When I was watching Chak De a long time ago, I couldn't help but nod my head in the segment where Shah Rukh Khan (it's one of the films in which he actually acted well!) talks about how we always seem to first belong to our states and then our country. This is inevitable perhaps since India is really like 30 countries in one considering the astounding regional diversities in language, culture, physical characteristics and cuisine.
Yet, despite the diversity all around us we seem to deal in stereotypes rather than in really getting to know people from other states. A North Indian is fair skinned, most often the "loud" Punjabi -- eating chhole and maa ki dal and doing bhangra all the while. A South Indian is a dark skinned, lungi-clad person speaking in a heavy accent and eating idli and dosas. Maharashtrians either speak "tapori" lingo or live in fishing communities. Bengalis eat fish and speak with rounded consonants. Biharis are abuse-spewing hooligans. Gujaratis eat sweet food and are known for dandiya. A parochial stereotype exists for every single region in the country.
As a UPite, born in UP, I don't remember ever being asked, "Where are you from?" Perhaps with my surname, they already knew where I belonged. But when dad was transferred to Mumbai (Bombay then) in the mid-80s, I had my first rude shock. After joining a high-profile school on the tony Pedder Road, when it was time to get introduced to my classmates, invariably the most frequently asked question was, "Where have you come from?"
"I don't do a merry dance when I chance upon another UPite. My heart only does a merry dance when I meet a like-minded person."
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh.
"Where is that?" I'd patiently try to explain its location, even as I wondered inwardly about the level of geography taught in the 8th standard.
Still drawing blank looks.
And the next question: "What is your caste?"
Really, I had never been asked that question in my life. I stared back wondering what it was. I remember coming home and asking my mother, "What is my caste?"
She told me, "Kayastha."
So, I went back and regurgitated that answer the next day, again drawing blank stares. They wanted familiar answers like Marwari, Gujarati etc. Those were castes, I wondered? It was very confusing why that question was asked in Bombay and why my caste mattered. It is another matter that I went on to make some really great friends in school but that initial memory stayed with me. Those were the days when doodhawala bhaiyas were still not equated to all UPites. Or when we were not associated with driving taxis and creating a nuisance. Yes, the Shiv Sena had still not turned their attention to us.
Now, years later living in Bangalore, I still find that question sometimes amusing and most times annoying, "Where are you from?"
And, just like the movie, I feel like turning around and saying in a very clichéd way, "Indian!"
Are there still people who belong to one area, one city and one state all their life? What is the big deal about finding out where the other person originates from or as they say here, "Where is your native?" I can relate to so many regions in this country, as I have lived in many cities. And frankly, it doesn't matter a damn thing to me where you belong and what language you speak. And I don't do a merry dance when I chance upon another UPite. My heart only does a merry dance when I meet a like-minded person.
Does that work in this country anymore?
A version of this post was published on Rachna says.