When I was watching “Chak De” a long time ago (one of SRK’s films in which he actually acted well :)), I couldn’t help but nod my head in the segment where he talks about how we always seem to first belong to our states and then our country. Perhaps because India as a country is really like 30 countries in one considering the diversity in language, culture, physical characteristics, cuisine that borders on the astounding. Yet, most of us, it looks like, are still not used to knowing/seeing people from other states. And stereotyping is the name of the game. A North Indian is fair skinned, most often the “loud” Punjabi eating chhole and maa ki daal and doing bhangra all the while. A South Indian is dark skinned, lungi-clad person speaking in a funny accent and eating idli and dosas. Maharashtrians either speak tapori lingo or are fish-catching community. Bengalis eat fish and speak with rounded consonants. Biharis are abuse spewing hooligans. Gujaratis eat sweet food and are known for dandiya. A parochial stereotype exists for every single region in the country.

As a UPite, born in UP, I don’t remember ever being asked, “Where are you from?” Perhaps with my surname, they already knew where I belonged. But, when dad was transferred to Bombay in the mid-80s, I had my first rude shock. After joining a high-profile school on the tony Pedder Road, when it was time to get introduced to my classmates, invariably the questions asked were, “Where have you come from?” Lucknow, UP!

“Where is that?” Patiently explaining the geography.*scratching my head and wondering about the level of geography in 8th Standard*

Still drawing blank looks.

And the next question was, “What is your caste?”

Really I had never been asked that question in my life. I stared back wondering what it was. I remember coming home and asking my mother, “What is my caste?”

She told me, “Kayasth!”

So, I went back and vomited that answer the next day again drawing blank stares. They wanted familiar answers like Marwaris, Gujaratis etc. Those were castes, I wondered? It was very confusing why that question was asked in Bombay and how did my caste matter? It is another matter that I went on to make some really great friends in school but that initial memory stayed with me. Those were the days when doodhawala bhaiyas were still not equated to all UPites. And when the normally well-educated UPites were not associated with driving taxis and creating nuisance. Yes, the SS had still not turned their attention to us.

Now, years later living in Bangalore, I still find that question sometimes amusing and most times annoying, “Where are you from?”

And, just like the movie, I feel like turning around and saying in a very clichéd way, “Indian!”

Are there still people who belong to one area, one city and one state all their life? What is the big deal about finding out where the other person originates from or as they say here, “Where is your native?” I can relate to so many regions in this country, as I have lived in many cities. And frankly, it doesn’t matter a damn thing to me where you belong and what language you speak. And I don’t do a merry dance when I chance upon a UPite. My heart only does a merry dance when I meet a like-minded person.

Does that work in this country anymore?

Pic courtesy:



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103 Thoughts on “Indian!

  1. My plight was different, I am part Jain, part Arya Samaj, part Punjab, part Rajasthan with a wee bit of Peshawar thrown in … so what am I? If that were not enough, I married a part Bengali part Punjabi man. So, when my kids were asked this question by their school mates … I told them to answer Pan Indian Mongrels. They havent forgiven me as yet for that answer

  2. Hey, I’m from Lucknow, UP too 😀
    Ok, I’m from India! That generates a few smirks too when you tell this to a foreigner. So, it doesn’t work in the world, how will it work in India? We can change ourselves by not categorizing anyone when we hear about their country/city/class/caste/color/sexual preference/work/et al.. Really, lets just start from there.

    • Most foreigners I doubt know the difference between our different states. Only one who has associated with India knows the madness this country is and exhibits :). But really, I find Indians to be much more judgmental for every silly thing! Thanks for your comment, Nisha!

  3. adsunsri on April 16, 2013 at 1:22 pm said:

    Sure we are all proud Indians first, these state prejudices are eating into the way we live! Nice post to remind us who we are.

  4. adsunsri on April 16, 2013 at 1:24 pm said:

    and the image is really good!

  5. The last 2 lines “And I don’t do a merry dance when I chance upon a UPite. My heart only does a merry dance when I meet a like-minded person.” sums it up for me too! And talking about caste et al in today’s times!!?? Which world are we living in!!

    • Ridiculous, isn’t it? And this approach of, “Where are you from?” quickly labels you an “outsider.” Another bane of all of us “rootless” folks. Nice to meet a kindred soul. And I already knew that about you :).

  6. Hmmm some things are embedded deep amongst the Indian mindsets like the stereotyping you mentioned. A few of us would have an openness but majority are still like that.unfortunately !

