“Where are you from?” is a question that I am asked often by people, inanimate objects like forms and even websites. It is a question that continues to baffle me. If the other party is a human being then I do possess the option of explaining myself, though the sincere yet seemingly complicated explanation that follows invariably fills the questioner with regret (for asking me), boredom or even a slight suspicion of my sanity, or so it seems. And my explanation remains incomplete most of the times like that of the eternally wandering soul that hasn’t been able to accomplish its sole purpose, namely obtaining the permanent abode. Of course, when it is a website or an inanimate form, I don’t get the privilege of explaining and so I have to settle for any answer that puts the case at rest for the time being, and so the saga of the eternally wandering soul continues.
But you see, a blog seems to be a great combo of a human listener and an inanimate website; you can speak your mind there, and then wait for the right kind of audience to come along and respond. And since I haven’t yet reaped that benefit yet, this post should more than make up for it. So, I am going to ramble on anyway and finally complete my story of ‘Where am I from’ and attempt to explain why it is a question that is so difficult for me to answer.
You see, the story begins in Kolkata where I was born. It is a city that resides in the eastern part of India. That is where my parents were born too, and their parents too. That is where most of my family roots were/are based. Just like the British, we too regarded that city as our family Capital for reasons more than one. For one, our ancestral house stood in that corner of the country. In fact, the simplest explanation would be that we were Bengalis, by default rather than by design, and so my association with Kolkata was imperative even beyond the requirements of knowing the place and people there. After a couple of years in Kolkata after I was born my father moved to Pune, a city neatly tucked in the west of India.
In Pune I spent almost ten years of my childhood. A major chunk of my schooling happened there too at a Convent (whose stories would well qualify as a separate post). Many fond memories (perhaps the best of them) are associated with that city for many reasons. This was the city that made my childhood fun. My friends and I played every evening until our parents had to literally drag us back to our houses for dinner. Our houses were modest then but our lives couldn’t have been richer (at least my life and childhood was)!
During summer vacations my friends and I would go cycling at dawn and enjoy an adventure of our own. Then we would play at each other’s house all day! We celebrated festivals together and even fought with each other with equal zest. My parents, following my father’s recent retirement, have moved back to Pune which spells home to us even today. Yes, there were times in my childhood when I felt that I was compelled to learn the local language in order to be accepted by friends, but it was only a matter of time when our friendship tore down those walls.
But way back then, that was still not our last stop even when we wished it would be. We moved to Faridabad, in the northern part of India, where we stayed for a couple of years. This was perhaps the shortest stint among all the other stays, and yet we did manage to make a couple of life-long associations that even today seem closer than family to us. In Faridabad, I discovered the orator in me as a student at the Delhi Public School there. I suffered a life-threatening dengue attack (again, another big story full of drama). I discovered the pleasures of working with a good group to present dance musicals during festivals. This place taught me to be fearful of the unsafe world and also how to deal with it. I won several good friends in school, many of who share the same love for naughtiness and pranks with me even today as we did way back then.
In fact, one of them even accompanied us to our next halt – Baroda, a city slightly further away from the western coast of India. In Baroda, in the following seven to eight years, I concluded my schooling and took to writing for the papers even while I was in college. This city gave me my two closest friends for life and my companion too. I have roamed about in every corner of this city in gay abandon, alone and with my friends, on foot and on my bike and sometimes in the friendly neighbourhood auto rickshaw, and have also discovered hideouts to spend the evenings with my closest companion only to be discovered by some alert family friend.
My companion was born in Amritsar, in north India. As it turned out, his ancestors just like mine had faced the brunt of partition almost during the same time, along geographically opposite corners of the country. While my folks had to move out of the now-called Bangladesh and relocate in West Bengal, in the city known as Kolkata today, his forefathers had to move into Amritsar from Sindh across the western border before Pakistan was made an independent country just like Bangladesh. For his and my forefathers, their homelands had overnight turned into another country and they had to relocate in order to be a part of the Indian subcontinent. It is interesting how history can bind us together.
Anyway, my travel across India hadn’t concluded with Baroda. Our next stop was Bangalore, another lively city in the southern part of India. Here again I spent three years of my youth. I completed my journalism studies, secured my first job with The Times of India and saw myself practically learn and unlearn several beliefs. This city witnessed the most transformative years of my life as I started to build my own opinions. Again, this city gifted me not just my independence but also some very wonderful friends, teachers and professional association that I cherish even today. This city gave me my mentor for life, my teacher – Professor.
It was during my stay in Bangalore that I decided to officiate my bond with my beloved. The wedding for some apparently practical reasons took place in the Capital of India, Delhi. The reception dinner, however, was hosted in Bangalore itself. So, once again, life had ensured that the primary condition of a geographical mishmash was maintained. A couple of years after that my sister decided to get married to the man of her choice, a south Indian who had remained her arch rival in school. The three of us had studied in the same school in Baroda.
Today I live in Singapore and it has been around six years that this country has played home to me. My sister lives in Mumbai while my parents continue to live in Pune along with my uncle and aunt. Most of our family stay in Delhi or Kolkata, their choices primarily governed by their livelihoods just like my constant relocation was.
I find it relevant to mention at this junction that my maternal grandfather served as the Station Director of All India Radio and so during his tenure too, my mother had stayed in the most picturesque yet commercially obscure places like the Andaman Islands and the Himalayan city of Darjeeling, where she even did a part of her schooling.
Zooming back to my immediate present, Singapore has assured me the best level of security, standard of living and opportunities, both professional and personal. This city has seen the writer in me struggle to evolve. In this regard, I owe no less to this country too. Should I choose to change my Indian citizenship, for which I should be adequately qualified for, would that alter anything in me at all? Or will the other cities that I have truly believed to be a part of me cease to be mine?
Every time someone poses that golden question about where I am from, I am rendered speechless. The most annoying experience was when I tried to fill in the details in one of the most popular social network sites. There was no single option called ‘India’. I had to pick any one city as an answer to ‘where am I from.” I finally decided to leave that question unanswered.
Really, where am I from? I have asked myself and to those around me that question me several times. As an eight-year-old I would have perhaps answered, ‘from my mother’. I have even seemed very uncool to many people for scratching my head over such a seemingly irrelevant question. But my heart just doesn’t allow me to mention any one city since it belongs to every city it has lived in, and to every person it has loved, and it even belongs to those cities where it longs to visit. So, what must be the answer here?
It reminds me of the time when you are required to mention your religion too. Something as personal as that need not be mentioned since it should be no one else’s business but mine. Such forms should have an option of ‘None of Your Business’. As for the perennially unanswered question – where am I from – my answer would have to be, Eternally Everywhere.
© Madhurima Duttagupta 2013