Which state do you belong to? – is the most common question faced by me, every time I meet someone new. Till I was 20, I used to answer – Mumbai, the city, not the state, Maharashtra. Somewhere, deep down my heart, I knew I was more a Mumbaikar, less a Maharashtrian. Now, 5 years later, I don’t know what to answer. My constant shuttling between the two cities Delhi and Mumbai and my ancestral lineage from West Bengal have confused me beyond my understanding. I am no longer too Bengali to be called Bengali, no longer too familiar with Mumbai to call myself a Mumbaikar, and definitely don’t know much Marathi or Marathi culture to identify myself as a Maharashtrian.
For the longest time in my youth, I vehemently denied being a Bengali. I hated to associate myself with Communist, monkey-cap wearing, Sreeleathers-loving stereotypical Bengalis, even though I had an upbringing consisting of Gelusil and Boroline, two of the most Bengali things ever. I didn’t want to associate myself with any stereotype, hence I preferred calling myself a Mumbaikar – I could easily identify my Bambaiya-hindi, night-life loving characteristics with the city and inadvertently be identified as someone ‘cool’, someone who came from that city of lights, colour, fame and Bollywood.
It’s a weird world out there for people like me, who grow up in a different state from their ancestral one. Most of the time, we learn little of our culture, and unknowingly, try to hold on to it tightly without admitting it. I belonged to the same crowd. I loved Bengali food, Bengali culture, Rabindrasangeet, et al – yet refused to identify myself as a Bengali. Yet, emotions hit home ground the most when a dear friend from Kolkata called me a ‘fraud Bengali’, for not knowing anything about the Bengali culture, according to her.
I tried fitting very hard into every city – thinking every city is the place I can claim to be from. But, eventually, I realized, over time – I made friends not with people who were from a particular culture like me, but because we had a certain intellectual framework that appealed to our sensitivities. My best friends are Sindhi, Syrian Christian, Malayalee Nair, Bihari and Baniya, all radically different from each other. Till 20 years back, it was unimaginable to befriend so many people from so many varied cultures and religions for my parents. Yet, this happened because I became part of a new cultural revolution – the Indian who is cosmopolitan.
I identify myself as an Indian more than anything else now, because I can’t see myself ‘fitting’ in anywhere, yet ‘fitting’ in everywhere. I don’t hate it when people tell me I remind them of a ‘stereotypical bong’ who says “ish” when she’s disgusted. I love it when people like the different facets of my personality and link it to my very Indian identity.
While stereotyping and being judgemental is part of being human, I also think it’s important for people to move out of their comfort bubble and see the world, because we Indians need to realize that the beauty of cosmopolitanism lies everywhere. Not ‘fitting’ into something conventional isn’t a bad thing. In the US, we have a half-Puerto Rican, half-Ashkenazi Jew entertaining us and he is currently touted as the next Michael Jackson. He’s none other than Bruno Mars. He’s a product of globalization and cosmopolitanism. Booker prize winning writer Arundhati Roy, who wrote The God of Small Things is half-Malayalee and half-Bengali. Yet, her understanding of Kerala’s culture in the novel is unparalleled.
It’s a wrong notion that if one leaves their state or marries outside their culture or identifies as someone else, they lose their culture. I know that deep down in my heart, some things about me will always remain Bengali. I know that even if I marry outside my community, I will never stop identifying myself as a Bengali. I will always celebrate Durga Puja, not Navratra. Because that is MY festival. There are certain traits I have latched onto, vowing to never let them go. Not because I like being Bengali, but because these traits define me.
Yet, I hold on to my identity as a Delhi-ite and Mumbaikar ferociously too. I know my rich experience of a Mumbai local parallels that of a Mumbaikar, I know the roads of Delhi as the veins in my heart. These two cities are the mothers that taught me how to live life on my own, and I latch onto these identities too, albeit “shamelessly”.
I know there may be many confused folks like me out there. My surname is mistaken to be my identity on many occasions. I know who I am, but I don’t know whether I can fit into any classified identity. I can’t fit into that one bottle, for I am that free-flowing water, that can assimilate into any bottle you put me into. I can sing a Bollywood song with my friend from UP, I can dance equally madly on a Tamil tune with my friend from Hyderabad, appreciate that Bhojpuri song my friend croons, or eat momos with my friend from Manipur, loving to hear her complain how stupid it is when people can correlate things like momos with the North-east without knowing anything else about the region. I want to visit other regions of my beautiful country, assimilate more in other places, distorting my identity to the extent that even I can’t figure out myself where I fit into anymore.
I want to reach that state when I don’t identify myself with any caste, any region, any community anymore. Right now, I am that Bengali who speaks the language, but can be spotted with a Premchand novel in a metro. I am that Maharashtrian who grew up in the state but can’t speak Marathi. I am that Delhi-ite who knows all the party places in the city, but can’t tolerate the city at night. I am that small-town Durgapur/Navi Mumbai chick, who knows her world is just within a small city, where everyone she meets knows her.
It’s time we celebrate the plurality India is. Celebrate that Mallu who speaks Hindi with the heart of a Dilli-waala, that UP girl who loves Mumbai and identifies as a Mumbaikar for the freedom the city gives her, that Sindhi who speaks Punjabi, that Marathi girl who prides herself in knowing Gujarati and Tullu. That Indian who prides himself/herself for belonging everywhere.
Our complexities define us as the modern Indian who can move beyond barriers, accept each other as friends because of the thoughts we harbour, not because we pledge our identity to a certain community.
Which state do I belong to? I don’t know, guess I play for Team India now! 😀