Is identity for real? Introspection into life through places and moments written by Prashanti Sharma
Prashanti, by profession, is a researcher at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). Academically grown from a geographer to an earth-observation analyst, she prefers to have a bird-eye view of situations yet strives to be grounded to the ‘simplest of earth’ details. Born and raised in the foothills of the eastern Himalayas, her love for mountains, duars and plains motivates her work and life. She describes herself as a ‘passionate thinker’ about environment, culture and spirituality. Her experiences of moving to different places with an identity lesser known by others has made her journey intriguing and fun!
Many a times when people ask me to introduce myself, I often pause and think on what exactly should be a brief, concise yet descriptive introduction about me and my cultural background. It can never be explained in a few sentences. Explaining my identity is like explaining the experiences of a lifetime. Coming back to reality and chuckling over the fact that I have taken way too much time to respond I just say, “Hi. I am Prashanti”. Growing up in an Indian Gorkha family who takes pride in serving the nation through their bravery, simplicity and generosity, I always viewed the world through a rose-coloured glass. Speaking Nepali at home and with relatives and having friends from various cultural background seemed normal as any other Indian. I believe, my city Siliguri, situated in the foothills of the majestic Himalayas, is one of the small yet important cultural melting pots in the country with people belonging to various communities and languages. This culture is intertwined in the city’s food, market, landscape and most importantly its people.
In a city with so much diversity, losing oneself is easy and trying to fit in is inevitable, especially during adolescence. This does lead to multiple questioning of self-worth and self-identity. At times, I struggled to face myself and started to take offense in situations I could not fight back. “Are you from Nepal?” and “You don’t look like a Nepali” are phrases I don’t stop hearing even today. Moving to the bigger city, Calcutta, for my further studies I encountered many such situations which I would sheepishly smile about but deep down in my heart, it affected me. In the city of joy, I learnt a lot of Bengali, loved the food and made lots of friends, yet something was still missing something. My true identity which I questioned as a school goer remains unanswered. In-between taking a lot of pride as a ‘Nepali speaking’ Indian and always tried to explain my heritage to others, I was being consumed somewhere.
Moving further south to Pune for my masters, I maintained my identity as Indian Gorkha, and was often questioned about moving from Nepal to India (which was definitely not true in my case). I explained to people about my ethnic Indian Gorkha community who are very much part of India and our ancestors who have settled across North east India and North Bengal from times immemorial. Yes, it was exhausting but I didn’t give up. Every time someone cracked a stereotypical, insensitive joke, I mustered up enough courage to I make them feel that they are wrong. I realized it was easy to be part of the gang but difficult to stand alone. I decided to stand alone, be part of genuine people than to be part of the herd.
Fast forward to the time when I moved to Nepal, a different country for work, a country where my mother tongue was spoken by majority. Land of mountains, full of serenity and warm people who made me feel at home. The language and culture was similar but the struggles were different than in India. Here I was seen as an Indian. More ‘Indian’ than what I have felt back home. Here the explanations were different though the identity was the same. Telling people where I was from immediately made them questioned how I could speak Nepali. “You speak Nepali fluently for an Indian”, “You still speak Nepali back at home in India?”….the questions where reversed.
I wondered how the change in geographic region can evoke different struggles of the same identity in a new dimension or perspective. In Nepal I realized the importance of the word “Indian” before the word “Gorkha”. I proudly spoke about variety of Indian cuisines, dances, landscape and the other things I take pride in being an Indian Gorkha which included our proud heritage, our hills, our plains and mountains. This has given me a new perspective to the way I see things about my cultural identity. I feel reassured, truly believe in it and most importantly encouraged to answer the questions patiently.
Perhaps, identity is sometimes subjective to places you go. Though, you continue to identify to the same group of culture you are born to throughout your life, your struggles tends to change depending on your circumstances around you. Through so many years of being at different places and meeting different people I realized the importance and implications of my cultural identity. I realized it gives me intellectual and spiritual distinction from others. I gives me wings rather being bogged down by pressures of being left out. It makes me proud.
Erik Erikson said “In the social jungle of human existence, there is no feeling of being alive without a sense of identity.”
Identity makes us unique and I believe a party with unique people is always fun to be at!
As mentioned earlier, Prashanti is presently a professional researcher at International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). She can be contacted at email@example.com