Thursday, February 16, 2017

We Are Not Special

I saw this TED talk today: 

In the beginning of her talk, Mariana talks about how, when she was a kid, she was bullied at her summer camp in Minnesota, America. Well, maybe 'bullied' isn't the right word. It's just that the other kids seemed to think she was different with a capital-D, and this difference not only made her stand out, but it also gave the other kids the right to have an opinion about her background and her accent. She had come from a land far, far away, at least in the eyes of the other summer campers, and to them, laughing at Mariana's broken English wasn't mean. It was the natural reaction.

It reminded me of my childhood. I am a Bengali girl who grew up in New Delhi, which doesn't sound very exotic in today's expatriate riddled world. But the thing is, that in my five- to thirteen-year old eyes, I was different. I was the kid who was having just a little bit more difficulty learning Hindi than all the other kids, especially when it came to learning the elementary school Hindi slang. My family didn't eat the same things everyone else's did, they didn't have the same folklore and anecdotes to share, my cousins lived far away. It was all small, harmless, but they were differences. Most of the time I had no issues with being different. We were prabashi Bangalis, Bengalis who live outside of West Bengal. But like the movie Piku, it's very true that you can take a Bengali out of Bengal but you can't take the Bengal out of the Bengali. We lived with one foot in our home state, and one foot in the state our address categorized as our home. 

There are a lot of Bengalis living in New Delhi. In fact, these days, in our cosmopolitan world, moving away to another state is the norm. But believe me when I say that it didn't feel like that to me back in the day. Most of my classmates were north Indians. There families belonged to Delhi, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, sometimes Rajasthan. There was one or two other Bengali and South Indians kids I knew, but we were clearly in the minority.

And we knew this because there were lots of times when my friends would ask me to speak Bengali for them like it was some kind of party trick. They commented on my diet, about how it must have only consisted of fish and sweets. Anything in my tiffin box that they couldn't instantly recognize was labeled Bengali dish. Some of the relatively meaner went ahead and told me that Kolkata (capital of West Bengal) was the dirtiest, most uncivilized place in the world. They talked about how I belonged to a place less developed than the city my parents had decided to move to, and to them, I would always be the outsider. These incidents were not an everyday occurence, but they happened often enough, I didn't understand it at the time, because India, by definition, is full of diversity. Every state is different, so how could it be that my origins were perceived as unusual, while my classmates were the norm?

I slowly came to realize that for a lot of kids in my school in Delhi, speaking Hindi at home was normal. Normal. A word tied so tightly to the word accepted. To them, what they were was the right cultural background, and everything else was alien. To  them, being North Indian was the default, and in this case, default is a strange word.

Maybe it didn't get to me, but a lot of my friends were affected by being singled out because of their 'different' cultural background. As adolescents, they all but abandoned their cultural heritage. They claimed not to know their own language, refused to speak anything but Hindi and English, downplayed their own festivals and traditions. They wanted to be cool, and being cool meant assimilating. Yes. It is possible to have to assimilate in your own country.

Then I went to Mumbai, and for a while, things seemed better. Seemed. My friends had their origins in many different states in India. But it soon became clear to me that the same perceptions existed, just in a different way. One day, my best friend overheard me talking to my mother in Bengali. We were on the phone, and I placed my hand on the receiver as I mumbled in Bengali a reply to some question my mother had asked. When I returned to my conversation with my best friend, she was evidently perturbed. She asked me what I had said to my mother, and at first seemed offended that I had chosen to speak a language she didn't speak. Then, it felt as if she was just uncomfortable. One part of my life that was different from hers didn't sit right with her, and she needed a few minutes to come to terms with the fact that I wasn't default.

Finally, I came to Kolkata for college. Yes, people here believe Bengali is the best language to have ever existed. And North Indians here seem to be a separate community, with its invisible walls separating it from the Bengali community. The North Indians maintain their culture, are never ashamed it. Yes, they learn our language, but not at the cost of slowly, over the course of one or two generations, forgetting their own. Perhaps I am biased. Since I'm in a city where my roots lie anyways, I can't feel the pressure of being different. But this is my observation, and I hope you bear with me on this one.

Sometimes I wonder if Hindi speaking states believe themselves to be the default, the ones that define normalcy. To them everything else is marginalized. As mean and judgmental as I sound, I think this is nobody's fault. How did my Bengali friends in Kolkata learn to speak Hindi? By watching Bollywood movies and Hindi television shows. That was mainstream entertainment. The kind of entertainment our grandparents liked could be found on the Regional Entertainment section of the set top box menu. Anything other than Hindi was 'regional'. Culturally, it feels a lot like being marginalized.

If you're having difficulty understanding this, consider this analogy. When you go to a bookstore like Starmark or Crossword, you'll note that Indian authors have a separate category for themselves in their own country. There work isn't just mystery or thriller or humor, it's characteristically defined as Indian, as if Indian is a genre and books written be international authors are the default. Tell me that doesn't seem strange to you.

What I'm talking about here is that no matter how diverse our country is, how much we know that we're all different and that's a good thing, we are still unable to break out of the convention of segregating cultures to mainstream and marginalized. It's engrained in us, and its what we pass on to our children. It serves to tell us that maybe bigotry is in all of us, in different degrees, and even if you don't publicly demean large groups of people, there's a chance you still haven't reached that stage where you can look at a person and see differences as the normal course of being. Now, like any under-researched blogger who is too under qualified to have a book deal, I don't really have a solution to this problem. Maybe a certain section will always be mainstream and all others just...enough to widen someone's eyes. But I do want to point out the situation as a problem till we're all so assimilated to whatever is the norm that there are no differences anymore, not even the differences that we celebrate. 

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