July 6, 2002

meeting my (asian) neighbours in europe

i remember as a child, growing very close to the 10 or 12 cousins (both paternal and maternal) around me. what is most unique among us cousins is perhaps what also binds us all together: our roots.

born to mothers coming from the same iyengar family, our fathers belong to the different corners in india…shoranur (kerala), surendranagar (gujarat), baadmer (rajasthan) and tripunithura (ernakulam). of course, the circle was almost complete with my mama (mother’s brother) marrying someone from aamchi mumbai (in maharashtra) where most of us grew up. little wonder then, that my father lovingly teases my granny by calling her bharat mata (mother india), and a small joke that always played in my head when i thought of our rather nationally-integrated family… was the regret that my grandmother did not have another child, to cover the eastern part of the country.

from such diversity and strong roots comes a background culture-rich and emotionally bound, be it tradition, food, issues, relations (that’s how praveen and i met, but i’ll save the story for another journal entry), and so on. and the noise that our happy families create when we get-together…i guess i’ll leave it to your imagination. of course, there are the little sparks among the elders sometimes, but then, what is life without fireworks, right?

life goes on though, children grow up, and then they leave. for further education, for jobs, or after marriage with their partners. being one of the eight first-generation-children of this family and from here, i can almost see the domino-effect to unfold over the years. with us cousins to help by choosing our own spouses, we are on our way to house a mini-india. my paternal cousin and i are malayalees for example; while my bhabhi (brother’s wife) is of punjabi origin, but i am married to a tamilian, and his cousin recently married a maharashtrian…as for the rest of my unwed brothers and sisters,deepu, prem, preeti, meenu, guddu, hemu and jyoti i’d rather wait for their wedding cards to be despatched, before i risk an early death-by-murder by announcing the geographical territories they’re likely to conquer 😉

touch wood. i can see that the farther we go, the more attached we are to each other, and to our roots. perhaps this is a common feature in most families in 21st-century india. if not, perhaps it should be encouraged. perhaps that’s why we are unable to decide whether we should be un-comfortably numb (excuse the cliche), or acutely alert and over-reactive to the tensions at the borders. because our families have taught us to be open-minded enough to learn what’s good for us, and that love knows no borders, or boundaries…

in a city as culturally diverse as london, i cannot help being curious about every new community i see. i love the intense culture-pots of leicester square, camden market and covent garden. praveen often is surprised at how easily (and how much!) i can talk to a stranger. in fact, on one such occasion (before our easter-break in amsterdam), i was happily engaged in conversation with a gentleman from n ireland, and as we were discussing some of the comparable cultural traits of our homelands, the visa office i was to report to, closed down for the day!

sometimes i get so engrossed in the conversation that i even forget to ask where the person comes from. like the day i was at southall. this rather populated town is a major conglomeration of asians, especially south-indians, punjabis and sri lankans. not suprisingly, you will come across every personality triat that you would accept as ‘typically’ indian, as easily you will find every indian ingredient in any of the shops.

honking on the streets, not giving way to screaming police cars or the ambulance, loud impolite language, and suspicious don’t-you-get-in-my-way glances from the people here make southall almost distinctly detached from its other very ‘propah’ united kingdom cities.

it is in one such asian-owned unisex beauty parlour that i grabbed the opportunity to display my bridal-mehandi design skills on a freelance basis, and was one saturday applying mehandi to my first ‘client’. very tall and beautiful, i knew she was asian rightaway. for the 45 minutes that the design flowed from the mehandi cone on to her fair palms, our conversation ranged from one topic to another, with brief intervals of playful babytalk with her 18-month-daughter.

i realised how comfortable i was talking to her, and how common threads between two entirely different communities brought them so close it was hard to tell the difference. i owed it then at that moment to my upbringing, and the diversity of cultures i was exposed to from a young age.

perhaps you too would understand why, if you, like the untainted henna in my design-cone, brought joy to the life of a woman…from neighbouring pakistan.

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