the way kids go about getting to know someone they’ve just met, or someone they don’t know too well is by asking them a lot of questions. adults do the same thing but the questions are less intrusive. adults tend to show a little restraint, although there are exceptions. adults, i think, are just as curious as kids tend to be. but somewhere during the transition from child to adult, they begin to hold back. kids are nosy, and for them, this nosiness is a mechanism to see if the new person is worthy of friendship. of course, to a kid, everyone is worthy of friendship. the more friends, the better or as they usually say, the merrier. but kids are also constantly looking for a possibility, a hint of friendship before there is friendship. the possibility surfaces when they find something in common. a common interest, a common favorite, a common pastime, something that binds them together. this commonality is sometimes a prerequisite, sometimes a bonus.
at my school, where are you from?, was one of the questions that kids liked to ask. an introduction to the getting-to-know-you phase. if the answer to that question was not satisfactory, they would persist with a follow-up question, but what is your native?. this seemingly innocent question bothered me then and for some reason, it bothers me now.
mangalore i remember answering, the first few times i was asked. this is the city i grew up in. and also the city i went to school. it seemed obvious at the time to conclude that my native was mangalore.
after being asked by various classmates and then asking them in turn, as kids tend to do, i started to think that maybe my native wasn’t mangalore after all. other kids spent summer vacations at their native. so i changed my answer to bangalore. because every vacation (summer, dasara, christmas), we went to bangalore to visit the maternal side of my family. that’s also where my mom grew up. bangalore seemed like the right choice. but it also felt wrong.
bangalore was a much larger city than mangalore. it seemed like an improvement, an upgrade. better infrastructure, better shopping malls., bigger parks, lot more people etc. when the others spoke about their native, they always described places with muddy roads, farms, rivers and river swimming, extended family. to get there one needed detailed instructions such as a slight turn using a tree as a landmark, a little bit off the beaten path. this was the place their parents, or at least their grandparents grew up in. when they asked, what is your native, what they were really asking was where are you originally from. where are your parents, and your grandparents and the people before them, from?
bangalore did not fit this description.
my maternal grandfather grew up in bantwal. we visited this place once a year, if not more. my maternal grandmother grew up in karkala, a place we traveled to occasionally to visit my great grandmother, who lived in the house my grandmother grew up in, the only real ancestral house I’ve been to. but even as a child, you realize that your identity is linked to your dad’s side of the family. it is, after all, a part of your name.
both my paternal grandparents grew up in punjalkatte. a place i’ve been to only a handful number of times in the last three decades. my dad didn’t grow up there. but his parents grew up there and lived there till a few years before he was born. no immediate family lived in punjalkatte at that time. and nobody owned farms. even the ancestral house was owned by someone else. a house we pointed to as we drove by. a house that invoked some nostalgia in certain members of my dad’s family. to everyone else, it meant very little.
there was a phase during which i wanted to believe that my native was goa. our community fled goa to escape religious persecution by the portuguese and migrated to various locations along the west coast of india. but that was 500 years ago, long before my time. i had no immediate family who was in any way tied to goa. my only connection to goa was the occasional temple visit. yet, at the time goa seemed like the right answer to where are you originally from. partly because of history, mainly because it was a cool place, the kind you want to be from.
all these questions and discussions about one’s native had led me to believe that you had to be from somewhere else. mangalore couldn’t be my native. and yet all these other places didn’t feel like my native either. they didn’t feel like they were mine. my answer to what’s your native would vary depending on my mood and on how far back the other kid wanted me to go. i have also answered with but i don’t have a native only to shock the other kid into disbelief.
considering that i went to the same school from 1st to 10th grade/standard its surprising the number of times this question came up.
what do kids really want to know with this question? is it a conversation starter like the weather. one of those questions whose answer doesn’t matter. is it just information that kids tend to gather about friends.
or is it another way to let societies preconceived notions about the others, other castes, other religions, other communities, seep into their minds. a way to help them put other kids into boxes.
we tend to look at certain experiences with magnifying glasses and let other experiences slip through. not having a straightforward answer might have led me to give it more brain real estate than it needed. it is, after all, a very innocent, ubiquitous question. we owe a lot to all our lived experiences and the places we lived them in. as a result, we are all alike in our curiosity to learn where everyone else is from, and what backstories have led them to become the person that they are.
