When I go to a new place, I don’t mind falling sick. I rarely fall sick. I’m quite adaptable. Communication has never been a problem either. I pick up languages rather fast. I’m not even afraid of being stalked. The only thing I dread is the question, “So, where are you from?” I can never answer that in one word (or even one sentence) like most people do. I wish people would stop asking me that. I have tried my best to keep myself safe from it, but the question seems to find me somehow. Like it did, at an obscure shop in New Delhi a few years ago…
I was at my uncle’s place in Delhi for the summer vacation (a very very bad time to be there…in that case even winter vacations are equally horrible. The best time to visit the capital would be…wait…I’m not writing anything related to travel. I better not digress here.) I was out (I don’t remember for what exactly) and it started raining abruptly. Not the kind of filmy romantic rain that would make one want to get wet (pun intended). It was one of those annoying, nasty rains, which pour abruptly with the sole purpose of ruining light coloured clothes. Obviously, I was not carrying an umbrella. I wasn’t even carrying a bag. Just my purse. This was long before cell phones became a necessity. Not everybody could afford one. And back then, nobody could’ve imagined that some day in the future, children will be trusted with the device. The only thing I was afraid of was my white Patiala getting ruined. I took shelter in the nearest shop I could find. I don’t remember the name of the shop. All I can remember is that they were selling very ‘antique’ looking things. I was looking at the scarves there, while waiting for the rain to stop. The shopkeeper wanted to lure me into buying a sari.
“This is bamboo silk.” He said, holding up an off-white sari with a dark green border. “It will look very good on you.”
“I don’t wear saris.” I told him, in Hindi.
After that he got busy, trying to find something else that I might like to buy. And I was looking at the scarves again. Suddenly, a guy standing nearby walked closer. I was a little scared, but then, it was a crowded shop. What could possibly happen? (Again, this was long before Delhi came to be known as the ‘Rape capital’.) He smiled at me. I looked away.
“You speak Hindi pretty fluently.” He told me, obviously trying to flirt.
“Thank you.” I replied. Just some harmless ‘flirting back’. I must admit he was good-looking.
“So, where are you from?” his next question.
“What do you mean?”
“Obviously, you are not from here.”
Yeah! I know. I wasn’t fair enough to be ‘from there’.
“I’m from Kerala. No more questions, please.”
“Oh! I knew it.”
And he kept talking for the next few minutes about how pretty ‘Malyali’ women are (Dude, it is M-A-L-A-Y-A-L-I! How difficult is it to pronounce a vowel between ‘l’ and ‘y’? ).
“Ahem! I live in Kerala, I’m not a Malayali.”
I was glad when he left me alone. But that was because he was a stranger (and an asshole) and I could afford to be rude. I can’t do that all the time. Most of the time, the statement ‘I’m not a Malayali, I just live in Kerala’ encounters the question ‘So what are you?’
The chain is usually as follows:
“So, where are you from?”
“But you don’t have the accent that Malayalis have.”
“I am not a Malayali, I just live in Kerala. By the way, not all Malayalis have that ‘accent’ you are talking about.”
“If you are not a Malayali, what are you?”
“I’m a Tamilian.”
“But you are not that dark!”
“Not all Tamilians are dark. My Dad is very fair.”
“So, where exactly in Tamil Nadu are you from?”
“Well, I have never been there.”
“Okay! That explains why you don’t have the Tamil accent.”
(What is it about south Indians and accents?)
“My first language was Hindi.”
“The first person I communicated with was my maid and she was a Bihari.”
“How come you had a Bihari maid?”
“I was born in Manipur.”
“Then how come you didn’t have a Manipuri maid?”
“I grew up in a Punjabi colony and she was the only one available to take care of kids…By the way, I can speak Manipuri too.”
“What is that?”
“It’s the language spoken in Manipur.”
“Wow! So how many languages do you know?”
“That’s a strange thing. Tamilians never learn any other language.”
The chain goes on, till the interrogator runs out of his/her stupidity. Sometimes, I wish I had one place to point out as my own. But then, that would be too ‘normal’. I’m glad I don’t have a regional identity. I don’t have to give an explanation. I can choose not to answer the dreaded question and continue being ‘mysterious’…
The first time I started talking with my boyfriend (long before I knew he would become my boyfriend) I asked him something in Malayalam. His response was, “I didn’t know you could speak Malayalam.” That was it. He never asked me where I was from. He got to know about my complicated regional identity (crisis) eventually. Not many people wait that long. I think the next time somebody asks me “So, where are you from?” I’ll just say, “Well, it’s complicated.”