Where are you from?

Where are you from?

This whole issue of belonging …of assuming that there is a place which one has emerged from, a place filled with the family tree, familiar pronunciation, value systems and everything else in-between. .. the whole issue is encapsulated in these 4 little words. With this question, we try to fit the flummoxed person into familiar slots of nationality, religion, state, eating and sleeping habits, dress code and code of honor. And after one has been placed in the appropriate slot, out come the impressions and expectations linked to that niche.
This question has been nipping at my heels forever. From getting flummoxed myself to confusing the questioner has been a long trip and its one journey which has been entertaining, enriching and thoroughly enjoyable!
• The first-born of my Bengali parents, my life began in Allahabad and then flitted over Army Cantonments scattered across the sub-continent. I loved Rajma and Kadhi, as much as maacher-jhol and Shukto . I learnt Gurmukhi, Marathi and a smattering of Sanskrit in school. At home, I would speak Bengali with my parents. Bengali writing and reading lessons, with my grandmother, would cease before starting– all thanks to our mischief genes. Childhood slot-Bengali kid born in UP, eating sea-fish ( sacrilege) and Rajma-chawal, reading Enid Blyton and Charles Dickens. There was a term for this slot—“Probasi Bengali”.
• Young adult me studies in Maharashtra, joins the Defence services, marries a pilot from Karnataka and sets up home and family in Gauhati. I learnt 7 words of Telugu, 4 words of Kannadiga ( including 2 colorful swear words which I tried on my mother-in-law ( sacrilege), figured out the philosophy of rasam and adopted the habit of eating curds and rice without sugar. I could still be fitted into a slot—“Intercaste marriage couple”.
• Moved to the Sultanate of Oman and I learnt to drive cars like an Arab and speak their language like an authentic Arab villager. In those 12 years in that lovely country, I found myself thinking and dreaming in Arabic! No reading or writing skills, but boy, I sure had the necessary skills to talk myself out of speeding tickets Expats were supposed to stutter in broken Arabic or throw up their hands in the air, not launch into a long and complicated monologue about the necessity to tear down highways at 160 kmph – my colorful rustic dialect would stump the policeman and I would drive away—slot free!!
• After 12 years, I chose to return to Kolkata. There was this strong desire to give my daughters a sense of roots and belonging. I had fond dreams of them singing Bengali songs and chatting comfortably with their cousins. The dreams remained, and the girls would chat comfortably with relatives in English and Hindi and throw in lots of warm smiles and laughter . They would demolish rice-and-rasam-and-fried-fish head. Parathas and Pasta were equally loved, as were veggies and vermicelli. But alas, before they could develop a love for Kolkata and all things Bengali, I had moved on.
• Moving from Sambalpur ( Orissa) to Lucknow ( UP) to Delhi ( NCR) happened with me developing a strong affinity for crisp Oriya cottons, choice Hindi heartland cusswords and cultural events and theater through the Delhi winter. The girls cruised through college and career choices and I had almost begun to believe that the earlier long winded story was going to be shelved and the answer “Delhi” would suffice.
• Now, as a greenhorn resident of the hills, I have done it again! I drive around in a car registered in Delhi, I knit like a native hill soul, I walk with two “foreign Chinese” dogs ( local town label) and I tuck into a Kumaoni lunch every day. Hema has finally exhaled—no training on foreign cuisines!!
• And so, when the well meaning, social hill-folks ask me “Where are you from?”, I give that long-winded story a miss. I just tell them, “ I am from this country, and have lived in the world..and I plan to live here till I leave the world”. It seems to satisfy them and we then move on into more interesting topics—is the rain coming today? Did the panther scratch at the door? Would you like to take a pumpkin from my garden?
• As the world shrinks into a global village, this story will seem normal and mundane. I have friends and family scattered over the globe, loving and living life with partners from other countries, continents and cultures. Their children will have longer, more twisted answers than the riposte which my daughters use, “ Mom is a gypsy and we just follow her!!”. The girls are now making their own stories, carving out their own roads and compiling their own answers to that question, “where are you from? “
• For me, this question is now fading into the past,while I grow strong roots into the hill slopes and just be.

One Comment
  1. As Pico Iyer says, we have all become snails, carrying our homes on our backs. Eventually, these questions will become harder and harder to answer.
    Good one Mala.

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