Millefeuille: The Layers That Shape Our Identity

Hyphenated identities are on the rise in a globalised world, but what does it mean when the two identities in question have very little in common? Certain countries have a history of citizens with multiple identities. The Canadians, for one, have always had French-Canadians and English-Canadians. Likewise, the Swiss are a patchwork of distinctly diverse identities, but all of them belong to the broad sphere of cultured Christians. Post-WWII, Europe and mainly the West has witnessed the rise of mass immigration from spheres distinctly different from Christianity. Although monotheist in structure, Islam and the Islamic spheres of influence have set off on paths that contradict the values of the western spheres. Some maintain we have an inherent sense of ‘shared universal values’ that are enough for us to live anywhere in the world. However, across the planet, we see the absence of consensus on issues such as our sense of democracies, women’s rights, human rights, rights of individuals, sexual freedom, social equality, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. Had our ‘shared values’ or ‘universal values’ triumphed, multiculturalism would have succeeded across the spectrum of humanity. But why has it failed? And do we have our definitions right?

Human beings are multifaceted or multi-layered; our identity has multiple aspects or layers to it. The language or languages we speak, the appearances we display, the narratives we harbour, the culture we cultivate, the geography we suffer, the attachments we build, the nationality we pledge loyalty to, and the gender, family and social class we are born into all play their part in shaping our identity. Millefeuille in French literally means a thousand layers. This book discusses nine of those layers relevant to the turmoil of our times.


I was born and raised in India, but my love for classical music and opera in particular made me an instant misfit in my country of origin. When I was barely ten, I realised 
I was homosexual; I became conscious of society’s & people’s perspective of sexuality, including the sense of freedom and expression in India – and in time – the world. In my early 20s, I crushed my dear father’s dream of becoming a successful engineer (like any good Indian child) and followed my quest for opera which brought me to London, Paris and Prague. In my 30s, I realised that France was home and I found myself in harmony with the values of the French Republic. Whilst opera and classical music remain an integral part of my life, I became a language teacher because of my sense of intrigue when it came to language.

My interaction with people from different parts of the world gave me a unique insight into the minds of the peoples of Europe. Around the same time, I discovered that a vast number of French citizens were struggling with their sense of identity due to the constant influx of immigrants. Likewise, other European countries that had signed up for mass immigration – for solely economic purposes – had begun experiencing the rise of detached citizens. As someone who had moved for cultural reasons, I had little conflict in fitting into my new sphere, my new home. However, it was obvious that those who had migrated for economic reasons found it harder to integrate, let alone assimilate into the values of the French Republic or into those of other European countries.

They say ‘home is where the heart lies’, and naturally many might have left their hearts in far flung corners of the world. As a consequence, in extreme cases, European countries are struggling to find a common theme even with naturalised citizens who now hold European passports, because of their very definition of home. What is worse, many today claim to be home in Europe, but harbour contradictory values of another sphere that bears little resemblance to the culture and traditions of Europe. It was at this point that
I became interested in the reality of multiple identities and identity politics. There is no denying that today Europe is home to millions of citizens who left their countries of origin and have found themselves in spheres where they feel a deep sense of alienation.

Whilst I am grateful for the sense of freedom and expression of the western spheres
I have lived in, I believe that the victory of a society lies in transferring the same sense of freedom to its future generations. People may contribute to society in various ways, but I chose to draw my pen in defence of the French values of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Millefeuille was born out of the desire to defend cultural values over economic gain, to choose freedom of speech in the face of fear, and encourage reflection over simplistic deductions. It is, above all, an honest invitation for anyone who has moved into a new cultural sphere to shed their dangerous differences and come together as insiders rather than remain outsiders. May the future promise a safe haven for any child who is born in any corner of the world and wishes to change his or her destin

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The Chapters

The sound of music needs no words to leave its lasting impression on us. Yet, humanity needs words to communicate. Although the populations of the world may speak a thousand tongues, a select few have acquired global dominance and even diplomatic status. Barely a century ago, most leaders of European populations embraced the French language, but we live in times where the English language and its many arguable forms have dethroned the French language. It was Charlemagne, Pater Europae or the ‘father of Europe’ who rightfully commented, “To have or speak another language is to possess another or second soul.” (Parler une autre langue, c’est avoir une autre âme). His words have a ring of truth even today when one observes that the French language binds French souls into one. But beyond the battle for global dominance, what role does language play for people who move into new spheres, countries and regions of the world? Language skills are a vital and basic tool for populations to integrate and feel part of a society. What happens when they fail to reach a certain standard or simply reject the languages of their new spheres?

