Outsiders or insiders?

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?

 

33 comments

  1. This is sad that we mark boundaries and try to look for peer bonding within the community. Even worse is the sense of insecurity from the other minority communities. Just think of the minority religion who actually refrain themselves in actual ghettos. Every Indian city has an area for that community and the reason is the same. We as people are hostile for other communities. Non tolerant at least.
    Probably we are raised to feel proud about ‘our’ culture in a very localised way. Our culture could have been more inclusive.

    I feel we have been celebrating diversity only in the textbooks, in real life it’s a different story. Having said that. we can all be inclusive in on our individual level and we have seen many who have worked for other areas, other people and have become popular too.

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    1. Yes, Sangeeta, we talk more than act, pontificate more than practice and condemn more than understand. That’s the failing we have as a nation. while some are closet critics others are hypocritical ones. Only those who have experienced varied things and come out of it unscathed can live in this crazy place called India! and going by the numbers of them, we are all survivors 🙂

      Ghetto works both ways, Sangeeta. It is not always the minority which is the victim. But yes, by and large it is victimised. Have you been to places where the majority is the minority community? The story is the same in reverse. IT is all thanks to the politicisation of the issue. I would not therefore think that this post talks about that kind of otherness. It is a general one — of lifestyle and customs.

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  2. Well, I’ve been a nomad all my life. I can identify so much here. Even today, I like to associate with anyone I can communicate with. My husband and I smile and are at a loss when asked where are you from. I am tempted to say like Shah Rukh Khan says in Chak de — Indian, but that would be too filmy :). So, I go originally from UP, brought up in Mumbai, lived in the US, Ahmedabad, Pune, Bangalore, Agra, Meerut, Lucknow, Allahabad… go figure! :). My husband has an equally interesting background.

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  3. debajyoti · · Reply

    that is actually very sad and such approach towards outsiders is outrageous. people do lack common sense and their thought process is often influenced by prevailing prejudices. we do get little defensive when we are alienated.

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    1. It is sadder that when we don’t want to conform to stereotypes, we are still forced into them and yes, like you say, that makes us defensive

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  4. Fine post! but all this is really sad,we speak about our country being secular and united but even the smallest community is divided into even smaller groups

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    1. It is our inherent insecurity that makes us herd with our own. As for our country being secular and united, well…that is a moot question, isn’t it?

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  5. Everything begins from me, my, or I. My parents, my siblings, my mother tongue, my state, my country and so on. But we have to overcome all these egoistic impressions and think in terms of we, our etc. As far as Indians are concerned, it should be our country, our rivers and mountains, our sisters and brothers. Yeah, we are all Indians first…unity in diversity is a noble concept and we should abide by it. Let us not be carried away by narrow ideas propagated by certain politicians. Jai Hind!

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    1. Welcome her P.U.K. you are so right about putting the country above all petty considerations. Unfortunately, the sentiments of the people are exploited by unscrupulous politicians for their own ulterior motives. I call myself Indian even when the others try to pin me down to a state or region, for that’s what a rootless but rooted person like me is.

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  6. I have just one thing to say “People are only as good as the world allows them to be”. So it would be parochial of me to classify certain sect of people as narrow minded or other wise.

    Peace 🙂

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    1. Hey Dhanesh, the post was not about certain sects of people but about forming close communities into which they are reluctant to let others, making them feel as outsiders in one way or another. I have also talked about reverse parochialism as experienced by us.

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  7. Wellll..I lived in Nagpur too..I don’t know about the anti-south Indian sentiment you felt out there back then, but well, I don’t know if it still exists today. I moved along in a group of people who were all from different places. Infact, Nagpur being close to both MP and Karnataka, I didn’t find the regionalism sentiments at all, though there were relegious sentiments with the RSS being strong there. I am a Maharashtrian, and I do not remember speaking to other Maharashtrians in Marathi ever..it was always a common language Hindi we spoke there to let our NorthIndian and South Indian counterparts all understand! It so became a habit that even if they weren’t present, two Maharashtrians ended up chattering in Hindi.
    However, I give it to you, that in India, there is too much regionalism prevalent. I had stayed at Chennai and Kolkata for sometime too and there I found that it was impossible to merge with the locals since they did nothing such as speak a common language. Infact, sometimes it gave me the feeling they deliberately spoke their local language to keep us outsiders out. Going out of the country didn’t instill any patriotism either. I was in Muscat for a few years..even over there, the regionalism streak continued and we being in minority in the Tamilians, continued to be ignored on several occasions. Mind you, I have nothing against Tamilians or Bengalis or anyone else, its just that I continue to feel bad when I hear about people being considered outsiders in their own country and all the people of a particular region being maligned because a few narrow minded people and politicians raise a ruckus about outsiders.

