Finding Jassa Ahluwalia with ‘Both Not Half’ : The Tribune India

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Finding Jassa Ahluwalia with ‘Both Not Half’

Finding Jassa Ahluwalia with ‘Both Not Half’

Both Not Half by Jassa Ahluwalia. Bonnier UK. Pages 352. Rs 499



Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal

Jassa Ahluwalia has done everything he possibly can to belong somewhere. Jassa’s journey traverses multiple identities and geographies, from being named Jasvinder Singh Ahluwalia at birth to an exploration of who an ‘Imperial Wonder Boy’ could be. Poet Solmaz Sharif writes in her poem ‘Look’, “It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me./Exquisite.” Those who have already been othered would never let anything fuel this otherness. In the name Jassa, the author found not just solace, but an entire world that could be his, that was his.

In modern, post-Independence India, its minority-populated states have come to be known for their skyrocketing migration trends. For instance, Punjabis have created their own Punjab wherever they have gone. India’s constant othering of Punjab has not stopped Punjabis from achieving whatever they have wished to achieve. But it has come at a significant cost. These migrants have faced losses galore. These losses, in turn, have become their daily reality, but they have not let these losses define them.

Jassa was born to a white English mother and a brown Punjabi father, and grew up between Coventry and Leicester as a white boy who spoke Punjabi fluently. This baffled people more than once. As a result, it baffled Jassa too. Jassa, a British actor, writer, filmmaker and trade unionist, had to put in a life’s work to know where he could belong. ‘Both Not Half’ is a blueprint of all the journeys he has set out on until now — the journeys of looking within, and the physical journeys that he has had to undertake. ‘Both Not Half’ welcomes hybridity and looks at cultural divisions with exemplary kindness.

There is a complexity that Jassa has afforded for Kipling’s ‘Kim’, an Irish orphan in Lahore who is on the lookout for his place on this world’s map. The author admits that he had to turn to Kipling because there was nowhere else to look. This complexity, however, turned out to be a source of great strength for Jassa.

More than halfway through the book, the author reminds us that ‘Both Not Half’ is a refusal to accept binary thinking at its face value, and is a book that sets out to challenge racial hierarchies.

Jassa writes, “There is no us and them, only humanity.” Something that he would expand on in the final chapter of the book that records the author’s journey as a non-practising Sikh, who continues to be inspired by the teachings of Baba Nanak and Stoicism.

Those who have seen their cultures being othered often try to connect with their intimate histories through their mother tongues. While Jassa sets out to learn Gurmukhi in five days from a YouTube channel called BaruSahibHP, I, too, learnt Gurmukhi in my late teens from a book that was a gift from my father. ‘Punjabi Primer’ by Dr Gurbakhsh Singh was published by Akal Printing Press, Baru Sahib. My experience of this otherness was very different from Jassa’s, since I was not mixed race but was born to Punjabi parents, in a different state, and that made all the difference for me even when I moved abroad.

This book is a millennial’s love letter to the world. It is a plea to blur the boundaries that separate us. I smiled when I read ‘mattha tek’ in the book, which seems to be the NRI proper noun for the act of bowing down in front of Guru Granth Sahib. There are various tender moments in the book — from the sincerity of a ‘Quorn dhal’ skit to calling his grandmother BG, the abbreviation for Biji, who writes her grocery lists in a Gurmukhi that is a transliteration from English.

‘Both Not Half’ ends with a heartfelt message for the author’s sister Ramanique, who is queer and brown, who has also felt othered but because of reasons that are different from Jassa’s. He tells her that he’s ready to be her brother, that he is ready to be him.


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