When my father returned home from work on his retirement day, the last day he would ever go to work, I welcomed him with a mixture of satisfaction and anxiety. Satisfaction, because he had worked real hard for more than thirty years and deserved to relax in the twilight years of his life. Anxious, because after having worked continuously for thirty long years, sitting at home might seem stifling for him. I did not want him to fall into the trap of self-sympathy, get notions of being useless and dependent and lose his peace of mind. “An idle mind is a devil's workshop,” and I did not want the devil setting shop in my father's mind. However, I didn't have to worry much, as I found out the next day.
My father woke up at the stroke of six, walked for an hour, prayed for a couple of hours, read the newspaper for quite a few hours, and then, after lunch, sat at the computer table and typed something away in Google. When I saw him after sometime, he was deeply engrossed in something. It looked like some article from a blog. A couple of hours later, to my surprise, he was still at it, and what's more, he was taking notes too! Now he really got me hooked on, and I couldn't suppress my curiosity to find out what he was doing.
Handing him his cup of evening tea and a plate of snacks, I broached the topic. He seemed to have been just waiting for me to ask the question and embarked on an enthusiastic explanation for his serious 'Google'ing.
“I have been trying to trace back our roots,” he said.
“On the net? Are you sure it's possible?” My ever doubtful mind offered.
“I don't know. I've got to try anyway. I am also thinking of speaking to a number of our near and distant relatives. I am hoping to build a family tree with the information I get, which I want to be as detailed as possible and dating as far back as possible.”
It seemed quite an ambitious plan to me. I could remember my lineage only as far back as my father's grandfather. On my mother's side, I realized I knew much less. There was no written record of our lineage, and whatever we knew was known from hearsay. However, what my father was attempting to do was of extreme importance for people like me, who are often at a loss when they are inquired about their identity.
The community I belong to descends from a group of settlers from Western India who made South India their home. As a result, the culture and traditions we follow are a heady mixture of both worlds. While it does seem exotic to describe, I, like many others from my community, have had to face a lot of confusion and unanswered questions about where I belong.
Every time someone asks me, “So where are you from?” I say “TamilNadu”, the south Indian state.
“Oh so you speak Tamil!”
“No. We speak Marathi.”
“Then you must be from Maharashtra.”
“No we live in Tamilnadu but speak Marathi.”
“But you speak Tamil so well that no one would believe you are not Tamil!” And those who have heard our native tongue Marathi, say “But what you are speaking is not Marathi!”
At this point the person interviewing me usually gives me a look that ranges from ridicule to sympathy to amusement.
I have to then offer the lines of explanation that I have probably repeated a million times from my childhood to whoever asks me this question –
“We are Maharashtrians settled in Tamilnadu. Our ancestors had come and settled down south centuries ago. That is the reason our Tamil is so good and out Marathi so out of tune with what's spoken in Maharashtra.”
By the time my explanation ends, the interviewer gives me a hasty nod of understanding, regardless of whether he understood me or not, and eagerly abandons the topic. I pity the person for having invited upon himself this unwarranted lesson in History.
When I was a kid, I remember having pestered my parents with many impertinent questions about our community which more often than not, went unanswered or were deflected. All for the simple reason that my parent's themselves did not know. So when my father undertook to find out more about our past, I was all for it and even offered to help him.
In the days that came, my father dug out some truly intriguing stuff about our community. The influx of Mahratta people like us into southern parts of India had taken place during the reign of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in Western India, in the region largely known as Maharashtra. This was in the seventeenth century. Shivaji's half-brother Venkoji had invaded Thanjavur, a bustling town in TamilNadu today and the seat of power in TamilNadu in ancient times, to drive away the ruler from Madurai who had usurped the Thanjavur throne from its original king. His invasion successful, Venkoji settled down in Thanjavur permanently, supposedly due to a dream he saw in which God came and asked him not to leave.
So there it was, the starting point of Mahratta-Tamil amalgamation. As the settlers who came with Venkoji settled on the fertile basins of the Cauvery, they imbibed a lot of things from the culture of the land, while contributing richly to its traditions. Thus we find many south Indian recipes, with a definite influence of Maharashtrian cuisine, and numerous customs and rituals that are similar in both Tamil and the Mahratta communities.
Reflecting on the chain of events, I find that it was not only about Mahratta-Tamil, but also about Mahratta's in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, who speak Kannada and Telugu respectively, much better than they speak Marathi. Like the water carrying tankers on the streets on Indian towns which spill half their contents on the roads before delivering what is left to the intended destination, a few of Venkoji's entourage presumably settled down at different places along the route from their native Maharashtra to Thanjavur. That is probably why half my relatives speak Kannada instead of Marathi, and why a search for grooms for me from my community brought up Telugu speaking families within the community.
In the course of my father's research I also found out that it is not just Mahrattas who have become naturalised citizens of a region away from their own. Throughout India, one can find numerous examples of people originally from one region, settled in another. We have Gujaratis living in Mumbai for centuries, Rajasthanis making TamilNadu their home and speaking Tamil more fluently than the locals, Tamils living in Delhi, and so on. Talk about cultural diversity!
My chest swells in pride when I picture the diverse flavours of ethnicity one can find in India. In the age of 'racial discrimination' and 'ethnic conflicts', the life of the common man in India, living a largely harmonious existence, can still teach a lesson or two to the world, despite the spurts of unrest which the media undoubtedly blows out of proportions. Unlike the American identity or the British or Chinese identities, the Indian identity is but a super-identity. We more closely associate ourselves with our sub-identities of being a Tamil, a Marathi or a Rajasthani than being an Indian. However, given the extensive cross-migration that has been continuously happening from every part to every other part of the country, these sub-identities are increasingly becoming complex. And due to the sheer weight of their complexity, they are becoming more and more blurred.
The pace at which the world is moving today doesn't allow time for elaborate history lessons when one is asked about his background. Neither the listener nor the speaker has the time, energy or interest for it too. Today's Indian, especially someone with my kind of background, is therefore better off calling himself simply, an Indian, instead of trying to condense centuries of his history into a couple of sentences. Therefore I too, ignoring the risk of appearing theatrical or cocky, have decided to answer, “I am from India,” the next time someone asks me “Where do you come from?”
Nevertheless, what my father found out has been of profound importance to me. It has enlightened me on who my forefathers were, and the glorious life they led. I take pride in the fact that many persons from the Thanjavur Mahratta community were highly learned and distinguished individuals, who held important positions in the courts of many local kings. The fact that my roots are as strong and powerful as those of a Banyan's gives me a new confidence and increases my respect towards my fellow community members.