Acquired Identity

A few days ago I saw a truck registered in the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the very first one I’d seen in Bangalore. It pushed me down my memory lane, the length of which had given me my identity. I’d always grappled with an answer to the question as innocuous as “where are you from ?” – the ubiquitous attempt by the inquirer to categorize myself – to pack me into a silo.
Mostly I’d reply “my parents are from Kerala” – to which the sarcasm-laden retort would be “and what about you, were you splintered from a cloud-burst ?” – meaning I SHOULD belong to where my parents do.
The trouble is, my life is a jigsaw of different places and cultures – most of them far removed from the mainstream (for geo-political reasons) – and I’ve never known which part of the jigsaw is the answer to “where are you from ?” puzzle.
Do I belong to Shillong (Meghalaya) where I was born, though a very beautiful place, I’ve never felt I belonged there. Not the least  because I’d never lived there much but also because we were treated with hostility, for being kids of what was perceived as an alien army. But perhaps I did acquire my altitude-sickness proof lungs there and my life-long romance with hills, particularly the Himalayas (though Meghalaya doesn’t touch Himalayas).
For a while I thought I was from J&K, since that were I did the whole of my schooling, and I thought schools manufactured you. And this is where I lived the longest. Though I always took the inevitable racist taunts in the lightest of kid-hood banter, fitting in was an altogether different story – I did to some extent. I was arguably the “blackest” kid in the school of 2000 plus, the contrast was more so since one of my friends was the fairest Indian (pure-bred, meaning with both Indian parents)  I’d known (ever and since – the back of his palm was 10 times fairer than the front of mine). The association of black with dirt and the consequent inference that these demon-worshipper South Indians (“Madrasis”) were black for want of a regular bath – this was a popular basis of most jokes. That quite a few of them believed this myth amused me.
Some Punjab, some Gujarat sprinkled over.
And then the icing from the cosmopolitan Mumbai ( or Bombay) – college time.
And now, Bangalore – the crust concealing everything else – earning the living.
The knowledge of the language Malayalam (the native language of my parents) always seemed beneficial everywhere – in getting cheap accommodation ( more of this another day) when jobless and heartless in Mumbai, in getting an instant invitation for Easter lunch by a stranger couple I’d just met in an super-market in Cambridge, England.
Yet if I answer “Kerala or Malayalee” to the identity question – the next question would be “you speak Hindi which is excellent for a South Indian, how come ?” and I have to explain my complicated history that I was trying so hard to conceal.
Maybe I could just say “its complicated”  but that would mean being too haughty by questioning the inquirer cognisance.
My only moment of home-coming has been when my plane was circling over a be-deluged Mumbai (Bombay), waiting for space to land while returning from England. My only trip abroad had lasted only 3.5 months and yet it had seemed like an eternity. Though over-zealous to travel to the West once, now inexplicably, I found myself magnetically attracted back to India, this India which though civilized 4000 years ago in Harappa, still had never learnt to wait their turn at a petrol bunk, or at a traffic signal or in any other queue for that matter.
That was true home-coming.
So that is the identity I’ve acquired all this while – Indian.
Black and Indian, without belonging to any specific part of India.


I often miss our family tape-recorder of the 80s, for lack of such durable products in recent times. It was a Panasonic, and, what was more important, “Made in Japan” marked. No wonder it survived the innumerable crash and drop tests that my brother and I subjected it to during our respective tenures of growing up. The device still played along – even when its speakers dangled out of its sockets, on the thin wires – and was able to marvelously record the audio tracks of  the rehearsals of our school events.
Such sturdiness has certainly had its death rattle; that is, if it has not perished altogether.
Even so, my romance with Japanese products continues – although most of them are not made in Japan any more. My camera ( both film and digital) are Japanese (Nikon), so is the TV (Sony), the motor-bike (Honda) , the heart (i,e. the engine) of our car (Suzuki), my (5.5 yr old) laptop (Toshiba), mp3 player (Sony). I have certain admiration for the Japanese and their precision engineering. Theirs is a kind of capitalism with heart, so different from the American mass, mindless, pure consumerism , which is forced upon us more often, these days. Where “planned obsolence” is practised ( maybe implicitly). I recently watched a story of the formation of the first cartel in the world which aimed to REDUCE the life of light-bulbs, so that the bulbs fail faster and  the producers sell and consequently profit more in a fixed span of time. (It’s no surprise that the Japanese were not a part of this cartel)
I call it anti-engineering, where engineers are called in to do the opposite of what they are supposed to do – in order to make more “business sense”. The story went on to say that the planned obsolence principle was not limited to light-bulbs – it had become an all-pervading doctrine by now. No wonder that whenever, in recent times I chose to buy non-Japanese products (for cost reasons of course), the product lost usefulness fast. The best example is the Rs 1500 ($ 30) Canon “Pixma” printer I bought just more than a year back. ( I was amazed that one could buy a reasonable quality colour printer and that too from a popular brand-house). In less than a year it stopped working; I’d left it unused for a couple of months and (like anything else in our house) cockroaches colonised it. I didn’t lose heart as it was still within the warranty period; but to my horror I was told ( after an inspection) that cockroach crap (and damage thereof) was not covered in warranty, and that I’d need to spend atleast Rs 1000 ($20) to get a new board for the printer. I refused and now have the latest piece of e-waste for company.  Some day I need to make myself open the cover and search for anything remotely salvage-able. Groan.

I wonder if  such absolute consumerism is going to be sustainable in the long term ( in the short term t does by generating more employment), especially with the limited resources that we have now.