Monday, June 8, 2009

The immigrant experience

Last week I had driven down to Brockton (a neighbouring town) to check out a 1996 Accord which I was looking to buy. The owner was a second generation Portuguese immigrant and in the course of conversation we got talking about how his parents had moved to the USA from the 'old land' and how tough it was for him growing up in this country trying to live up to the expectations and norms set for Portuguese society. In a way, I told him, I had had that experience too even though I didn't need to change countries.

I was born in Calcutta, West Bengal on the eastern coast of my country before my dad got a job in Gujarat on the western fringe. India being a country where languages change every two hundred miles, it was no surprise that my mother tongue Bengali was totally useless in my new location. Apparently at 3 years old when we moved to Gujarat, I had gone mute for a number of months just at the shock of having to change languages.

My parents, pure blooded Bengalis did their best to teach us the customs and practices of far-off Calcutta which was always a holiday spot for us and nothing more. But neither did I feel Gujarati in any way by virtue of having grown up in Gujarat. Just as I did not sing Rabindra Sangeet with any kind of gusto, I hated the Gujarati traditional dance of Garba not least because I am blessed with 3 left feet. Hindi was my language of choice, using the local language Gujarati only when unavoidable. It was a feeling of rootlessness that plagues every child who is required to conform to the requirements of one culture while actually living in the middle of another. The Durga Pujos and the inevitable attempts by my mom to teach me to read and write Bengali in the summer vacations were integral to my existence as was wishing every relative under the sun on Poilaa Boisaakh (Bengali New Year).

I felt more Bengali than anything else but this was a feeling most joyfully refuted by my Bengali friends brought up in Calcutta. For them, being Bengali required one to be raised in Calcutta or at least West Bengal; everyone else were just wannabes. For a very long time, I laboured under this impression of not having any identity. This lingering doubt however was cleared in one swoop by my college friend Riddhi, a guy from rural Bengal and unlike the urbanites not hell-bent on proving my un-Bengaliness.

He asked me one day "Do you think that you are a Bengali?"

I was a little taken aback but I managed to muster "Umm... I am but then I can't read or write Bengali."

Riddhi replied "Well stupid, there are so many villagers in Bengal who are illiterate and so can't read or write Bengali. Does that mean that they are not Bengalis?"

Since then, I have been pretty comfortable under my tag of an NRB (Non Resident Bengali), confident that I do qualify as a Bengali if I choose to declare my ethnicity irrespective of whatever flimsy proof the Kolkata bhadralok might have against my eligibility.

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