  7. The most common scenario in India . Strangely as I spoke telugu fluently Ppl wondered how can I be a Muslim . LOL . I too felt many times like saying I AM AN INDIAN
    Not only this I can write a whole post on HOW FEW ignorants treat all muslims as outsiders !:(
    cant help hence ignore

  8. One day my grandson brought a class mate of his home.After he left I asked my grandson whether his friend is from Andhra or Kerala.In an admonishing tone my grandson replied”Grandpa,I don’t such questions.Frankly i don’t know”
    I find the youngsters attach little importance to caste,language or region as it should rightly be.
    I was reminded of Thomas Paines\”s line “The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.
    It is a beautiful post Rachna.

  9. ddeepa on April 16, 2013 at 2:39 pm said:

    OMG you’re a Kayasth!!!! Me too!!!! And now we can hold hands and go to Panataloons – they have this deal going on – 10% off for Kayasths – add to it the 20% off from UPites from Lucknow! No? No such thing? Then maybe we get free food at a Lucknowi restaurant? No? Hell, what’s the point in you being a Kayasth then! 😛

    Funny people – but I agree. Very irritating and very judgemental ourselves! I have had colleagues who have pushed me to talk in Tamil with them – and I refused point blank. I sometimes yap with their wives in Tamil and their jaws drop and they complain that I speak fine Tamil but why on earth I wouldn’t speak to them! I hate how we go around forming these little sub-groups – Tamil group, Telegu group, Mallu party. There was this potluck group in our community – all Tamilians – which I didn’t mind – I have nothing against ‘my community’ (proud smug) but they had this rule that you have to only talk in Tamil. I ran faster than the Virar local (had to rub it in, am a proud metro Mumbaiite!) 🙂

    • LOL! Loved that part about sales and extra discounts :). Yes, people tend to gravitate to people of their region. What is most annoying is that they would converse in their own language ignoring you, especially hurts when you don’t know their language. When I worked in Ahmedabad, so many of my Gujarati colleagues did that though most of them were fluent in both English and Hindi. By all means, connect in your language but at least don’t make another person uncomfortable in the bargain. The overt and covert discrimination that happens in the name of region and language in India is something amazing and definitely not in a good way.

  10. Division and compartmentalizations .. we are good at that ! Brahmins and non brahmins, UPites, Punjabi’s south Indians … And then we become judgmental .. I am told I am not like a Punjabi because I am not cunning and I don’t pick fights !!!

  11. To an extent being Indian is great good fortune. Three ancient religions were born here, and scores of modern ones. All of them at heart are inclusive, other than Brahmanism. They all address the basic human condition. Yet, we have fallen prey to the machinations of politicians and narrow minded leaders and have turned into this amazing mess of us and them. Bongs, for example, are thought of as largely liberal and rational. Yet in our scheme of things too, the world is made up of Bengalis and non-Bengalis. The need for identity is crucial, but is it possible to identify ourselves as human beings first? Yes, where and to whom we are born dictates our mores and our culture, but can we not celebrate the multiplicity of cultures that we belong to, as Indians, as human beings? For children who grow up in different regions, they can be encouraged to imbibe the uniqueness of language, food, customs and dress, rather than be cloistered in identity. Thanks, Rachna, for this peg to hang this thinking on.

    • Thank you Subhorup for your insightful comment. Can we not indeed look at each other as human beings first? Can we only connect if we find some common ground? And, how can we encourage each other to respect another and their customs, traditions and language when we are ourselves so insular in our approach? Siddharth came home one day all confused asking me, “What should I say when someone asks me where I am from?” I see the same dilemma repeating all over again. I told him say you are from Bangalore. And then the complications begin. Are you not a Kannadiga then? This whole myopic approach is so problematic!

  12. When I came down to Mysore and was asked my caste, I went into depression for some days thinking where I have landed 😀 I thought this question is not asked only in metros but you just proved me wrong.

    • I was really shocked when first asked that question, confused and resentful too! Gave me my first taste of being alien, of being an outsider. Now, I am a perpetual outsider. I don’t belong anywhere :).

  13. Ask me where I’m from and I go….Well, hummmm…to cut the long story short, I’m a nomad with no ties to any particular city or town. I feel sort of “universal”. Sounds grand, isn’t it? But isn’t that what we are?…We’re all human beings and like you rightly put it, it’s like-minded people who can flock together and not the birth tag of your native place, religion, language, caste, colour or creed!

    • And I’m a nomad too. I have no roots left in UP. Didn’t go back after 1986 except once for a relative’s wedding. Have no other relatives left there either. My own father and siblings live in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. But we are not Marathis or Gujaratis or South Indians. And my husband is a Punjabi-Marathi, brought up in Hyderabad. In that sense, none of us belong anywhere :). So, I completely understand your feeling of “universal.”

