Tuesday, April 26, 2005

All Indians are my brothers and sisters!!

If you are an Indian and have travelled anywhere in India, you must have been asked 'Where in India are you from?' translating to 'Where are your ancestors from, what is your mother tongue, what community do you belong to ... etc?' So this apparently simple question usually is a dozen questions rolled into one and it always leads to at least an hour long conversation with your fellow traveller. You finally part after imparting and also collecting each other's biography. And woe to you if you happen to be from the same place or community as the person who posed you the question... in that case rest assured by the end of your journey you would have compared each other's great grandmothers and their cousins thrice removed!

This question indeed gives a new meaning to that sentence in our national pledge which says... 'All Indians are my brothers and sisters'. Your questioner gets no rest and doesn't let you have any either until he has established how he is related to either you or if not that, then at least your friend or your neighbour or your milkman's brother's wife's lover!

Now I often get asked this question and I have a difficult time answering it. This is why...
Fellow Traveller (F.T): (With a smile and a look in the eye which tells me THE QUESTION is going to be thrown at me next) So, Where are you from?
Me: (looking trapped and trying to get away easy)From Bombay
F.T: (not satisfied with answer) But, where is your native place?
Me: (I know there is no escape now) Kerala
F.T: Oh, you are a mallu (short of malayalee... natives of Kerala)
Me: No, am a konkani
F.T:(baffled) Huh? (this usually demands futher explanation and unless I want to earn F.T's ire I better elaborate)
Me: My parents are born and brought up in Kerala. (Now this is an answer doomed to be followed up with the next question)
F.T: So your father is Konkani and mother is Mallu?
Me: (enjoying F.T's confusion but needing to put a stop to this '20 questions' session) No actually both are Konkanas. My mother tongue is konkani but native place is Kerala. You see, there are a lot of Konkanas in coastal Kerala and Karnataka, our ancestors fled there 500 yrs ago when the Portugese were persecuting and forcibly converting the Goan konkanas to Christianity.
F.T: (Relieved) Oh! I am from ___ and my parents have been in ___ for past ___ yrs and my grandparents are from ___ yakkity....yakkitty..yak...

This conversation is very different if F.T is also a GSB (Gowda Sarswat Brahman) Konkani. In that case F.T. will not need an explanation when I tell him my native place is Kerala but mother tongue is Konkani. He will, on hearing that am Konkani, will then methodically proceed to ask me questions as if his life depends on the answers:
Me: No, am Konkani
F.T: Oh! Amchigele ('Our people'...in konkani)
Me: (scared smile... I know what is coming next)
F.T: Me too... In fact my grandfather is M.V.Pai from Soonya Ghar (which literally translates to doghouse but actually means that the owner used to have a pet dog!). You might know him... Kelya Phadi Pai Mamu ('Banana piece' Pai uncle.. Nicknames being the primary way to identify people among the GSB community).
Me: Na (No). I have been born and brought up in Bombay
F.T:(crestfallen, I have robbed him of his delight... but the man is persistent) So what is your family called?
Me: Hod Kaaran Sanchi (From the Roof tiled house)
F.T: (Broad smile... Ecstatic and even relieved...) Oh! I know Bhangar Maamu (That is my grandpa, he is called 'Gold uncle' though his name is R.V Shenoy). In fact in that case we are related. Your grandmother's paternal uncle's eldest son is married to my maternal grandmother's cousin brother. (How on earth do these people remember such long winded relationships!?!!)
Well needless to say this is followed with the customary comparing of our respective grandmothers and all other assorted relatives, their life-stories, their dogs and their minutest idiosyncrasies!

After numerous such experiences I have reason to conclude that I can't run from the 'where-are-you-from' question even if am no longer in India. Any Indian I meet abroad and start a conversation with usually ends up at the same question. And now I am beginning to accept the question for what it is... a need to identify with every fellow Indian you meet.

India is a vast country and its diverse cultural and communal mosaic is something that only an Indian can comprehend. You don't identify with a fellow Indian by saying to yourself... 'Oh look! there is another Indian'... no sir!no ma'am! that simply does not sum it and you need more... so you ask THE QUESTION. And after establishing each other's 'where-froms' you now proceed to tell yourself 'Oh look! there is another bombayite like me' or 'there is another maharashtrian like me' or 'there is another gujju like my friend Ratanbhai'... These epithets help you connect to the individual in question in a more personal manner. You feel like you finally 'know' him or her and now you are prepared to consider the other person a part of your circle. Just knowing that the other person is an Indian is too impersonal for another Indian who is more comfortable with these little details and therefore needs these little details to be able to identify with his fellow countryman.

And if you are another Indian reading this then... 'Hmmm, Where in India are you FROM?"