The title of this post is not a reference to the Streisand film/musical; but a play on Shyam Selvadurai’s book ‘Funny Boy‘. I read it a long time ago, when I was at a friend’s house in Nairobi; I think.
My references to/for Sri Lanka have been more immediate than to other countries: friends, schoolmates, cricket, a shared geopolitical space, Michael Ondaatje, Dilmah tea, SAARC… the politics, the culture, the civil wars, the fighting, the cricket all melding together under the spaces I so easily consume, present, fit into as ‘South Asian’. Such an assimilation of identity, such a wiping of difference, such a subsuming of identities, such an invisibilisation of the faultlines that trigger so easily.
I was in Sri Lanka last week, a combined birthday celebration; seeing a much-loved friend; and seizing the opportunity for a much-needed break. I turned 28 in Sri Lanka and as I marvelled at how I got here so quickly, so relatively unscathed; I was confronted by the larger spaces in which I exist, the ones I claim and the ones that claim me. I was pushed to consider beyond myself, because what is 28 years on Earth if not as much an assertion of space and identity; a taking up of space and a dominating of identity?
I am still amused by the personal geopolitics of my holiday. My birthday, so close to the Indian Independence Day, and my friend N’s birthday (on Pakistan’s Independence Day)- both of which we spent in Sri Lanka. Our South Asian; subcontinental relationships are so fraught- we are almost always at loggerheads; sometimes more forcefully than at other times. Sometimes it is about cricket and food, sometimes it is about oceans and land and terrorism and borders. We are all shoved into ‘South Asia’ and we are all mixed up and presented to the world as though there is no delineation; no separation of self. We are presented as though we are our governments and our governments are us; that we are just clean, clear binaries our boundaries etched in black and trenches.
Sometimes we forget that our fault lines are not always owned by us, that sometimes we reach out across those lines and touch each others’ humanity, that our words for friend, sister, brother are the same, that our skin is brown as these trees that grow so strong that root themselves in this space in our space, that there is more to us than one identity; one single cultural monolith, and definitely more to us than our representatives.
I stepped out of the airport in Colombo and it all seemed so familiar. Later, I told my friend; ‘I feel like I’m still in India- Madras or Pondicherry or something’. The autos that honk, the flashes of colonial-era architecture, the overcast sky, and the shades of oak and mahogany and walnut and teak that flash past me; eyes wrinkling, moustaches quivering, and smiles appearing so easily. When it rained, it smelt exactly like it did at home.
In the taxi from the airport to N’s house, I chatted away with the taxi driver. He asked where I was from and when I said ‘Bangalore- it’s in the South'; he glanced back at me and grinned.
‘Bangalore is nice. Chennai people are bad’.
It wasn’t unexpected- I imagined I’d experience something of the sort; but the starkness of his proclamation and the sureness in his voice made me pause for a second. It isn’t just the decades old tensions between our countries, the civil war in Sri Lanka and India’s role in it; it isn’t just India’s big-brothering in the region; it’s the othering of it all. The simple boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’. I, too, was the other- but the irrelevant one, as though my being in a certain place absolves me of my government’s actions; as though my being not-Chennai removes me from any culpability. It allows for conversation, for laughter, for being ‘nice’. It allows, simply, for connection; just as easily as it denies it to others.
I asked him if he’d ever been to Bangalore. He said no. I didn’t want to ask if he’d ever been to Chennai.
So we talked about how the monsoon was late this year instead.
‘Which country, madam?’ followed us all week.
‘India’ I’d respond. Sometimes smiling, sometimes crankily.
It doesn’t matter where in the world I am, I am almost always asked this question; and almost always by men. I am resigned to it- as natural curiosity, as a way to interact with people I wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to. But it gets tiring to deal with difference always marked out, generalisations always handed out, ideas always presented, and continue to smile and be gracious because I am in someone else’s home; experiencing someone else’s hospitality. It would be impolite to let my crankiness or my irritation or my resentment show.
