aspect. His body contains the hubshi woman’s smell which he cannot remove it from his body, although he had worked hard until his skin is hurting. It is as the same as the American culture which has been attached to his mind and he cannot detach it although he knows it will be destructive.

This feeling is also felt by the employer. The employer questions “what are we doing in this place? Why do we have to come here?” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 34) after he saw the Washington burning which is done by the hubshi. However, Santosh desires the entire city is burned down. He was disappointed when the burning is going to stop. It signifies that the two Indians see the same vision: American culture is a dystopia. It let them to the destruction at the end. They don’t want to be the part of it, but in the contrary, they cannot get rid of it. The employer has his importance in Washington: his job, while Santosh has to accompany his employee. However, Santosh’s reason is slightly different. Not only he must accompany his employer as a part of his job, but also he has no money to go back to Bombay. But the two of them have a similar reason: economical reason. Therefore, the two immigrants “sacrifice” their identity, culture, even their safety to fulfill the economical needs.

When I adjusted to my imprisonment I had wanted only to get away from Washington and to return to Bombay. But then I had become confused. I had looked in the mirror and seen myself, and I knew it wasn’t possible for me to return to Bombay to the sort of job I had had and the life I had lived. I couldn’t easily become part of someone else’s presence again. … . I didn’t want them to return. (Naipaul, 2002, p. 36)

The place where formerly he thinks is prison now he cannot leave it. In this quotation, we can see the confusion of Santosh’s identity. In one part, he wanted to go back to Bombay, but in another part, he thought that it is impossible to go back to his former life. The latter statement is happened because he thinks that live in Bombay is worse than live in his current location. He is now culturally a part of Washington society. It can be proved by his cynicism toward his hometown, Bombay. He doesn’t want to live there because now he thinks he has lied in the higher culture at present, where the people dress properly. Also, in this quotation, his individualism comes into being. He wants to be separated from the shadow of his employer. Therefore, he ran away from his employer. It shows that after his changing, he thinks that he has the same social class with his employer. He now realizes of his freedom and can decide his own fate, whether he wants to continue living with his employer or not.

In a sense, the Indian culture is portrayed lower than the American culture, so that Santosh is reluctant to go back to his former culture. Like when Santosh overheard the conversation between his employer and an American in a dinner, the Amercian committed an illegal transaction of Indian holy sculpture. But easily, the American got away from the Indian law by giving two dollars. But as Indians, they cannot fight with that insulting act. Hence, Santosh chose to pretend not to understand about that problem. They become weak if they face the American. It can be caused by their position which is not in their hometown, so that they have a little political power. Besides, as a host of the meeting, the employer has to be professional regarding to his job, although actually, he was offended.

When he saw himself in the mirror, it is a process of identity identification called self-categorization or identification (Stets & Burke, 2000). Santosh builds his identity through deciding to where the society he belongs. In this case, after Santosh saw the reflection of him in the mirror, he decides to bond himself into the Washington society, because now he has the same identity with them, viewed by his way of dressing and his language. Also, he builds his identity by comparing one identity to another. As Stets & Burke reason:

Through a social comparison process, persons who are similar to the self are categorized with the self and are labeled the in-group; persons who differ from the self are categorized as the out-group. In early work, social identity included the emotional, evaluative, and other psychological correlates of in-group classification. (2000, p. 225)

As he met with Priya, he redefines his identity, because formerly he thinks that an Indian should not be identified himself as Washington society. However, the appearing of Priya makes him believe that identity can be changed. Then he chooses to be in the same group with Priiya, which is an Indian emigrant who now live and work in Washington. Thus, he felt safer with Priya, because he met someone who the identity is fit with what the ideal identity he wants.

Santosh also redefines the out-group, which is the Bombay society. He no longer identifies himself a person who lives and works in Bombay, because firstly, he now lives in Washington and secondly, his culture is no longer the same with Bombay people. The different cultures can be seen from the way he dresses, his perspective toward his relationship with his employer, and much more. When Priya talked about Bombay, Santosh felt that he “was a stranger in those places” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 43). Finally, he alienates himself with his hometown, because the culture has been changed in him.

