Despite all their sharp edges, labels can be affirmations and assertions too. They appeal to man’s yearning for certitudes, an eagerness to simply settle and be at peace. We gravitate towards easy definitions, and for many, part of the answer comes easy. Others live off of bits and pieces of borrowed legacy, are mute in a room of relatives, and go shifty-eyed when asked where they come from. There is a constant, nagging pressure in us, born out of that same longing, to be sure about at least this one part of ourselves in an ever-more-confusing world, to say with conviction – here, this is where I belong. For a certain section of an older generation, hometowns become more than where they come from; these are also the places they will return to. My parents, for example, will attest to this. People like me will not.
As children of metropolises, what we pride ourselves on is the multiplicity of the identities we possess, that we can slip into or out of, as the moment demands of us. Arrayed against us are our parents, who belonged to a culture that was distinctly, uniquely, their own, well-loved and precious. Even as they transplanted themselves into the strange landscape of the city, they knew exactly who they were and what they would, at the end of it all, come back to. Their children, on the other hand are set down against, and grow up with, a diversity that is incredible and awfully confusing, all at once.
Our parents’ sense of identity is drawn from their attachment to their homeland, along with all its palpable history, language, customs and society. Ours is a bit all over the place. Till I was 7 years old, we lived in an old colony in Sarojini Nagar. We shifted, and that was the last I ever thought of it. Those had been the first seven of my formative years, but I have never felt any nostalgia for my childhood home. In hindsight, there was not an awful lot I was leaving behind. I can remember no ties I was intimately bound in. As I theorize now, we were rather like an island, isolated and self-sufficient, and I doubt there was the sense of community that, say, my parents felt back in their hometowns in Kerala. Diversity is variety, and that, they say, is the spice of life, but sometimes, it’s just a fancy word for difference.
As a kid, I first learnt the English alphabet, and went to an English-medium school. My grandmother taught me to read and write Malayalam, her native tongue. Hindi came in last, despite it being the currency of everyday interaction with Delhi-ite classmates. I knew how to count in English first, a little later and more limitedly in Malayalam, but rather shamefully, almost never in Hindi. (Even now, God alone knows what the Hindi word for thirty-one is.) Today, Malayalam feels stunted in my mouth, and Hindi grammar in my hands is a strange slippery thing still. And there are days when no language sits quite right on my tongue, and in the recesses of my mind, my thoughts are in a curious jumble of the three.
Every summer break, we travel to Kerala, from a more familiar habitat to a less familiar one. To our parents, no doubt, it is a sweet homecoming, a reunion with the smells and tastes and sounds of something that is incontestably home. The first parting from it would have been a difficult, emotionally harrowing experience. I doubt I would be heart-broken if my search for greener pastures led me beyond Delhi. It is currently home because it is familiar, but time makes the mysterious, known. My instincts are attuned to Delhi, but my emotions stay well out of the equation. It is after all, not someplace that I identify a whole gamut of cultural markers with.
This is a generation without roots, it is said. We respond royally that we, in fact, are global citizens. We can, and do, feel comfortable and just fine anywhere in the world, thanks. It is difficult to say whether this is more or less fulfilling than the more easily sketched identities of our parents. It is simply a matter of difference. We know just enough to have an insider’s perspective and an outsider’s objectivity on one-and-a-half cultures. Growing up with plurality makes us a little more tolerant, a little less suspicious, but also a little doubtful about our own place in the world. We do not have a primary identity perhaps, some singular sense of self that can be asserted with unflinching certainty. Instead, there is a malleability there that is, I suspect, as frightening to us as it is to our family.
Let us not choose then. And let us embrace this not-choosing.
Let us not surrender to the pressure of becoming comfortable in one skin, but see, instead, with this double vision all the time. Let us tiptoe along the border of often ill-melding cultures, falling sometimes one way, often the other. Let us always launch into complicated explanations of familial genealogies when someone asks where we come from. Let us nestle right into that liminal space where we are neither wholly of one nor absolutely of another.
The longed-for constancy can perhaps be chanced upon differently. Maybe we can decide to swear by something else altogether – follow that age-old adage that home is where the heart is. And the heart doesn’t know places; it knows people. My family’s base camp might be Kerala, but my loved ones are mine.
Written by Swathi Gangadharan
Featured image by Sanna Jain