This happened to me when I was in fifth grade in school. I had just moved from Kerala, where I was living with my grand parents to Jaipur, to be with my parents. I did not know a word of Hindi, and was thrown , head first into the curriculum of Rajasthan board, where Hindi was almost the first language. In order to gain some mastery over the language, my parents sent me to a friend's home where I would develop and practice my skills. I remember, one young neighbour there asking me what my 'surname' was. Not familiar with the term, I just shrugged it off. The reason I remember the incident clearly is because not only did I feel foolish, not knowing something she so obviously expected me to know, I also did not know why it was so important.
Later on, I learnt that the surname or the last name, was something that while connecting you to one community, weakened your ties with others. Some said, "oh, so you are from our side!" while others just contented themselves with "but you do not look like One" as if it was a difference of species. As I grew up, so did my knowledge of names and identities and sadly, I can decipher some of the linguistic differences. Yet even now, I am fortunate enough not to know the caste differences.
We are so good at dividing the world up into races and countries even though we talk of globalisation and the shrinking distances. There are those who want to maintain the distances. We all meet them ever so often. The people who slot you into a specific place, based solely on your name. They slot you as Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and so on.. They also attribute certain qualities and behavior to you based on that.
"Aap Bengali hain?", meaning 'are you a bengali?' is a question I often get asked. I also get asked whether I am Assamese, Hindi, Punjabi, tamilian and so on... People who feel that they can tell where a person is from, very often get thrown by my not so familiar name and are unable to slot me neatly. I also get asked about my religion, which is again a way to neatly compartmentalise a person. I enjoy the 'ukdi cha modak' as much as the christmas cake or, the 'onam sadhya' as much as the 'gujiya', the 'puran poli' as much as the 'pongal'.
Yes, I do understand that comfort zone you have with some one from the same background. I too feel happy when I meet someone who has studied at my Alma mater, or who has lived in the same place that I did. There is a sense of camaraderie that links you to the other. Yet, to make that one of the first questions to ask of a co-passenger or some one you meet casually at a party? Also, mostly I am asked if I am a 'keralite' by some one who has never lived in 'Kerala'. The person who wants to know if I am a Punjabi, has never lived anywhere near Punjab. So it is more to ascertain that you are not one of 'them' rather than to include you, that the question is put. (That neat slot, remember?)
Having lived in different places, I am fortunately, not limited by languages and am ever willing to learn different customs and traditions. I am proud of my heritage and feel that our heritage gets accentuated by the similarity in different traditions.I believe that languages are just tools of communication. The emotions and thoughts that are communicated are the same, all over. I was born in free India and want no labels that limit me.