Rajiv Mohabir’s memoir, Antiman, takes us on a journey through the United States, India, Canada, and Guyana. While the author does not physically take us to Guyana, it would be unfair to not include it because we travel there through Aji’s songs. Aji, Rajiv’s paternal grandmother, is central to this memoir because Rajiv identifies strings that weave the narrative of his life into the songs she sings. Rajiv’s ancestors were Indians who were sent to Guyana by Britishers. During British rule, some Indian families were relocated to areas where the British had plantations, a fact that is not very commonly known. Some of Rajiv’s ancestors made their way to North America while others moved back to India. For Rajiv, it was the knowledge of this history that helped him connect with his grandmother and her experiences. This memoir represents his struggle to preserve a beloved inheritance, the songs his grandmother sang.
Rajiv’s family holds ancestral roots in many parts of India and he travels to Uttar Pradesh at the beginning of the book. Hailing from Uttar Pradesh myself, I was struck by how many of Aji’s songs I could understand. Growing up hearing my relatives speak a mixture of Bhojpuri and Dehati, as it is known in small villages in UP, I saw Rajiv inch closer to the language my parents have run away from. In UP, he studies Mahabharat, one of the religious books of Hinduism. Learning to merge his worldview with what he read in Mahabharat takes him to a specific, but also universal, struggle. How do we make sense of religious faith when its interpretations continue to fail and look down upon our identities? Mahabharat propagates caste discrimination and Rajiv was a mixture of different castes. Mahabharat provided him a connection back to his roots, but there was a sense of rejection. This disorientation is weaved into the very structure of the book as well.
At the beginning of the book, I felt the tumultuous confusion that Rajiv faced in his own life. The chapters were disconnected, and I struggled to appreciate them. It didn’t feel pure; it felt as if it was an Indian river, filled with impurity and significance.
Rajiv’s relationships constantly override the physical borders imposed by each new place he travels; as he puts it, “Borders are bullshit.” Every new city is marked by a person who leaves a significant impact on the author. This constant flux emphasizes the perplexity felt by the author regarding his own identity and relationships.
Throughout the book, these lines remain constant: “You are nothing… No one will ever love you… You are fat and hairy… You are good for nothing.” And this becomes interesting when we chalk out emotional patterns between the rejection that Rajiv faces from his partners and the rejection he received from his father. When he shared how his father tried to cover up parts of his personality to appear conventional to his extended family, he painted a picture of how being part of the diaspora means a game of constantly rejecting and accepting parts of yourself. Every part of our identity is up for scrutiny and rejection by those who created us and leaves behind deep scars that we perpetually carry.
It wasn’t until his move to New York that I felt that this Indian river of impurity might finally be finding its way into the ocean. I felt a wave of comfort when he stopped trying to make sense of boundaries in his life. A part of me cheered for him. It felt as if the purpose wasn’t to cultivate an identity that he could hang on to in his lifetime, but to accept that he exists, balancing himself on blurred boundaries, living in parts inside a whole body. I think this particular song sums this sentiment up: “There are river dolphins in the Ganges / There are river dolphins in Guyanese rivers / Your echolocation vibes with both species / How queer for a dolphin to live in a river / Diaspora is a queer country / How can you be at once two species from two places?”
Owing somewhat to our highly globalized world, our identities have become a multifaceted concept. Rajiv’s struggle to reconcile with the idea of self, his diasporic nature, and his queer identity in a world that rejects both, is truly gut-wrenching. In his memoir, Rajiv splits himself open for the world to see. More than anything, this is an act of reaching out to people and saying, “I exist too.” Vulnerability is at the core of this book where broken hearts and a shattered sense of self is laid bare on the table.
In this book, through all the songs and poetry, I believe we can all find parts of ourselves. This is not a book about finding an identity but accepting that “whole” is a broken concept itself and that sometimes the songs that a woman sings her entire life could be the marker of her “wholeness.”
By Rajiv Mohabir
Published June 22, 2021