Often I have heard some American say to an Indian, “Why don’t you go back to your own country and work there? “After all, you are an Indian”. Many Indians do go back, others stick on in a land which is not their own. Far from it. Some stay just for the comforts that this country affords as compared to their own. For me, it was more complicated than that. Being more comfortable was part of it, but my comfort zone extended from mere physical comfort to something more. For the first part, could I identify myself as an Indian? This part is difficult for an American to understand without knowing the history of India and Indian life. There is a wide divide among lifestyles in India. India is a world country, just like America. Vast and diverse.
My father belonged to the Armed Forces, a doctor, an intellectual. I grew up in bungalows, left over from the British Army. Beautiful shady trees in front of my home, gardens, walkways. Our house had household help from batmen, as they were called. They were men of the soldier rank who were recruited to work in officers’ homes. I grew up on Hans’ Anderson’s Fairy stories, oblivious of the political and civilian life of India. I imagined myself in England, dreamed of foggy castles, and turrets, and princesses in ballroom gowns. I imagined that in my past life I was an English princess, that I was born in the wrong place and the wrong time. I grew up on a mix of American oldies, country and British music. Jhon Denver, Beatles, The Seekers, Joan Baez. Where was the Indian in me? All I knew about India were some of the old black and white movies I watched with my mother. We spoke English at school, were discouraged to use our local language in class and at school. Yes, the Indian in me was because I could speak our language at home. I was divided up into two parts, the beautiful Indian princess and the beautiful British princess, both lived inside me, together. But one of them always overtook the other. At times I receded into my Indian self, and listened to Bengali songs. At other times, I was a European.
Literature was mostly British, and I had no dearth of them, as our home had a huge collection of books. Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, O. Henry, H.H. Munro, Agatha Christie, Nancy Drews….I lapped them all up. And when the time came for me to choose, I chose America. However, strangely I had no idea that America and Britain were hugely different. I had a hunch, but nothing concrete.
But then America was symbolized by Dirty Dancing, Ghost, Gone with the Wind…so, there was nothing too much different. So, when someone asks me, “Why don’t you go back to India”, I just wonder, But why? Where is my real home? India? America? England? Do I really belong to any of these countries? Perhaps I am more at home in America. Yes, my skin is a few shades darker than the whites, but I already lost the Indian in me, long time back. And yet living in this home of mine, the inmates of my home don’t see me as their own. And I can only smile, a cynical smile, a mirthless smile, a helpless smile, and wonder at how the world can only see the color of the skin, and nothing beyond it.
So, am I Indian? You decide.