The most dynamic of our layers obviously turned out to be the most superficial of them all. One shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, yet, more often than not, we tend to judge people for their outward appearances. If one were to set aside the glamour, the fact still remains that garments have always been used to make a point. From the Scottish kilt to the Indian sari, clothes and fabric tend to weave the tradition into identity. In the absence of language, our clothes convey the desired message. Kaiser Wilhelm II is said to have dressed up like a Sultan on his visit to Damascus and Constantinople during World War I in order to muster Arab support and declare ‘holy war’ or Jihad against the Allies.

Clothing is an instant marker for ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. But what role do clothes and appearances play in a globalised world? Depending on the changing cultural and political climate, all kinds of garments and even fabrics come under scrutiny. For instance, the arrival of Chinese silk on the streets of Rome was welcomed by the rich but also vilified by certain factions of society. The philosopher Seneca declared that silk undermined the foundation of marriage because women on the streets wore the flimsy fabric that barely clung to their bodies, leaving little to the imagination of men. In our time, the Islamic headscarf and its variations have put Muslim women on the undesirable fringes of our society. Whilst Islamic association and organisations have branded this as ‘Islamophobia’, they have failed to address the reality of the headscarf and its narratives of imposition that were woven into the Islamic revolution of 1979 in Iran.

The complex layer has multiple aspects to it. Be it feminism, rights for homosexuals or the much debated gender pay gap, society remains divided on issues related to matters of sexuality, gender and mainly the role of women.  Is it much ado about nothing? In the 17th century, a group of determined women stormed into the British Parliament armed with a petition that outlined their desire to be part of the parliamentary process. Even within marriage, women were defined as the property of men. Her husband had the right to her property and her body. It was only in 1882 that the Married Women’s Property Act was passed, giving women the right to possess property in their own names after marriage, and it took the British Parliament until 1991 to declare marital rape as a crime.

As for the homosexuals, they were routinely persecuted by the police and the politicians who labelled them as ‘social deviants’ or ‘incorrigibles’. It took the courage of a tiny gay community in the United States to stand their ground against raids by the police. Their fight went down in history as the Stonewall riots and opened the door for gay rights. Today a good number of western countries have enshrined laws in their constitutions and allowed homosexuals to get married and start families. But while one side of the world is spearheading gender equality and sexual freedom, many other parts remain reticent or outright dismissive when it comes to including women, let alone homosexuals, in their structures and models. And while homosexuals in certain parts of the planet are basking in their newly acquired rights, the changing times offer no guarantee for a narrative to evolve in a linear or exponential manner that liberates the homosexuals across the world.

The Irish have a beautiful phrase that sums up their sense of culture and pride. Níos Gaelaí ná na Gaeil féin means to be more Irish than the Irish. Culture has never been static and influences keep seeping in while we are sleeping. However, societies remain divided over the concepts of integration, assimilation, and multiculturalism. Does multiculturalism means the coexistence of cultures or does it demand more from an individual. Today only the French speak of assimilation, but assimilation was hardly a French invention.

Even the world’s most beloved Royal family could not escape this phenomenon. Not so long ago, King Edward VII and his heir George V were members of the German Ducal House of Saxe-Coburg & Gotha. But when WWI broke out, the heavy German bombers called Gotha IV began targeting London. Naturally, anti-German sentiments were rife in the wake of the bombings and the Royals knew they would have to shed their German roots in order to be accpeted as English. Few realise that the House of Windsor was baptised barely a century ago. The king’s loyal adviser, Lord Stamfordham, came up with the name to help the the Royals repackage their identity and shed their German titles with grace. At the stroke of a pen, in July 1917, George V issued a Royal proclamation. Since then, they have styled themselves as the House of Windsor. History is littered with examples of ‘outsiders’ who become ‘insiders’. Culture may seem like a ‘soft power’ , but it is hard to define and is flaunted  by the cultured and the crass to whip up public sentiment. 

