An Identityless Identity

“Going to my native…….,” is a phrase that I often hear in my office. The word “native” is commonly used in Bangalore, which simply refers to one’s home. Sometimes, it is used in the context of one’s ancestral home, usually a village or a town, that maybe located in the same state or another state. The popularity of the word “native” in Bangalore is natural, given that half the city’s population constitute people who have migrated here for jobs from other places of India.

In my understanding, the place you’re born and brought up in is home to you, you may or may not be a native inhabitant of that place. Hence, Shillong is home to me. But I often find myself in a dilemma when asked questions like, “Where is your native?”; “When are you visiting your native?”. Shillong is my home but is it my native? No, I don’t think so. I am not an indigenous tribe of Meghalaya. I am a Bengali. So, is Kolkata my home? Or maybe some other place in West Bengal? No, certainly not! So where do I belong?

Often times, my Kannadiga, Malayalee, and friends from other parts of South India are unable to comprehend the fact that I am Bengali, yet West Bengal is not my home. I have had to get into elaborate explanations to drive home the correlation of being a Bengali whose home is Shillong and not Kolkata. I once told a Kannadiga friend, “If you were born and raised in Bihar, would you call yourself a Bihari or would you be still be a Kannadiga?” He remained confused. While we are all Indians and such discussions may seem petty, we cannot ignore the wide diversity of our country.

Today I bring to you Shatavisha’s story in connection with my earlier post on my hometown. The experiences she’s had throws a glimpse into the identity struggle of the Sylheti Bengali. Some of the things Shatavisha experienced is exactly what I have experienced. Hence, this is my story too.

Shatavisha’s story was originally published in an online magazine, Ishan Kotha. The editors of the magazine have been kind enough to let me use the story in my blog.

Read on…

Shatavisha Chakravorty’s Story

“Where are you from?” asked my mentor. The year was 2013 and the question was asked to an eighteen-year-old me.

“Shillong”, I answered.

“Ceylon?”

“No Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. A state in the North-Eastern part of India”,  I tried to explain.

“Ah, I see. But your admission slip says that your mother tongue is Bengali.”

“It is, Sir”

“But, if you are a Bengali are you really from Shillong?”

I didn’t know what to say to this. For as long as I remember, Shillong was the only place I would associate with the word ‘home’. It felt like it is here that I belonged; and yet deep down the teenager, I knew that the place did not consider me it’s own.

To be honest, the first realization of this happened somewhere in my early teens. My parents were looking to get a place of residence. We have always lived in a rented place. As the housing search began (as an 8-year-old I got comprehend only bits and pieces of whatever was going on), everything seemed to center around Kolkata.

“Ma, why are you looking for a place in Kolkata? Why not here?”, I asked.

“Because we cannot buy houses here. Meghalaya is a sixth schedule state, my dear. Only tribals can buy land in most parts of the state. Yes, there are some European Wards like Jail Road or Oakland. But property prices there are just too high.  And moreover, if we take a flat in Kolkata, we will be more easily accessible to you when you grow up and work.”

Things the 8-year-old me comprehended out of this conversation .

Shillong is not my home as I had thought it to be. It is not providing my parents with a conducive environment to set up a place of permanent residence despite having spent almost all their career here.

I had to go out of Shillong to make my career.

Fast forward to a couple of years from the day of this conversation, I became active in various co-curricular activities. I would ace the debates, science seminars, essay writing competitions, and others at the school level. This would make me qualify for the district level events. And that’s when the divide started to show up. I would not go past the district level events. Even if I did manage to make it to the state level, never would I be selected for national-level events.

I started to lose hope, believing that something was lacking in me. That’s when elders (parents, teachers, and others) reached out to me and pointed it out that this has nothing to do with my talent and the people qualifying are all tribal residents of the state. The state does not consider us, the non-tribal Bengali as its residents and hence the step-motherly treatment .

Once it was pointed out to me, I started noticing the pattern. It was everywhere. Meghalaya did not consider me its daughter. I had no option but to accept this. This made me firmer in my resolve to study out-of-state and with that, a few years later, I found myself in the conversation we started this article with .

