November 13, 2007

In particular

It came to me while I spent a recent night in an out-of-town guest house built by -- but not necessarily exclusively for -- and named for an association of people of a particular community. Clean place, gentle caretaker couple with a handsome friendly dog. I was there because of familial ties; before those ties, I would not even have known of this place. Though judging from entries in the guest book, that wouldn't have mattered -- the visitors immediately before us were clearly not from this particular community. Indeed, as I said, this place doesn't restrict itself to serving that community.

But it came to me nevertheless -- to wonder, what's my community? When Indians form themselves into all manner of community-based associations, which one might I belong to? Which might I join?

Would it be one centred around my supposed mother-tongue? But my friends who speak that tongue fluently laugh when I do, for I nicely mangle it. I know I do, and I laugh too. Besides, once the language thing is over, what do we have to draw us together and keep us there?

Would it then be one centred around the religion implied by my last name? But here's the truth: despite that name, I have no religion. And the times I find myself in gatherings of people of that religion, of any religion, there's not a whole lot we share, leave it there.

What about one to do with where I live? Well, there was the time that a young lady on our first date said, and I quote, "[Your city] guys are wow!" It made me feel good. Only, later I found myself wondering: Do I want to be "wow!" because of my city? Or because of me?

When I was younger ... ahh, the cliche. But when I was indeed younger, I had no idea, simply none, about particular communities. I just had friends. To the question "what are you?", I could offer no answer that satisfied, because what do you say when your parents are from different states but are still Indian, from different faiths but are still Indian, speak different languages but are still Indian?

You say, and it doesn't satisfy: I am Indian. Show me, please, the guest house built by an association of people of that particular community.


Anonymous said...

A friend told me today to answer the question "So what are you?" with "I am geometrically Maharashtrian". I think I'll try that out with the next person who asks.

Anuradha said...

Hey Good post.. I have the same dilemma. Having grownup in different parts of India. Having parents from different states, not speaking any of those languages at home (though can blabber it!!) not being religious or having any associations/biases based on religion,language.

The first thing most people ask when they meet :) is where is your hometown etc.. and I have a smile and have a quick answer-' I don't have one'. I would rather call myself an Indian..

Some of my friends have tagged me as a Half Bong:) since my dad was a Bengali though he never grew up West Bengal and wasn't even born there.

Jai_Choorakkot said...

'Touchy', 'odd', over-patriotic is how you could get diagnosed when you come back with I_am_Indian!, not that one may care.

Many ppl just ask that for the asking, because it feels perhaps more cosy to both than chatting abt the weather (with some of us, its actually considered polite/ caring to show interest that way), and dont particularly care too much abt what you are or where you are from.

Chances are, with casual conversations, they dont even remember 5 mins later.

Your best bet if you are sensitive to such questions is to come up with a humorous take like "one-quarter Mallu, one-quarter Telugu, rest XYZ..."

Do leave the asker with an out and dont hurt their dignity unless you are very sure abt their obnoxious slotting nature.

I am happy with my multiple overlapping identities and not particluarly embarrassed to face such questions.


Dilip D'Souza said...

PMandBV, and Anuradha:
A friend told me today to answer the question "So what are you?" with "I am geometrically Maharashtrian"

where is your hometown etc.

To the question "From where are you?" that I sometimes get asked, I sometimes answer "Here." Works well. (Gets a laugh, at any rate).

Reminds me of my favourite brief phone conversation. I once called the office of the (now sadly defunct) Bombay newspaper Afternoon. Receptionist answered, and I asked "Is this the Afternoon?"

Quick as anything, and with a quiet chuckle, she shot back: "No, it's the morning!"

Anonymous said...

Dilip: I so much agree with what Anuradha and you had to say. I come across this question very often -- Where is your hometown. I have stayed in 6 cities. My grandparents came from the other side of Punjab during partition and apart from that I have no active connection in Punjab. Some people call me Pakistani. So, then, where am I from? Delhi? Just because I was born there? But err...I know more Marathi than Punjabi because I have spent 9 years in Maharashtra. So well, I don't have one hometown. Just like what Anuradha said. Of course, one could also say "here" with a hint of smile and see the puzzled reactions.

But I wonder what makes us Indians "tag" each other with a hometown. You know, they make you feel like not having a hometown is a matter of shame here. I despise the whole concept but I guess its only because I don't happen to belong to the system. If I did, maybe I wouldn't realize and go about attaching the hometown tag quite proudly.

But I am glad, I don't have to.