In many ways there are several things that are “stereotypically Indian” about me and my life. Are my parents are doctors? Check. Multiple statues of Ganpati Bapa in my house? Check. A permeating waft of garlic, cumin and coriander in half my lounging clothes? Probably, I wouldn’t know, I’m immune to the difference.
Having said that, I have still grown up in the UK and there will always be things about me which are westernised i.e. the way my accent has a strong Essex twang to it (till I say words like bhaaji or mind blasting). Or my obsession with mashed potato...not sure if I can count that one… The point is, I struggle with who I am and where I really belong because I don’t completely relate to a particular group of people.
The most awkward question I constantly get asked is “where are you from”, it sends me into a maths exam overthinking mode – are they asking where I hail from or more my postcode? Or maybe they just don’t think I’m from the same planet as them. But the weirdest part is when I get asked this when I am IN India on holiday. It makes me feel almost slightly unwelcome because it’s assumed I’m not from there. It’s assumed I’m foreign before I say a word. But being born in Mumbai and growing up in the UK gives rise to a whole different type of second generation Indian; and one that I don’t often read about.
I feel unsettled about my identity more when I go to India for holidays (which is really just meeting lots of family friends), which frustrates me because I think to myself “I’m just like you”, but I’m not and I wish I was. In many ways I was brought up like I was growing up in India. Every morning without fail I would have to sing a 9-minute long prayer in Sanskrit IN key while playing the harmonium and that’s just the start of it. But this doesn’t cover the fact that when I speak in Hindi or Marathi I always do the following without fail:
I mix up ALL of my genders; in fact I’m going to champion a completely unisex version of Marathi just so I can pretend I can speak it properly.
I throw in English words, to date I still have no idea what giraffe is in Marathi or Hindi.
I reach “the wall” and just continue the conversation in English with a thick Indian accent. An unwavering reflex I have had to develop otherwise my aaji (grandma) will have no clue what I’m saying.
The final thing I do (which is the most annoying) is that when I am actually speaking it well I feel like I’m a tiger at a circus performing a trick because it’s something so fantastic that people LOVE to compliment you on it. As if it’s so incredibly…rare I guess.
I compensate this feeling by being proud of everything Indian about my identity when I am home, when I’m with my friends, on the tube etc. I secretly love it when Punjabi MC comes on at a bar and I attempt the most hideously uncoordinated bhangra dance. I especially love that feeling of dressing up for Diwali completely decked out in every colour possible and drenched in jewellery; as if I was on my way to the Swiss Alps to shoot my very own music video. This pride however is a very carefully formulated shield that covers the fact that I am still searching for a sense of complete and resolute sense of belonging.
Feeling proud isn’t necessarily the same as feeling like I belong and sometimes I wonder how it would have been if I stayed in India and grew up there or if I had second generation Indian parents here who brought me up in a more westernised way. What would my identity be then? Would I even be the same person that I am now?
Thinking about all of this makes me realise how my identity is so strongly influenced about my culture, but in a way the older I get the more I feel like it helps me to differentiate myself from others in a positive way. I used to get so angry that I had to stay in traditional clothes at family parties while my friends were allowed to wear jeans and t-shirts, and I used snap at my dad for testing me about all of the characters in Mahabharat during car journeys that lasted more than 10 minutes. I used to say “Baba! How is any of this important when I don’t even live in India!” and he would always say the same thing, “You won’t understand now but you will understand 20 years from now” and he was right.
I feel a growing sense of need to stay true to myself and to my family background rather than a “dread” of what I need to know about my people, and I am lucky to have such a complicated and beautiful heritage. I’m also proud however to be brought up in a country so different to where I was born, I won’t discount that and I would never want to.
The problem is when I’ve carved out this idea of having uniqueness about being a second generation Indian who isn’t quite a second generation Indian; I feel completely alone. Alone in my thinking, that has to date never been completely understood by either side of my identity and it makes me wonder if that will ever change unless I change.
I get this feeling that all of my unanswered questions will be answered after another 20 years so I am hoping that by the time I get to 90 I will have understood the entire cosmos that is my identity. Till then however I think it is going to be a constant struggle in my head of what my identity is and where I feel like I belong.
Natasha is a digital marketer based in London and is passionately interested in Indian culture and figuring out how it applies to the modern Asian woman. When she’s not working she cooks bhindi, sings hindi songs and trolls her brother.
You can find her on instagram @natashapatwardhan