Fluid Identities 11 May, 2010

We are Pushkarna Brahmans from Rajasthan, India although we speak Sindhi because my grandparents used to stay in Sindh. My mother is from Kolkata though she is not Bengali and my aunt is from Gujarat although she is not Gujarati. Largely, our food habits are also Sindhi smattered with a lot of Gujarati influences and we celebrate Cheti-chand (the Sindhi New Year).

This, in short, is my introduction when somebody asks me the now-irrelevant question of where I am from. Oh, by the way I was born and brought up in Delhi and I am now married into a Punjabi family. And all this, when my parents or my grandparents did not have love marriages. If that were the case, just imagine the catastrophe of identity that my cousins and I would have had to face.

It is strange that I would be thinking this sitting in Mumbai, at this hour (02:20a.m). What brought it back was simply a memory.

A few years ago, my friend Swati and I had taken a short photography trip to the port of Mandvi and then to Bhuj in Gujarat. We met a couple of shawl-weavers and after some conversation landed inside their houses.

There is something about warm hospitality that the smaller towns and cities have to offer that are missing from the metros. What in Urdu would be known as ‘khaatirdaari’.

So far, Swati who is also Gujarati was leading the way as she was more fluent with the language and the customs of the area. But in this house, I suddenly heard a familiar sound…a language that I had grown up hearing…a language that I still use to converse with my grandfather (although broken)…a language that still brings a smile to my face when I hear a passer-by speaking as I am walking on the road-the language that I call Sindhi.

Although when I asked the gentleman there, he informed me that the language he was speaking was actually ‘Kachchhi bhaasha’ which is not very different from Sindhi due to the geographical proximity of Kachchh to the erstwhile Sindh. In the same breath, he also quickly pointed out to his wife not to say anything in front of me as I understood the language. Yes, I did and I remember smiling for the rest of my trip for this reason as it felt like I had just met family.

So, is that it? Am I actually Sindhi then?

I don’t know because when I hear snatches of conversation in Bengali, in a restaurant, I remember the damp monsoons in Kolkata at my maternal grandmother’s house and sleeping under the heavy mosquito nets that left the mosquitoes as well as the air out.

Having stayed in Bengaluru for close to three years, I smile when I hear of M.G Road or Koramangala, where my house was. I feel as if I own the taste of the Rajasthani daal-baati even though I tasted it for the first time when I was 22. And when an outsider asks me about the Mumbai monsoons and the local trains, I feel there is nobody who could describe them better.

And yet I sit here writing in English, the language that I have grown to think in. I am sure every Indian today, would have this story to tell, compounding the crisis if they are settled abroad. But is it really a crisis? Am I not living with this for the last 26 years? I don’t know if this is just an article on identity or a mere reflection of thoughts; what I would like to end with is a cultural anecdote.

Many years ago, my granny opened the back door of the house to dump some garbage in the dustbin outside. Our neighbour, a well-built Sardarji stood there and remarked at my seemingly-harmless granny. He said, “Sa se saanp…Sa se Sindhi” (S for Snake and S for Sindhi). My granny looked at him for a moment and quipped, “Kyon? Sa se Sardar nahin hota kya?”(Why? S also stands for Sardar).

P.S My granny’s wits are the talk of the town. She has always had an answer to everything and her never-say-die spirit sometimes reminds me of the veteran actress Zohra Sehgal…

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