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When I was seven or eight, I asked my father where I was from. Or what we were, which seemed, then, to amount to the same thing. My father told me that I was a Kannadiga and that we were from Mysore, the name by which Karnataka was known in 1965. At this time I was a schoolboy in Delhi, so the information was useful; ‘where are you from?’ was the first question you were asked in class. The second question, but second only by a short head, was ‘what does your father do?’.
My father was a librarian and his ‘native place’ was contained, theoretically at least, within his name. South Indians (or Madrasis as they were known in Delhi in the 1960s) often had two initials before their names: the first indicated a place name, the second stood in for the father’s name. So B.S. Kesavan expanded into Bellary Shamanna Kesavan, which made me a Kannadiga from Mysore, and if a classmate wanted me to get more specific, I could even supply an ancestral place name.
Only it wasn’t as cut and dried as it sounded. My father, despite his name, felt no sense of belonging to Bellary. The name was an affectation, a lie: an ancestor who had achieved petty government rank had decided that it was grander to claim Bellary, a district capital, as home, rather than the obscure place to which he belonged, a tiny town called Bindignavale. When, towards the end of his life, he felt the need to return to his origins, my father led a little cavalcade of cars filled with members of his extended family to Bindignavale where his ancestors had endowed a temple.
But even Bindignavale wasn’t where he (or I) began. The clue to a pre-Kannadiga identity lay in the fact that my father spoke Tamil fluently, as did his brothers. Some ten years ago, I visited my uncle in Bangalore and found him in a rage. A militantly nativist movement had begun to attack ‘outsiders’ in Bangalore, specially Tamilians, allegedly because they didn’t identify with Karnataka’s language, Kannada, and continued to speak Tamil. My uncle, who, like his brother, thought of himself as a Kannadiga and spoke Kannada like the native he was, was infuriated that arriviste politicians had decreed that people with names like Kesavan and Natarajan were enemy aliens. "Kannada! I’ll teach these fellows Kannada!" he growled, his moustache bristling.
The language my father and his brothers grew up speaking at home was a dialect of Tamil because many generations ago their ancestors had migrated from the Tamil country to present-day Karnataka following their spiritual preceptor, Ramanujacharya. Their descendants—B.S. Kesavan and his brothers amongst them—spoke pidgin Tamil within the family and Kannada to the outside world. This didn’t make them linguists, it made them liminal: ‘real’ Tamils thought they were inadequately Tamil while militant Kannada activists refused to see them as authentically Kannadiga.
In my cousin’s mind, we were at once from Mysore and the Central Asian steppes—being light-skinned Hebbar Iyengars.
But it would be inaccurate to say that Hebbar Iyengars (the jaati or caste community of which my father’s family was a part) were Kannadiga in the monolingual way in which language chauvinists like Vatal Nagaraj would have liked them to be. Linguistically, my father was a cosmopolitan: he could make himself understood in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali, Hindi and English, he read Sanskrit for pleasure and he had learnt German in Weimar, Germany, and had subsequently forgotten it. This multilingual ability was, to some degree, the norm in his family. Nearly all my cousins on my father’s side of the family speak four, sometimes five, languages. So language alone didn’t, couldn’t, define home. Home to them was a curious blend of the towns they had grown up in (and it was always a town or a city; there wasn’t an ancestral village that anyone could remember) and their caste identity as Brahmins of a particular sort.
Hebbar Iyengars tended to go on a bit about how light-skinned they were and this anxiety about pigmentation sometimes became the basis of speculative theories of origin. One cousin, who had read B.G. Tilak’s The Arctic Home in the Vedas, explained to me that this absence of darkness indicated the northerly, non-Dravidian origins of the Hebbar Iyengar community. In his mind, he was simultaneously from Mysore and the Central Asian steppes, that cradle of white, Indo-European goodness.
My claim to being a Kannadiga, or even my claim to a hybrid Tamil-Kannadiga identity, was nominal. I first visited Karnataka when I was 21; I was born in Delhi, educated in its schools and colleges and I’ve been working in that city ever since. My mother’s family had been Dilliwallahs since at least the time of the last Mughal: we had the papers to prove that Munshi Nathmal, our ancestor, once a minor clerk in Bahadur Shah Zafar’s administration, turned his coat and defected to the British the moment Delhi rose in revolt in 1857. I had none of my father’s languages: for many years I couldn’t even tell if he was speaking Telugu or Kannada or Tamil; it was just a sludge of south Indian to me. I spoke Hindi and English and nothing else, which used to prompt my father to say that I spoke my mother’s tongue, not my mother tongue.
If I had a native place, then, it was Delhi. In terms of location and language I was more an Agrawal from Delhi than an Iyengar from Mysore, but so powerful was the idea of patrilineal descent that through childhood and youth I believed I was ‘south Indian’. But even my north Indian identity was an odd confection of fact and prejudice. My mother’s family had lived in the old city for more than a hundred years. In the bania narrative of Delhi’s history, everything bad or coarse that had happened to the city since Independence was put down to the influx of Punjabi refugees. They were vulgar, thrusting, untutored in Delhi’s ways and especially its language. They said ‘mere ko’ instead of ‘mujhey’, and ‘bola’ instead of ‘kaha’. I soaked up these notions as a child and came to the conclusion that since everyone must have come to Delhi from somewhere else, and since we weren’t (heaven be praised) Punjabis, we must have arrived in the city from UP. My mother even had a cousin who had ancestral property in Banaras, which seemed to clinch things in favour of that state.
Some years later, a maternal uncle gave me a yellowing book with a family tree that traced my mother’s lineage to Jind. Jind had been part of undivided Punjab and was now part of Haryana. I didn’t want to be from Haryana so I said I didn’t believe the family tree. My uncle grinned hard-heartedly and told me to count from ninety to hundred in Hindi. I did. When I finished he said, "Can’t you hear yourself? Instead of the simple ‘n’ sound of ikyanvey, baanvey, tiranvey, chauranvey, which is how someone from UP would count, all your ‘n’ sounds come out like the retroflexive ‘n’ in Haryana. Because Haryana is where you’re from."
Since we weren’t (heaven be praised) Punjabi, I concluded we were from UP. Turned out my mother was from Jind, in Haryana!
So if I was to look for Home on Google Earth, there are a variety of places that I could plausibly zoom in on. Bellary, Bindignavale, Mysore city (where my grandfather worked and my father taught), Mylapore in Chennai (where my father lived many years of his childhood), Central Asia (whence Iyengars might have sprung), Nehr Sadat Khan in old Delhi (where collaborating banias prospered), even Jind in Haryana. If there’s a moral to my story, it must be that the reality of ‘home’ is subject to alteration, that the native place is as often a place of transition as it is a point of origin, that instead of being a still centre to which we are historically attached, home is an idea to which we choose to belong. I choose not to belong to Jind.
(Mukul Kesavan is a historian, cricket writer and novelist.)