As someone that spent the first 19 years of her life vehemently denying any and all association with her roots in Kolkata, I’ve finally ended up here – a city that was always supposed to be home, but never was, not even close. A city, a culture, I despised. Less so because of what it was as a city and a culture, and more because of the forced association with it, which, never having lived here, eaten her food, or spoken her language, barely managing to stammer out her rolling drawn out words, I never called mine and never felt like I belonged to. The forced association was an imposition, a loathsome tag that I was expected to be proud of, which only made me despise it more.
19 years. 19 years of refusing to call myself a Bengali, I’m here, for the first time in my life, with a semblance of permanence. I still can’t stand fish. I’m still not the biggest fan of rice or mishti doi or sondesh. I still speak a heavily accented Bengali, and I can’t help those random Hindi words that escape mid-sentence. I still can’t let go of the inherent grudge and resentment I have against this place, and what it represents. And I probably never will. But for the first time in my life, I crave to belong. I crave a home. Cue identity crisis? Oh, well.
I was born and raised in a culture that defines itself through its impermanence and constant change. As a child born to parents who were, and still are, serving in the armed forces, I have never lived in a single place for more than a couple of years – never studied in the same school, never had a group of friends for any more than the duration of my parents’ posting to a particular station. The very idea of associating my identity with a place or culture is alien to me. Growing up, this wasn’t really much of a problem. Every child that I grew up with was familiar with this lifestyle – when you moved to a new place, became the “new kid” and had to begin the process of introducing yourself, no one ever asked, “where are you from?”; it was always, “where did you stay last?”
We were a culture that was defined not by our roots, but by our collective consciousness of having been a near nomadic group of people, defined by the knowledge that the people we held so dear to us would probably be on the opposite end of the country within the next couple of years. We were a culture that never quite belonged anywhere, except within that small Air Force community that we were living in at any said time. And so, we decided to define ourselves, our identities, with other things – every child who grew up within the armed forces will invariably talk nostalgically about the parties at the military messes, with the uncles drinking whiskey with water and ice, the aunties with bob-cut hair in sophisticated dresses, the children wolfing down every snack the waiters dared bring past us, all of this to classic rock playing on the sound system. Every child will speak of the New Year’s Eve bonfire parties in the cold of Delhi and Shillong Peak. Every child will reminisce about sneaking into the billiards room, about the grassy green stretches within the air force station, about the peacocks roaming in our garden and the wild antelope roaming the forests that would start right at our garden fence, about the ghost stories that almost every station is firmly chained to and listening to senior or retired officers recounting the days of the war which they served in, the stories told by our own parents of serving in the Kargil War and, in the same breath, of their wild boar hunting expeditions which would culminate in a barbecue party at the mess. Every one of us will speak wistfully of the family movie nights being interrupted by the sound of sirens and a phone call declaring an Activation, upon which our parents would sigh, put on their overalls and combat boots, kiss us on the forehead and tell us to go to bed if and when we’d feel sleepy, and head out on a war simulation at eleven in the night.
The beauty of the culture we belonged to, was the fact that we need not even have ever had our parents being posted to the same stations, and therefore, never have actually lived in the same places at all, but we’d still relate to one another’s experience. It’s difficult to explain this to civilian friends, of course. I think the trouble first began when I moved to Kolkata for college. I am a Bengali, or so I’ve been told. I’ve never felt like one – my culture is not the Bengali culture. The most obvious difference I’ve noticed in my interactions with people who have led a sedentary lifestyle is that, they, naturally, never think to ask you which was the last place you lived in; no, they say, “where are you from?” and this question comes loaded with the association of a place with an identity. It’s difficult to answer that question, and over the past year or so, I’ve taken to responding with “everywhere” followed by a laugh, and quickly changing the topic, because how does one explain that their identity is not linked to a place or a culture? How does one explain that the “culture” one does identify with is one that is seen as a military organisation and not as a culture at all, when in fact it’s the only way of life that we know of? How does one explain that the association of a place with an identity is almost a cruel reminder of the fact that we were kids who grew up never really belonging?
During the college vacations, when I visit my parents at their base, I tell my friends that I’m going “home”. To them, “home” is a permanent place. They think my home is the Bhutan border where my mum is posted at the moment, and I don’t know how to explain to them that, for me, “home” changes every two years; that the Bhutan border has been home for less than two years, that I’ve never actually lived there. For me, “home” is not a region or a location on a map. Home might be the border today, the capital tomorrow, the desert the day after. For me, home is fauj itself. Conversely, for my parents, home is Kolkata, because she is what they were shaped by; I have not. My culture lies elsewhere, but I’m at a loss as to what the physical manifestation of this “elsewhere” is, and indeed how my home and my elsewhere could be synonymous.
I have never been accepted as a Bengali and nor have I ever felt like one, because I’m not one, not really. It’s where my “roots” lie, sure, but my identity has never been moulded by it. On the other hand, I’ll never be accepted as a Bangalorean or a Delhi-ite or a Punekar either, because, really, I’m not truly any of those. Perhaps my identity itself lies in being the kid without a proper identity or at the very least, the kid who’s still trying to come to terms with who she really is. Perhaps my identity lies in being the person who can never stay in a place for more than a couple of years because she just doesn’t know how to. Perhaps my identity lies in being the “other”, and perhaps, that’s okay.
Written by Titir Bhattacharya