The Story of Nowhere Man

– Mar 19, 2004

“So, where are you from?”

I mull over this question while I stir the gajar ka halwa as it cooks and as the amti boils.

I am cooking for tonight’s dinner at which we are to be joined by guests, an Indian couple I met at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris last week. Like me, Anil and Saumya were waiting that day to board the plane to Nice. I was returning home; they are residents of New York who were

traveling here on vacation. We got talking as we waited and exchanged phone numbers after I gave them some information about the region. We spoke again on the telephone a couple of times this week. We seemed to hit it off and agreed to get together before they went back. So my husband and I have invited them to eat with us tonight.

My sister-in-law advises that for best results amti must be allowed to boil for a good length of time. Normally I am not so patient but today I allow that to happen, as I ponder how to reply if our guests ask that question posed almost inevitably by new acquaintances to each other – “So, where are you from?” My problem is that in the twenty five years since I left my parents’ home to make my own place in the world, I haven’t found a succinct answer to this question though it has been asked of me on many occasions.

I have often wanted to say in response (and I think I actually did, once or twice) “Oh, from all over the place.” But that can seem frivolous even though it comes closest to the truth. My father, who found this question difficult too, used to say, “Tell them we are refugees from Pakistan.” But that doesn’t tell the whole story either.

How to explain lives like ours? My parents were born in what is now the Punjab province of Pakistan and spent their early years there. My mother’s family then moved in the 1940s to a village in Rajasthan (of which my brother and I have the most wonderful memories, from our summer holidays there every year with our grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins).

My father’s family moved to Jamshedpur in Bihar, when he was around ten, and they have had a home there ever since.

My father went to college in Kharagpur (a town in West Bengal) and in his four years there acquired some distinctly Bengali tastes, of both the culinary and literary kind. My mother accommodated this in her style of cooking, and it led me, fortuitously, to grow up reading such literary greats of Bengal as Sharatchandra and Bimal Mitra. And since my father spent much of his working life in Bihar, it is where I was born and schooled. This was followed by a few years of moving between Delhi, Rajasthan, and Mumbai during the years I studied and worked in India, while my parents lived in Orissa where my father worked until he retired and then they moved back to Jamshedpur – after a couple of years in Hyderabad.

In the process, I never really experienced what is known as “Punjabiyat” nor did I come to comprehend completely the East Indian way of life though those are the cultures that I got to observe most closely. There is thus no one place or milieu I can say I am “from”.

My husband’s story is no less complicated than mine. His mother was a Maharashtrian Brahmin with roots in Akola and Pune (cities in the state of Maharashtra) while his father comes of a family of Telugu-speaking Brahmins who moved to Nagpur (in Maharashtra) from Hyderabad (in the state of Andhra Pradesh) just two generations ago. The religious and culinary traditions in my in-laws’ home reflect both those origins.  And because my father-in-law served in the Army until he retired and then settled down in Madhya Pradesh, my husband and his siblings can also truly claim to have grown up all over the place.

Exposed to so many diverse influences over the years, the original traditions of our respective families have been somewhat transformed and diluted. One benefit of this familiarity with change has been that it has made the task of adapting to each other’s ways easier in our marriage.

Especially in the matter of food, my husband’s Punjabification is complete; he loves rajma, and will gladly eat gobhi and muli ke paranthe any day of the week. As for me, I enjoy nothing as much as I do the varan with rice and toop that he grew up on, and the delicious koshimbirs (salads) that are so typical of Maharashtrian cuisine. (There is one important ideological difference, however, that we are yet to resolve; it really pains my husband that I refuse to concede the supposed superiority of the Alphonso mango. Beloved to Maharashtrians, it is often unknown to Biharis like me who grew up on and therefore prefer such delicious varieties of the fruit as the Dusseri, the Langra and the Sindoori.)

But an acceptance of each other’s culinary traditions doesn’t help us find an easy answer to the question many new acquaintances ask each other – “So, where are you from?”

And there are other issues that such muddled histories as ours raise, which are not as easily resolved as acquiring a taste for new foods. For instance, I was raised as an Aryasamaji and I am still a staunch advocate of that way of life. Yet I also have a deep love of Ma Durga and all that

she stands for – a function of all those childhood years in Bihar, where the annual Durga Puja celebrated by Bengali families around us became as much our own festival as theirs. My husband’s family, meanwhile, have their own set of divinities they put their faith in. Is it possible, I wonder, to find in all of this a coherent belief system and traditions to pass on to the next generation? (An acquaintance, observing my failure to follow any one, consistent way, was once driven to ask me – “So what kind of Hindu are you?”)

I just tend to put my faith in the fact that good people everywhere in the world seem to live their lives by the same values. This makes them- whether they are Kannadiga, Canadian, Japanese, English, or French- kind, considerate, polite and hospitable. So as my daughter grows up, if these values are the only traditions I am able to teach, I like to think we will be okay, even without a strong ethnic identity or the religious traditions and rituals that go with such an identity.

As for tonight, hopefully the food will convey the amalgamated cultural identity my husband and I have gradually acquired. The amti and the khamang kakdi reflect my husband’s Maharashtrian antecedents while the matar paneer and the dessert represent my Punjabi background.

Imagine my surprise then, that our guests expressed no curiosity in our ethnicity in all the hours we spent together. Anil and I were delighted to discover that we went to the same school (though several years apart) in Delhi and that he has relatives who live in the same city as my mother. But apart from this common ground, there was so much else the four of us were able to talk about. We discussed the pros and cons of life in Europe versus life in North America, we exchanged accounts of our favorite destinations in Europe and India; we told each other funny stories about our toddlers.  And we argued amiably, as all people who know these cities do, about which is the better city between Mumbai and Delhi.

The reason for the lack of an inquisition about our roots became clearer over the course of the evening. Anil, as I gathered from the conversation, is probably a native of Uttar Pradesh who grew up in Delhi. Many members of his family now live in Bihar. Saumya is a Gujarati who grew up in Mumbai. Both she and Anil have lived in America for more than twenty years. So perhaps they are the kind of people who don’t bother anymore with the question of where someone came from.

May their tribe increase.

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