Identitti (Mithu Sanyal)

Identitti is the first novel by Mithu Sanyal. There is no English translation (yet).
Finished on: 8.3.2023

Nivedita studies postcolonial theory in Düsseldorf with Professor Saraswati. The classes have been eye-opening for her, prompting her to reflect her own difficult relationship with her German-Polish-Indian ancestry in Germany, bein both a PoC and never feeling like she is Indian enough. She is writing a lot about this on her blog and social media accounts under the name Identitti. But then the unthinkable is revealed: Saraswati isn’t actually Indian like she said. She is white, and has been pretending for years and years. As some of her colleagues start to protest their professor, Nivedita starts to spiral, trying to figure out what this means for and to her – and why Saraswati did it in the first place.

Identitti is a political novel, and the emphasis might be more on the politics part than on the novel part. I found it interesting and engaging, but also a tad dense. For a debut, it’s definitely promising, though.

The book cover showing the Indian goddess Kali. Tongue showing, she is blue-skinned and has four arms, one holding a man's head. She is wearing a necklace of decapitated heads and a skirt of arms. She is stomping on a man lying on the ground, a snake wrapped around his arm.

I have been trying to educate myself about racism for a while, and since I work at University, I knew I had to read Identitti. And as an educational resource it works really well – it is a very readable introduction to postcolonial theory and the discourses on racism that transports a lot of theoretical discussions through characters hashing things out instead of just summarizing theories.

She adds social media posts to that – both Identitti’s own blog posts and tweets, but Sanyal also asked basically the who is who of German (anti-racist) twitter to comment on the “Saraswati Incident” as if it was real, trying to capture the various positions in a heterogenous tweet. This strategy works pretty well for the book and manages to get a bit of fresh air in the otherwise rather dense text.

What didn’t work so well for me was the “literature” part of the novel. The characters felt a little flat, and that includes Nivedita who is the actual narrator of the story. But the ending was the real problem for me: it felt a lot like Sanyal had painted herself and her story into a corner. With Kali’s rather sudden actual appearance, it’s a literal deus ex machina to break out of the impasse. It just didn’t work for me.

I’m a little more conflicted about the inclusion of the Hanau shootings. Narratively, they came out of nowhere, but that’s just how shootings and terror attacks tend to come. Combined with Kali, it too felt a little like taking the easy way out, narratively speaking. But it is such an incisive event that I can hardly imagine it not being included in a book on racism in Germany.

Ultimately, I struggled most with how easily Saraswati/Sarah Vera got off in the end, though. I’m not arguing to shun people forever after they made hurtful decisions, but I would like for them to at least acknowledge and work through the pain they caused. Without that, any kind of rehabilitation is performative only. That Saraswati always has a powerful argument in her pocket that other characters can’t seem to counter, is also difficult. It definitely adds complexity, but a good argument doesn’t make somebody right necessarily. This gets lost in the course of the book, I thought.

That being said, it is a thought-provoking book that includes a crash course in a topic I am very interested in. I enjoyed it, even though I can’t say that it wasn’t work or that I devoured it. But not every book needs to be a page-turner, and Identitti definitely has a lot to offer.

Summarizing: definitely worth reading.

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