Review: ‘Identitti’ by Mithu Sanyal


Identitti is an intellectual tour de force. It cuts a fatty discourse with swirls of humor and wit that provoke, debauch, and finally appease a reality of our own making. By focusing on the plasticity of identity politics — and identity in general — the story presents the emotional and existential fallout of learning that a figure cherished for her racial Otherness is, in fact, white.

Sanyal’s novel shapes itself around teasing language, succulent play-on-words, and loud vibrancy in every detail of its delivery. This is, in no small part, due to Alta L. Price’s electric translation.

The blend of languages present in the text, and the state of displacement they refer to, blots the line between conscious reality and suppressed hyperreality. As do the interactions between Nivedita, known as her virtual moniker Identitti, and the Hindu goddess Kali; she of the lolling tongue and skirt of severed arms.

This distortion turns palpable when Saraswati, the idolized professor of postcolonial and race studies, is exposed for having been, once upon a time, alabaster-white. Consequently seen as a hypocrite, racist, liar, and betraying mother figure, Saraswati nevertheless seduces the angry masses with her rationale for the transcendence of race.

The end result is a challenge, posed as much for Nivedita and her friends, as the reader. The uproarious provocation that runs like a thread through Identitti is entwined with sexuality, the euphoric expression of which feeds on Kali’s presence.

And as the doors to the discussion about race are thrown wide open, all other aspects of the subconscious spill forth. As a result, Nivedita’s sexual curiosities, politics, and suppression are as pervasive as her confused state of arousal.

It’s interwoven with speech and thought and, as such, treated as another facet of the mundane. In fact, the very notion of taboo ceases to exist, and aside from being deeply satisfying, this outcome charges the text with an undercurrent of promiscuity, as multifarious as can be.

At the heart of Identitti lies the concept of identity as fiction, not fact. Sanyal attempts to do away with the notion of the self, which might just be the most ambitious dream any writer has ever pursued.

We can even argue that she triumphs over this nefarious root of all being, as the resolution of the story’s internal struggle is as gratifying as it is wholly unexpected. And yet, she does so at a cost; the price being a circuitous narrative heralded by a cast of solipsistic, self-indulgent characters.

Still, the author’s plunge toward the absurdist realm of the ego is marvelous. On our way down, we’re reminded that centering one’s being solely on one’s identity carves a hollow presence, and makes for one brittle relationship with the world at large.

Unfortunately, this message is delivered through precisely such behavior, making the savoring of its delicacy bitter in larger doses. Nivedita is remarkably difficult to like.

Seeing as she exists as the mirror reflection of her professor, whom she idolizes to the point of obsession, it’s understandable that Nivedita gains substance in direct proportion to the unveiling of Saraswati’s complexity. Her frailty is pivotal to the plot. After all, the very delivery of the story’s moral hinges on her unraveling.

And this is precisely where Identitti‘s didactic value clashes with its novelistic form. A protagonist that acts entitled while exhibiting every sign of insecurity, passivity, and an inability to set boundaries for others is already a beefy obstacle on the reader’s path to enjoyment.

The addition of a cluster of characters, whose entire understanding of the world relies on the victim narrative proves excruciating. Of course, the gaps in their awareness are addressed, and partially mended, by the debates prompted by Saraswati’s ‘betrayal’, but their journey is a trying one.

And yet, it has to be said that as infuriating as the plot’s regurgitated voice seems at times, it also possesses enough charm to make us long for its climax. The format of Identitti is also highly nuanced, with its inclusion of articles, blog entries, tweets, as well as Instagram and Facebook posts.

Aside from the clever handles, these additions open up the dialogue between the past and the present, the body and the cell. They also add vitality to the story, awakening its sense of delirium, even paranoia. This resuscitates the action whenever the plot’s swaying from Nivedita’s recollections to the disjointed here and now feels too lethargic.

However, what’s most remarkable about these insertions is what Sanyal reveals about them in the afterword. Namely, that they are the outcome of a highly collaborative process of transcending fiction and reality. As the author notes, “the struggle over identity is the struggle over fiction in a reality — and sometimes these struggles have very real victims.”

We learn that she reached out to genuine specialists in the field to ask them to react to the ‘Saraswati Affair’ as though it were taking place in reality. This is not inconceivable, as the character of Saraswati was partly inspired by Rachel Dolezal, who lived as a Black person until she was outed by the press as white in 2015, as well as many more BIPOC-passing women.

There’s no doubt that the novel is an artistically audacious undertaking. As such, it requires a new lexicon to explore its matter exhaustively. That’s because Identitti offers a violent, beseeching introduction to the process of decolonizing, which thrills with its pursuit of the end of structural racism as much as it pains with its improbability; especially in today’s political climate. Ironically enough, one of the hurdles appears to be the idea of identity politics itself.

The words, “we are creation and we are life itself, hence all our goddamned guilt and the responsibility we all have to love one another” may be the most haunting record of Identitti‘s essence. It makes sense, then, that the shock of a racially-motivated terrorist attack, inspired by an actual event that took place while the author was working on the novel, sparks the climactic overthrow of reality.

Kali gains flesh, her weight leaves an imprint on the earth. Her divine intervention is the only means of reinstating a semblance of peace, which finds its embodiment in the tattered connection between Saraswati and Raji, her adopted brother. Their past serves as grounds for trauma, echoing the sentiment of so many other characters hurt by the story’s wrenches.

Overall, Identitti is a competent, amusing, provocative, delicious, and highly exasperating feat of literary and philosophical impetus. What’s more, it serves as a testament to a feeling that’s far greater than the sum of its parts, including the assumptions of its readers. As the author states, “Being white is no longer the end all be all. Something is moving and I want to acknowledge that (…).”

Publication date: July 26, 2022 (Astra Publishing House)

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