I stopped at a small mobile-phone shop in Kathmandu. I wanted to ask a few things. The shopkeeper must have been around 30, a very friendly person. He spoke to me in Nepali; I answered politely in Hindi. He continued with Nepali; I went on with Hindi. We were already talking! Then he shifted to Hindi. I asked him whether I could buy a charger for my Chinese mobile.
‘Are you not a Nepali?’
‘What are you?’
‘I am an Indian.’
‘You don’t speak Nepali?’
‘I know a bit, but not good enough to speak.’
He stretched his right hand some two feet above the ground and asked, ‘From a very young age, you have never been a Nepali?’
I smiled and said that I was born like this – had never been a Nepali.
‘But how can you be not a Nepali and yet look like a Nepali? There are people in Darjeeling who are Indian and yet Nepali too! What happened to you?
Well, I wonder, what did happen to me? I explained that I did not know, but I was never a Nepali.
‘Your parents are like you?’
‘Yes, they are like me but they are also not Nepali.’
‘How can you not be a Nepali? Madam, I am getting very confused.’
‘Ok, let me try to help you,’ I offered. ‘Tibetans look like Nepalis but they are not Nepali.’ He smiled as if he finally understood something. ‘So am I – I look like a Nepali but I am not. I am like the Tibetans.’
‘Do you have any identity card? You are confusing me too much.’
I took out the card given to me by the Indian embassy in Nepal.
‘Sunita! Your name is also Nepali – you look like a Nepali but you are not a Nepali!’
I said that I had come from Manipur. I also told him I was afraid that there were many more people in Manipur who would confuse him, too. I did not get what I came for, but I left the shop smiling nonetheless.
Longing and belonging
That was in early 2010. My Chinese mobile had stopped working. It was my connection with home, with Imphal. By that time, I had spent more than two years working in Kathmandu. In my first few encounters with the city I had found it beautiful, had in fact fallen in love with it rather quickly. Then I fell in love with the people who made it the city it was; I was happier for it.
My first encounter with Nepal itself was eventful. At the airport, taxi drivers flocked around me, speaking incessantly in Nepali. I hinted that I did not speak Nepali, but their familiarity-bred warmth did not recede. I soon reached the place I would call home. One glance at me and, again, the landlady was happily chatting in Nepali. I could not think of a single Nepali word in response. She was disappointed, but I was smiling for the rest of the day.
That was my response for much of my remaining years in Nepal – happy and amused that people would often refuse to accept me as anyone else but a Nepali. My look and my citizenship stirred many discussions, led to confusion and, at times, proved advantageous, allowing me to get away as a local rather than being charged tourist prices. Of course, I had to remain mum in such situations. This might strike some as a small achievement, but for me it brought a sense of belonging.
Interestingly, this was a sense that I could not easily get in India itself. There I would more often record pairs of suspicious eyes and gestures that would humiliate me, challenge me to prove that I ‘belonged’ there. From birth until 1995 I lived in Manipur. I spent the following decade in Delhi, going to college and working. During that time I also received an education of a whole different sort: of facing questions I never expected, of struggling to understand where I stood on topics of nationality and ‘belonging’.
When I was young, my family and I would take occasional trips to Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta. These visits were family vacations, all about having a good time. Calcutta stays in my memory as the place where one of my siblings poked at some mud that turned out to be a crocodile. That was a memorable scare at the zoo. Growing up, my entertainment diet was heavily in Hindi; my repertoire of Hindi songs extended from the black-and-white era (Raj Kapoor and Nargis declaring Pyar hua iqrar hua) to the 1990s (Akshay Kumar declaring to Raveena Tandon, Tu cheeze badi hei mast mast). Antakshari, where you challenge others to a medley of Hindi songs, was one of my favourite games. But shortly after I left for Delhi, one of the prominent armed rebel groups banned speaking Hindi and watching Hindi films or television.
The ban was hard to digest. At the same time, life in Delhi was proving difficult, especially outside the college campus. While Hindi entertainment was being erased from life in Manipur, my Manipuri identity was being openly extracted in Delhi.
Which country are you from? was the question I had to face most often. At first it amused me, and I answered earnestly.
‘Where is Manipur?’ was often the response that followed.
‘It is in the northeastern part of India.’
‘No, I am not Bengali and am not from Bengal.’
Chinese, Nepali, Japanese … I was offered a long list of citizenships from the Mongoloid-looking world. Walking on the streets of Delhi was not easy, even with male friends around. ‘Hi chinky, come for party,’ I would heard, or ‘Oye, chowmein.’ Or the most nonsensical, ‘Ao mao chow’. Over just a few years, this type of drivel made me feel increasingly less Indian. Slowly I shied away from participating in the friendly bouts of antakshari in Delhi. My discomfort with speaking Hindi had begun.
Here and there
Years later, when I began to travel out of India, my discomfort sharpened into anger. Unfailingly, the immigration officer would ask me, in a tone redolent with the intention to humiliate, ‘Indian?’
‘Yes, sir, the passport says so,’ I would shoot back.
Fast-forward to 2011. I have left Nepal and am now back in Delhi. I think I have decided not to explain myself to anyone anymore. Just a few weeks ago, I received a couriered package, and offered a glass of water to the deliveryman. Quick came the question: ‘Aap india mei kab se ho?’ (How long have you been in India?)
‘Main yahin paida hui thi’ (I was born here).
‘Oh yahan – dilli mein?’ (Oh, here in Delhi?)
For him ‘here’ meant Delhi, which meant India. For me, I had again been reminded of the separation between a homeland and a country, of belonging and citizenship. Here we go again, I told myself.
Of Delhi, I remember my earlier years fighting a bitter battle against exclusion from India. Of Kathmandu, I recollect the sweet amusement of fighting off attempts at inclusion into Nepal. One should not forget the compliments one receives – for instance, the shopkeeper in Kathmandu sighing, ‘You have wasted your looks by being born an Indian.’ I would agree with him and he would laugh, happy with his joke. I too would laugh at the truth of his joke.
~ Sunita Akoijam is a writer based in Delhi and Manipur.