“Are you Indian?” It is a common question for Indians in a foreign land. I am told. They may be attending a two day conference in Singapore, or on a weeklong package tour in Malaysia, or on semiannual visit to their children in America, or born and lived their entire life in London or Johannesburg. It does not seem to matter. The question is always the same. It meets with a definite yes.
It is a simple question: innocent and harmless. It is a natural for foreigners to be curious. It is friendly for them to be interested. And it makes Indians feel welcomed. It makes us proud to announce that yes we are Indian – at least these days. In contrast, we almost never face this question inside India. We never have to answer that question. We never question our Indian identity. We never had to declare that we are Indian.
But if we do face the question, what would be our answer. What is that makes one Indian? There is surely a legal definition: to be Indian you have to be an Indian citizen. That, however, has two problems. One it does not answer the question: do we identify ourselves as Indian. The other being that it is transferable: one can gain or loss their citizenship.
One easy answer would be that to be Indian one has to be born in India and live in India their entire life. But that quickly gets tricky. Most famous Indians did not live in India their whole life: take for example Gandhi. No one would argue his Indian identity. For that matter the recent Noble Laureate Amartya Sen. As for born in India, what about Mother Teresa? Or for that matter, London born writers such as Shashi Tharoor or Jumpa Lahiri? I am not going to bring up the forgotten heroes such as Henry Vivian Derozio. What about someone from our time: Sonia Gandhi?
It seems that to be Indian neither birth nor residency is necessary. What about parentage: do our parents have to be Indian? What about at least one? If you ever considered people such as Mother Teresa, Henry Vivian Derozio, or Sonia Gandhi as Indian, the answer is clear.
At least those who are born in India are Indians. Right? Not really. Birth does not automatically make one Indian. They are many foreigners born in India, almost everyday. And thanks to outsourcing, coming to India to give birth would soon become popular. I am not kidding. If birth alone does not make one automatically Indian, neither does residency. I always think Indian identity is a precious thing: not something that is given away, but something we need to earn. It is not a gift but reward. It should never be automatic, never be taken for guaranteed.
The little innocent question that is easy to answer abroad gets a bit complicated on our land. If birth or residency does not answer the question, what does?
India is a land without a common language, religion, culture, heritage, or even geographic boundaries. India is a land of diversity. India is often compared with Europe, a continent not a country. And yet most of us have a notion of Indian identity, whether we can articulate it or not.
To some it is akin to a religious faith: you are Indian if you think you are Indian. It is elegant in its simplicity. To some it is a question of action, question of contribution: what have you done for India to be Indian? It is vigorous in its purpose. Henry Vivian Derozio always thought himself as Indian, and done more for India than all the Indians I know put together, including me. But would everyone consider him as Indian? What about Mother Teresa?
I am sure we all have our notion of Indian identity, and I am positive our definitions differ. It is possible that there are as many way to define Indian identity as there are Indians. There is a religious story that compares god with water. God is like the water in the pond, the story goes, and we each go carry some of it in our home. When we put it in a glass, it takes one shape. When we put it in vase, it takes another. They look different, and yet it is the same water. I think Indian identity is similar. I would like to think despite all the different notions, there is a common pond. The core of what is to be Indian.
To some the core is the pride that binds us all. To be Indian you have to be proud of India. But what is pride: the faith in supremacy of India? Or even superiority? Pride does not have to be blind. It has to be true. We have to be proud of India for what it is. Acceptance comes before pride: acceptance with all its delights and deficiencies. And that is not always easy. India is not an easy country. It is both glorious and ghastly. It is a land of contrast. It is a land of contradiction.
We can be complacent in our pride, because we think it is the best possible India. We can be complaining in our pride, because we believe India should be better. For those the tune goes in our head: the best is yet to come. It is our choice. For me, I cannot get that tune out of my head when I think of India. Those who are harsh in their criticism may be the ones with higher expectation. Is that such a bad thing? Does it make them more or less proud of India? More or less Indian?
To some it is love. Love for India. To be Indian, one must love India – openly or secretly. It is not easy either. India is not a cute baby with chubby cheeks and big smile. Not even a small furry animal, real or stuffed. It is an old country stained by past, burdened by history. It is a country with multiple personalities, some lovable, some tolerable, and some distasteful. We love to hate it. We hate not to love it. In India, we take it for granted. While abroad, we glorify it. While inside, we itch to leave. While outside, we long to come back. It is a troubled relationship. Some of us demand unconditional love for India. For others there is no true love without a dash of hate.
There are as many kinds of Indians as Indians themselves. A politician, a priest, and a poet would differ. A farmer, a teacher, and a programmer would disagree. An NLI (never left India), an NRI, and a PIO would argue. The question of Indian identity comes down to individual.
Among all the things we can disagree on, this may be the one we diverse most. And may be that is what binds us all. Maybe, in the final analysis, the diversity is what truly unites us. I can live with that irony.