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.

Momentary Meets to Lifetime Memories

The noisy bunch of over-enthusiastic friends from Poland that we kept bumping into at every tea house, quite a botheration they were! The huge group of nearly 50 people we crossed twice on the way and had to step aside to let them pass. The warm smiles of the two Japanese girls we often found sitting around the bends taking a tea break, every time we eyed their beautiful flasks. The two German men we ran into every now and then until they decided to introduce themselves, leading to small conversations each time we met. The petite Chinese girl who was perennially rushing but never missed talking to us – in her own language while we replied in English, we communicated without understanding. The two Korean girls with whom we shared a room at the base camp, who spoke English enabling some interesting conversations.

These are some of the people from different parts of the world we met during our ABC Trek, last year in October. I clearly remember so many of those faces, some leaving impressions deeper than the others. I wonder how all those people may be coping with the Covid-19 situation. I wonder if everything is fine with them. There is no way I will ever know.

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Pic 1: When we arrived at our destination.

A big aspect of travel for me has always been the people I get to meet and connect with. Of the several people I met during the ABC Trek, the following need special mention.

Trekker Daddy

“Does that look like a baby carrier basket?”, I asked my sister. Curiosity had me striding a little faster. The basket looked fancy and the man carrying it, dressed in typical trekker attire. So, wouldn’t be a local. It was the second day of our Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) trek and we were climbing through one of the steeper sections of the trail when I saw this man several feet ahead of us. As I drew closer, my doubts gave way to confirmation. It was indeed a baby carrier! The man was carrying his 3-year old daughter as he trudged towards the mighty eight-thousander. He was with his wife and three children aged, 12, 7, and 3. The family had traveled all the way from Shanghai.

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Pic 2: Trekker Daddy with his little girl. I clicked this picture with his due permission.

Trekking with a 3-year old in the uncertainties of the Himalayas is no mean feat. Things like Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), sudden weather changes, are for real. Well, I am sure they would have thought through all of that and were well prepared. They did, however, gather quite a bit of attention all the way. Every other trekker seemed to be talking about them and as one would expect everyone had some opinion or the other. While some hailed them for being brave others thought they were being irresponsible. I was too stunned to have any opinion. We met the family at several junctions during the trek and each time I envied the fun they were having and all the memories they were creating together.

Septuagenarian Trekkers

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” The septuagenarian trekkers reiterated Mark Twain. Janette and Joe caught our attention on the trail one day. The cute couple was sitting on a rock and taking a break while munching on chocolates. Later, we caught up with them at the two tea houses where we stayed together. They were well into their 70s, had come all the way from the USA, and were trekking in the high altitude of the Himalayas for the very first time. Their agility, enthusiasm, and zest for life was infectious. They could easily give all youngsters a run for their money.

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Pic 3: With Janette and Joe at the ABC Base Camp Tea House

Then we met John, who was also from the USA and was traveling with his wife (a septuagenarian too) along with a group of family and friends. John proudly announced that he was “Seventy plus Four years old”. People like John, Janette, and Joe are astoundingly inspirational. They go on to prove that trekking and hiking has a lot to do with mental strength, which is just as important as physical strength.

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Pic 4: With John, somewhere on the trail. (Note: Do not judge the bag in my hand, it is a disposable garbage bag and not plastic.)

When I interacted with these elderly people, I couldn’t help but think about my parents, especially my father who belongs to the same age group. I am certain they would have loved to do something like this, but it’s simply inconceivable for them. In fact, I haven’t seen many Indians in that age group trekking or hiking.

However, one thing I know for sure – if I am to live up to a 70 and beyond, I’d better be someone like Janette!

Reminiscing 2019 – The Actual Year-End Post

The Year That Was

Emotions took the better of me when I had started writing my year-end post (read more about that here). Those emotions kept aside, 2019 has been one of the most beautiful years for me and in a very unusual way. The highlight of this year has been people and what better for the people person that I am!

Here are some of the top highlights of 2019 that I remain grateful for:

