My first encounter with some of the essential factors of Indian-ness - racial stereotyping and mistrust of one another - was when I settled in Kerala six years ago. The city was Trivandrum or Thiruvananthapuram in local parlance. I am mentioning the city to let readers understand that there is not an ounce of cosmopolitanism to be found anywhere in this city which, unlike Kochi, the commercial hub, is a city of bankers and government officials.
During preliminary introductions with colleagues or neighbors, it appeared that they knew where Kolkata was, that it was a state with a long-standing Communist rule, that it was the state that gave Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose and Swami Vivekananda to the country and to the world. This was heart-warming indeed! To imagine that we had traveled 2500 kms (for the benefit of the uninitiated to distances in India: Yes, that is true.] and that people still knew our historical identity was thrilling, to say the least. However the thrill was to be very short-lived, as I soon discovered.
In the days to come, my family and I, would often be accosted by the tag ‘north Indians’, needless to say much to our shock and dismay because no right-minded Bengali ever identifies with it. In the Bengali psyche, we are a distinct ethnic identity priding ourselves on our intellectual prowess rather than ‘muscle power’ which we inevitably associate with being ‘north Indian’ [this, of course, only reinforces how undoubtedly racist but pretentious we are, stereotyping people along horrifyingly simplistic lines, but unable to digest the same when we are at the receiving end.]
Initially, I would take up cudgels on behalf of all Bengalis and vehemently deny being ‘north Indian’, trying to explain that the term was as insulting to a Bengali as being called ‘Madrasi’ was to them. However I soon gave up, when I saw that my arguments were not penetrating the wall of mistrust that had been constructed by generations of conditioning to be skeptical of anything that came from beyond the Vindyas and to not know that there were other parts of India beyond north-India and south-India.
Strangely enough Kerala is a state where tourism is one of the main revenue generators. In keeping with that the localites are hospitable to tourists, more so to foreign tourists than domestic ones, but nonetheless. These same people turned out to be hugely disapproving of anyone who came there to settle, and I had made the mistake of purchasing an apartment with the simple logic of why pay rent and shift every few months when you could pay the same monthly amount as EMI and enjoy a more stable lifestyle. Besides, I was guided by theoretical notions of Indians not needing passports to travel within India, not considering that in non-metro cities attitudinal hostility of the people you were going to live your life with could cause immense amount of stress.
In modern India, professionals are always on the go, traveling from city to city in search of better prospects. The Malayalis are famous for that and yet cannot fathom why anybody might want to settle in their state! They are temporarily appeased if you tell them of your genuine interest in experiencing first-hand all the myriad fascinating aspects of their culture. Even the sternest of Mallus breaks into a ear-to-ear grin if you praise his ‘appams’ and ‘payasams’. Taking a cue from that I was determined to gain acceptance. Through persistent effort my family and I actually acquired the taste of non-vegetarian fares cooked in coconut oil, so that we did not have to fake pleasure every time we had them and that is no mean feat for a Bengali family. I have two left feet and cannot dance traditional dances to save my life, and yet through sheer will power managed to pull through an entire performance of Thiruvadira during the last of the four Onams I spent there. On the other hand, I was cautious to never miss a chance to emphasize the similarities between our coastal cuisines (in both states rice and fish taking centre-stage) and clung on to whatever faint glimmer of hope I found that perhaps they would one day be able to see the fallacy behind branding us ‘north Indians’.
I don’t know for sure whether that happened or not because soon it was time for us to move to another city. What did happen however was that we came away with Kerala in our hearts, so much so that my child who did not inherit from us the Bengali love for fish curry, invariably exclaims ‘awesome’ every time she tastes any dish that has even a hint of coconut oil as cooking medium.