Our magical entry into the world is defined by certain philosophers as a ‘lottery of birth’, an apt phrase considering that fate smiles upon those who are born with a silver spoon in their mouth. In fact, it is not just riches and comfort, but also opportunities, resources and education that one inherits. Although social mobility is vital to any democratic model, the fact remains that those who inherit advantages might never need to give a second thought to those who inherit disadvantages. Nevertheless, developed societies have prided themselves on delivering certain standards of living to their citizens, irrespective of one’s lottery of birth. Naturally, the desire for a better deal in every aspect of life leads to a rat race, especially in societies where class structures are deeply entrenched. But what about societies that have systemic processes that often deprive the underprivileged of the opportunity to even compete in the same arena? And is positive discrimination the solution? Apart from the opportunities, what role does a family play in inculcating values in children? For a good number of years, one’s family has a hold over one’s sense of morality, clothing and culture. What happens when those values are in contradiction with the sphere we live in?

When history fades from our memories, it suffers the fate of myths. The magnificent monuments around the world are a mark of the victorious who erected structures and inscribed lines on them lest our memory should fail us. When any place suffers an invasion, it is not unusual for invaders to raze those very monuments to the ground in an attempt to erase our collective memory. The destruction is often followed by the construction of new monuments, which help create new narratives to suit the new rulers. Civilisations have been built and wiped out in this game of building narratives. Desecration of monuments, religious or otherwise, and construction of new ones, all help seal the deal.

History is usually in the able hands of the victorious or closely guarded by the regimes in power. It is littered with violent examples of takeovers, but what happens when a nation loses its story-line or suffers schisms not due to healthy debates, but merely because of a demographic change in its ethnic makeup? On 10 October 732, the army of the Umayyad Caliphate led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi swept through north-central France with the sole intention of subjugating infidel lands, only to find Charles Martel standing in their way. Martellus, as he is fondly referred to, descended on the invading army and hammered his way through to victory. The hopes of the Caliphate came to a crashing end, and Arab-Berber forces were left with no choice but to retreat into Al-Andalus, formerly known as Hispania until its invasion in 711. The bloody battle in which the Frankish forces saw a decisive victory came to be known as the Battle of Tours or the Battle of Poitiers. In a surprising twist of narratives, the Arabs remember this battle as the Battle of the Palace of the Martyrs or Ma’arakat Balāṭ ash-Shuhadā. The idea of an invading army being repackaged as martyrs for a worthy cause is certainly not unique to Arabs, but history tends to leave us with a sense of collective victory and collective loss; it evokes collective joy and collective pain. Can a nation survive without a collective sense of the above?

The word ‘patriot’ finds its humble roots in Greek, but has gone through its own evolutionary path. The word patrius, meaning fatherland, became patrios, meaning of one’s father, which in Latin became patriota, meaning fellow countryman, which inched closer to patriote in French and eventually got distorted by the English into ‘patriot’. Like the word, the sense of patriotism has gone through its own revolutionary path. Once used to epitomise the love for one’s motherland or fatherland, the patriot is quickly turning into the most undesirable element in a world where borders are either porous or disappearing. While patriotism is widely believed to have socio-cultural roots, nationalism is a political belief. Even though ‘isms’ are naturally interpreted as extremes, the two are intertwined like a pair of conjoined twins. However, add citizenship to the duo, and suddenly things get thrown into a state of disarray.

While patriotism and nationalism can be interpreted differently, citizenship is quite simple – one either holds it or not. The snag is that one may hold a certain passport and remain unpledged to the sentiments of the patriot or the nationalist. As a matter of fact, one may not share any sense of attachment, let alone loyalty towards the nation. Like it or not, it appears to be a fundamental flaw, as we now have a growing number of detached citizens. If one were to set aside loyalties, one would still have to deal with the reality that certain nations wield more power than others. For those nations that define themselves as Republics, it begs the question do national interests serve the public? After all the word ‘Republic’ stems from Latin, Res meaning concern, publica meaning ‘the public’.  Does power lie in the hands of people who vote every once in five years or have certain democracries been reduced to plutocracies?

