The journalist sized me up, a rather voluminous task, took a close look at what a friend in advertising had described as my A-4 size business card, shifted quick glances between my face and my name, and, setting his large frame down, rattled: “You must be having a business in Calcutta, must be staying in Bhowanipore, so what place do you come from in Gujarat'”
I said something about not being from Bhowanipore, of being a diaspora long before the word was heard east of the Jordan, of not all Gujaratis being businessmen, of having my family origins in north Gujarat. The prabasi Bangali was not convinced. His cultural geography refusing to slot me anyplace and anytime else, we moved to talking shop about violence, newspapers and reporting.
A few hours later, his friend dropped in and enquired from which part of Gujarat I belonged. I tried Mehasana, the district in north Gujarat, and was promptly told how I mixed the shrewdness of the region with the intellectual inclinations of Bengal. Intoxicated with this heady mix and knowing all too well the pretensions of people east of the Hooghly, I had barely become comfortable with the presence of this friend when he, apparently now convinced that I was betraying sensibilities other than what he had predicted, asked me if I was a Bhramakshatriya.
I replied that I was not and in fact if caste characteristics was indeed what he was after, then I was a Nagar. With his small eyes shining through oversized glasses that sat clumsily below a bald pate he exclaimed that he should not have mixed the Greek descent that was so obvious in me.
Reconciling my pint-sized self with the thoughts of having descended from warriors engaged in bloody battle with Xerxes brought me close to schizophrenia.
Seeing the symptoms of the identity conflict with the ease of an experienced phrenologist, the friend comforted me with the information that all this confusion was to be attributed to Chanakya. It was he who had gotten the Greek women that Seleucus brought to marry members of all the four castes. I wanted to be reassured and was almost tempted to ask if he was present at the site of this miscegenation. I refrained. I knew I would never be pilloried as a foreigner and could still aspire to the highest seats in the land, all the while knowing that there was still some foreign blood in me!
But was he right about these Greek nurturers' I remembered the university orientation many moons ago in Chicago when a mathematician had come right up to me and with a tug at my elbow launched into what sounded like fluent Portuguese. Could it just be that it was not after all Greece, the cradle of everything, but distant Portugal where my Ur-mother was buried'
How could I as a self-respecting Calcuttan live with the thought that it was not the Greeks, but the Portuguese whom I would call cater-cousins' And what of that Nairobi-born Gujarati who claimed to be from Vadodara and who had told my friend with a gesture towards me that he could bring his non-Indian friends along for the Diwali night. “I thought you are from Italy,” he remarked later.
No. They were wrong. I was a Brahmo, a true-blue one who lived less than a yojan from where Maharshi Debendranath meditated. And had I not been assured as much by the mother of a middle-aged spinster after she had heard me render “Akash bhora surjyo tara” in, what she said was, the deepest baritone the other side of river Kansas. I had merely complemented her daughter on a rather spirited dance performance. It must have taken a lot of work and energy at that age to dance to “Sheeter hava laglo nachon amlokir eyi dale-dale”.
She had walked up and said that my large forehead, which, if truth be told, was not large but an unending one, was the unmistakable family resemblance. Perplexed, I had asked which family. With the coy, obsequious manner of a prospecting mother she had pointed out the Tagores. But all it took were a few indiscreet queries and all my hopes for chhanar dalna, sukto and dal had disappeared like effervescence over Kansas. The enquiries had apparently revealed that beneath that characteristic forehead hid a non-Bengali brain. But what of the beard, that unmistakable commonness between any two Brahmo faces left fallow, I had almost protested under my breath thinking of dalna, be assured not the daughter'
But it was later that I realised that if there was a family resemblance that my facial hair had it was not to the Brahmo, but the Hasidic. On Rosh Hashanah day as I trudged down the Library Mall, a young Hasidic boy came up and with greetings presented me the flowers. He must have seen the slight amused look for he asked: “You are a Jew, aren’t you'” In that one moment, my head spun as I tried to inherit all the intellectual capital of the race from its Marx to its Einstein and then stillness came over me, numbing my faculties and I swallowed my saliva down into the trachea, coughed and returned the flower, inheritance and all.
From the Greeks to the Gujaratis, I have been presented every opportunity to seize a descent, an inheritance, and I have found myself hopelessly unequal to the task. After muttering some protests about being from one place or the other, I wonder what happens to me when in a somnolent state I announce that I am from Calcutta.
But once back in the city, who dare question me, who ask me for my origins' Is it not written on my characteristic jaw, nose, forehead, gait, beard, mien, pout and paunch'
Fie on that man on Tuesday last who as I entered New Market slid up to me and asked: “Exchange sir, good rates, handicrafts.”