Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Pertinence Question

Where do you belong to?  Where is your native place?  Where are you from?

Several ways of asking, but the question is same. And this has been, probably, the most elusive question, I have faced all my life. Of course, I tried writing down a socially acceptable answer, mugging it up and vomiting it out, whenever the question pops up!!! But, surprisingly, that was of little help... primarily for 2 key reasons. One, I haven't spent all my life in a single city / town and thus, have to factor in my current location into the answer every time (sometimes the nature of my stay too…! long term / short term) and two, my understanding of this question itself has evolved over time. Moreover, it becomes all the more tricky, as the answer, invariably, is expected in one word!

First things first... My wife and I work in Hyderabad and live in a rented place while, my parents stay at our home in Delhi and visit us occasionally. My family moved to Delhi from Rajasthan about a decade ago, when my father retired after working there for over 25 years with a public sector company. I was born in Rajasthan and completed my schooling there before coming to Delhi for higher studies. Also, I was fortunate to get a job in Delhi after completing my studies and worked there for 4 years before moving to Hyderabad. Incidentally, my father had moved for work to Rajasthan from Uttar Pradesh, where my grandparents lived and where he spent his entire childhood and early adulthood.

So, when I was in Rajasthan, the answer to the dreaded question was Uttar Pradesh. Things were simple till then. When we moved to Delhi, the answer was either a one word - Rajasthan, as my grandparents no longer used to stay in Uttar Pradesh and the native house there was sold off or a detailed reply (for the patient listeners, normally close friends!) with reasons included…J As time has passed, this explanation of our trail back to UP has become less often, and today, when I am in Hyderabad, I end up giving Delhi as the response to the invincible question.

The most logical reasoning, I give to myself about this continuous change, is that meaning of "native place", in today's context, has become limited to the place where your parents live. However, the answer won’t be so easy if the parents also stay with the working child and obviously, move with him across cities.

It has become a common scenario these days, which I feel, is a result of the changing landscape of the working culture in India, where people spend major part of their life in metros, which offer better employment & growth opportunities. Improvement in transportation and communication infrastructure in the country has also contributed to this increasing trend as one can always be connected to his family members over phone or by internet and can comfortably reach them physically on short notice.

One may ask - Why is it ironical not to have a clear name of a place in your mind to belong to??? Answer to this question, interestingly, lies within the answer to the question - why this question always keeps coming back itself? Well, whenever someone asks this question, what he is actually asking is - Who are you?

How?? Everyone will agree that character of a person is build by the physical, social, emotional & religious (at least in India!) construct around him. It is commonplace in India to assign specific traits with people belonging to a place / region or even caste. Trust me this holds true everywhere in the world as well. While, making firm views (worse is to start reacting) about anyone based only on answer to such question is totally wrong, this is a good starting point to understand an overall framework which the person MAY belong to.

Till recently (even holds true for our parents), people mostly used to live, work and spend their lives at same place, generation after generation. And this was true for both business class and working class. All people of one city / town / region generally used to face same climate / seasons during the year, resulting in similar food preferences (crops to be grown as well as cooking methods) and clothing habits. They will have similar infrastructure (like electricity, roads, water) and other facilities like school, playgrounds and problems & solutions thereof. They will share similar religious beliefs and social (family, relatives & neighbourhood etc) construct. All these will determine a person’s physical & emotional attributes & attitude. Moreover, most of the people, used to have a sense of belongingness to all these settings (a portion weaved into customs and traditions) and used to feel proud and connected to it.

So, whenever, my father answers that he belongs to Uttar Pradesh (yes, he still feels & answers that, and rightly so), he has a strong sense of belongingness to the settings, beliefs, customs & traditions of Uttar Pradesh (obviously, that of the specific town he grew up in). Sadly, people like me are always an outsider in the city we live in, even after spending years altogether there. And this is bilateral, both in the minds of the locals as well as ours. I can only wonder the agony of people who change cities across countries.

The irony is not in answering the literal question about a place, as one can always put together facts around one’s physical movement/s. And there are always ways to keep people engaged for more than one word answer! Ironical is that sometimes, I am myself not sure of the answer, within me. Is that really the place where I belong to? I feel proud being connected to which place or belief system?

With the primary setup changing & evolving, I guess, the region for one to belong to may also needs to be widened to, say, a country. The nature of such belongingness is also unique and different and evolving over time. But, that's an entirely separate discussion. So, the answer in my case is, my favourite, India.

(I have skipped the details of my wife who also has a similar history to relocating across cities, which I am sure, you can understand, will add another unique dimension to my story :p)

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