Thursday, March 12, 2009

How I became Charlie

Life has been all about learning new names and trying to decipher them, starting with mine, Charlotte. Now, that simply read in school to first graders, sounded like char-lotte. Though my parents kept addressing me as shalu, it was only after 5-6 years of existence on this planet that i realised that shalu was a pet name, the actual name was Charlotte. There started the dual identity - Shalu in the neighbourhood and Charlotte in school.
Growing up in the lower middle class society of Sakinanka in Bombay, Charlotte was the most disastrous possessions I could have ever had. But then, life introduced me to names more weird than mine. The chawl I lived in, Pansare Sadan was made up of 25-30 families. My neighbours came from all varied races, religions, castes, and regions in India. I was surrounded on all 4 sides by 4 Maharashtrian families. To my right were the Patade's from the ghats, the hilly regions of the Sahyadris, and to my left were the Patare's from the coastal region of Malwan. I spent the first few years of my life trying to figure out the difference between Patade, Patare and oh yes Pansare - to me they were tongue twisters, and sounded the same. Then there was this family called Lokhande (Lokhand? Iron????). Besides there were also other Maharashtrians, belonging to different communities, Malwas, Kshatriya's, etc.
Diagonally opposite my house, were two Keralite families, the Kutty's with fair skin and the Sukumaran's with darker skins, again from different regions of Kerala. Much later in life I learnt that those were just misnomers and not their real family names. Those days in Bombay, all south Indians were referred to as Madrasis :)
A little ahead of my house was a Tamilian family with the family name Singh. Now this puzzled me no end, coz according to me Singh's should have been Punjabi's. Then there was the Kannada Poojari family and the Marwari Shah family, who named their store, Patel Medical store. Why would you do that, isn't Patel a Gujarati name. I lived a better portion of my life on this planet, believing that Marwari's and Gujaratis were one.
And then there was this Marathi family who were traders of different varieties of Tea. I still, can't remember their family name, they were always referred to as Kisan Tea. And then there was the Mali family, and I wondered why they were Mali? Did they live up on the Mala (loft in Marathi)?
I was a Fernandes. Now that was quite western and exotic, in this kind of an environment. Though living with a name like "Charlotte" is still quite an effort sometimes.
Living in a microcosm of different cultures, made me feel one with them. I was at home at Pansare Sadan, while the other chawls around were alien to me. But when I went to school my friends came from different chawls, so then I belonged to St.Anthony's against other schools in the neighbourhood. And then when inter-school sports drove us against neighbouring areas, Sakinaka was so much better than Chandivali or Safed Pool.
School was a mob of names lashed at me. The immediate bonding was with Catholic friends from the same religion, Bonet, Joy, Zeena, Rina, Daphne. And then there were Catholic friends with Hindu names, now that was another puzzle - Sachin, Roshan, Savita. Why, I thought Christians only had western, English names for their kids. School taught me that was not the case.
The front-runners in my class were Simmi and Sheeba - Oh My God. Have mercy, I'm only 6. How am i supposed to remember names so similar. Merlyn had a nice ring to it, while Samina took some time to learn. Dipti used to talk a lot, while Monica was timid.
Being the tallest in class, secondary school was about being a back-bencher, and that was when I was introduced to the notorious Lords of the Last Benches (LOLB) Vinod and Praveen were easy to remember, but why couldn't Nazmul and Shamshul simplify their names??????????
Going to school with all these names, melted my religion and my regionality away. I was no longer a Mangalorean Catholic, I belonged to St.Anthony's Sakinaka. That was my third identity. If school was all about being lower-middle class, college was a microcosm of different classes too. And then being a Sindhi college, I got introduced to a new community - the Sindhi's. So a whole new gamut of family names - Totlani, Kukreja, Gopalani, and the Parsees, the Daruwallas and the Batliwallas, and of course my Bohri Muslim friend, Rampurwalla, my Nepali friend Bogati, to name a few. College made me leave Sakinaka behind. I now belonged to Tolani college Andheri. And was always proud of the fact, that it was the only college those days that concentrated more on academics, than anything else. That was my fourth identity.
As life progressed, i crossed boundaries, from my chawl, outside Sakinaka, and then outside Andheri. Identities seemed to keep adding on, as my boundaries kept widening. Different jobs took me outside Andheri into the rest of Bombay. Chaat at Juhu / Chowpatty, coffee at Reclamation, movies at Eros, walks on Marine Drive, brought me closer and closer to my muse, Bombay. All other identities apart, now I was only and purely a Mumbaikar (Bombayiite preferably, coz it was Bombay that i was born in).
