If you split my life into two halves on the basis of my stay at a place, the story ends this year. While the second half is spread over various villages, towns, and cities across states spanning the prime directions of the vast spread of the country, the initial half is only about my hometown. The years of birth and growth. Depending upon the person, setting and status, in any interaction sooner or later, you are asked: 'Where are you from?', as in 'What is your hometown?' And the answer is easy if you were from any of the metros or other popular destinations like Darjeeling or Timbaktu. You could just say that; and the conversation moves on to the next Q&A. But when you are from the place where I am from, you think for a moment, you take some time to give a reply.
Though it is one of the questions that is as factual as fact can get, still a few seconds are a necessity to phrase my reply. That has been the case for the many, many years. Especially, when the other person is from any of the far away places like Delhi or Dimapur, you really try hard to provide an answer that is not going to invite any confused looks, or any answer that is not going to cause you any embarrassment of repeating the name over and over, or explaining the way it is supposed to be pronounced and avoid getting irritated. And an answer that is going to directly take both of you to the next topic, and take forward the talk. So, I say, unconvincingly with a sense of despair, '..from near Kanyakumari..near Madurai...' 'I see, what else going on..', and the conversation continues. Instead of describing the location of my town on the map like I did, had I dared to give the precise reply, invariably I would have invited any of these: 'What? Come again..' (with a naturally puzzled look), 'Oh.. I have heard of such a place..' (in a sympathetic tone), 'Yes, yes, it is the place with the tallest temple tower in South Asia.' (with an air of command, though it was plainly incorrect). Then I had to spend some precious minutes in explaining the history, demography, politics, science and technology, and socioeconomic attributes of my town. I also try to mention about the greatest personalities (including myself, yes) from my town, in case it rang a bell. And by the time I am done - the person is no longer there.
It goes like this: It is one of the few districts, probably among the handful of districts of India that can boast of having everything - a mountain range, a naval base, a near-perennial river, an enviable wildlife sanctuary, a controversial nuclear plant, and also a decently long coastline. I also supplement with the etymology of my place's name, the deep-rooted mythology, the notorious 'violent' image of the district, the recent history spanning 230+ years including the importance of missionary schools and the district medical college hospital that caters to the post-mortem needs of every dead man and dead woman within a radius of 100 km. The highlight was always the revolutionary patriotism that troubled the British around the World War I years, and the unparalleled wheat halwa that is best when served hot. But again, depending on the mental makeup of the listener, I also cut out most of it, just telling myself, 'What is the point in saying all this to someone who thinks even a Mallu is a Madrasi..?' Just, 'Down south' would suffice for such people. Let them be deprived of the treasure of knowledge. There was also a bulky class of people who would not believe in 'dosai'; to them what mattered was 'dosa'. Yuck. I think you see my point; such friends need no real answer. The cocoon is not be disturbed.
So, this time it was one more setting - a business couple from the very northern reaches of the country, well-educated, living in Bangalore. Well, education did not necessarily mean that they were taught where I was from. So, as a part of the usual routine: 'Where are you from?'. 'Hmm.. from near Kanyakumari..', they did not seem convinced, so I had to continue reluctantly in a manner that I expected would bore them to death, '...on the highway between Madurai and Kanyakumari'. Then something happened. You often hear of life changing experience, like those of the Olympic medal winners. But that moment I went through a life changing, life jolting experience. Firstly, the gentleman and also the lady, both were aware of the fact that my hometown existed on the map. I was clean bowled right in the first ball. To my utter joy they could even get the pronunciation right. And, more surprisingly - the lady's sister actually was living in my town. And it does not end there. My house is located in one of the corners of the town - and the sister lived within some 4 kms from my house. It was as close as it could get, unless my parents decide to rent our house to the sister. The sister was married to a family, a Tamil family, down there. It was so surreal. Here is someone, from a very far land, who did not just know my place, but even had a close relative actually living there. These people could pronounce the name right. The man was even familiar with the kind of place it was, and handed out a few interesting aspects about my town which even I was not aware of. I was surprised to know one of the business families there had renovated its kitchen at a cost of around Rs.30 lakhs. Anyway, dosai and idli aside, more than anything else, it was for the first time in about two decades I have come across someone with roots near the Indo-Pak border, who was aware of my place, and who also could pronounce the name correctly. If that was not a life changing experience, what else was? Finding Neverland? The experience made me reorient my conversation strategy.
The very next day. Usually you come across a 'new' person in your life, roughly once in 3-4 days, unless you are a politician or a pediatrician. It was one of those days, and it was one of those auto-pilot warm-up talks.
'Sir, where are you from?'