“So where are you really from?” is a question that I often get asked as a child from a Defence background. Thanks to being posted all over the country I never could claim one city as a “hometown”, the best I manage is that I finished the last years of my schooling in Bangalore, where my maternal Grandparents stay. But this post is not about the transient nature of a an army/air-force/navy kid’s life, my confusion about geographical and linguistic origins goes deeper than that, right down to my very ancestry.
When people aren’t satisfied with the above answer of a vaguely mumbled Bangalore, I usually take a deep breath and launch into an explanation of my origins, which sounds simple enough to me but even my closest friends took around a year to remember the whole dynamic. I happen to be one of the relatively rare people in India who are a product of not one but two generations of inter-State and inter-religion marriages and this is something which my peers often find very hard to fathom. One of my school friends, while studying Biology affectionately termed me as a “Hybrid”.
Let me give you a short run down of where my roots lie, starting with my father who is the easiest to place. He traces his family to an upper caste Uttar Pradesh family but he has managed to add some mystery by changing his garden variety Sharma Surname to the family middle name of Dutt which has evolved in our official documents toDutta, a name commonly identified as Bengali.
Next we move to my mother, another hybrid Indian like yours truly who comes from a love marriage between a Brahmin boy whose Telugu(from Andhra Pradesh) ancestors chose the area around Bangalore as their home thus making him more of Kannadiga; and a Christian girl from Allahabad whose ancestors fled the restrictions of Rajasthani upper class society and choosing joining the ranks of those converting to Christianity in Pre-Independence India. Do note, my mentions of caste are in no way self congratulatory in nature, I merely mention it because even within the same linguistic or religious group, culture and cuisine change as per caste.
Coming from this eclectic mix of languages and religions, I have had a somewhat liberal upbringing when it comes to the realm of culture and traditions. But this also means that I just cannot pinpoint one single cultural identity to claim. I am at the center of a Venn Diagram with a colourful variety of cultures where I can’t lay claim to just one particular circle. This also means that when I am around my maternal grandfather’s side of the family, I often find myself feeling like an outsider as I don’t speak the language or practice simple habits like taking shoes off outside the house or being able to eat all kinds of food comfortably with my bare hands. Nor am I a church going practicing Christian like my Grandmother’s kin and let’s not get me started on some of the issues that I have with organized religion.
You would think that having lived for a considerable amount of time in North India among North Indians, that I would be completely comfortable with that side of my family. But this isn’t so, the divide between the Norther and Southern states is such that even people from my generation often can’t look beyond rude stereotypes and satirical portrayal of the people of the Southern States. Two year ago, I attended my cousin’s wedding who was marrying a Telugu girl thus bringing another stream of culture into the otherwise homogenously North Indian family. It was at this wedding where I repeatedly felt hurt and uncomfortable with the behavior of my relatives; I heard all your usual comments about making fun of the Language they couldn’t understand, observations that the Telugu traditions were making the wedding longer and more boring. I tried to diplomatically tell my cousins that traditions differ and that’s okay, I couldn’t do much about the older generation but at least my peers could maybe understand? Usually I would just roll my eyes at such juvenile behavior but the continuous onslaught of negative comments was getting to me in the Delhi summer heat. I wondered, do they not realise that this is not a snide inside joke, that they are insulting my heritage, or is it that they simply don’t care?
I ultimately got over their ignorance because really, they are a part of the larger problem of the divided society of India. A symptom of which you will see in places like elite law schools where the initial friend circles are based on place of Origin, the Bombay group, Delhi people, Lucknow people, Bangalore circle, Kerala, Chennai, Bengal and so on and so forth. I didn’t fit with any of these but luckily I could safely identify with the group of wards of defence personnel and therein I found my acceptance.
After whining at length about how I don’t identify with the individual components of my ancestry I conclude that I am not without a cultural identity, it might be a melting pot but it does exist. It manifests in the form of my need for sambar-rice at least once a week and in my preference of paysam over kheer. It is in my love for Hindustani classical music and poetry in Braj Bhasha and Awadhi. My grandmother regaled me with stories of the kings of Rajputana and maybe it’s her influence that till date attracts me to Rajasthani folk music. Comfort food for me is moong ki dal, bhindi ki sabji (okra) and rice, but when I returned from hostel for the first time my lunch request was beans sambar.
I am a product of the lives, experiences and blood of my ancestors; I carry a little bit of them with me every day in my DNA. I see them in the mirror when I see my Nani’s eyes and my Dadi’s nose on my face. But DNA isn’t passed on as an exact copy all the time, there is recombination of genes that lead to new and often improved qualities in the progeny, similarly, family unit of three may not replicate traditions of our ancestors but with every meal, every festival we are creating our own. We put up the fairy lights during Diwali and the Christmas tree before Christmas, neither of them are brought down before my birthday in January. My birthday generally falls on the festival of Makar Sankranti, but we don’t fly kites or make jaggery laddoos, instead we have my favorite homemade Hyderabadi chicken biryani and chocolate mousse.
One day I will start a nuclear family of my own, with a man who understands or identifies with the multicoloured tapestry that my cultural identity is, and we will weave a few more strands into the same for our child to experience, embibe and start a weave of her/his own.