now decades later, i still don’t seem to have a straightforward answer to the question, where are you from? for it depends, doesn’t it?
when we go to one of these touristy places that offer a guided tour, the tour guide usually asks the group where’s everyone from. and the question always throws me off. do i say india, the country i’m from and that is evident from the color of my skin, should i be more specific and say mangalore, a place the guide has probably never heard of, or do i just shout out the name of the state i currently work in. does the guide want to know our native or just where we drove/flew from? by the time i decide on something, the guide would have moved on. the question is one of those that are thrown at a group of people mostly as a chore. something that needs to be gotten out of the way before moving on to more important tasks. the guide is not expecting everyone to answer. there will always be someone else who will answer so you don’t have to. and when they’ve heard enough responses or any response, they move on. but the question always bothers me. makes me think about it a little longer than is necessary. as a result, i always miss the first few minutes of any guided tour.
of course, if someone who knows where i currently live asks me, where are you from, i can in most cases assume correctly that they want to know where i am originally from and answer with mangalore. but what if i meet someone new and they ask me where are you from. do i give them my current residence, even though my accent among other things will make it clear that i am not from there. will i then sound pretentious? are they asking me where i currently live or are they asking me where i am originally from? i could clarify and provide all the information upfront. i currently live here, but i am originally from there, I could say. and this is how conversations tend to begin. a little extra information that sets off a back and forth. oh, when did you move, why did you move, which you like better and so on.
but at what stage do you stop being from here and start being from there.
the longest i’ve lived anywhere is the city i grew up in, mangalore. each time i go back to mangalore, the cityscape looks different. its familiarity diminishing quickly like the cake at a birthday party. the house i lived in for the first ten years of my life has been demolished and a huge shopping complex is in its place. the house i spent the rest of my childhood, the one my parents currently live in, has undergone a lot of changes. the mosaic floor has been replaced with vitrified tiles, the house has been painted a different color, cupboards have been renovated, furniture has been upgraded. every year or so i save as many pto hours as possible for a trip to my hometown. it is not a vacation. our time there is carefully fragmented and allocated to people and places. we aim to pack a years worth of experience of living in our hometown into those few week. we need to make up for all the people, food and places that were missed since the previous visit.
so for how long is it okay to augment the sentence with but i am originally from… is there a point after which you stop being from your hometown if you don’t live there anymore? how many years does one have to live in a place before one can, with confidence, say that they are from there, without thinking too much about it, and providing any additional unwarranted clarification? or is the answer for people who tend to move a lot, a little longer, a little complicated than it is for the rest of us. do they say, i am from here, but also here, a little from there and also the other place. maybe it is my need to have an uncomplicated answer to all questions directed my way that causes me to ponder over this for so long.
when i’m in india, another question i get is, are you settled there now? there refers to the place i currently live in. what does settled mean? does that mean this new place is home. what if i don’t want to be from there even though i live and work there. even if one doesn’t belong, does the place you live in tend to absorb you, like quicksand, and you have no option but to be a part of it, to call it home.
for the last seven years, i have grappled with what is the best term to refer to the house i grew up in, because all my life i’ve called it home. but home is also the place i share with my husband and little kid. it is only over the last year or so, i’ve made peace with referring to one as my parents home and the other as home. similarly maybe, someday, the answer to where are you from will be an easy one.
but for now, the answer to what is your native is complicated. for some, it may be as simple as saying one’s name. a quick, instantaneous response, not something they need to think about. the answer to where are you from is also not as straightforward. it may have a different answer depending on context and how far back the questioner wants me to go. it could turn into a discussion about the ambiguity in an otherwise innocent question. and this long-winded conversation about one’s origins might present the possibility of a future friendship like it did as a kid.
but if you ask me, where are you originally from, the answer is simple and straightforward. this exercise of writing it out has made at least that much clear.
i am from mangalore, a beautiful city on the west coast of india. and no matter how many years i live outside of this small city, i will always be from there. and that will always be home. because home need not mean one thing and one place only. home can be here, in this condominium we’ve tied ourselves to but also there, the house at the end of the lane that i spent my childhood in.