What India means to me

Map of India

I have developed a very strange relationship with my motherland.

I was born in India, but my parents took me to the UK when I was five years old. They tried to come back and settle in their homeland twice during my childhood, but it never worked. They were absorbed in their medical careers, which required them to be in the UK.

My sister and I spent a couple of brief school years in India, looked after by grandmothers and other relatives while my parents went back and forth between continents, trying to manage work and family life. For both my sister and me, India was our first home, our native country, undisputedly. As a young child who had known no other territory, ‘Mr India’ was my favourite film. But gradually, everything I took for granted as my natural identity became questionable.

As I struggled and succeeded to learn British English in London, my grip on Hindi began to falter. As I became accustomed to my friends’ ways of being and doing things, the memories of my childhood home began to fade. Those brief spells in which we tried to come back to India were like a temporary reawakening – a door to the past that would open and pour its wisdom into me for a short time before shutting again. My relatives thought I had become ‘angrez’, even thought I hardly thought of myself that way. In India. I became ‘different’, and in the UK, I was ‘different’ too.

So now, years later as I write this, I am very aware of what India represents to me. It’s more than just an idea; it’s a reality that I feel everyday. It’s huge and complex, something that I won’t ever be able to explain fully. Every time I feel a sense of ‘Indianness’, I am aware there is a ‘Britishness’ which rests uncomfortably alongside this. After all, the countries struggled against each other historically, precisely because their identities could not integrate fully with each other.

Whenever I am in India, it’s tempting to see stereotypes all around me: spiritualists, poverty, chaos, consumerism. Only when I actually talk to people personally – the rickshaw wallahs, relatives and their neighbours, dry-cleaners and taxi drivers – I see the reality behind the overpowering image of India. The authenticity of other people’s cultural behaviour allows me to see what it means to be Indian.

Despite this feeling of identification, I disagree with the concept of national identity (the idea that an individual can be defined by which country they come from). I see my identity as drawing from, yet separate from, nationality and culture. What I understand about India is cultural rather than political, although I’m aware that there is a connection between culture and politics which cannot be ignored. Even the naming of a country is political and represents a territorial division.

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