How Indian am I?

Part of my Indicorps’ adventure is about dissecting my connection to India. For those who think I have a killer tan, here’s the reveal: I’m actually half Indian. Believe me when I say it’s happened more than once, before I even got here. In fact, I think about fifty percent of people feel sufficiently awkward about race to avoid the question altogether, and assume neither, instead imagining me a miscegenation of the gods – which is fine.

Yesterday I wrote about community immersion, which got me thinking about how Indian I’ve become, from ‘fresh off the boat’ to Rajasthani villager. Gradual change is difficult for me to see, but I can see the change through reactions of people I encounter.

Language has been a big factor. In August last year I arrived knowing two words, ‘namaste’ and ‘panne’. I hadn’t, as Indicorps’ requested, made any attempt to learn Hindi, and I suffered for it. My Hindi still needs improvement.

Back in September, until around January, I made a point of persisting with bad Hindi. I’d answer questions with poorly structured answers and ask them in a random flurry of tenses. We don’t speak English, people would say. They’d complain to my friends that I always speak in English. ‘You need to start speaking Hindi’. ‘But I am speaking Hindi!’, I’d cry. They’d stare back blankly.

Now my Hindi is convincing enough to have people believe I’m from India, perhaps not from Rajasthan. Maybe I’m just a little bit stupid or perhaps I’m from Gujarat (interchangeable).

‘What village are you from?’

‘London.’

‘Is that in Maharashtra?’

‘No, it’s in Europe.’

‘South India?’

‘Actually, it’s outside India.’

‘Kashmir?’

‘Yes, near there’.

When they hear my mother is Indian the questions come a little faster. ‘So why don’t you speak Hindi?’ My mother is actually from Malaysia but descends from Andhra Pradesh, a region of south India where Hindi is not spoken. The local language, spoken by over 100 million people, is Telugu. ‘So you speak Telugu?’ Evidently, I don’t speak Telugu, for which I am chastised as a bad son (I blame my mother, which is again evidence that I am a bad son).

After ten months here I definitely look more Indian. My new physique – my patla patla frame – has removed evidence that I was once carnivorous, a small giveaway. I’m also darker. My NGO head recently told me that my hair has turned black. The next week his sister made the same comment. Presumably it was blonde when I arrived. I’ve also accumulated lines across my skin, and I will not use the f-word to label them (not that one). It’s a tell-tale sign of exposure to the sun, something of a Rajasthani trait.

And then there’s my clothes. Once meticulously ironed and colour coordinated, the only coordination that remains are dirt stains that carry from my neck through to my chapples. Today I’m wearing a clean khurta and once-white pyjama pants, but I doubt my efforts to look nice will carry through the week. By dress alone, I definitely look like I’m from Chachiyawas. But I’m still not that convincing.

People find it hard to believe that I could be part-Indian (‘Oh, so that’s why you have so many Indian features!’), because in so many ways I fit no stereotype they have. Here I am, an Indian raised abroad that cannot speak Hindi and is not religious (be I Hindu, Muslim, or Christian). ‘Who is your favorite god?’ How can I be Indian when I am so heterogeneous.

I don’t want to veer off-topic but this is where I love to challenge pre-conceived notions of what is right and what is wrong. Let’s take my heterogeneity regarding gender discrimination (there’s a pun in there somewhere).

‘Did you hear about Poonam?’

‘No.’

‘She has two boyfriends, she is a slut [implied, that is not an accurate translation].’

‘Don’t you have two girlfriends?’

The gender stump comes up very often. Everyone knows that they should treat women equally to men. And every will righteously declare that they are not sexist. And then they will make markedly sexist comments.

‘His new wife has been married once already, what kind of man is he?’

‘But Anurag has also been married twice.’

So I challenge sexism regularly. And people know that I’m right, that’s what makes it so fun. I’m pointing out their hypocrisy and they know immediately that they’re wrong.

It’s not just sexism, it’s everything.

‘What are you wearing?’

‘These, these are shorts, s-h-o-r-t-s.’

‘I know, but you can’t wear them.’

‘Why not?’

‘You just can’t.’

‘But it is so hot and these shorts keep me cool.’

Logic isn’t regularly employed here so when I point things like this out, it’s as if I’ve questioned the unquestionable. It’s conventional wisdom. If India approached every decision with a question rather than following conventional wisdom… well…. India would be a very different place. But I digress.

Breaking homogeneous norms here is a magnified deviance that attracts attention. It makes me less Indian and hinders my identity as part of the community, but it’s important to me and it’s important to them.

‘Why do you call your papa David?’

‘Because that is his name.’

‘But it is disrespectful. And you shouldn’t argue with him like that.’

‘Why not.’

‘Because he is your father.’

‘But he is wrong!’

That’s a big part of Indian culture I refuse to adopt, unyielding respect for elders. It’s part of the legacy of conventional wisdom, and again I blame many of India’s societal problems on a refusal to question or challenge parents. Respect for ancestral tradition is not inherently wrong, but you can question something while retaining respect for it. Here, questions are considered rude (although this rule never applies to me) and this plays out in classrooms and workplaces across Rajasthan. Again, I digress (but still maintain that this is a part of me that is not Indian).

So am I Indian? I like to think I’ve been elevated to a half-Indian pedestal. My mixed race heritage means I’m not expected to follow Indian protocol, but similarly I’m definitely not white. I’m somewhat impervious to fault because the disparity between expectation and actuality can be excused as a result of my miscegenation – by the gods. Because people aren’t quite able to identify me as one of them, I’m excused from norms they would otherwise apply to me.

But there is one answer that does not satisfy anyone.

‘No, I don’t have a wife.’

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