Where are we from?

Mathai Joseph | Updated on November 25, 2020

Who are you: The ordinary citizen is often asked to furnish plausible explanations, perhaps even excuses, for their origins   -  THE HINDU/ RITU RAJ KONWAR

Roots, names and appearances are not enough to place us

Travelling by train from Mumbai to Pune, I sat next to a man who ignored my attempts to make eye contact. Nevertheless, he watched with interest while I read the newspaper, sent messages on my mobile phone and unwisely ate a whole plate of bhajias at Karjat station. Shortly before we disembarked in Pune, he asked loftily, “Where do you come from?” as if certain my answer would justify his doubts about me. Not sure how far back he wanted me to go, I casually told him I was from Pune and going home. He turned to me severely: “Pune? Why do you say that?” I told him I had worked and lived in Pune for some years. Exactly what he was waiting for: “You may be living in Pune but that does not mean you come from Pune.” Finger up, he warned me, “You can only say you are from Pune if your grandfather was born here.”

Where indeed am I from? Born in the place my passport calls ‘Karachi, Sind, Undivided India’, I have lived in different parts of India and elsewhere but never in the land suggested by my name. Where do most of the working population of India come from? Few of us live where our fathers lived, fewer still where our grandfathers were born. Are we nonetheless umbilically attached to the far-flung places where our ancestors were born, whether we lived there or not?

Or is there something else that codes our origins?

For those who believe names provide an unerring clue, finding a person’s antecedents may seem simple. First, separate similar sounding names like Nayyar from Punjab and Nair from Kerala — easy. That should leave the regional names anyone can recognise. “Guha?” I heard someone proclaim triumphantly. “You have to be from Bengal!” But there are Guhas in Tamil Nadu, and Roys not just from Bengal but elsewhere too. Things get trickier when it comes to Goel and Govil, both often but not always from Uttar Pradesh, and Dube, who may be from anywhere in North India. For those familiar with the hurly-burly of state politics, Yadavs may be associated most closely with Bihar yet Jadhav and sometimes Yadav, too, are well-known names in Maharashtra.

Chakravarty could almost be from anywhere in India. James Joyce, no slouch when it came to languages, was asked by a fan called Soma Chakravarty to write something for her in one of his books. Joyce thought for a minute and came up with: “To my dear friend Nectar Wheeler”. Few of us can match Joyce’s linguistic skills and are unlikely to give Kamal Lal the affectionate moniker of “Lotus Darling”. Unlike Shakespeare’s rose, surnames are not easily interchangeable: With Sean Connery’s sad demise, we were reminded of his laconic drawl: “The name is Bond... James Bond” but “The name is Subramaniam... Venkatesh Subramaniam” doesn’t drop into place quite as easily.

Some names seem unmistakably localisable: Surely Jaipuria must be from Rajasthan and where else could Mudaliar be from but Tamil Nadu? But with women adopting the practice of inserting their maiden name before their married name, as in Sheila Gupta Sahni, things can get ungainly and confusing. What if one spouse is Chhauwcharria and the other Padmanabhaswamy?

If not names, what then are we left with? In a supermarket in the UK, the cashier looked at me and asked conspiratorially, “You from Mauritius?”

“No,” I said, “never been there.” She was not easily convinced: “You look as though you come from Mauritius.” Are appearances the anchor around which our lives revolve? The driver of a rickshaw in Fort Kochi pointed at me and said, “You may be, may be not, from here but,” shifting attention to the person I was with, “where did you find her?” Were we NRIs, he further asked. “From your clothes I cannot tell.”

When in Kerala, I used to dutifully wrap a white mundu around me and hope it stayed up. Wearing a belt would have been an early admission of failure. Instead, I mustered determination and concentration when walking and sitting down to make sure that my entire leg did not make a public appearance and the top of my mundu did not find a resting place lower than my waist. A Bengali friend tells me he faces the same when in Kolkata. He would like to be able to breeze through Bowbazar, dhoti fluttering casually, but is not willing to take the risk of the dhoti making off with the breeze.

Are these problems that Kamala Harris and Priyanca Radhakrishnan face? Or is it only those at the other end of the prominence and visibility charts who must find plausible explanations, perhaps even excuses, for their origins?

The familiar social anchors are now insufficient to keep us rooted. Family, name, appearance, individually or jointly, are not enough to place us, to tell others and perhaps ourselves who we are and where we are from.

Mathai Joseph is a retired computer scientist living in Pune

Published on November 25, 2020

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