When I was growing up in Nagpur, I remember the anti-South Indian sentiment among some sections of the populace. Consequently we were mercilessly teased by children who were sometimes much older than us, for eating ‘imli pani’ (sambar) and being a madrasi. We kids found strength in numbers and always moved in groups to avoid being picked upon. The older generation probably felt a crisis of identity too and so formed their own ‘sabhas’ and associations, celebrating festivals and functions in their own way.
By the time I came to college, I saw the alienation giving way to adaptation and acceptance, with the result that a sort of cosmopolitan culture began to evolve. But the associations remained in place albeit with more interaction between them.
When people move to a new place they often seek out others who belong to the same state/city/village or even community, speak their language or share their culture or religion. It is more pronounced when the migration is across countries. The yearning for the same food, customs, language and culture begins to work on even the most adaptable migrants and travelers.
Childhood experiences notwithstanding, I have never subscribed to this tendency. Having migrated from our roots several generations ago and having constantly been on the move since, I have lost the parochial identity my the earlier generations must surely have had. I instantly strike a rapport with whosever my neighbour is, feeling at home whether she is from Tamil Nadu or Timbuktu. I am curious to learn about their culture and cuisine, their festivals and the like. This interest in the other’s culture is largely reciprocated too. When people ask me if there are Tamilians where I live, I have to honestly admit that there might be, but I have not looked for any.
When we went to this small city in Madhya Pradesh, after decades of wandering, we reasoned that it wouldn’t be difficult for us to get back in groove since we had started out from such a town. It was a rather unusual choice because generally when Indians decide to settle down, they make a beeline for their home states if not their hometowns. Since we both have spent the better part of our life in the northern states, we picked out a city that we were familiar with and where the climate was not extreme.
However, the contrast was striking. We had lived away from a regional town far too long to be able to accept its quirks. It is one thing to live in such a place for short periods and enjoy the novelty, and another altogether to settle down there. The place was familiar, but the people were too different in our eyes.
It was novel in the beginning, for both the original residents and us. We were of curiosity value, and were the ‘south Indians who had selected their city to settle down.’ I must have recounted our reasons for our coming there at least a hundred times in the first few weeks because they could not for the life of them fathom our reason for choosing that place, when didn’t have a family or family home there! Our every action was noted and commented upon, compared and always found wanting. All my apartment etiquette was useless here. While I eagerly asked and learned about their traditions and customs, they completely ignored mine as being of no consequence. It rankled.
It made me realise what Indians settling in foreign countries go through in the initial years. Somehow, their sense of cultural identity is threatened and it becomes imperative to reinforce it by following their own customs and traditions. Sometimes those that had been completely ignorant of them while in their own country, suddenly begin practicing them zealously! They regularly visit temples, take part in cultural fests organized by their respective communities and even celebrate their country’s independence day with gusto. (I daresay that not many would have done it while in India!)
It is a defence mechanism to bond with your own in alien climes. Much like we kids found strength in numbers, these expats do too, I guess. It is a sort of a ghetto — mental and not physical of course — but a ghetto nevertheless. I was going through similar feelings much to my disgust.
Slowly a transformation took place within me. I, who had never been particularly biased about my traditions and customs, began feeling defensive about them, to the extent that I began fastidiously following them! And I actually began looking for others from my state, who spoke my language and followed similar customs! It was like regression into my childhood!
I was in for further shock when I sought them out. I realised that we were outsiders to them too! We had not gone back to a family or house, but just to settle in their city as outsiders! There was a difference, wasn’t there? Moreover, our nomadic years had seen us adapt our customs to suit our metro lifestyle and were therefore more relaxed and certainly didn’t measure up to their standards. I hastily withdrew to the periphery! There was a smaller section in this linguistic group which was more liberal and metropolitan in its outlook but was set in its own groove to feel comfortable letting us in.
That was when we gave up trying to become one of them – any of them, that is. We slowly got used to being the ‘outsiders’ who were also the insiders, since we had settled there! And we began enjoying the ‘village-type’ lifestyle. What was more, we didn’t have to feel an identity crisis, for we had one — the MRN (Metro-Returned Natives) much like the NRI! 😀
Best of both the worlds, wouldn’t you agree?