By Tejaswini Vondivillu, Undergraduate Batch of 2022 I’m not sure what intrigued you enough to land on this page, but since you are here anyway, let me tell you a story.
Hi. I am Tejaswini Vondivillu. I am from Tamil Nadu, but I currently live in Hyderabad. We move around a lot. A gentle disclaimer, however: I am not a fauji kid. I look like your average Indian girl, a pretty smile always plastered to my face, short brunette hair, standard eyeliner and kajal.
There, that serves as the usual icebreaker for any typical conversation.
As the protagonist however, I usually have trouble identifying myself as Tamilian. Some of you are bound to think that’s pretty normal since I mentioned I moved around a lot. Some of you might be indifferent. But take a minute and think about this as you read on: when someone tells you where they are from, are you quick enough to associate them with characteristics typical of their place of origin?
I joined Ashoka, a place of diverse identities. Here, I observed two types of people: those who lived in one place all their life and those who moved around a lot. I expected that the latter bunch must be facing the similar conundrum I do – can I really associate myself with where I have lived? Or does the majority of my identity take from my place of birth.
When asked where I am from, I would often be stuck, because I live in one place, was born in another but have a cultural identity not typical of that place. So… what does that make me? I often find myself quickly connecting with anybody who is Tamilian. I would be excited enough to share the same lingo, whine about how much I missed South Indian delicacies, and form an in-group. Almost immediately! Although, despite it seeming natural and instinctive, I always felt otherwise. I felt more constrained to admit that I am Tamilian. There was always “that something” which would not let me fully accept this.
At this point, I feel it’s only fair if I share some context as to why I question this, because to many, it may seem random.
I was born in Madurai, the city of temples, located in Tamil Nadu. Majority of the population there is formed by Saurashtrians, the group to which I belong. Originally settled along the Gulf of Kutch, a region in Gujarat, Saurashtrians lived in a place aptly named Saurashtra. But fast forward several centuries and today, we live in Madurai and among other districts and cities that surround it, along with some places South. That’s my first illustration of the problem: Am I Saurashtrian by ethnicity or Tamilian by identity?
Then comes the language. We speak our own: Saurashtra. Many of you might expect it sounds similar to North Indian languages given that’s where we come from. Some of you may fairly guess that it has borrowed more from South Indian languages, given that’s where we currently reside. Here’s the twist: I always thought it was more North Indian, but turns out, we have borrowed extensively from Telugu. So, again, when the language itself represents such diversity, how does that influence my self-perception?
However, there’s another central issue that makes answering this question particularly difficult: the notion of Saurashtrian itself has changed over generations.
I had previously thought of us as simple people, traditional and not versed with today’s times. But historical records show otherwise. We were sophisticated, often belonged with Brahmins, well-educated and with a tradition, idiosyncratic enough to garner respect for a separate brand – Saurashtrian. Excellent saree weavers and merchants, we were quite the patron for many royal families when it came to designing their regal clothes. Of course, today, we are more simple, with globalisation having encroached into our lives and in a sense redefining our culture. So today we are entrenched with not only influences from a variety of Indian cultures, but have also assimilated to some extent with the West. However, we remain conservative in our beliefs.
I can go on and on about who we are, what we were, etc. but that’s what Wikipedia pages are there for right? What I am here to tell you is that when I decided to introspect about the various constituents of my identity, which led me to reading more about my clan, it revolutionised how I view them today. Both in the contemporary context and who we were in the past. I connected my real life experience to see how we have evolved to be who we are today, and it finally shed some light on who I can be: We maintain the pride that comes along with being Saurashtrian, rather than fully associating ourselves as Tamilian. This transformed my entire outlook on who I am, and what I have descended from.
I realized one word simply isn’t enough to define who I am and how my character might be. I am not Tamilian alone. I am Saurashtrian – a heterogeneous Indian identity that only being Saurashtrian can allow you to explore.
I firmly believe it’s important for you to sit down and connect with your culture. Maybe you don’t relate to most defining aspects of where you come from. But, you don’t have to. Having a cultural identity does not mean associate yourself with all the traits that are branded to that identity. I am simply asking yourself to delve occasionally and find out what it has to offer – what it really has to offer – and celebrate it your own way. It doesn’t mean having pride in where you come from. It means questioning where you really are from, your heritage and how it has changed to today. It means pondering and connecting the different pieces to see whether you really hold true to the defining aspects of your culture. If so, why or why not? How have you or your generation changed?
Before you go about questioning and learning about the various cultures other people are from, are you inquisitive enough to dig deeper into yourself? Do you think where you say you are from is enough for people to form the preliminary basis for judging you? You might not care enough about any of this, but I personally believe you should. Maybe it won’t dramatically change your views about who you are, but a little introspection won’t leave you disappointed.
So, who are you really?