Oh, Coconuts!


ImageBefore coming to India, I had begun to question my identity. I had always taken for granted that I was British. I love hot buttered scones and a cup of tea with only a drop of milk. I loved Bob Holness on Blockbusters. I know nothing of Bhangra and one of my favourite indulgences is a bacon ‘sarnie’. But I really started to question my place in my beloved Britain when I went to Devon to learn how to teach. I was a little brown raisin in a sea of creamy, Devonshire rice pudding! I was suddenly exotic and people were taken aback when my accent was not dripping with the masala laden twang of the East Indies. I was asked to give talks and hold assemblies about racism and equality and I became quite a celebrity in little old Barnstaple. I quickly got over that and moved back to Coventry, back to safety. I got a job and started living my life again where I was just the normal teacher who lived next door until one day, as my mother brought in the wheely bin, she was shouted at from across the street. “Go home, you Pakis!” “Go back to where you came from!” I was livid and in shock! My mother just shrugged her shoulders, took the bin around the back and said, “It’s nothing, these things happen!”

But that had never happened before! Not to me! Racism was a myth. People just needed to get to know us! However, by this time, things had started to change in Britain, the Twin Towers incident helped fuel lots of distrust. Immigration policy, with open European borders helped the BNP and EDL gain support. We, with our brown faces, our desire to succeed and good work ethic were becoming a blight on the face of fair Britannia. I must stress this is not the majority view in the UK, but it was starting to certainly feel that way.

So who am I? What am I? British Indian, Indian British, Indian or British? Or an infinite combination of these four possibilities?

To some here, in Kolkata, I’m ‘brown on the outside and white on the inside’ This is an actual quote from a friend’s husband. In the UK that would make me a coconut! But I prefer to think of myself as brown on the outside, with lots of different colours on the inside, again I’m quoting my friend’s learned husband here, ‘a coconut gone really bad!’ Depending on my mood, I may prefer a little Rabindra Sangeet, or a little daal chawal (lentils and rice) or I may prefer pasta with lots of Parmesan cheese whilst listening to some Adele. One day I may prefer to wear a kurti with my jeans and for social gatherings I think a sari looks elegant, although a pain to tie. Admittedly I’m more comfortable in ‘sweats’ as they say in the US and I prefer to talk in English. I eat rice and chapatti with my hands and I cry unashamedly at a Karan Johar Bollywood extravaganza but my point is, no one is as simple to define in a single sentence. To some I’m just a ‘Paki’, to others I’m a coconut and to those who know me best, I’m a just a person who happens to be a product of her time.

What I love about Kolkata is its readiness to accept and nod knowingly at whatever combination of nationalities, languages, behaviour traits you may possess. Although, theoretically, India and Kolkata have had centuries to get used to people like us. Migration is not a new thing. People don’t bat an eyelid when I tell them my husband speaks Telugu and my Bengali is not brilliant. What’s great is, that no one needs an explanation about where Telugu is spoken or why my Bengali is not great! Everyone knows or can guess! Everyone speaks English or Hindi and we get by. We’ve made friends quickly and our children are happy. I still miss a proper cuppa, (ironically, we’re only a couple hours away from Darjeeling!) but I’m sure I’ll find one if I look properly. We’ve slotted in quite well, I’d say. No one’s asking me to go home; as far as they’re concerned, I think they think, I am home.