Have you ever had to move cities and join a new school a little late, after the classroom cliques had already been formed? The time when as an outsider and the new boy or girl, you were referred to as the ‘Madrasi’ or the ‘Bong’ depending on where you were from? The times when your state was an integral part of who you are.
And it wasn’t just in school. You grew up, got through college, got a job and on the first day of work found yourself having lunch with your fellow Mallus or fellow Delhiites waxing forth about the wonders of Malabar roast chicken or ice-cream at India gate. And if there weren’t enough people from your home state you would try and get together with those who hailed from neighboring ones. This meant that the people from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh would be seen together and the ones from Orissa and Bengal would collectively get nostalgic about their homeland. Sure, there were the occasional cosmopolitan gangs, but mostly there was always that invisible boundary of mother tongue and state running through even the closest-knit groups.
Yet, I have seen this very boundary fade away as soon as these groups migrate to foreign shores. Since I moved to the Philippines with my husband, meeting up with our gang of Indian friends here, is what brings us a little closer to home. That’s when we sit around and eat peanuts smattered with chopped onions and the juice of a lemon, with old Kishore Kumar and Rafi songs playing in the background. Evenings out are usually to Indian restaurants where we discuss who has managed to get their hands on the latest Bollywood DVD. As we gulp down sweet and salty lassi, we are already making plans for playing Teen Patti at Diwali, which is still more than a few months away. The fact that the group is composed of families from Delhi, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Kerala is certainly no stumbling block to the bond. As we laugh and joke and talk we are not Punjabis or Mallus - we are just Indians. No more boundaries.
The fact that Onam is a festival limited to Kerala does not deter us from calling all our Indian friends over for lunch. Holi becomes an Indian festival rather than the festival we Southies used to shy away from, back home. Butter chicken and Sambar are clubbed together as Indian food. The North and South are reduced to mere geographical indicators and are certainly not a part of your identity as an NRI.
Why is it that so many of us had to move so far away from our motherland to understand the essence of the phrase ‘Unity in Diversity?’ Why is it that when we are back home we are hung up on the small differences between us? Do we really need the harsh reality of distance to realize that we are actually part of the same huge family?
So many questions and not many concrete answers.
And the more I think about it, I feel like this is one of those times when Bollywood beat us to the answer. It’s like the dialogue Shah Rukh Khan mouths in the 2007 hit Chak De, that states - we are still waiting for the time when we neither hear nor see ourselves as separate states and start seeing ourselves as Indians. And till that time comes, I believe that we’ve started becoming more Indian when we are out of the country than within.