Do You See?
Some time ago, when I created this blog, calling the URL “fleuve–souterrain“, a few folks pouted saying, “French! But why?” Yeah, I’m not French, never aspiring to be. The reason that “fleuve–souterrain” or “the river underground” appeals to me as a nice concept has got nothing to do with French culture, language or food. True, Mo (see ABOUT ME above left) is getting his PhD in French Literature (his work is actually a mélange of literature, post-colonial geopolitics, architecture and identity issues among French, Francophone and Subcontinental milieu). Did I use mélange and milieu? Nah! But of course we know the English language has several cognates that are French? So, is his (pre)occupation influencing me? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Anyway, just because I am not French, or don’t speak French like a parrot, or don’t drink a daily glass of red wine and devour Camembert for breakfast-lunch-dinner everyday, does not mean I cannot have “fleuve–souterrain” as my blog URL. It’s my choice. Period.
Contrarily, should I have named my URL ‘bangali–naari‘ ‘rojonigondha‘ or ‘aabar–dekha–hobey‘ just because my forefathers (why don’t they talk about foremothers?) happened to be Bengalis? Wait, not only Bengalis, but from the present Bangladesh, so maybe the URL should’ve been ‘Surma–nodir–paar‘ or ‘sylhet–shohagini‘ or ‘bhatiali–gaan‘… How absurd. But then how could I ignore my Assamese heritage and not name my blog ‘nimaati–koinaa‘ or ‘xeuji–dhoroni‘ or ‘oxomi‘? For me, the Assamese identity is as important as my Bengali identity. Maccher jhol is as tempting as tenga–anja.
And I’m not even talking about my pan-Northeastern identity (born and brought up in Assam, with relatives strewn all over Northeast India). We northeasterners love Beatles, eat akhuni or dry fish, dress Western, drink too much and women unhesitatingly sit on men’s lap. Can anything be weirder? Oh, wait again, what about my ‘English-speaking’/’Western-educated’/’bourgeoise brown sahib’ identity? Or my ’10 + years in Delhi’ identity. My ‘Punjabi-by-marriage’ identity (there’s a problem here though — Mo’s father’s side is Multani from Pakistan and probably they have Jhangi connections too)? Good lord! So how far can stereotyping work?
These things don’t matter really, but sometimes they put you off. For example, every time I meet people from Assam, my birthplace, and start conversing in Assamese with great delight in my heart, shoots out the inevitable question: “Ghor kot (where’s your home)?” Now that’s not a good translation. Ghor here means one’s original village/town, either in the very urbane yet idyllic Brahmaputra Valley, or distinctly in upper or lower Assam (determining the degree of nobility in one’s Assamese-hood). Without batting an eyelid I explain that my ghor is in Guwahati city (that’s considered unnatural because the city is supposed to be full of aspirants, vagrants and migrants from villages and small towns of Assam) while my parents were born in what was then “East Bengal” and a very tickling family tree story (my dad has the ancient scroll) said that my ancestors were from northern India, migrated eastwards from a village by the banks of the Ganga during the golden reign of King Harshavardhana the great! Alas, no one sees the creative angle in this ethnogenetic fiction. Pat comes the remark: “Oh, but then your Assamese is very good!” Of course it is. Because I’m Assamese, from Assam and derived of all its joys and pangs. And somehow, I wonder why and how, most of these remarks come from folks sitting at elite seminar tables discussing and debating topics like identity, nationalism and integration. Jesus (I have a ‘cultural’ right to say that, I went to a catholic school)!
So how should I introduce myself? I drink red wine, savor Camembert, cook Thai and Lebanese, eat out Indian, love my tenga and fish, wear whatever I feel like, read in four-five languages, cherish Rabindranath and Lakshminath Bezbaruah as much as Dostoevsky and Mahmoud Darwish, spend energy on haranguing about Kashmir plebiscite and ULFA, want to strip and flog fanatics of all hue, name my blog URL a silly French nomenclature and find peace in the fact that Pakistani-Bangladeshi-Indian businesspeople outside the South Asian Subcontinent rarely fight a bitter fight. At a recent vacation in Ottawa when a family from Bangladesh figured out my still-existing ties to that country (some of my cousins live there) and the man said: “As Bengalis, it is then okay to ask you a favor,” I smiled. Of course. Also, as humans, civilized folks and as people in need it is okay.
It actually felt better when while having dinner with Mo’s film-maker friends Claudine and Patrice in Paris — in the snooty St. Michel neighborhood — Patrice very casually commented how easily I can pass of as a Mexican or Puerto Rican whereas Mo looked very “Indian”! I was tempted to quip, “Now I can tell people I just came across the fence the other day!”
So next time I hear people wondering whether I am a sworn Communist, a die-hard fish-lover, a madcap with enough ‘bangali‘ brains, an Assam-born person with “very good Assamese”, a northeasterner with “acceptable” Indian looks, a faux-Punjabi with good Hindi skills (some choice abuses I relish on occasions), an imagined-French, an always-subcontinental with stratified links all around, I’ll let them have fun unless they are too eager to prove things to be such or otherwise. I dare not invoke Benedict Anderson because I’m told he is already passé and I’m still adding tags to myself. My identity.