  14. It reminded me of the post lying in my drafts for long. There are many Indias within India if such a word exists.

  15. It is a ridiculous to question people about their caste, religon, state or language. We are Indians first and Indians last. We are proud to belong to India. Such narrow minded people still live in this country. They bring us shame, disgrace and pettiness. Mera Bharat Mahaan !!

  16. Politicians have fanned emotions to keep their vote banks alive. My son who recently went to Pune shared this. After landing he took a taxi and told the driver,”Bhaiyya take a left turn.” The driver was so offended by the innocuous Bhaiyya term that he asked my son to get down after hurling abuses.
    That scene from Chak De is very powerful and touches a chord for me too. We are are everything but an Indian. A very relevant post Rachna.

    • Arrgh! Really look at the animosity even the term generates. And when I hear the trauma of North East citizens, it makes me feel even more sick. They face so much abuse and discrimination in their own country stereotyped as they are as waitresses or beauty parlor personnel. Yes, politicians used it for their vote bank gains but look how deep the sentiments of insider outsider have gone in our psyches. It is their on everyone’s mind. And a small spark is enough to fan conflicts. Very sad situation really. Thanks for reading, Alka!

  17. In Bangalore my neighbor told me, “you are not like other Punjabis from Delhi”. I was amused but refrained from explaining that all Delhi wallas are not Punjabis and all Punjabis are not bad.

    • I sometimes wonder if they are as ignorant as they sound or like I said to Ruchira, they really think they are complimenting us by making such inane remarks.

  18. Rachna I enjoyed reading your post.Stereotypes are annoying but they are based on certain broadly common characteristics.Now as we -from different states- mingle & wed,they will slowly recede.

    • Thank you Indu! I agree, mingling will certainly help. Yet, living in different cities is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of resentment of the outsider. I am seeing it happen all across the country. Marrying outside one’s community still faces stiff opposition. Things are not changing as fast as they should have.

  19. Yes, Shah Rukh ‘acted’ well in Chuk De movie.

    I am from Udupi but left the place when I was 10. I am more of a Tamilian now than a Kannadiga, though I keep on saying ‘I am a Kannadiga’! We speak Tamil at home since my husband is a Tamilian. He is nearly comfortable when he attends wedding etc. in my family. Our Tulu language is a bit difficult to learn!

    When we started looking boys for my sister, my maama in a guilty tone was saying ‘her sister has married a Tamilian’ … i have heard this dialogue for a long time. But nobody ever said anything, here, in my husband’s side!

    Caste and language still exists. But the youngsters are marrying to people from other States, so it will go in due time.

    • Yes Sandhya, these things come up in conversations. Sometimes, mixed lineage is still not looked at with a lot of comfort. My husband and I belong to different castes as well, and he is a Punjabi-Marathi from Hyderabad. I have only been enriched by my multicultural family. Hopefully, changing times will take care of it

  20. Love the movie and today your post made me think twice. There was a message in that scene but no one seemed to have noticed it. I faced similar situations when I was living in Pune few years back.

    • All of us have faced this. And strangely, we get so stereotypical about regions, people, language, culture. The only time when I see an Indian genuinely happy at seeing another Indian irrespective of the place they belong to is when they are in a foreign land.

      • Couldn’t resist responding to this. Even a Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Afghan get excited to see an Indian in a foreign land. Foreigners would think we are all from the same country.

        • So the point is, it suffices to look like a person from the sub continent to perk up our spirits but once in the country, we are quick to slot each other. Stupid North Indian, stingy South Indian, arrogant Maharashtrian. Haven’t you heard these labels?

  21. rohan (@rohan_xy) on April 16, 2013 at 10:39 pm said:

    people ask caste and your location to find whether you belong to their like minded group.(people think that people from same caste and location have same approach towards life).did ya ever got rental agreement of an apartment without this questionnaire(religion,caste,location) from landlord.people judge based on all these though i don’t believe in all this stuff.

    i have a question for you,did ya marry your husband without setting muhurat time and without looking kundli ?if you did,then like-minded people making you merry is genuine.

    well rachna,let me know whether am a tantrumy brat coz my comments are lil harsh and typical for some people.

    • Perhaps they do and I wish they didn’t get so intrusive and judgmental in their quest to find common ground. No, I never got a rental agreement to that effect. And no I did not have horoscopes matched and my husband and I belong to different castes. And about whether you are a brat or not, your family are the best people to let you know.

