Like everyone else, I have many identities. But there is one that I love to flaunt. Of being a Chitrapur Saraswat. I cannot advance a single convincing reason why, except that it gives me the somewhat harmless and naïve pleasure of seeming exclusive. The census of the community taken in 2001 says that we are all of 22,000 in the whole wide world, i.e. much less than the Parsis. We are, I have been assured, not quite as endangered as the Veddas, Jarawas or the Todas. Nevertheless, a micro minority in a country of considerably more than a billion. The very idea of being part of such a tiny and exclusive community gives me a great high. They have their own home language; one of the many dialects of Konkani. To make the Konkani we speak specially exclusive, we dispense with the term Konkani and call it ‘our language’ or ‘our tongue’. Nothing could be more exclusive than that.
Try as I might, I have not yet found any historical records that tell me where the community originated from. One thing is clear. They are not originally from where they settled; be it the two (now three) coastal districts of Karnataka or even from Goa. A community that has foregrounded the value of education for several centuries has a home language without a script. There are some people of the older generation (older than me, that is) who believe that the community is part of the great diaspora from Kashmir, having started more than a millennium ago; families travelling down the riverine plains and valleys into the heartland of India and then across peninsular to the west coast before finally settling in Goa. The Portuguese invasion and colonisation of Goa brought with it the threat of conversion that made them migrate once again down the coast into North and South Kanara districts where they finally settled. This latter part is historically known. The earlier part is largely apocryphal.
Like all communities, the Chitrapur Saraswats have given themselves mythic backstories of migrations full of divine miracles and serendipitous discoveries. Much of the community has now moved out of the villages whose names they carry. Dotted on the countryside in the three districts are villages that are familiar Chitrapur surnames; Padukone, Kumta, Basrur, Mulki, Honavar, Hattiangadi, Nagarkatti, Karnad and of course Benegal.
My parents were born and educated in South Kanara; my father from Udupi and mother from Basrur. After their marriage they settled in the then princely state of Hyderabad where they raised their family. At that time there were not more than three other families belonging to their community in all of the Nizam’s State of Hyderabad. For all practical purposes they became Hyderabadis.
They learnt the two locally used languages for everyday communication outside the home, while within the family they spoke in Konkani. Since both of them had learnt to write in Kannada they used the script to write Konkani as well, particularly to different members of the extended family. I never knew them to feel a longing for the place they had migrated from. If there was any kind of nostalgia or an emotional tug of the place they had removed themselves from was to be seen in my maternal grandmother who had been widowed at a very young age, and had since moved in with us.
The songs she sang and the stories she told us when we were children suddenly made us aware that we were from somewhere other than where we were born. This sense of being part of, yet out of it, has in some unexplained sense remained with me.
The world outside my home had given me an identity of a Hyderabadi. The Telangana Telugu and the Dakkni Urdu spoken there along with ‘Convent English’ helped to integrate one into the several layers of Hyderabad society. Even now 50 years after having left Hyderabad, visiting it brings a sudden rush of emotion.
Mumbai actually has been my home for 50 years. When I came here it had pretensions to being a world city. In recent years, a reductionist vision has been working hard to make it a provincial town. Having lived here for most part of my life, I have never felt a stranger here. Yet there are so many people here who like me carry within themselves, hidden from general view, identities that are special to themselves with their dialects and languages, much like ‘our language’ with a mythic mindscape of its own, full of real and imagined migrations, carrying narratives of somewhere else.
To be urban is perhaps to be in a state of perpetual exile.