What My Personal Family History of Migration Taught Me About Identity

On a recent visit to Kolkata for a passport application appointment, I struck up a conversation with my cab driver, Dharmendra. When I told him I was from Madhya Pradesh, he warmed up to me instantly, telling me he was from my home state’s Chambal region. I was no longer just a passenger for him. He started telling me about his life. He used to be a truck driver before moving to Kolkata, driving between Delhi and Mumbai via Morena, Bhopal, Amravati, Akola, Jalgaon and Betul. The last one is a small town in southern Madhya Pradesh, and my family’s home for the last several decades.

I did not expect to find a someone in Kolkata who’d know my small hometown, yet for those 15 odd minutes, we forged a connection. It also got me thinking about my identity.

A few years ago, like most teenagers, I found myself stuck with a kind of identity crisis. One fine day I decided that I should know more about my family’s history of migration. There were a few possible sources to get such information.

In my native village, a ‘bhaat’ visits all the families belonging to my sub-caste in that region every four to five years. He is the person who maintains a well-organised family-tree for each of the families.

My second source was all the stories, folklores and legends popular among the elders. I had to be cautious in how much I believed all of these legends, but they did come in handy for filling some parts of this historical puzzle.

Lastly, I turned to formal sources like scholars and historians – and fortunately found some books by historians Anuj Dhar, K.S. Lal and others, along with the Anthropological Survey of India’s archives.

The following is the most convincing personal history I could put together with these resources.

Sometime in the mid-17th century in Mewar, Rajasthan, my ancestors fled for their lives from the scene of a battle. Since fleeing the battlefield was considered a sin for Kshatriyas, they couldn’t return to their native place. So they went south of the Narmada and Shivaji gave them refuge, possibly on the condition that they would join his army. And so my ancestors settled there.

At some point, the Maratha kings lost to the British army and my ancestors had to find occupations other than warfare. They got divided into groups according to their new occupations, and the group of which I’m directly descendent from settled around Lonar ;ake in Buldhana, Maharashtra. Lonar is a salt-water lake and my ancestors started making salt alongwith agricultural cultivation. In search of more fertile lands, the tillers among them moved to Akola district, then to Amravati and finally to Betul.

Putting together this story unsettled me. As the bhaat had told me, our Kuldevi’s temple is in Mehsana, which is not far from Mewar. So did this mean that I belonged to Rajasthan? Or am I Maharashtran since we adopted Maratha culture? Or do I belong to Madhya Pradesh – the place where we have been living for decades now? What exactly is my identity?

This question did haunt me for quite some time. Slowly it dawned upon me that one can never truly understand the world around him unless he sheds all his identities. A mainland Indian can never understand the plight of a Kashmiri unless he stops identifying himself as an Indian and taking pride in it. A straight male can never understand the struggle of being gay in India unless he stops identifying as a straight male and taking pride in it.

I eventually got my passport – the very piece of paper which the state considers to be the most authentic document of one’s identity, and which allows us temporary migration to foreign lands. But my history tells me migration didn’t always require a passport or a visa or any kind of state-recognised identity. Maybe we’d all do better if we could shed our identities.

Lokesh Deshmukh is a 23-year-old student at IIT, Kharagpur.

Featured image credit: Ethan Weil/Unsplash