Ever since I can remember, introducing myself has been torture. First, it was only the Bengalis. As soon as I said, "I'm Paromita," a tidal wave of Bengali would rush at me. Gritting my teeth, I'd say I am not Bengali. Bewilderment would wash over faces in uncertain waves, shock that, firstly, anyone could be not Bengali, and secondly, this someone had the temerity to be called Paromita. What more proof that the world is maya?
My friend R, a bangalfied non-Bong, scoffs at my irritation. "You're a self-hating Bengali!" he likes to shout. "I will expose you on Facebook and tell everyone you are actually Bengali," he threatens effetely. Fine, yes, I am actually part Bengali — one fourth to be precise. But I cannot speak the language, sing Rabindra Sangeet, tuck fish bones in oral crevices, comb my long lustrous hair and emanate quivering sensuality from my limpid doe-eyes, as I say "shotti."
Were I to confess this minor fact of my genealogy to above mentioned Bengali-folk it would only result, after triple checking if I'm lying and I actually can speak Bangla, by talking in it for another 15 minutes. Then, a litany of admonishments (also in Bengali). How can anyone with even a drop of Bengali blood not talk in Bengali, or at least in French! Far simpler then to leave this detail out and stonily say, uncle, I am Paanjabi.
Now, no matter how many nationalism nursery rhymes we are asked to trot out, Indians are very devoted to their regional identity, languages, food, rhythms and quirks, exemplifying the juicy idea of community in diversity over the more prim idea of unity in diversity. So we can understand the instant Bengali-bonding as an overflow of love for one's own language.
But what explains the non-Bengali tendency for this behaviour? Whether on a long-distance train or a dating app, most people, on hearing my name, immediately say, "Oh, kemon achho," grinning as if they have coined an unprecedented witticism. If they're typing this, auto-correct will turn it into "lemon accho" and honestly, I don't know if that's worse, or better. After this they will ask when I left Calcutta, and then on hearing I'm a filmmaker, ask if I make Bengali films.
I have friends called Natasha, Tanya and also, one Sputnik — but I don't see people crying Dasvidanya! and Vodka! to them on being introduced. My Maharashtrian, Gujarati, Tamil and Goan friends also did not report any such phrase-book linguistic assaults. Why only Bengali?
My Bengali friends agreed that though annoying, this behaviour never seems intended to offend, unlike say, 'Madrasi' or Parsi stereotypes in movies. One surmised that Bengalis have done such good brand management that the image of them as kaal-chered and 'intelligent' (fish is brain-food, na) persists, and speaking phrases of Bengali is aspirational, like knowing a phrase or two of French.
But it is also indicative of the difficulty Indians have with talking to each other as individuals rather than as representatives of an identity. Actually, getting to know someone without the marks of language, food and region is simply not a skill we've developed well. In the face of growing pressures to homogenise, this may be a heartening sign (as seen by optimists). Realistically such conversations box you, revealing a catalogue of stereotypical assumptions about communities that try your patience, though I suppose they also help you cultivate it! As I am a hopeful person, I believe this could change. So, I am not (yet) changing my name to Sheila.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com