By Nidhi Chopra
Our close friend of Chinese origin recently asked my husband and me, “So, you don’t have a common culture, don’t have a common language or food, don’t even have a common religion. And none of you look the same. What ties you guys together? What does it mean to be Indian?”
She was obviously considering these issues from a typically Chinese perspective of homogeneity. But it was a dammed good question!
To elaborate, I present to you my own family’s example. I am a Punjabi married to a Maharashtrian. My brother is married to a girl from Uttar Pradesh. My brother-in-law is married to a girl from Mysore. We all speak different languages, practise different customs, celebrate different festivals, and look and eat differently.
Now let’s complicate this pot a little more… I am a Hindu Punjabi with a smattering of Sikh blood. My husband was indoctrinated in upper-class Hindu Brahminism, which he abandoned at age 18 to embrace Christianity. And my brother-in-law married a Muslim. We have a representation of all major religions in our household.
Now let me add a little dressing to this wonderful dish! I’m a Hindu who doesn’t believe in any form of idol worship or the various stories about the 33 million gods as truth. My sole form of deity worship (if you can call it that) is a black stone that most regular Hindus call a Ling (penis) but is actually a Yoni (vagina) and a Ling. It is lovingly placed in between various plants outside my home because nothing beats having sex amidst the greens (if your cracking knees allow it)! It proudly stands next to my husband’s plaque on our door that proclaims that this household serves the Lord. My children have grown up on a consistent diet of high-quality grass-fed beef, and I’ve been called “not a real Hindu” so many times I’ve lost count!
Now, as you may have understood, my friend’s question was quite a spinner. Sometimes, I wonder how my marriage or even my dysfunctional family manages some form of cohesiveness, forget the whole country! We began with the obvious, “It’s a feeling” route but quickly realised that even those ‘feelings’ were different to us. The question required some internal ‘manthan’ and couldn’t be addressed immediately.
So as is customary in my household, we poured her and ourselves some more wine and found other subjects to distract ourselves with. Objectively, I wondered what else is there except maybe our fight for independence or a geographical identification of our borders that binds us. This got me to another question. Do we even need homogeneity to identity as one couple, one people, one nation? Says who?
I have a close coterie of female friends. We are from all over the place: Tamilian, Punjabi, Kashmiri, Kannadiga, Marwari, and Malayali. I have Jain and Parsi friends who identify only by their faiths, forget states. What brings us all together?
This is my view: Our commonality is the very acceptance of our un-commonality. I don’t know of any Indian lady who hasn’t asked her other Indian friend for a recipe of a dish she enjoyed at her house that she then didn’t look up online for ingredient names in her own language!
I don’t know of many Indians coming together from different parts and not ribbing each other on these very dissimilarities. What glues us together is our sense of humour, and the ability to look at all our diversity in the eye and accept it as inherently Indian. We categorically refuse to be homogeneous.
We enjoy laughing at our lack of resemblance and perhaps, therefore, stick together for the enjoyable ride it brings with it. Not only do we not want to look and eat the same things and speak the same languages, we absolutely balk at the very idea of it.
So, after my wonderful beer/wine-induced ‘manthan’, the answer to my friend’s question was simple: The very fact that we don’t have anything in common but still manage to stay in one house and cherish each other is what makes us Indian and defines our Indian identity. Go figure!
There’s no such thing as an Authentic India or a Real Indian. There is no Divine Committee that has the right to sanction one single, authorized version of what India is or should be. There is no one religion or language or caste or region or person or story or book that can claim to be its sole representative. There are, and can only be, visions of India, various ways of seeing it—honest, dishonest, wonderful, absurd, modern, traditional, male, female. They can be argued over, criticised, praised, scorned, but not banned or broken. Not hunted down. — Arundhati Roy, The End of Imagination.
Nidhi Chopra is a Singapore-based digital entrepreneur, an in-the-closet writer, mother of two, wife of one, friend to many.