For the past four days I have been enjoying the hospitality of the countryside. Although the British would beg to differ that this doesn't qualify for the countryside, but when you seek relief from World City London, even a small town feels like the edge of nowhere. London is a fine city to live in; swarming with Asians that it's almost like living in air conditioned South Mumbai. Desis, desis everywhere and not a Brit to be seen. Apart from the Asians, there are plenty of people from South East Asia, Middle East and Eastern Europe. It is a city of the young and restless. Aah what bliss to be away...
I am in Scarborough. It is a small University town 40 miles north of Hull, a North Yorkshire tiny seaside settlement about three hours from Loud London. The city of Hull itself is situated in East Yorkshire, 200 miles from London.
When I reached Hull on Sunday morning I was the only Asian on entire train. Now nothing odd about that but considering that Asians constitute almost 30% of London's visible population, this was quite a change. At the train station, as I waited for my friend to pick me up, Curious Fat Pink Lady selling the Daily Mail asked me if I was a Paykee! 'No, I am from India', I replied. 'Ooh India!' was the excited response as she rolled her eyes. I was about to head to the nearest Ladbrokes outlet to bet that she was thinking of elephants, snakes and the Raj, precisely in that order!
Now I have often been taken to be a Parsi courtesy the ghastly set of incisors I have inherited from my mother's side of the family and the sharp nose form my paternal grandfather. I have also been mistaken to be a Malaysian because I have unflattering small eyes and a rather pale complexion. I have been mistaken to be anything but a well fed Punjabi that I am.
And here was this woman asking me if I was from Pakistan. Well that was close enough - I smiled to myself.
Let's fast forward to day 3 in Scarborough. I venture to the supermarket to buy food. Now living with two single men isn't recommended at all if you enjoy three square meals a day. Their cupboards boast of every kind of breakfast cereal imaginable and nothing else. I doubt if the kitchen has ever been used for cooking. All I can see in the pantry is crates upon crates of Carlsberg. I can no longer survive on a liquid diet of beer and more beer. I need food. I think let me return the hospitality by cooking them a surprise Indian meal.
So in the afternoon, I walked to the supermarket. I could see that people here do not often see Asians. But I am certain there doesn't exist a supermarket in the UK which doesn't boast of an Asian. And lo behold there is an Old Asian Uncle Types at the checkout. 'And where in India are you from', asks Old Uncle Types. Yahoo! Finally someone has called me an Indian. I almost dropped the cherry tomatoes for the rajma-chawal in ecstasy and did a small jig. 'Delhi', I grinned. 'And where are you from', I asked trying to be polite.
'I am British. British Asian!'
Identity is not as simple and transparent as we think it is; although it looks like the representation of the self on a one-dimensional scale. However we function from a plane in time and space and thus our identity is produced in that particular time and space, relative to others.
It is easier to project the similarity than to expose the various points of differences that make us what we really are. Our cultural identities are fashioned through a shared past and centuries of collective past; history made up of stories, symbols and memories and myths. Our individual identity comes from our experiences which are unique to the me and the I.
Is there an 'authentic' identity for displaced people like me? Is there an identity I can safely lay claim to without continually clinging to safe ways out like I do. I know that I hide behind being 'an Indian from Delhi' whenever people ask me where I am from. The complexity of the identity far exceeds what we confront and accept. It reminds us of the friction between the 'us' and 'them', the past and the now.
Hence to that British Asian, I was a 'them', a desi possibly just off the boat. And to me he was a British desi. Because it is easier to classify, compartmentalize and stereotype people than to unravel the distinctions that we carry.
What makes me an Indian? My brown skin? My Indian passport that I hold on to steadfastly even after all these years? My name? My childhood was spent in Europe but I too have a few precious stories of blazing summer afternoons spent climbing mango trees in summers with my cousins. I went back to India for a couple of years as a young adult and was always told I am too Western. My liberal views were considered radical and I was secretly glad when I left India. When I was back home in Europe, I was an Indian. What am I and where do I belong? Am I an Indian - I go 'home' every six months, I love my aloo parathas and I watch every film that Bollywood dishes out.
Many of you reading this today might share this emotion of belonging to a no-man's land. Some of you may not. We are traveling further and further away from the land of our ancestors. Some of us hold onto the history and traditions, some move on, and some try to finely balance both the past and the future. Some of us identify ourselves as Indians, some with their adopted homelands.
What makes you Indian?