As an Indian working in Shanghai for over 1.5 years now; running into fellow Indians in the city is quite common. What irks me is the way in which these encounters take place most of the time. The moment another Indian spots you, he/ she starts classifying you in his/ her mind. So a conversation between two Indians transpires in the following manner:
Indian1: Are you from India? (This is important as all South Asians look the same)
Indian 2: Yes, you too?
Indian 1: (smiles) which part of India are you from?
Indian 2: Bombay
Indian 1: Oh, you must be a Maharashtrian; are you part of the Marathi association? I am a Bengali and we are having Durga Puja this week in the Bengali association.
Indian 2: (a bit surprised at the assumption) that’s good; I am not Maharashtrian
Indian 1: (losing patience in the hurry to stereotype) Well then, what are you?
Indian 2: (very tempted to say “I am Indian” knowing that’s not the answer expected) My mother is from Madhya Pradesh and father is a Gujarati from Bombay
Indian 1: Well, that makes you Gujarati! (in an authoritative tone)
Indian 2: If you insist
Indian 1: Then you must join the Gujarati association; heard they have dandiya nights, etc.
Indian 2: (wondering how to explain to Indian 1 that I see myself as Indian and don’t believe in these community associations) Well actually I don’t know how to play dandiya; my friends laugh when I speak Gujarati; I have visited Gujarat only once to see IIMA and my last boyfriend was South Indian!
Indian 1: (not giving up yet) well in that case you may like the South Indian association, Tamil Sangammam, etc
Indian 2: (quite irritated by now at the persistence of the other person to stereotype) Ok, I got to run now; nice meeting you!
I realize how different my family is when I come across these desis who are hell bent on categorizing people as Sindhi, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Bengali, Maharashtrian, Tamilians, Malayalis, Gujaratis, and so on. Why can’t we all be just Indian? And the rate at which the other person (9 out of 10 times) tries to classify you is not funny. Kudos to all those who are marrying people from different parts of India and who speak different languages – this is the surest way to national integration! And it’s high time to have an association for NRIs that says “We are all Indians”.
Also an embarrassing situation occurred when, during a dinner conversation with people from different nationalities; a fellow Indian took it upon herself to explain to the non-desis present there as to how according to her, people from North India are white and people from South India are black!!! I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and asked this lady (who is from Kashmir and in her own words, the fairest of all in India) whether she knew that Hema Malini, Aishwarya Rai and many other beautiful and “fair” women in India are South Indians. And she confessed that she didn’t know that Aishwarya Rai is South Indian and then fumbled to give some excuse like she meant people living in South India, etc. Also, she asked me whether I am South Indian and hence offended by this comment. To which I told her I don’t like discrimination on the basis of skin color. Reflecting on this I realized that coming from a family where each member has different levels of melanin, it’s a non-issue for us. While I don’t want to get into skin color and what influences the same; my point is why should we be so stereotypical – aren’t we all Indians? Or is genetics and melanin content going to divide us? In a nation obsessed with fair/ white skin and where matrimonial columns are full of “wanted tall, fair, homely girl”; Aishwarya Rai did the right thing by refusing to endorse a whitening range for L’oreal.
On the whole, the North/ South India divide is the strongest I have seen with people from rest of India calling everyone who lives South of Vindhyas as Madrasis. (I have yet to come across a reverse case wherein everyone who lives in North India could be referred to as a Punjabi for example). Wouldn’t it help if we all were able to accept the others as they are with the differences and actually celebrate the differences instead of using them to draw lines, distinguish and put the other person down? In that sense; to me Bombay has been very cosmopolitan and when I now interact with people from other parts of India; I realize that the regionalism is much stronger in their case. (I know a lot of people would say the “Bombaite” is one stereotype on its own).
There is yet another Indian stereotype around working as a single Indian woman in a city one doesn’t belong to; but I shall leave that for next time.
And the next time another Indian asks me if I am from India, I guess I will think twice before answering as I know what lies ahead!!
P.S. I could write about a lot more instances but just want to highlight the way we think, the regionalism many times being stronger than nationalism!