“My name’s Aadityan, and I’m from Abu Dhabi, you know, which is right next to Dubai?”
The teacher had reached midway through the students when my friend introduced himself. Like me, he was an NRI who had come to study at one of the premier institutes of the country, only that he found his new surroundings stranger than I did because he came from an international school. The teacher wound her way along the rest of the students and finally reached me.
“I’m Sharon Sabu. I’m from Kerala, but I did my schooling in Qatar.”
Later in the day, I bumped into him. We made small talk until I asked him why he liked to say that he was from Abu Dhabi rather than Chennai, his hometown.
“Because Abu Dhabi is where I spent, like, my whole life.”
“But you’re not a citizen of the UAE.”
“Doesn’t matter. It’s the place I call home.”
I rolled my eyes and walked away. Years of hearing praises about the beauty of Kottayam, my hometown, the famous fish curry which was synonymous with Kottayam itself and how it was a model town for the rest of the country to follow had made me proud, patriotic even to claim to be one of its children. I spoke our dialect of Malayalam, loved our cuisine and always considered myself to be a true Kottayam achayati at heart. But something that Aadithyan said, something that slipped unknowingly through his words or gestures, between the lines, kept tugging at the back of my head, dominating my thoughts whenever I sat thinking. Slowly, I slipped into the realization that I was never truly connected to my place like the others there, that the taste of kappa and uppumanga on my tongue was tainted by the flavours of the regions I grew up in and of the different people who lived there. The image of a young girl who hated Kerala because the heat and the mosquitoes irritated her and because the fish in the fish curry was full of bone tiptoed in from the back if the memory hall, a girl caught in an identity crisis, trying to fit into what everyone told her was her own. And she eventually did, growing to love what her people loved, to nod in approval at what her people approved of, and to shake heads at those they disapproved of. But somewhere in the middle, she saw her own voice shrink and quieten down, like a docile wife in front of her loud, over-bearing husband, and slowly dissipate into nothingness, until only a squeak of it could be heard every now and then. Even now, as I tried to summon that voice, coaxing it to speak up and stand for itself, it lay there, timid and suppressed, shutting out all the rays of love and affection that wanted to hear it out. However, my identity was something that was intrinsically linked to Kottayam, intrinsically and irrevocably and nothing, absolutely nothing could alter that connection I shared with my roots. Even if I didn’t wander through the streets of Kottayam, every nook and corner familiar to me, or carry a memory at every place I passed by, the smell of Kottayam was enough to evoke a thousand beautiful pictures in my head all at once, and the poetry flowing eloquently through its air was enough to move me to tears.
The next teacher, who had again started the cycle of intros, looked at me, waiting for me to speak.
“Well, I’m Sharon Sabu, and I’m from Kottayam, in Kerala.”