However, the process of reidentification is not so easy for Santosh, because in earlier times, he knows that his new identity would bring him into a self-destruction. In Washington, as he looked upon Priya’s restaurant, Santosh thought that identity is merely a means to boost Priya’s business regarding Priya’s treatment toward the Mexican workers who had been made up as Indians with their turban. Furthermore, Priya at the end of the story suggests Santosh marry the hubshi woman to maintain the Santosh’s citizenship identity as an American citizen by using the green card. However, I think it the legalization of Santosh is just Priya’s trick to defend Santosh to work in his restaurant. Here again we can see the identity can be bought by the economical needs.

The marriage itself didn’t bring happiness to Santosh. In a contrary, he felt estrange by the strange smell of hubshi’s house. He then stated that he “have closed my mind and heart to the English language, to newspaper and radio and television, to the pictures of hubshi runners and boxers and musician on the wall” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 52). However, his tone when he spoke that statement is full of desperation. He unwillingly has to accept the fate that now he lived with hubshi which formerly he hated it. He just gave it up and accepted the identity transition, because he doesn’t want to repeat it anymore. Thus, it shows that how deep the pain he had for he has leaved the identity which he supposed to wear. Whereas, he formerly lives happily with his friends and his family in India.

The perspective of each culture toward religion is very different. While Santosh honors the sculpture which placed in his employer’s apartment, the hubshi didn’t care at all with that, even more, she discredits the sculpture by committing rape in front of the sculpture. Because Santosh identity is changing, he becomes similar with the American, especially the hubshi woman and Priya. He stated that he want to be like Priya who has a live with no further surprises. It shows his desperation regarding his dreary life. Furthermore, he doesn’t put any sculpture in his and his wife’s house to pray. Also, he becomes greedy and self-centered. It can be proved when he started to urge for more salary to Priya, because he had worked professionally.

I was once part of the flow, never thinking of myself as presence. All that my freedom has brought me is the knowledge that I have a face and have a body, that I must feed this body and clothe this body for a certain number of years. Then it will be over. (Naipaul, 2002, p. 52)

Now, Santosh lives without any hope. He just let it flow, and doesn’t hope for a better live in the next stage of life. He just thought about something that physically can be sensed, like money, outfit, and his body which to be fed. Different with the former Santosh who always relates what he sees to his religion, for example, the hubshi woman with God Kali, and the forbidden to acquaint the hubshi because of the religion.

At last, Santosh is never sure about his identity whether it is a good decision or bad decision. Because of his decision to be an American citizen, he has to marry a girl whom he never loves. In addition, the former identity rejects the appearing of the hubshi, so it leaves a heavy confusion in Santosh. Santosh thinks that “[he] was good-looking; [he] had lost my looks; [he] was a free man; [he] had lost [his] freedom” (Naipaul, 2002, p. 43). Although he declares that he is now an American, he cannot removes his former identity. By changing his appearance into more “good-looking” one, he then felt he had lost the supposedly appearance. So, he is not sure enough about his transition to become an American. Also, when he thought that he was a free man, he didn’t think so completely. In one side, he became free because he can decide to whom he would prefer to work. However, he still cannot distinguish his habit to call his employer a sahib, so unconsciously, he called Priya as his sahib.

In conclusion, the conflicts of identity in the character named Santosh is appeared by several things, that is the cultural image of America, the effect of Santosh surrounding which creates a cultural shock, and the economic factor. The second reason makes him uncomfortable, so he decides to adapt to his new environment. However, although he thinks that the new culture he got will bring him into destruction, he still wants to wear his new identity, because as he looks in the mirror, the older identity become worse. In fact, he cannot detach from his former identity which until the end of the story it still haunts him. At last, it creates a confusion of identity toward him that he cannot decides which is the better one, or, which is actually fit with him.

Works Cited

Lacan, J. (2004). The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience. In H. Adams, & L. Searle, Critical Theory Since Plato (3rd Edition ed., p. 991). Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing.

Naipaul, V. S. (2002). In a Free State. London: Picador.

Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity Theory and Social Identity Theory. Social Psychology Quarterly , pp. 224-237.


Posted 28 December 2011 by Rizal in Essays

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