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    1. Oh Richa, I am talking about a period nearly half a century ago! today Nagpur is as cosmopolitan as any other metro! and yes, everyone speaks Hindi too. But parochialism and closed community feelings are very common among Indians, whether they are in India or abroad, and there are still pockets of very regional-minded places where you are made to feel like an outsider if you do not belong to that place. But being an insider or outsider is all in our hands, isn’t it? 🙂

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  8. Loved this post and loved how you decided not to let it bother you eventually. I have seen this happen too, and I really admire anybody who can remain unaffected or after being affected – can get back to being their tolerant, ‘intrepid traveler’ self.

    Sometimes those who have gone through discrimination in other places, come back to their ancestral home towns to find people from places that made them feel like outsiders are settled in what they were told was their home town – and there is bitterness. 😦 Politicians in India use such feelings to fuel hatred and divides.

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    1. I know what you mean, which is why we had decided not to go to our home state, which was as alien to us as we were to it! Politicians only need an excuse to fish in troubled waters and gather their fish (votes). It is a sad state of affairs.

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  9. Discrimination!! This is exactly what I was thinking of last night while digging into a fish delicacy prepared by my housemate… As a kid while growing/studying in primarily vegetarian communities I was often the object of ridicule or subject of ostracism simply because I was a Bong and I used to eat non-veg. It certainly wasn’t fun. It made me dislike a lot of things about myself (a remnant is perhaps is the dislike for fish in general), till I too went into a mode where I really didn’t care!! In fact, I would consider myself as chap who sits on the fence and is comfortable there.
    Discrimination is a part of regular life it seems. While in India I noticed folks discriminate based on region, food habits, culture – anything they could think of!! Used to curse those facts. And then I turned up in London and observed the Brits. One might actually be amused at the way a Londoner might make fun of the Scot or Irish (to be honest, they can be hard to understand on a good day!!) or how a Glasgow man would talk down to a fella from Edinburgh.

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    1. oh yes, discrimination is the order of the day, because everyone thinks he or she is superior to the others. And your attitude is the best — sitting on the fence I mean. Be an observer of human frailities, eh? 🙂

      Oh, I forgot, there was this big Bong bully in our neighbourhood who used to tease as, ‘Madrasi babu, imli pani khabo,’ and a large group of us would band together (just to be on the safer side:)) and shout back, ‘Bangali babu, sadi macchi khabo.’ It was a war all right! 😀

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  10. you’ve been tagged 🙂

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  11. All southies are ‘Madrasi’ and ‘Blacky’ when you are in north but when it comes to work, they are preferred and respected for their honesty and sincerity as compared to others.

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    1. Oh, yes; they do love the ‘Madrasi’ for his diligence and sincerity. It is only in really small places where people have little exposure to the outside world that this kind of thing still happens and the place we live in is certainly that…

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  12. Ah atlast you wrote a post which i cant relate too…

    all my college days i have heard of this hatred btw south- north indie.. but nvr experienced… during my growing up years in Kanpur i nvr came across such taunting from my classmates… true papa was a part of Tamil Joy friends club but all my friends were kanpurians and they were all friendly…

    even during my stint in Indore unless i spoke in Tamil, no one wud believe that i dont belong there…

    but yeah, i do get a constant question everywr.. “Madam, Which country are u from.. not India for sure??” What the…. @#$#%$%

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    1. You, my dear Ratzzz are a generation younger. My boys never felt discriminated either — nor have I for that matter as an adult. It is only in the semi-rural regional place that we have settled in, that this kind of thing happens.

      People love to slot you, don’t they? I have also been asked the same question and told that I definitely look like a Bengali or Gujarati! What diverse features I must have! Just try to imagine! 😀

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  13. Hmmmm smells fresh like Rain:)
    We are lucky to be Indians,aisi diversity or kahan 🙂

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    1. Right you are WJ! I love the diversity which is why I am at home wherever I go, nosy neighbours notwithstanding. 😀

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  14. I can totally identify with your experiences. I’m a Marwari and its common knowledge that we originally belong to Rajasthan. Nevertheless, I’ve been born and brought up in Maharashtra. I might not be a native of this place by birth but I call myself a Maharashtrian (not a Marathi) and tutored myself to learn Marathi properly.
    After coming to Mumbai, on more than one occasion we’ve been made to realise that we’re not what they call ‘our people’. They find it particularly peculiar that we live here and not in Rajasthan, and have asked us that brazenly too.
    What am I in this case then?

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    1. That’s exactly what gets my goat. You have settled here and are part of the culture and yet you are not considered part of the place. that is sad, isn’t it? Well, we are still the richer for assimilating the culture around us and for that we should be happy! 🙂

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  15. ohhh..this is terrible 😦
    yes I understand what you mean…I have faced this too in my numerous house moves in India and now in the UK. We definitely try to mingle with people from our own country/region cause we feel we will be readily accepted there…but yes intrepid travellers like us will always remain as outsiders….

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    1. What an apt term — intrepid travellers! But sometimes it is much nicer being on the outside and taking a peep inside, isn’t it? Do you feel the need to bond with your own in the UK?

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