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.


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