No, I was not Marathi, but I topped Marathi in school, amongst Marathi students. Yes I was a Mangalorean, but I knew the chawls and gullies of Bombay better than any other region in the country. Yes, I was Catholic, but I knew the rituals of Ganesh Chaturthi, Diwali and Sankranti, better than any other Hindu in school. Yes, I was taught the Bible, but ask me about Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gnyaneshwar, Sopan, Ramdev or Tukaram, and I will be able to tell you a tale or two more than the average Hindu. What is it that makes me different from the Hindu then?
I started traveling out of the state, Himachal, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, and my affinity towards the nation grew stronger. I was no longer Catholic, no longer a Mangalorean, not even a Bombayiite. How could I be, when people in these states welcomed me like family, made me feel at home, and were no different from me. They had the same issues, the same views, financial, psychological, political, as mine. Marathi, Gujarati, Bihari, Tamilian, or Malayalee, they all seemed to be the same - two hands, two legs, red blood. Wherever I went the colour of the skin changed, but the colour of blood seemed to remain the same.
And there was Bollywood, how could I stay away from its charms. Bollywood made me a fiercer Indian than I ever was. Being an Indian meant sticking to your roots, not gunning for the United States of America, and hating Pakistan for devouring Kashmir.
While the Rath Yatra, changed everything in India, 9/11 changed everything around the world. The BJP, the Bajrang Dal, the RSS, kept playing divide and rule and pushed the minorities towards drastic measures and into terrorism, while Bush played God and pushed Islamist nations further into fundamentalism.
I moved on from Bombay to Bangalore, from Bangalore to Singapore, and to newer identities. I realised people were no different in Singapore. The middle-class here was exactly the same as the middle class in India, warm welcoming, family-oriented. They had the same problems and the same sense of humour. Singapore is made up of Chinese and Malays. They follow different customs and rituals, but how they are different from me, I cannot see. The colour of the skin changes, but the colour of the blood remains the same. Women have the same worries about fair skin, and slimming, and finding a rich husband, to name a few and men worry about finding good paying jobs and having a good career, that pays for a house, a car and a barbecue.
Does it strengthen my Indian identity, I do not see any reason why it should. I live in a strange land with strange people, I long to have friends, I long to be accepted. Does that mean I do not want to be Indian anymore. No, it means I want to stop being something or somebody.
Pakistan is in dire straits, ousted lawyers who helped in electing a president, are now out to get him. Terrorism seems to be the order of the day. Women are still supressed, and people still starve. The Taliban they created against Afghani forces, is the very Taliban that proves to be fatal. But I am an Indian, should I be delighting in the fall of Pakistan, should I say they deserve it, for the terror they inflict upon India. Should I pride myself on how I belong to a much better, and democratic nation. If this is what being Indian does, then I'm ashamed of that pride. Are they not as human as me? How different are their women when it comes to fighting the moral police? How different are their mountain -dwellers when it comes to surviving? How different are their parents, who worry about a fair and liberal education for their kids? How different are their politicians when it comes to corruption? Then what is it that makes me different from them, that makes me scoff at them and find pleasure in their doom. Is this what being Indian means, delighting at another's pain. Then I would rather not be a Bombayiite, I would rather not be a mangalorean, I would rather not be Catholic, I would rather not be an Indian or a Singaporean.
Every identity of mine has only categorised me. Every identity of mine has only pitted me against others, has only put me in a slot and separated me from others. People who belong to different communities, different regions, different religions, different nationalities. If belonging to something means being separate from others, then I would rather not belong. If being human means the extinction of other species from the face of the planet, then I would rather not be human either. in a world troubled with global warming, am I going to suffer any lesser than a Tibetan or lesser than a Tiger? What is my identity?
If it separates me from you, then I would rather not have one.

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