Monday, August 17, 2009

What Indian are you?

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.


  1. this unfortunately happened to me to..we lived in Goa and were often asked...'are you outsiders'...well i am indian!!!

  2. Came here through the comment you left on my blog and love this first post itself.

    Even though we claim to be united in this diversity, I have often seen people looking for their type. They feel connected when someone speaks their tongue. Well! it is natural but that is not a way to be friends with someone.

    Since my Dad was in the defence, we lived a nomadic life and I made friends everywhere. Never bothered who spoke what. All of us had something in common and that was our friendship.

    People find pride in being from so n so state and so n so country and sometimes that pride becomes arrogance and inability to accept another.

    BTW your name sounds Bengali and I guess that's the reason many people ask that question. :)

  3. Hi Shraddha, i am sure we all have experienced it.

    welcome solilo,
    I agree that we all find comfort in the familiar. A sound, a smell, a taste.. anything that finds an echo in ourselves is always attractive. It bothers me when that becomes the premise for exploring the relationship.I often find more commonalities with people who have lived our kind of life ( as you say, nomadic)than with those who speak my mother tongue or belong to a certain place....

  4. Like Solilo, I came here through the comment you left on my blog...I just got asked if I were a Punjabi (by a Punjabi) a few minutes ago while waiting for my daughter's bus...When I answered that I was a Bengali, she said was I sure because I didn't look like one!
    Your name sounds Bengali so I guess that's why you get asked if you are one...

  5. Hi ramblings, I have no issues being identified as a bengali, assamese, punjabi..whatever... it is the need to do so and pass judgement that is irritating. Something like the lady saying you do not look like a bengali.

  6. Why not just take it as small talk? Some people question for no other reason than to make small talk, just like the weather -talk to open a conversation. It is really human nature to categorize and compartmentalize as you put it, the more we think about it, the more it would irritate us. No matter where you go, you would experience the same, not just in India. It is always up to the person who moves to adjust, wont you agree? Nice space you have here, landed on my blog hopping journey...

  7. Hi UL, You may be right, but there can be so much other small talk apart from caste and community matters. Also, sometimes the next step is induction into some association and fraternity of sorts. do we need more parochialism in this increasingly polarised world?
    Thank you for visiting and the kind words!!

  8. Beautifully said. I love your blog...

  9. Thanks Jyothi. for the kind words. It is very encouraging.


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