But, even in my responses; I am almost always wary of my delivery; my surroundings; of how this interaction will unfold and where it will take me.
Most times, they respond, ‘I knew, madam!’ and grin cheekily; or ‘Oh! I thought Sri Lanka- same same, no?’ and then shrug their shoulders as though it is accepted as fact.
At a restaurant, the old manager placed our drinks on the table and lingered.
‘You’re from India?’ he asked.
‘Oh! From where?’
‘The South- Bangalore’.
‘Oh! South Indians don’t like Sri Lankans, no? -‘ he said, smiling.
‘Ha! That’s a generalisation, no?’ I smiled back.
The hum of conversation had hushed. In South Asia, our diplomacy is with barbed with smiles and quick parries. People are often frustrated by our inability to hand out a concrete ‘yes’ or ‘no’, by our inability to be open about our discomforts, and to not say things that we cannot take back. You could call it Diplomacy 101, but I think we bring smiles to the table. Smiles confuse you, defuse a situation, and it is much harder to be angry or upset or offended when someone smiles at you with such genuine warmth.
‘No? We think North Indians are more polite here…’
‘In South India, we don’t really think they are..’
He snorted a little bit at my response and surprised me, ‘Do you like old Hindi songs? I have a huge collection- LPs and EPs’.
I was delighted. I love old Hindi songs.
He sang us a little ditty and almost every time he passed by with food or drinks, he’d pause and ask about a song or two.
‘I really like Manna Dey‘, he said.
I spent my birthday by the coast. It was a beautiful, beautiful day: the sky dotted with cloud puffs; the air not too humid; the wind gentle against your skin. It rained in the afternoon and I was happy.
I stood there, the ocean water gently gliding over my feet and I thought about how it touched me and took with it the same water, the same touch, the same blue-green-whitefoam endlessness to the coast of my own land. So many others have dipped their feet in this ocean so wide, so big, so deep; our lives so disparate; so disconnected from each other, and just so easily connected by every crest and swell and dip and low of its swirling waters. The depths we will never really know, the colours and secrets we may never discover.
The sun was warm on my shoulders, the water so cold on my feet.
I scribbled myself a list of ‘big five’ for the next 365 days. Things to work on, things to improve, things to do, things to let myself experience.
I say ‘things’ as though they are material, as though they are solid. I say ‘things’ as though they already exist and I do not have to work at them and make them so.
The rain thundered down that night and woke us. I turned sleepily to N and whispered, ‘Happy birthday!’
We both love the rain.
On the beach, there was a moss covered rock; the waves sometimes gently, sometimes violently submerging it over and over and over again. It stood there so placidly, so defiantly, so staunchly; with such fortitude. I wonder how many lives it has touched- through oceans and countries and toes dipped in cold waters.
You know when you’ve had a falling out with a friend and you don’t even know why? When you’ve been cut out and left in the cold without so much as an explanation? It stings. I am not so forgiving a person as to let it go and move on, to assume that it was my fault and that someone needed to be in a different space.
I have always needed to know why- it was my favourite question as a child, and not much has changed nearly twenty three years later.
‘I have to go-‘
‘You musn’t say-‘
‘Wipe your hands before you touch-‘
‘Why’, ‘why not’, ‘but why’… have always formed the centre of my knowledge, my insatiable curiosity about the world and her peoples. It is the reason why I do what I do: because, once you ask that first ‘Why?’, you’re compelled to wonder about the ‘How’.
And that’s true for almost everything else- when the ‘Why’ just isn’t good enough, when it just stands by itself without any construction; any change; any challenge. And that’s when you need your ‘How': when your Why is meaningless without it.
A mutual friend told me about the ‘How': how you are, how your career is going, and how you’re enjoying it. I’m happy for you. It’s made me realise that I don’t quite care about your ‘what’.
I’m enjoying learning how to define, challenge, question my ‘what’.