Roots are important we are told and “sense of belonging” to a place, community, group etc. provides people with anchors from which life then takes its directions. However, for me this has been a difficult space and I have struggled with the ubiquitous question of “Where do you come from?” for many years.
I was born in Kerala, to parents who were from the “Pattar” community. These are the original Tamil Brahmins who moved across the Western Ghats into Kerala. Most of them settled over the mountains in Palaghat – but many moved further south. The rest of India calls them Palaghat Brahmins. We spoke a ‘Tamil’ which was so much Malayalam that no Tamilian would recognize it. I did my primary education in the Malayalam medium and was the quintessential ‘pattar’ child – R Seethalakshmi! We moved to Delhi when my father, a civil servant, was posted there in the 1950’s. I had to have home tuition for 6 months, starting with A, B, C at the age of 8 years, to prepare me for an English medium school. And suddenly, in response to the prim Irish voice asking “And, what is your surname, dear?” the ‘R’ became Ramanathan, which was my father’s name. Actually, in the South Indian system, there is no concept of a surname – Ramanathan was his first name as much as Seethalakshmi was mine. And that was the first step in the path of transition.
My father entered my name as ‘Seetha Ramanathan’ and so I was, till at some point the next mutation took place and I got a school certificate for ‘Sita Ramanathan’. The move to Delhi was a unidirectional one as my grandfather had been a self made man and we had no home to go back to in Kerala. My mother’s family, which was a landed one, lost much of their lands to the land ceiling act of 1950s. So, after that move, I remember returning to Kerala only twice. The early 10 years I spent in Delhi were protected ones, in the bosom of the family and with little external contacts or influences except, teachers, schoolmates and neighbors and their families. We had very little family in the North.
Then, after a short traumatic year in London, where my father got posted, I returned to do Medicine in Delhi. Suddenly, I was this free, unchaperoned, hosteler with her own bank account and parents who were thousands of miles away. Between 1966 and 69, a weekly letter was our only communication; I don’t recall even a single phone conversation. But, the boundaries drawn in one’s formative years are difficult to break even when there is no one to stop you anymore. So, I think I even surprised myself, when I agreed to marry a young doctor who was a few years my senior.
He was from the Gowd Saraswat community of Goa – a community I had not even heard of in my limited world. My parents were surprised, but the most objection that was made was by my ‘periappa’ (father’s older brother), who said “But, they are fish eaters”!! But, I learnt to eat and later enjoy the fish based cuisine, learnt Konkini (of course,) and became familiar with the customs of the community. But, I never totally adopted them all, as I was never one for rituals and I never stayed in Goa long enough to learn them. The rituals in our house were minimal and a mish-mash of Tamilian and Goan customs, more of the former than the latter.
Soon after marriage, we shifted to Chandigarh where Subhash joined the faculty of PGIMER and I started my post-graduation. We spent almost 10 years there and Subhash, being a clinician, picked up fluent Punjabi. PGIMER in those days had a very cosmopolitan faculty. There were other mixed community marriages and we made Marathi speaking and Tamil speaking friends in the city. We did not become integral parts of the Maratha Mandal or the Tamil Sangam crowd – how could we? Of course, soon the only 2 Konkini speaking families in the city were amongst our closest friends – in spite of the differences in age, interests and outlook!! We set up our first home in Chandigarh, our daughter was born there and we made lasting friendships with many people, which have lasted to this day. Life was comfortable and protected within the academic environment of the campus and I was happy in that academic cocoon.
During that period, I also spent 2 years in USA doing a post doctoral fellowship. There, I had my first experience on the conflict of belonging. The National Institutes of Health used to circulate a weekly flier, which announced the seminars being given by visiting faculty. It also listed the new post-docs who had joined with details of their supervisor. I got a lot of phone calls, mostly from young men, who would break out into Marathi (I was listed as Sita Naik) and then find it difficult to sustain interest when they learnt (i) I was married and (ii) I did not know Marathi. And sure enough within a few weeks I was spending all the weekends with the Tamil families. At the time this only amused me mildly and I made a number of life long friends from among the Tamil speaking post-docs.
And then we moved to Bombay. Of course, Subhash was right at home, as Marathi is almost as much a first language for Goan Hindus as Konkini!! For me it was an alien tongue – but thanks to the young girl who lived with us and helped in the house, I managed to pick up a smattering of Marathi. My daughter, who did her primary education there, picked up fluent Marathi, which she retains to this day.
The next move took us to Lucknow – which was against the advice of all our well wishers. No one could understand why anyone would want to move from cosmopolitan Bombay to the badlands of Uttar Pradesh. But, it was a gamble that paid off and we never for a day regretted the decision over the next 2 decades that I spent there. The faculty here too, was fairly cosmopolitan and many were old friends from Chandigarh and Delhi days. We were the pioneers at this remote, isolated campus, 20 km from the heart of Lucknow, Hazratganj. And in the spirit of pioneers, developed a unique bonding that we still feel.
Through out my working life, professional colleagues were a little too self conscious to directly ask where you came from. Through all those years, we made many a train journey, to visit Goa or Bangalore or on holidays. And often the question would come up in the cozy ‘train’ journey chatter – ‘Aap kahan se hai?”. And it was always a difficult question. I was not a Malayalee or a Tamilian and GSB only by marriage! Fortunately, I had not been made to change my first name at marriage, as most girls in the Western part of India are made to do. But still, the questions – ‘Who am I?’ ,‘Where do I belong’ , ‘Which culture was I at home in?’- have been difficult ones.
Have I regretted this ‘not belonging’? On the whole no! Sometimes, my response to the query is “I am an Indian”. This leaves most people uncomfortable, I think, because they cannot then slot you. And it seems that each one of us has to be slotted – into a village, a region or a language group, a religious group, and so on! This used to annoy me. But over time, I have learnt to be less critical of this attitude and also realize that it is an inherent part of the extremely diverse society we live in. Whereas, in earlier years these questions may have been raised in ignorance of other regions and cultures, today it is probably more of a conversation piece in the increasingly mingling society we are becoming. Or at least I would like to think so.
A rough draft of this piece, which I had written many months ago, was lying in my “Possible blogs” folder. And then today I read Section IV of Annie Zaidi’s “Known turf”. The book itself I have been reading in fits and starts, because she recounts the reality that is India in such lucid colors, that is disturbing to say the least. In section IV she addressed her personal experience on the “where do I belong?” issue! And it touched so many cords. I could relate so well with her experiences and anxieties and like her I am happy being who I am – Sita Naik.