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Home > India@60 > Columnists > B S Prakash

Which part of India are you from?

August 14, 2007

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This is a question familiar to all Indians outside their normal habitat. It is the prelude to a conversation among strangers say in a train compartment, a new campus, or a conference. If you are a Mukherjee or a Menon or a Mohapatra and if your name is made known, with luck the inquiry is complete and you get to the next stage. If, however, you are a Singh, a Sharma or a Saran, the interrogation is not concluded though the field is narrowed.

For people like me it is more difficult with a name which is all-Indian. Prakash is my real name, I have no other, but in America, I often get entangled in all the complications of the last, first and middle names that most Indians, particularly South Indians have to live with.

I often find myself in a conversation, where I am saying: "I am Prakash not a Parkash. No I am not a Punjabi. I am a Kannadiga. Don't know what that is? Never mind. No, it has nothing to do with Canada [Images]. It is in South India. What? No, I am not a Madrasi, though Karnataka is in the South too."

Quite a mouthful, but the cross that Southies have learnt to bear.

The other day someone hearing me say all this in a public function advised me -- 'Why do you say this? You should only say that I am a proud Indian.' I told him that me being an Indian was pretty self evident both to me and the questioner and I had no wish to sound phony or political. But the comment nevertheless set me thinking about the Indian identity and sub-identities, a theme I had explored in Neti Neti or Indian identity.

If the subject of Indian identity is fascinating, the sub-identities within it can be bewildering. But for a diplomat, this is an issue, which is also work related. In my job, I have been invited in every country, and in America virtually every week, to say Kannada Koota from my country cousins, the Onam occasion of the Malayalee Association, the Baisaki Baithak of the Sikh community, the annual day of the imaginatively named RANA (the Rajasthan Association of North America), and such like. I rejoice in all these celebrations and attend the ones that I can.

And ever so often get involved in a debate. There is usually someone in these gatherings who is forcefully arguing that such associations and congregations undermine the larger Indian unity. That there should be only one Indian association and not the Tamil Manrams, Marathi Mandals and the Gujarati Sabhas.

He is surrounded by others who don't argue to the contrary, have nothing against the notion, are nodding in fact, but somehow seem to lack in conviction. Which brings one to the question: Are sub-national identities in conflict with each other or the larger Indian identity? Should we only unite under one big banner and try to minimise the many?

My own view based not on any inherent logic but entirely on experience is that noble as the goal is, such an idea is both unnatural and unrealisable. Why?

Let me illustrate with my own experiences. The Kannada Koota of California had invited me for Ugadi, the Kannada New Year in April. (It is a curious fact that different Indian communities celebrate their 'new years' virtually throughout the year.) I accepted with alacrity as apart from anything else it was giving me a platform to speak in Kannada before a large audience.

Speaking in my mother tongue, which I love but do not use professionally, was both a challenge and a pleasure. Besides, the songs sung brought back memories of school days, the skits about Bangalore evoked a special knowing laughter and the Bisi Bele Huli Anna, a typically Mysorean dish -- apart from the better known Mysorepak -- was a rare treat.

In enjoying all this, not for a moment did I think that I was any less an Indian for taking pride in the Kannada culture. Or did I?

As a part of the event, I heard a poem that we used to sing, when I was in school, about the land and language that was our inheritance. Some of the lines were:

Nade kannada, nudi kannada
Kannadave satya, Kannadave nitya

In English, it was something like:

Kannada in my talk, Kannada in one's walk
Kannada is my Truth, Kannada is Constant.

To be honest, I felt a surge of pride when I heard the famous poem, in spite of having spent a lifetime outside my state.

Next week I was at Seattle for the huge annual convention of the Brihad Maharashtra Mandal. A song this time in Marathi, but so clear in its emotion and enunciation, so full of abstract nouns in Sanskrit, that one could follow. Sentiments echoing the feeling that Marathi is the best and the Marathas the noblest. And everyone from the chief minister to the chief guest, Dr Jabbar Patel, to the successful entrepreneurs feeling good about the state, but, yes, in the context of a modern and vibrant India.

The simple truth of the matter is that every Indian has multiple identities and this is natural and can be normally non-conflictual. A George Josef in Silicon Valley can be a Keralite, a Christian, speak Bengali in addition to Malayalam having studied at Calcutta, a proud IITian and yes an Indian at heart and in deed. And be an American citizen. He has many roles which are all natural and one of them becomes relevant depending on the circumstances and the company.

Don't we all know from our own experience that what we stress and where, with regard to the question 'where do you come from' is largely contextual. In Bangalore I am from 'Jayanagar;' in Chennai, I am from 'Bangalore;' in Delhi, 'from the South;' and at a UN Conference, 'I am an Indian.' No problem, there.

As Amartya Sen, who has in recent years written extensively on issues of identity points out, identity is not an Absolute, but can be contextual and is a matter of choice. India would not be India if these diverse identities are not regarded as a part of our heritage, accepted and respected. Both history and geography have made it so.

Besides, let us not forget, in a country of a continental size, larger than Europe, it is natural that there are different tongues and tastes, often dissimilar. Many Indian languages are spoken by larger number of people than entire populations of some nations. We are simply too big and too many to be artificially homogenised with regard to our attributes. Linguistic, ethnic or cultural characteristics bond millions of people together and it would be na�ve to expect that these do not matter.

Are there no difficulties then, in this heterogeneity? Is there no danger of losing the focus on core 'Indianness,' however that might be defined, in the plethora of identities? Of course. Nothing about India is simple, no facet of it without a challenge.

Just as linguistic or cultural identity can be a bond bringing people together, it can be a badge too, worn with swagger for 'entry' inside a camp and for 'no entry' for others. Identity can unify; it can also used as a marker to 'exclude'.

But after sixty years, we also know from our own everyday experience that there is 'an idea of India' which transcends sub-identities and unifies us when needed. Let alone critical issues of war and peace or core national concerns, in matters which agitate us -- voting for Taj Mahal as one of the seven wonders, lamenting the state of our cricket team, even rooting for a suffering Shilpa Shetty [Images] in distant London [Images] -- we come together forgetting our factions and fights. 'Wherever we come from, ultimately we are like that only, whatever it means.'

B S Prakash is India's Consul General in San Francisco and can be reached at

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