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Monday, March 24, 2008

Identity crisis

Too fair to be a Bong!

"You are too fair to be a Bengali," Sheikh Aslam told me. I was surprised. That a student of Pakistan's premier business school, Lahore University Management Studies would disclaim my origins is something I had never expected. But I didn't retort. The students from Lahore were on a friendly mission to Mumbai and I, a journalist, was commissioned to cover all their activities in the city. I would have to spend about eight hours with them. I thought to myself, "Mujh kaun si dosti karni hai?" I chose not to respond to Aslam's remark.

Someone in Tehran looks like me

A week later, I had to meet up with a group of artists from Tehran. In order to break the ice, I chose to greet them in Persian. It was a mistake for artist Shiva Sanjari and her friends continued speaking to me in Persian. I was perplexed. Did they not speak English? The group's coordinator, Rajan Fulari stepped forward and introduced me to Shiva. That a Shia Muslim girl from one of the most orthodox Islamic states in the world would share her name with the Great Hindu God of Destuction, amused me. Shiva apologised for speaking to me in Persian earlier. "You look so much like an Iranian that we thought you'd speak Persian. We have a friend in Tehran who looks exactly like you."

You look like a Jew. You should convert

I found myself sitting in the pews of the prayer hall, Magen Hassimdin at Agripada. I had covered my head with a dupatta as directed by Benjamin Isaac, the director of ORT India, the largest and most active Jewish organisation in Mumbai. Mr Isaac had helped me fix an interview with the trustees of the synagogue (the most active one in South Mumbai) and arranged for me (a non-Jew) to participate in the synagogue's activities on Saturday, the day of the Sabbath. As the rabbi read out the scrolls in Hebrew, I looked over to the woman on my right who had the Marathi translations. She gave me her book. I gasped. After a while, I saw a couple of women yawning. There was still an hour to go. The proceedings were elaborate. While the men downstairs were actively participating in them, women didn't have much to do but watch.

The woman on my right, whose name is Rachael, looked at me and asked, "Which country?" What did mean by that?

Rachael asked, "When did you come to India?"

I said, "I am Indian. I've lived in Mumbai for a decade."

"Which synagogue do you go to?"

"This is my first visit."

"Are you a Jew?"


"Jewish girls are very virtuous. Not like the rest."

I smiled.

"My son married a Bengali Hindu. Their religion is so liberal. They worship so many Gods. He should have married a Jew. We could have all gone to the synagogue together. They will bring their child up as Hindu. It's so unfortunate. There are few Jews left in Mumbai. Only 5,000."

I was silent.

Rachael asked, "What are you?"

"Bengali Hindu."

The expression on her face is something I can't forget. It was more of astonishment than guilt.

Rachael then said, "You look like Jew. You should convert into Judaism. It will do you a lot of good. Our girls are virtuous."

Parsi for sure

More often than not, I've been mistaken for a Parsi in Mumbai. My curly hair, fair complexion, aquiline nose and geeky glasses apparently go well with my nickname, Bawi. But to be mistaken for a Parsi by senior members of the Bombay Parsi Punchayet, the chief and the richest Zoroastrian organisation in the world took me by surprise. I had to try really hard to convince them that none of my ancestors were Parsis.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

tumhi bangla achi, taaro var gujarati chhe, tu paarsi jevi dekhaye chhe, people think you're persian, pakistani and bangladeshi... what is this sarkar?? go work for the FBI or something, they need agents who can blend in... although your hair would make you stand out a mile away!!