This is a constant question I am asked wherever I go and one that I can never answer without pausing to think and then my answer never fails to seem inadequate to myself. Not for metaphysical reasons – that belongs to a more solitary time and self when one questions the nature of being.
No, this is related to geography and curiosity of strangers or the friendliness encountered on shared journeys. I have been asked this question several times and I am yet to come up with a convincing reply. I say convincing because there is no right answer.
It is not clear whether people want to know which city I live in or which place I hail from. In India everybody wants to know what language I speak at home, but sometimes they want to know which region of any state I belong to because each region has its own dialect. When I say I speak Tamil, the usual response is that I therefore belong to “Keral”. There are some wits who say I must be Kannadiga then!
Sometimes they want to know which caste I belong to. This was more common in UP because people would ask me which “biradari” I belonged to. I am never asked this anywhere else perhaps because in other states people are less interested in my caste. It is possible that when in Tamil Nadu people do not need to ask me my caste because I speak a typically Brahmin Tamil! While in Lucknow I managed to mimic the local people and speak in a “shudh” Hindi which led them to disbelieve that I was not a native Hindi speaker. They would also tell me that I was too fair to be from the South. In Hyderabad my Telugu is too “local” for me not to belong!
It is not true that all North Indians are fair-skinned, by the way!
My journey has been a long one so I do not know whether to claim any place as my own because I was born there or whether the city where I was brought up belongs to me in my mind. Now I live in a different city and I have never lived anywhere else for longer, so this is the city I normally claim for my own.
R. and I always give two different answers to this question confusing the listener who probably thinks we are being evasive, to say the least! R. perhaps genuinely believes that Madras is the right answer, though he has lived there for only half a dozen years. I would have said Tamil Nadu might be more correct semantically. But I am not “from” Tamil Nadu in my mind though my roots are there, because there is nowhere in Tamil Nadu that I can go back to, which is essentially the meaning of “home”, therefore it is not my home. Somebody asked me this question again on the Ooty trip, and after puzzling over it, I said “Madras” and then wished I could take it back and give a different answer. Why Madras, I have no idea!
We may soon move on to a different city, and I will have more places to choose from. This may be one of the worries that is giving me sleepless nights. Among other things.