Today, its been 7 years since that conversation. Let’s talk about 2017. Some 4 years since that conversation, I find myself with an engineering degree and two job offers. I join my present organization as a bubbly 22-year-old girl. And that’s when I have my first encounter with non-North East Bengalis.

At first, it was a matter of great excitement for them to have spotted a fellow Bengali. Having been brought up in a cosmopolitan setup, the last name of my friends did not mean much to me. But to them finding a ‘Chakravorty’, ‘Bhattacharya’, ‘Ghosh’ or ‘Sen’ in a land that’s 1000 km away from their home meant finding gold.

Again, the same set of questions. “If you are a Bengali, how are you ‘really’ from Shillong?’. By now I had grown used to this question and knew how to dodge it. But what followed in the next few months is something I was not ready for.

It started with making fun of my Bangla. Everything from the use of an English word in a Bangla sentence to being completely unaware of the technical terminologies in my mother tongue came under the scanner. I was a subject of ridicule among the ‘Bengali group’.

In the initial days, I would be upset about it. Befriending other people at work (a cosmopolitan group consisting of people from all over the country) made me realize that nothing was wrong with me. Yes, I did not fit in the ‘Bengali group’, but that does not hamper my confidence.

Yes, I am a Bangal. My place of birth is Shillong. My father’s was Silchar. My mother’s is Imphal. This is a fact. All three of our passports say the same. If my maternal or paternal grandfathers were to be alive, theirs would say ‘Part of undivided India’. So would that of my great grandfathers’. This is my lineage. And , I am proud of it.

If the fact that visiting one’s ancestral village every Dol, Nababarsha, or Bijoya is what it takes to give him or her an identity, then I do not need such an identity. My identity is that of an Indian. An Indian Bengali.

My place of birth is Shillong and the place has given me 18 years of beautiful childhood memories. These , I will cherish for a lifetime. My place of residence is Bangalore today. It can be Kolkata, Delhi, Chicago, or New York tomorrow. For me, home is where I live, where my family lives. So is Shillong was my home yesterday but is not so tomorrow, I have no regrets. I have my priorities sorted and more than 2/3 rd of my life in front of me (hopefully!) to carve a name for myself on the foundation of Indian Bengali – an identity passed on to me by my parents and ancestors.

Author: neelstoria

Traveling, Gardening, Trekking, Hiking, Storytelling, Writing, Nature, Outdoors, Yoga, DIY

23 thoughts on “An Identityless Identity”

  1. Interesting semantics; I was unfamiliar with that use of “native.”
    In the U.S., one is often asked “where are you from,” but that too can mean anything from where were you born, where did you grow up, or where do you live now. In my own case, I spent most of my life in either Washington, D.C. or Florida where almost everyone is “from” someplace else. It generally means where were you before you moved here.
    As for myself, home is where I “hang my hat,” wherever I am living at the moment.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. “Where are you from?” is what is asked in India too. The word “native” is only used in Bangalore or perhaps whole of South India.
      I really like your idea of home – the place you hang your hat – that’s why I call Bangalore my second home, this is where I hang my hat now 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A very interesting topic you have written about, Neel. I guess the whole thing got caught up in between our old thoughts, the word native, and the new reality. If we take it to the next level & you were to work in the US, the whole dimension would change. In a place like the US, while the concept of nationality does exist but the concept of community or ethnic origin has blurred out. Often, people say their origin is Italian-Swedish referring to the origins of parents. Coming back to this case, no one is considering the politics and situation arising out of the same. We have the Sindhi community in India, a displaced community because they chose India over Pakistan. They call India a home because of their ancestors found refuge in India. They don’t have the concept of native anymore. A couple of more years down the line, the whole concept of native place will change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You know Arvind, it’s surprising you mention the US in this context. The reason being that this afternoon itself a friend and I were discussing the same and in the same context. We were discussing that US is the melting hotpot for all kinds of ethnicities, if we say native American, perhaps its just the Red Indians. And, this diversity is one of the reasons of it being the most powerful nation today. Also, the usage of the word “native” is just prevalent here in Bangalore, maybe in the South. Haven’t seen it being used in other parts of the country.
      And your reference of the Sindhis, reminds me of a whatsapp forward that I had received a while ago, which had compared the Sindhis and the Sylhetis 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I guess it coincided well, then. I can’t say much for the rest of South India because I will little experience. I do suppose the word must be used especially in places like TN and Kerala.
        🙂

