Saturday, July 30, 2011

You don't know me

Of all the recent asinine things I have heard -- and you know I have -- two stung me. One was last night, a joke from a co-worker, who tweeted that I am a "white in an indian girls body". The other was during the break at this seminar I have organized and am attending in Aurangabad, Maharashtra -- when I told a certain gentleman my mother is Maharashtrian, he responded that I am not because I didn't grow up here, and nor do I speak the language. I told him I spent a lot of summers in Pune at my grandparents and understand Marathi, to which he replied, "yes, but came as a foreigner."

The thing about identity is that if you aren't secure in it, you can often be lost. I have written about this on my blog before -- about how, as a child of a cross cultural marriage (Maharashtrian/Kashmiri) who grew up in neither state (I did in Delhi and at boarding school in Dehradun) -- I've always thought of myself as someone with a fluid, cross cultural identity. When the gentleman make this snarky remark about being a "foreigner" I took great offence. I told him that because of boarding school I can understand a host of languages (to get by) which include Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati. The truth is that in school we didn't think too much about where we came from or what religion we were. Mrs Varma routinely read out prayers from all the holy books at assembly, and as a result the Quran, Granth Shib, Bible and Hindu prayers are equally familiar and alien at the same time.

I couldn't stop thinking about identity. Who am I? Where do I belong? I would say Delhi, because thats where I was born and brought up. But a few years ago I found myself adding a caveat to this explanation by saying that I didn't study or go to college in the city -- a reaction to being categorized with empty headed floozys our city is so famous for. A very calculated decision made me leave the safety of my plush Indian Express editorial job which kept me firmly in Lutyens Delhi to roaming the small towns and villages of India, to feel connected to places out of Delhi. And the thing is I do understand this country better, I see how people are different, but at the same time, perhaps that gentleman was right -- a part of you might always remain foreign.And you know whats funny? All of it has connected me to Delhi stronger than I could have expected!

We've all had these experiences. For us North Indians, it happens in the south where everything is different. I'm sure its a vice-versa case. It reminded me of people who say they are "global citizens" or some who purposely say things like "I am Bengali only by birth." I started to wonder why you would not define yourself by your rightful cultural heritage, and something popped into my head. It could be because someone felt very causal about taking it away from you. I once joked, in a previous post, that thank god for Delhi. In Kashmir I could not buy land since I was not born there, and in Maharashtra I'd be penalised by some for being a half breed/non speaker. I guess that might be the reality. For heavens sake, I have people who casually decide that you are not Indian because you enjoy Hollywood movies and don't east spicy food? Really? Are we that shallow? I can't imagine a parallel situation where I'd tell someone they were not Bihari for choosing to live in Delhi, or not Punjabi for being a vegetarian.

But its never that simple is it. For the scattered people who deem themselves the decider of YOUR identity, there are so many others who warmly welcome you to the fold. When I travel in Maharashtra (and this includes this very trip, with people in the same room, same conversation) who feel an instant connect to that fact -- that a part of you belongs here! Where is your mother from! Oh, what is her family name! They come up with connections, or describe the street she lived on and start asking you simple things in Marathi to be affectionate. I felt the same in Kashmir when I'd say I'm a Kashmiri from Delhi, so many people smiled and said they were glad I was visiting.

Identity politics are fascinating. Not long ago I was at a seminar in Varanasi focusing on Dalits and the media. Not surprisingly, at some point, the conversation turned to identity. Many Dalit leaders felt abandoned by their brothers and sisters who had done well and conveniently forgotten their community. A part of me wondered whether this was because they wanted to keep away from this sense of disillusionment that I could feel running through them. A sense I felt, which was clouding a sense of opportunity. Without analysing that, the point to be made is that we seem to be conditioned to relate to our communities, and when we cannot, it seems both the individual and the community suffers for it.

A while ago, I participated in a workshop for Video Volunteers where we were trying to explain to a bunch of people from all over the country that they should not box up their identities simply into Dalit/Woman/Tamil etc. For this, Stalin made big placards which had words like 'Punjabi' 'Woman' 'North Indian' etc etc and asked people to go to the card they identified with. Through the exercise people moved to different cards, and we showed them that you can see yourselves as many things. Sometimes given a choice between Punjabi and mother, the woman would choose mother. But given the choice between Punjabi and North Indian, she may choose Punjabi. The point to be made is you have different identities on you at all times and you should never box yourself in.

So, what should I learn from all this? That it is easy to upset, anger and manipulate someone based on their identity, especially the threat of taking it away. But its even more important for us to always remember that one identity isn't what defines us, and perhaps even more importantly, you are who you are. No one can tell you otherwise.