Milind Mohite hung grimly from the jam-packed compartment of the 8.05 Ghatkopar local, one hand clutching his briefcase while the other gripped tightly the top of the doorway. This was how he made the daily trip to his office in downtown Mumbai, clinging on for dear life as the crowd heaved and pushed inside the compartment. But his face was drawn and pinched and his brow furrowed for another reason. For Milind was thinking of what Sachin Tendulkar had said a few days ago about his being an Indian first and a Maharashtrian afterwards. Was he, Milind Mohite, an Indian or a Maharashtrian? Or was he a Mumbaikar first? Maybe, since he lived in the suburb of Ghatkopar (East), he was a Ghatkoparite (Eastern) first? Or could it be that because he lived in the region of Ghatkopar called 60-Foot Road, his primary identity was that of a 60-foot Roadite and therefore a sworn enemy of the 90-Foot Roadites who lived in the evil part of Ghatkopar? These thoughts made Milind’s head spin as the train rattled on.
At his destination, Milind grunted with satisfaction. He always grunted with satisfaction here, ever since the station’s name had been changed from Victoria Terminus to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. A true Maratha name, he thought. But that opened up another possibility — was he a Maratha first? These thoughts haunted him at work, so that he missed adding up an entire page of figures. But when his boss bawled at him, he smiled quietly to himself, for what did it matter, was he not being scolded by another Maratha? He then had vada pav for lunch, a true Mumbai snack, carefully avoiding the wicked South Indian idli vada, or the depraved Bombay duck.
But vada pav always gave him gas, so it was a grumpy Milind who took the train back home in the evening. Naturally, the sight of the notices in English and Hindi warning him not to pull the chain made him even more furious. Worse, he caught himself admiring the woman sitting opposite, and averted his eyes just in time. Good God, he shuddered, she looks North Indian. And that brought back the worries about his identity, on which he continued to brood.
It wasn’t just Milind who fretted about identity — all over Mumbai, in millions of homes, men and women sat rapt in thought or sighed despondently, wondering who they were instead of watching TV. In fact, all over India there was a wailing and a gnashing of teeth as people were torn between their many identities. In Nagaland, Tony Chakhesang spent his days wondering whether he was a Chakhesang or a Christian or a Naga first. In Tamil Nadu, thousands couldn’t sleep at night trying to decide whether they were Tamils or Dravidians or Rajnikanth fans. Gujjars desperately wanted to know whether they were scheduled castes or not.
In Delhi, models wept with frustration at not knowing whether they were fat women trying to become thin or thin women who had become fat. Doctors struggled to understand whether they were followers of Mammon or Hippocrates. Politicians strained their brains trying to figure out whether they were leaders or statesmen or just plain vile.
Perhaps the way out is provided by the Bengalis. They have no identity problem, knowing fully well they are the proud heirs of a long line of illustrious Bengalis which include Tagore, Subhas Bose, Karl Marx, Ho Chi Minh, T.S. Eliot, Pele, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.
Manas Chakravarty is Consulting Editor, Mint
The views expressed by the author are personal