  22. See – It works both way. It can unify you or divide you – the way you look at it. When you start an interaction with someone, it is good to have some common base to start the relationship. Interests don’t come so much in the initial interaction. So things like caste, city, language, region, college offer easy options to connect with someone. There are others who use these to discriminate against people and not to connect – which is a different matter.

    • I hate it when people ghettoize their interactions and keep others out in the name of mingling with their own. This is insular thinking. And perhaps starting an interaction on these lines to carry forward a conversation is fine. But haven’t you come across people who will quickly begin heaping their stereotypes on you as soon as you reveal where you originate from? Why should kinship be a factor of caste, religion or region? Why can’t we try to connect to each other as educated adults?

      • As educated adults, I find nothing to talk with most new people. Like Firangs I can’t talk about the weather. So when a spark does not come, I find it at least a good opener to say all Oriyas I have met to date are the sweetest people I have known, the most organized person and the most brilliant persons I have ever met were both Biharis,that I had an amazing Punjabi roomie while at Germany or about my admiration for Vivekananda’s philosophy and Tagore’s writing to a Bong and so on. I got carried away giving too many examples but hope you get the drift.

  23. First up, I really enjoyed this post because I could relate to it well. I don’t mind that question when it’s used to break the ice. But dwelling upon it going into details, trying to unearth your ancestry, roots, caste, creed and other such nonsense – that I find irksome. The worst is stereotyping – “are you from Kerala? Oh you must eat a lot of fish, put litres of coconut oil on your hair.”
    I spent a good part of my childhood in Kanpur. Yay..we are kin! 😉

    “My heart only does a merry dance when I meet a like-minded person.” Hugs to you for this line. That really sums it up. 🙂

    And yes, Chak De was a great movie. The only movie where SRK seems to have acted well, after shooting to super-stardom.

    • Yes DC, if it is just to begin a conversation, it is okay. Just like it is okay to cursorily ask about family and children. But when the conversation progresses to dangerous territory like stereotypes, it is irritating. Like you pointed out about fish and coconut oil :). You wouldn’t believe how many people have asked me how come you are not fair skinned; you are a North Indian? 🙂 What idiots! What does one say to it? Most people are generally very nosey. And many conversations quickly descend to the level of “These Kannadigas are like this…” I hate that part.

      • That’s too bad. Would you believe that here in Kerala, people tend to judge you based on the district you hail from? Yes. District. The theory is this – as you go down south, people’s behaviour keeps getting worse. So basically a person from Trivandrum can never be trusted with anything. And someone from Kasargod (on the northern tip) would be very sweet. I don’t know the stupid logic behind this but how sad!

  24. Great essay!
    I think that we take reveling in our “regional” differences a tad too far. If we were to make 10 Indian people, all of different origins, stand together in a line and ask, say a Japanese or a Caucasian, to point out differences within the group, the fellow wouldn’t be able to identify any. Because to an outsider, we all look, sound and smell the same – Indian!

    • Thank you Rickie! Yep, we do stretch it too far, first with the segregation and then with the bitching and nasty stereotyping. To a foreigner, we all are same. But to us, we must get to the bottom of which region we belong to for a connection – absurd, but I guess it works for many.

  25. Its still going to be same every where in India. Wherever you go , the first question any new person ask will be from where are you from? and second will be the caste. In general Indian mentality, By asking those two questions and after getting the answers , they make out first impression in correlation with them.( I mean a marathi person favors a Gujarati rather than a North Indian)

    Travel India

    • I guess it is a fear of the unknown as well as comfort in the known that makes people do this. Very sad that things like castes are still openly bandied about.

  26. I have had similar experience when I had moved to Mysore. A girl in my class (3rd standard) asked me what my caste was. I had no clue what a caste was!

    Nice write-up Rachana 🙂

    • Thank you metherebel for sharing your experience. So ridiculous. I can imagine your situation; I faced a similar apprehension. I wonder how young kids were initiated into this kind of talk. Of course, their parents must be passing these conversations on.

  27. Rachna, why are you surprized as we have lived in subjugation for over four hundred years and sixty odd years of freedom has furher subdivided this country into castes and subcastes and reservations thanks to the ruling elite!! I think like you but know for sure that in our lifetime things are unlikely to change …. even at the cost of being branded as a pessimist when it comes to this!

  28. I know people who have consciously done away with their surnames. They’d rather be known for their accomplishments!

    And once you move to another country, you are just a brown-skinned Asian woman. Its just a matter of perspective.

    • I know a few of those too. But how will they stop people from asking about their castes or placing emphasis on it? Luckily, I belonged to a higher caste. I can’t imagine what torment people from lower castes are subjected to :(.
      Absolutely! It is liberating in a way. No one judges you. You are just a brown woman. I felt the same when I lived in the US and Europe. And people are really quite polite to your face. Something that Indians could try learning.

