Aren’t we all migrants, journeying from one place to another, holding tight to one strand of culture while living according to the ethos of another? Isn’t it for me to decide how I choose to identify my being?
Lucknow, Kanpur, Allahabad, Delhi and after hundreds of kilometres on the odometre, my father arrived in Bombay in the early 80s. Or maybe it was late 70s. He would mention the dates, but given the way History in school is emphasised on remembering the dates, we ignored it. Early 1984, he met my mother at a formal set-up in Guwahati, and four months later, they were married. A brief honeymoon in Calcutta was also the stop en route to their newly married life in Bombay, and exactly a year since they entered into matrimony, I was born.
When people ask me where am I from, I like to detail it thus: I was conceived in Bombay, delivered in Jorhat, and raised in Bombay. But it took me years to figure out who am I. I have always identified as Jorhat being my birthplace; my mother observed her last trimester there and I was ushered into the world under the loving care of my Khura and Khuri (my father’s brother and his wife). At five months, I was brought to Bombay; Papa would joke that I began to fly high since such a young age. Three years later, my brother was conceived, delivered and raised in Bombay. Is he less Assamese than I am because of the technicality of the location of birth?
Of the Many Tongues I Speak…
Maa would tell us that her favourite person in Bombay is the postman: almost every week, he would deliver a blue inland letter from Assam. She would read out whenever love was expected to be conveyed to us through her. Telegrams came in for news about marriages and illnesses. It was only in 1994 that we got a landline phone. Until then, it was the STD booths, a weekly visit to make calls to Guwahati (Maa’s home) and to Jorhat. Every summer, after the end of our academic year, we would head to Assam. Among our luggage would be one bag with gifts for everyone. It was a time when relatives living in Bombay seemed like a novelty. For my brother and I, visiting the huge houses in Assam were the novelty.
But both of us felt a bit weird while growing up: we were the only Assamese students in our respective schools, throughout those 12 years. We attended Bihu functions in Bombay where my parents would take it upon themselves to make 350 ghila pitha themselves, to distribute it with saah. Preeti aunty would make naarikolor laaru. The khaar at Bihu was something that only Choudhary uncle prepared, for the 400-something guests. This was home, twice a year. So were the New Year’s eve celebrations on our terrace, with families of three neighbourhood buildings chipping in similarly: our house would send in the pulaao, Mulki aunty made Mangalorean chicken curry, Paulette aunty made the raaita.
‘Where is home?’ was a question whose responses would be different each time the question was asked in a different language: English, Hindi, Assamese, Marathi. My brother and I were introduced to the Kuhi Paat early on; by the time we scored fabulous marks in our ‘foreign’ language of Marathi in our matriculation exam, we were also able to read our ‘mother tongue’.
But isn’t mother tongue different from the idea of mother’s tongue? My parents came with the default setting of knowing three languages: the language of our colonisers and that which then became a marker of privilege, which could take them places; the national language that promises to unify the country; and their mother tongue of Assamese. Assamese: creamy as the word slides between your tongue and saliva, slow as you’d savour it. My brother and I learnt Marathi in school: crude like ore, rustic and with a zing like chilli flakes in lemon.
But I love and grief in English. In Bombay, my Hindi was seen as different, because I spoke it from the textbook and totally missed out on the street-smart, getting-things-done, confident Bambaiyya Hindi living within me. In Assam, people would learn that I live in Bombay, and then, ever-so-politely-but-snidely remark, ‘Ah, that’s why your Assamese is a little bit….’
That would be enough to fluster me. How do I prove to this stranger that I know to dance Bihu better than many of the girls educated in English medium schools in Guwahati? How do I prove to this stranger that Assam has within itself many accents, and that each is condescending towards the other? Aren’t our accents as unique as the lines on our palms, tracing the trajectories of how we define home?
The Idea of a Home is Fluid
And then I found myself in the US. I was raised without any inhibitions whatsoever – the hallmark of how liberal one could be in conservative India – but it was upon returning that I felt that my once wide open sky was too low and didn’t let me breathe. I had returned to India in the aftermath of the horrific rape and murder of Jyoti Pandey in Delhi; I had returned to a country galvanised by what had happened and still in denial of it. The denial of course was peak in my own birth state of Assam, where the illusion of women’s equality is heralded in the garb of caste and class politics.
When I travelled to El Salvador in 2016, I slept one night in a small village, in the house of someone who only spoke Spanish, but had in her bedroom nearly the same dressing table from her grandmother like I have seen them as heirlooms in the houses in Assam. The mosquito net went up, and barring the distance of thousands of kilometres from ‘home’ and the different language and food, I could have well been in a village in India.
The next morning, I woke up to the call of the chickens. In my semi-conscious state, I felt I was in Jharkhand (where I had indeed travelled many years ago as a journalist), listening to people speak in Orawon, Santhali and Gondi. It was only when my colleague woke up and sleepily said, ‘Buenos dias’ that I realised I was not in Jharkhand but in El Salvador. It was a beautiful moment to realise once again how fluid the idea of home is.
Slowly shedding the embarrassment of being ‘not Mumbaikar enough’ and ‘not Assamese enough’, I now embrace being an Assamese-Mumbaikar. Because what I am made of is the culture of both places. Funny then that someone insisted that since my parents are Assamese, I ought to identify myself similarly. But aren’t we all migrants, journeying from one place to another, holding tight to one strand of culture while living according to the ethos of another? Isn’t it for me to decide how I choose to identify my being?
So everywhere I go, I am a foreigner. But it took me a long time to deal with this sense of homelessness that my immense privileges allow me. Home, thus, is like a rhizome: there’s no beginning, no end, but this constantly expanding idea of foreignness which allows me to see things anew, everywhere I go, everywhere I attempt to seek home.
At a time when wars are fought over identities, where people are made to prove their allegiance to a piece of land by being a renegade to their culture, where a tuft of orange beard growing enough paddy to fill a Magh Bihu jolpaan platter is made to feel more foreign than my own surname and my stack of mekhela saador, I have decided to wear my foreignness on my sleeve. Like all privileges, I acknowledge this as a gift that I cherish; one that entitles me to decide how I define myself and my home. My homelessness is the gift of perspective for whoever may want to receive. And in doing so, seeking communities, or pushing the boundaries for the creation of communities. For communities, like Parker J Palmer, said, is not a goal to be achieved but a gift to be received.
My parents were once foreign to Bombay and received the gift of a community. As a foreigner everywhere –and thus equally at home through the silk skeins of humanscapes –I wonder if we are losing the oneness derived from breathing within communities to the clench of the idea of identity.
Photos: Priyanka Borpujari
This Story Appeared in the February, 2018, Issue of Eclectic Northeast