"Where are you from?" This is a question I am usually asked on making an acquaintance or meeting a new person. It seems a regular way to strike up a conversation. However, from my earliest memories, this question has somehow made me uncomfortable.
In fact, I had a simple answer when I was asked this seemingly innocuous question for the first time, after I had joined law school in Pune. Without putting any pressure on my already zapped mind, I replied, "Pune."
"No, I mean, originally. From where?" My new classmate persisted, leaving me even more stumped.
Thinking he was perhaps a bit hard of hearing, I repeated my answer. "Pune."
I looked quizzically at the student, who asked 'Where do you belong to?'
I thought perhaps he was hard of hearing so I said a bit loudly 'Pune'.
He looked quite exasperated by now and rephrased the question, "Where did you come from?"
I knew this one. "Model Colony," I replied casually.
"No, no... are you originally a resident of Pune?" He asked, and went on to explain that he was a Gujarati who was born and brought up in Mumbai and now settled in Pune.
Some enlightenment indeed!
Having stayed in four distinct geographical regions of India for various periods, there does not appear to be any singular answer to this question for me. I never felt the need to identify myself with any particular location. A few years later, in the most unexpected of places—a movie hall—I pinpointed the reason for my discomfort.
The Taj Mahal symbolizes India and is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. How often is it associated with Agra, other than as a specific location one has to plan a trip to?
It was a scene from Shah Rukh Khan's movie Chak De India when he, being the newly appointed coach of the national women's hockey team, asks them to introduce themselves one by one. The first introduction comes— "Balbir Kaur, Punjab." After asking her to repeat the introduction louder, he asks her to step aside from the national team line-up and stand separately. The next players, who say their name followed by the state they hail from, are given the same treatment. This continues until a player says, "Vidya Sharma, India." He thanks Vidya and says she's in the team. He asks the others if there is anyone else who's playing for a particular state. He further goes on to say that the national team "needs only players who play for India." An impressive dialogue but as we see, it fails to have any immediate impact on the players. The movie then shows how the coach slowly but steadily changes the perception and is able to bring out some national integration in the team. Once this spirit is imbibed within each player, they not only begin to play as a team with a common objective but overcome all odds to win the women's hockey world cup!
This movie was clearly a defining moment for me and for many others. It stirred up feelings of being part of one country—transcending individuality, region, place or city. This feeling is further fortified whenever I hear our national anthem being played—it always gives me goose bumps and fills my heart with pride and deep satisfaction.
Ruskin Bond captures the essence of India in his essay "At Home In India" where he writes:
"For India is more than a land. India is an atmosphere. Over thousands of years, the races and religions of the world have mingled here and produced that unique, indefinable phenomenon, the Indian: so terrifying in a crown, so beautiful in himself."
I don't think I have an identity other than being an Indian. In fact, until recently, my Facebook profile remained incomplete since under the question "From" (where) there was no option to include "India!" Thankfully, "From" has now been replaced by the more inclusive "Places You've Lived."
Just like the Taj, our identity should be "Indian"—not Delhiite, Mumbaikar, Gujarati or Assamese!
The Taj Mahal symbolizes India and is one of the seven wonders of the modern world. How often is it associated with Agra, other than as a specific location one has to plan a trip to? Whenever reference is made of the Taj, one instantly thinks of India. Not a city, not a region. Likewise, what mattered to me about my law school classmate were his progressive thoughts, and not identifying him with a location.
Thoughts and feelings will not change overnight. Neither will our identity. However, it is up to all of us to rise to the occasion to shed our self-imposed limitations on location and identification and propel India forward as a unified country. As the saying goes, "United we stand, divided we fall." Unity among Indians can make us stand tall, fuel India's growth and secure a better future for all of us. Just like the Taj, our identity should be "Indian"—not Delhiite, Mumbaikar, Gujarati or Assamese!
So the next time someone asks you, "Where are you from?" do not hesitate to say "From India."