‘Are You a Delhi Girl? Or a Tamilian?’

Home. What is home? The dictionary would give you a hundred different meanings, the literal and the metaphorical. For me, home is a place where I discovered myself – and I am about to tell you how that happened.

I was born in a Tamil household but never felt Tamilian, at least in my outside world. In 2005, we moved to Delhi and it was my seventh birthday the day we settled in our new home. Little did I know I would be stuck here for the next 15 years, professionally getting trained on how to live a dual life.

Everything around me influenced my cross-cultural identity. Bharatanatyam and Carnatic classes soon became routine on a land foreign to both the art forms. Breakfast was the usual idli sambar but it was very embarrassing to take it as lunch to school. So Amma changed sambar for chole. I was the only girl who wore two pigtails to school. Till Class 5, it was cute, but once you reach Class 6, everyone acquires this faux-cool vibe and therefore, my pigtails didn’t suit them. I started hiding the coconut oil bottle on Amma’s necessity shelf because who wants to go to school smelling like a coconut farm?

I never understood my family’s obsession with long hair. The same family that would take me every two weeks to the ladies’ parlour to maintain that horrendous ‘mushroom’ cut till I was eight, suddenly scorned at the mention of a haircut at the age of 12. How hypocritical? Despite all these diktats, I was allowed to be a kid. Play like a kid, sing like a kid; just exist as one.

Everything took an ugly turn, restriction-wise, when I hit puberty.

The “cleansing” ritual felt like they were rinsing me to enter a prison called womanhood. The play stopped, the singing stopped. The kid was gone. The only silver lining was that Amma let go of the pigtails.

With puberty came a new set of rules. My chores increased. My clothes became longer, thicker. The grooming and conditioning of a well-bred “homely” Tamil girl had commenced. And as someone who was vocal by nature, I couldn’t take it in. I never understood the purpose of it all as I  was used to a liberal atmosphere and there were no boundaries outside home.

My friends grew tired of waiting for me everyday to come out to play. I grew tired of coming up with excuses. I am pretty sure they thought there was perpetually something wrong with my health because god knows how many fake doctor’s appointments I had to make up. How could a 15-year-old own up to the fact that her parents find it wildly inappropriate for a young teenager to play with her friends while all her cool friends are hanging out everyday? The shame consumed me.

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All the shame and guilt turned into remorse and rebellion. I set my mind to the fact that by hook or by crook, I would get out of this place called home. The duality of my reality inside my home and outside it influenced me to set out on a journey to find my own identity. And guess where it led me.

Tamil Nadu, the birthplace of tradition.

Amma and Appa had no problem in sending me here. They thought it would be the perfect four years of dread-worthy engineering as I would get accustomed to the cultures of our motherland. Little did they know that SRM (engineering college) was the last place where those cultures actually held value. People came from all over. There was no sight of people sticking to a singular cultural identity tag except being “cool”. The first day of college I met a friend, Pradyuman, a fellow classmate. Our first conversation is still fresh in my mind.

“Where are you from?” he asked

“I am from Delhi,” I answered.

“No way,” he exclaimed.

“Why?” I enquired, puzzled.

“You don’t look like a Delhi girl,” he smirked.

Even if I wanted to, I could never look like one. When I asked what he meant by a ‘Delhi girl’, he said: “They are cool. They talk to boys. They smoke and drink. You do none of that.”

Two years later I did become a ‘Delhi girl’.

Everything from my food habits to clothing choices changed drastically. I could finally wear shorts but felt too nervous to step out of the hostel wearing them. I was the pseudo-Tamil girl who never wore the traditional attire of kurta-leggings expected of me.

I remember in my third year, one of my teachers told me she would cut marks in my internals because she saw me talking to a group of boys on campus. The digital systems teacher gave me a moral lecture on how I was disrespecting the Tamil culture by mingling with boys and sharing a bench with them in class.

By the time I finished engineering, the thick skin helped me keep it all out. Amma and Appa were convinced nothing would bring me to the subdued Tamil girl side of the aisle and that they would have to deal with my rebellion for the rest of their lives.

I grew to hate that typical question: “Where are you from?” I hated the boundaries I had to live within, which were enclosed by pivotal phrases “you are not Tamilian enough” and “you are not Dilliwali enough.”

After years of struggle and internal battle, I just realised it doesn’t matter. Identity is a device that can hold you down to one particular sense of belonging, but what if you don’t want it? What if you want to be free of its shackles?

Just do it. Shed it. The world is your oyster.

Rajalakshmi Ravichandram is a student journalist at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

Featured image credit: Flickr