I've grown up an Indian, but never been accepted as such.
Born to Bangladeshi immigrant parents, I grew up in the small town of Silchar, southwest of Assam's capital, Guwahati. My maa and babu taught me the language they grew up speaking: Sylheti. My grandparents, both paternal and maternal, are from the Sylhet district of Bangladesh and had fled to India to escape the religious holocaust.
On February 23, 1991, the day I stepped into this unforgiving world, my fate was sealed. As a child, I did not get why a frown would appear on my friends mother’s faces every time she saw them playing with me. But as I grew up reality dawned on me, and I realised that if you speak in your mother tongue—particularly one that’s weird to others—you will attract unwanted attention, coupled with incessant bullying and ridicule.
With my ‘maa’ and sister
Now Silchar is home to many immigrants, but most of them have adapted to the West Bengal way of life, either completely or partially. They have shunned their place of origin, which includes giving up on the language completely. My family hasn't, and it made me and a handful of others like me, outcasts. There were times I almost apologised for not being able to perfect my Bangla and broke down for speaking in my thick Sylheti accent.
"Why did you not train me to speak Bangla like most of my friends?" my teenage self would often ask my parents, fuming as I battled with my insecurities.
"Because that’s not who we are," would always be my mother’s reply.
Shillong, where I did my Bachelor's from, calmed my nerves and served as a breather from all the taunts and racial slurs. Nobody cared why I struggled to pronounce 'photography' or why my 'accommodation' sounded different from theirs. I was laughing freely, singing aloud, dancing to regional music and striking up conversations with confidence. During these three years, I found myself.
Runner-up at a beauty pageant
But the fact that this new easily offended, hyper-nationalistic India is hostile towards North-Easterns only made matters worse. If being a Bangladeshi’s offspring was not bad enough, being a North-Easterner was even worse and unacceptable for some. NE, to the intolerant lot is a land of foreigners whom they very snobbishly, and in a disgusting tone, love to brand as the ‘Chi***’.
"So, does your country (referring to NE) have non-English-speaking people?" they would ask, breaking into hysterical laughter.
"Indian hai toh Hindi mein bol"
"You guys eat everything, na?" are some of the questions they would often hurl at me. It’s strange and almost unbelievable that even the nicest people resort to racism, knowingly or otherwise.
Shillong, backdrop is the India-Bangladesh border.
It makes me laugh when Indians despise Trump for his racial extremism. What are you doing to the North-Easterns and Bangladeshi immigrants? If the Americans are guilty of apartheid, are we not following their footsteps in our treatment of the Seven Sisters and Bangladeshi immigrants?
While I feel more assured about myself now and wear the ‘Sylheti’ tag with pride, my woes are far from over. “Every time a cricket match is on… I mean, which side do you support, India or Bangladesh?” asked a friend’s friend. And the recently concluded Champions Trophy was no exception; during the match between India and Bangladesh, a dear friend blatantly asked, "Are you sure you are not on their side?" These questions don’t infuriate me or leave me appalled. For this has been my story ever since my existence was defined by my Bangladeshi immigrant parents.
‘No man’s land.’ Image source: intoday.in
Yes, Bangladeshi. My clan is one of the thousands of Hindu Bangladeshi families that fled their beloved ‘shonar Bangla’ (golden Bengal) and sought solace in India before, during and after the Liberation War of 1971, with the solitary hope that we will be embraced with open arms and blend in. Embraced we were, included we were not. The West Bengalis or the ‘real Bangalis’, as some would like to be called, refer to us as the other Bengalis or ‘Bangaal’. As for the rest of India, we are ‘them’, the distinct class of immigrants. People who do not have any sense of belonging with the land they were born in – India.
Post-grad days in Bangalore
In my pursuit to becoming ‘somebody’ in life, I shifted base to Bangalore for a post-graduate course in journalism, secretly hoping to achieve a sense of belonging there.But has anyone ever been able to run away from their own shadow? Or their karma? Be it department picnics or college parties, house parties or after-class banters, for every joke I cracked, for every prank I pulled on someone, the comeback was always a simple "Ay, Bangladeshi!" The only way to shut out a Bangladeshi immigrant was, of course, to remind them that they are one.
If teenage was a constant struggle of speaking in two different languages—Sylheti and Bangla—adulthood brought along a new wave of atrocities. No living being has ever inflicted physical pain upon my body but what they did was even greater: remind me of a place that I seem to have no memory of, a land I have never set my foot on. That Sales Manager, those friendly colleagues, almost anyone I would confide in would sooner or later say, "You are a Bangladeshi, dudette."
The question is not whether I secretly admire Bangladesh or dream of returning there someday. The fundamental question is and will always remain: Are we really a nation that can boast of peaceful co-existence among diverse cultures? For someone who has lived in three metropolitan cities - Bangalore, Pune and now Mumbai - inclusion still seems like a far-fetched dream.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Pallavi Purkayastha
Photographs by: Pallavi Purkayastha