  29. well I am a first timer on your blog Rachna and really agree with you about the whole segregation issue in the country …. !! Chak De was a movie which well defined our mentality about state and caste brotherhood !! Well…i am optimistic .. times are changing and before its too late the state and caste brotherhood would shape up to be the nationhood ! thanks to so many love marriages breaking bars of states castes and now even religions !! 🙂 nice to know a new blogger who looks very popular its just that i did not know about !! 🙂 well find me as a regular visitor now !!

    • Hi My Say, welcome to my space. And thank you for your warm words. Nice connecting with you as well in this huge blogosphere. I am optimistic that perhaps my children’s generation will not be this myopic.

  30. I think ours is one country but many nations in it. It is good that we are one country, but the cultures from each region are different.
    Having said that, it is really strange that in a country which is as big as ours, it has >one thing< in common in which ever part of the country we go that is 'we all are hierarchical' (or majority of us). I have heard that Christians and Muslims have castes in India. That says something about us, isn’t it?
    I had one Indian colleague here in Czech Republic. He got married and brought his wife to Czech Republic. We all went to an Indian restaurant to celebrate his marriage and his behaviour there shocked and disgusted me. After sometime in that restaurant, he started to shout at the Indian waiter as if that waiter was lower than him. It was disgusting really. The only ‘mistake’ of that waiter is he made us wait for 30 minutes. But it is not his mistake. This colleague of mine on the other hand keeps quite if the same thing happens in other European restaurants. See the hypocrisy.
    I have seen many people in India treat maid servants like that. There is no dignity of labour.
    Until we learn what dignity of labour is, our country will never change. Casteism started with division of labour isn’t it?

    • So true, Bhavana! Yes, we are shoddy in our treatment of others solely based on their social hierarchy and caste. Yes, I have seen people treat their household helps and other helpers very shoddily. It has something to do with our feudal mindset that will take a long time to go. And the incident you mentioned, it is deplorable. You know once I was taking a flight from London to Bangalore, and there were a bunch of Punjabis having a go at each other about luggage in the overhead bin. The way they were noisily quarreling, it was embarrassing. Yes, Christians and Muslims have castes too. How do we come out of this mess? Castes still matter when we get married? So, it will still take a long time for it to fade away. I have seen well educated Brahmins behaving like idiots still believing in untouchability. And you know what, it is something to do with our subjugation to white skin. An Indian automatically feels superior and happy to misbehave with a black person. You should see how black students are treated in India. We are racist, casteist and sick in many ways. And, you are bang on! There is no dignity of labor here.

      • Oh yes, I am from that ‘brahmin’ community and historically they are supposed to be ‘well educated’ as they are the ones who got ‘education’ as it was their ‘birth right’. But still they make their girls and women sit out when we they have periods. Such ignorance.
        I am an atheist, but if we consider in believer’s point of view/logic itself.–>
        If god made man and women equal, then god should have known that he made women go through all that cycle called menstruation. So god made it as natural process for women.
        So if god knew and made it as natural process who are these people who have made these rules against women calling themselves messenger of god?. Do they know better than god?. Oh no! they made it so that they can control women. But whats wrong with people of our age, the age of science, when science also have given answers? Even today girls are made to sit out.
        Shame on them. And shame on those educated women who make their daughters and DILs do that!
        (bhavana, relax, relax) 🙂

        • You know why they do it today. They say because they don’t want to go against their parents’ wishes. How convenient! Yes shame on all these so-called educated men and women who discriminate in the name of tradition. And so the country can prosper but not progress :(.

  31. Sorry about the bad vocabulary in my above comment. The topic of caste and no dignity of labour boils my blood and makes my ‘just above average’ vocabulary even worse 🙂 Cheers.

    • Don’t worry about that, Bhavana :). Your comment and thoughts are a pleasure to read. The topic makes my blood boil as well so can completely understand.

  32. What you say about the colour of skin being an identifier is very true in India. I am yet to understand what difference it makes. Finding like minded people is difficult enough, why complicate things further?

  33. Hmm, a thought provoking one. I’d like to bring a different perspective here. Wanting to know where you come from or the language you speak may be harmless, in fact for me, many a time, it has become an interesting start of an enlightening conversation where we learn about each other’s cultures and languages. For example, during my recent trip to Sikkim, I exchanged a lot of cultural info with the locals. However things start looking nasty when the caste question or stereotyping is thrown in. That’s when you realize that the person doesn’t have any good intentions at all. Sadly, the number of healthy conversations is lesser than the filthy ones.