  1. Who says you don’t find real people in the Internet! I did. Through WordPress, I have met some of the best people and I am never tired of saying that. This year was different as I met so many of them in person. I want to say a BIG THANK YOU to each of you for the warm and heartfelt moments you have added into my life!
    • It started with Todd and Sage, when I met them in Bangalore during their trip to India in the beginning of this year. I even had the good fortune of attending a story-telling session by Sage.
    • Thereafter I met Debdutta, who decided to make me his family and call me his elder sister rather than a friend. Along with him and his friends, I spend a memorable weekend at Kōḻikōḍ.
    • Then I met Arvind – most of you would know him and I’d be surprised if you didn’t. We spent an entire morning sharing travel stories over innumerable cups of filter coffee accompanied by dosas, when he had visited  Bangalore earlier this year.
    • Last but not the least, Dilip and I became such great friends that I hosted him in my house when he stopped by Bangalore on his way back from his Leh cycling trip.
    • Note: I must mention two others though I am yet to meet them in person:
      • Hariom and I nearly planned a trip together but that didn’t happen. In him, I have found an extraordinarily special friend and it feels like I have always known him.
      • Narendra, with whom my connection went beyond WordPress and who has been a constant encouragement in so many ways.
  2. It was through Internet again that I met Ambrose Trueman – the cyclist, poet, writer, and adventurer. We connected through Instagram and met in person in Shillong this year. His gesture of taking all the trouble of getting me the traditional rice cake as I had never tasted it is something I cannot forget.
  3. A set of rather unusual circumstances led to my meeting the ultra marathoners, Banajit Burman and Asif Ahmed. Asif become a rather close friend and it feels like we’ve known each other for a very long time now.
  4. I have been busier than usual this year and all for the good reason of spending time with people. Almost every weekend I’ve had friends visiting me at home, some from other cities – no complaints! Just that it has affected the frequency of my WordPress posts.
  5. I got to spend more than a month in my home, Shillong, where I visited and explored several new places, including Mawlyngbna and Mawphanlur. Most importantly, my nephew, Abheeshek  and I spent some quality time together after a very long time. We even explored David Scott’s Trail together.
  6. During my visit to Sikkim, I made some special connections with people especially at Tingvong village of Dzongu Valley where we had spent 3 days. Living the Lepcha life, was an extraordinary experience almost making me believe I have some karmic connections with the people there.
  7. I had my maiden experience of trekking in Nepal with Annapurna Base Camp.
  8. I had started the year with a visit to Diu and travels have happened throughout the year with Sikkim and Nepal. I am in Varanasi right now and will be ending the year at Shalamun in Himachal Pradesh.
  9. I have discovered the goodness of meditation and have started practicing regularly. An addition to my regular yoga and jogging but it has become an activity that I eagerly look forward to every single day.
  10. I dabbled in poetry and dared to post some of them in my blog.
  11. I have finished off my home loan, a great burden off my shoulder.
  12. I have deliberately and consciously tried to live the life of what I can give rather than what I can get, tried to listen more and talk less, attempted to make people happy or at least not make them unhappy. Not that I have done so with a great deal of success but I know I wholeheartedly tried.

 

When Strangers are Friends That Haven’t Met Yet

Have you ever planned a travel with people you haven’t met and hardly know? Well, I just did.

While this wasn’t the first time I traveled with strangers, this was definitely the first time I planned one. The others have been treks, planned and organized by trekking organizations.

In recent times, I have become extremely choosy about the people I travel with and sometimes I wonder if it’s reaching a point of being qualified as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Friends and relatives have suddenly started showing a keen interest of traveling with me. Some are all set to join me in my next trip, wherever it is and at whatever time it is. So much so that I am becoming tight lipped about my upcoming travel plans. While they are my near and dear ones and I love them immensely, I am wary to go on a travel with most of them. Perhaps I am being judgmental or it’s my conscious/unconscious bias that’s leading me to make assumptions that aren’t true. I don’t know. Or, I am just being selfish and want to fiercely safeguard my travel experiences.

Ironically, I don’t feel the slightest hesitation when planning travel with people I don’t know that well, and even better if I have a faint idea about their travel history. Perhaps it’s the sense of adventure that comes along with the unknown, explains it all. Or, maybe the fact that genuine and authentic connections energize me to the extent that I am willing to take the risk. Travel in any form is an adventure and the people you travel with always add to that adventure, which could go either way – positive or negative.

So, it wasn’t surprising when I found myself bundling into a car on a Friday night along with four others – one of them was a fellow blogger, who I had met in person a few days ago, the rest were strangers. We were all set to travel to Kozhikode for the weekend.

[Note: Kozhikode is correctly spelt as Kōḻikōḍ and pronounced as ‘Ko-yi-kode’.]

Debdutta Paul, the fellow blogger, one of the few people I have been privileged to connect with through WordPress, was coming to Bangalore on work. He was planning a travel with his friend and invited me to join in. After some initial skepticism of whether it would be a good idea to tag along with a bunch of youngsters, I agreed to join in.

As we started planning together on where we wanted to go, not for a moment it felt like I was planning with strangers. It started off with some compromises to suit each other’s availability and choice of the place of travel. The fact that everyone was willing to bend a little to accommodate the other was reason enough for me believe that this was going to be a great travel group. It was decided that we would be going to Agumbe rain forest and then to Udipi over a weekend. Soon two more people (Debdutta’s friends) joined the group. The place of stay and all other details were worked out and we were all set.

Just a few days before the trip, we got to know Agumbe was not happening. Monkey Fever came on our way and Forest Department was not allowing entry to visitors. We were set on going somewhere and canceling the travel was out of question. That’s how Kozhikode was decided after ample amount of brainstorming based on various factors.

Kozhikode, as a place, doesn’t have much to offer other than the food, specifically their biryani. However, the great company made the travel totally worth every moment. The journey is always more important than the destination and the people you travel with can make or mar that journey. And, this journey has been one of a kind, all for the wonderful people I traveled with – something that I shall cherish forever.