        Liked by 1 person

    2. First off – let me say again how much I’m enjoying your entries on this subject – they give me lots to think about and I think I’m learning a lot.

      There’s still some of this in the US. I only moved to the state of Vermont where I did most of my schooling in when I was 5. The culture there was such that there’s a real distinction between “Vermonters” and “flatlanders” (people from outside the quite-mountainous state). You do get accepted but you’re never considered a “Native”. By that definition I really don’t have a native place. And even the place that probably *would* be considered “native” doesn’t feel like home to me at all. Toronto and Canada feel like home. I noticed this acutely about 12 years ago when I went to visit my hometown for my high school reunion. As I approached the border to Quebec where I was temporarily working, I realized, I felt so happy – like I was coming home – even though I barely spoke the language.

      I’ve heard of other experiences of the US (and Canada too – we’re not immune). A friend of mine is Punjabi but her family moved to Canada 1-2 generations before she was born. Border officers going to the US often ask her “Where are you from?” and she’ll say “I was born in Oshawa, Ontario”. “Yes, but *you know* – where are you *from*.”

      I will say that I notice an interesting distinction between the Canadian and US metaphors for immigration. In the US it’s a “melting pot” – we all get thrown in and mixed together until we’re the same. In Canada the metaphor is “Cultural Mosaic” – we’re all different and come from different places but retain our cultures to make a beautiful picture together.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I suppose the last point you have made is because the US culture is quite dominant. In the real sense however, US lacks its real culture having mixed it all. Canada accepts and embraces without imposing anything. Thanks for sharing this distinction, Todd.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. The word “flatlanders” reminds me of similar words here “Plains”….This English word got incorporated into the language that we spoke at home as though it’s a part of the local language itself. Shillong is a hill station, hence everyone else who came from outside were from the “Plains” and “Plains people” were funny, weird and what not…
        What you mention about Canada is ideal, that’s how it should be. That’s the beauty of diversity and that’s what makes everything rich and varied.
        I am glad you enjoyed this series of people’s personal tales 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Interesting – I wonder if every hilly area has that sort of pejorative term for people in the flat areas. It sounds like the same ‘level’ of negative there also. Nobody will get in a fight over it but it does express some disdain and an idea that these people are ignorant of how things should be done.

          Don’t get me wrong about Canada – I think like anywhere there’s a bit of distance between what we aim for / try to be / think we are and what we actually have done and how we treat people different than us as a whole. But many of us are working toward change. I hope the dream and reality meet really soon.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Yet another story, a thought-provoking narrative, with a reconciliatory acceptance of being an Indian Bengali. But what hits home is your own analogy of a “Bihari” and “Kannadiga” – it got me really thinking. There is no doubt that, however we may refuse to accept it, our social fabric is fragmented into localised “natives” and obvious, cliched, associations. And woe befall anyone who does not fit into one of those “accepted” standard perception. Sad, but true.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely true Narendra, anybody who doesn’t fit is the “other”. What’s surprising is that, we also manage to find commonalities despite all these differences, which is nothing short of a miracle 😀
      And, I express my gratitude once again for reading this piece without saying a Thank You, it’s too small a word. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for sharing my story. I am glad you liked my piece and found it worthy of sharing. At the end of the day, we are both in the same boat, aren’t we?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Is this unique to a complex diverse country like India? I am a Punjabi, grew up in Kolkata, studied in Pune, work in Mumbai and Delhi. Where am I from? Typically ‘native’ has meant place of roots or parents’ home. My place of roots is somewhere else and my parents have also moved cities.

    Liked by 1 person

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