Buddatva (the state of enlightenment) and its path demand a supreme sense of detachment from desire, which Buddha felt was the fundamental factor contributing to distorted perceptions. Pain and suffering had their roots in attachment for Buddha. His inspirational teachings on detachment were embraced by millions, long before the birth of Christ or Muhammad, but failed to inspire those who longed for a sense of attachment. Centuries after Buddhism’s fall from the peaks of the Hindu Kush (modern-day Afghanistan), its teachings continue to enlighten millions who follow Buddha’s philosophy of detachment. Yet ironically, in a globalised world, adhering to his teachings is also a form of attachment. For those who have not found their state of enlightenment, attachments and affiliations remain the essence of their lives. The vast majority do not want to break away from the chains of attachments. From smaller pleasures to the finer ones, people seem to be happily trapped in the desire for more.

For better or worse, attachments and affiliations have the capacity to cross borders and bind people into larger spheres. Religion, flags and football  are profitable proof of cross-border ties that bring billions together, and they generate astronomical funds. From community centres to clubs, people have always found ways of coming together and sharing their thoughts and ideas. One’s individual attachments can enrich one’s life, depending on the quality of it. When our attachments concern music or films, they simply add another dimension to the entertainment in our lives. Although some of that entertainment may be questionable, it serves as an outlet for millions, and as long as it does not incite violence, it seems fair to let people be the judge of their choices.

However, when our attachments detach us from the spheres we live in, it leads to mistrust and friction in our societies. Europe is now home to thousands of religious centres and cultural centres of attachments that are profoundly detached from certain values fundamental to Europe’s existence. This phenomenon is unlikely to disappear because most people crave for their own social spheres where they can stay connected to their roots or origins.

The volcanic island of Terceira has a daunting, life-size statue of Vasco da Gama, the first European to sail safely to the shores of South India all the way from Portugal. A crew of 170 men set off from Lisbon on four boats, two of which were massive carracks baptised São Gabriel and São Rafael, the third was a smaller boat baptised São Miguel, and the fourth was a storage boat. São Gabriel was commanded by Vasco da Gama while his brother, Paolo da Gama, captained São Rafael; but the entire fleet of archangels was led by Vasco da Gama. They left Lisbon in July 1497 and journeyed through Mozambique, Mombasa and Malindi, all of which were under the control of Arab traders, and finally in April 1498 they reached Kerala or more specifically the coast of Kozhikode (now Calicut). Part of the larger region of the Malabar coast, Kozhikode was a thriving port and the centre of the spice trade.The Portuguese stayed for three months and shopped around, but failed to secure a treaty.  Vasco da Gama was a trailblazer and had made the arduous journey connecting the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean, but he was forced to leave with a sense of dissatisfaction and defeat. The following year, da Gama returned to India with a fleet big enough to set up a Portuguese presence that would change the landscape of the Malabar Coast. Despite opposition from the Malabar forces, the year 1501 saw the first spiced up boats leave the coast of Kerala for Portugal.

When Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Pedro Álvares Cabral set out on their adventures, their aim was to bypass the Islamic sphere and directly meet the source or better yet, take it over. When the Portuguese landed on the South American coast, it was not without the grand ambition of chartering new trade routes. In fact, South America was a megamix of Portugal and Spain, and it was ‘Portuñol’ or ‘Portunhol’ for centuries before it was exposed to the Anglo-Saxons. Today, we know ‘Portuñol’ or ‘Portunhol’ as a melange of Portuguese and Spanish that is scoffed at by language puritans, but one ought to think of it as a cultural sphere. Beyond the language, it was the values and the finances of two powers that prevailed in vast territories of the world. Of course, trade helped keep their geopolitical order.

In the race for resources, the superpowers have moved from pepper to pipelines for oil. Today China wants to weave new silk roads in order to trade with the world. China’s ambition of linking the world with its own connections – a project now known as The Belt and Road Initiative is bound the change the balance of power.
In the Chinese world order, the ‘roads’ will be sea routes, and the lands will be a connection through ‘belts’. The ambitious project to link the resources of the world is to be completed in phases over decades. But what does it mean for the values for the world? And can the balance of powers tilt in favour of China?

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