What we did at Kozhikode? I’ll write about that soon…

The Boy in the Yellow Shirt & So Many Others


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I spent a few days traveling across Gujarat. The state has surprised me in many ways. One of the things that stood out for me was the people of Gujarat. Here, I came across some of the most honest and genuine people. Having traveled across quite a few places in the country, I can safely say that as a woman I have felt most comfortable in Gujarat. And, this is huge for non-touristy women travelers like me!

Of the many wonderful people I met during this journey, I want to put down three of them, those whom I would not like to forget.

The Boy in the Yellow Shirt

It was the last day of our trip and we were at Ahmedabad. Our flight wasn’t until 8.00 PM, thanks to the slow pacing of our travel. My parents had decided to rest at the hotel, so I made my own plans. I set out with the intention of visiting Jami Masjid, Sarkhej Roza, and then exploring the market at Lal Darwaza.

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Pic 1: Lal Darwaza – entryway to a huge wholesale market place

An Ola auto took me to Jami Masjid in just 10-15 mins. I didn’t realize that it was this close to my hotel, which was located at Sabarmati Riverfront. On the way, I spotted Siddi Sayed Mosque, which we had visited earlier. I felt tempted to go inside once again to take a closer look at the jaalis of this mosque, also known as Jaali-Wala Masjid.

I asked the auto driver about Sarkhej Roza, he had no idea and recommended I ask the people at Jami Masjid. On enquiry near the masjid, I got to know it was 11 Km. away. The auto driver demanded a whopping Rs. 800 to take me there and back. I bid goodbye to him and entered the mosque.

At the entryway, I crossed a young 19-20 year old boy. He called out that I shouldn’t enter the prayer area, as women are not allowed. A little irked that I don’t need to be told about that, I used the moment to enquire about Sarkhej Roza. He said it wasn’t that far and then offered to take me there. Not sure if I could trust him, I hesitated and said I may get delayed as I would like to explore Jami Masjid first and also planned to go to Jaali-wala Masjid. He said he had no problem and would wait.

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Pic 2: The courtyard of Jami Masjid

In the 15-20 mins of exploring Jami Masjid, I had decided to take the risk of going to Sarkhej Roza with the young boy. We stepped out of the Masjid into the narrow crowded market place outside. Instead of hailing an auto right there, my young guide started walking into narrow alleys. Enough for me to pull my guards up. “Why don’t we take an auto here?” I asked. “We’ll take it from the main road,” pat came his reply.

Doubting his intentions, I started probing further – Why are you going to Sarkhej Roza? What do you do? What were you doing at the mosque? Simultaneously I took note of his bright yellow chequered shirt, the slight limp in his gait, the Cello tiffin box that he hung on his shoulder. I got to know that he worked in a notebook shop opposite the masjid. His Seth had not opened the shop that day, so he was going back home after offering namaz at Jami Masjid. His house is close to Sarkhej Roja. He went on to sing praises of Gujarat and even telling me with conviction that I should shift to Ahmedabad.

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Pic 2: Siddi Sayed Mosque – a view from the backside

After a walk of about 15 mins, we arrived at the main road and just across the road was jaali-wala masjid. Ah! He remembers that I wished to stop here. After I was done, we crossed the road and boarded a shared auto. The shared auto put to rest all the unnecessary speculations my mind was occupied with.

Somewhere this young boy got off and when I offered to pay his fare he hesitated but accepted later. The auto zoomed away and the distance seemed to be quite a bit. I could hear myself saying – Sarkhej Roza better be worth all this trouble!

Soon the shared auto dropped me off at some point. With ample guidance from the autowala, I crossed the road, boarded another auto and reached my destination  –  Sarkhej Roza or Bara Maqbara.

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Pic 3: The mosque and tomb complex of Sarkhej Roza, this picture shows the mosque only.

This young boy had no intention other than just taking me to the place I wanted to go. A gesture I will always fondly remember.

We live in a world where even good acts are viewed through the tainted lens of suspicion and we find it difficult to accept that a stranger can do something nice for us. I firmly believe the world is made of more good people than bad and this is just another case in point to prove that.

The Driver Who Cared So Much

Have you ever come across a driver who pays for your tea and nariyal paani and also treats you to roadside street food? I never had until I met the driver of the car I had hired for our travel. It wasn’t a package tour and I had just booked a cab separately for 5 days and 4 nights.

The driver went beyond his duty of driving us around to make sure we had a very good experience. He became our guide taking us to places that we had no idea about and treating us with all the best roadside food found in each place. Not just that, while in Somnath he invited me to his house for an authentic Gujarati lunch prepared by his sister.

The Unassuming Chaiwala 

The chaiwala (roadside tea seller) at Dwarika is again someone who touched my heart. He was just one of the chaiwalas selling chai (tea) at Gomti Ghat. I had chai from him on two occasions. The third time I had no change and he said that I could pay later. Selling chai to a tourist on credit, I thought was a very nice gesture. I told him I was leaving that day and may not be able to come back. “Koi nei” (“It’s okay”) is what he said.

These people and many others have been instrumental in making my Gujarat experience a wonderful one. And, these are precisely the kind of experiences that propel me to travel.