i wrote this essay several months ago with the intention of entering a writing contest in a daily broadsheet. i did send it as an entry but i think it wasn't as good as i thought this was so it wasn't published. i ended up buying every sunday edition of the broadsheet for about three months hoping that it will be that issue that i will see this essay on print. since it didn't get published there, i thought, well there's always a different platform and what very convenient platform than my blog.
THE INDIA INSIDE OF ME
By Lalimarie D. Bhagwani
As I am once again preparing for another foreign trip, I am once again reminded of how my surname always merit me a second look or sometimes the more extreme grilling questions and double frisking at NAIA immigration. It’s always that one question if whether I am who my passport says I am or if I am Filipino at all. My features look more Spanish mestiza which greatly contradicts my distinctly Indian surname. A surname I acquired not by marriage, as I am very much single, but by being born into it.
The Indian part of me ends in my surname. We were raised as Filipinos and more specifically “Bisaya”. That would have been different if the man to whom I got this surname was part of our lives, but he wasn’t and never will be.
My paternal grandfather was an Indian national who came to the Philippines before World War II. I’m not quite sure if he really does have movie star good looks or is it just because of how black and white photos always makes anyone good looking. My paternal grandmother though swears he is a drop dead gorgeous man. A very old photo reproduced through the help of modern technology is the only image that I know of my grandfather. What I know of Leilaram, his name, is limited to what we have been told by my maternal grandmother. My paternal grand parents separated a long time ago. My father was about a year old at that time and my grand mother was pregnant with their youngest child. He may seem like the biggest slack for leaving his family and going back to India but that was their story and that was a lifetime ago, marriages fail and what we got is a name, a surname at that. He left but quite contrary to the very common idea of not looking back, he looked back and tried to reach out to the family that he left. During my childhood I remember my aunts and uncles fussing over the idea of my grandfather writing and asking for reconciliation. I vividly remember how adamant they were at refusing to let him reconcile with them. My grandmother by my reckoning was too proud. I didn’t get to read that letter of reconciliation, what I did get to read, with the help of my very conscientious mother who gave me a glimpse of who and what Leilaram is, she kept a letter my grandfather sent my dad when he got married to my mom. I cried when I read that letter it was the sum of all that I could ever get to know of him. He seemed to have a very active imagination, he was a story teller from what I could tell, and he seemed to have a very kind heart; all my impressions of him from a yellowed almost tattered piece of paper that somehow helped me fill in the gaps of my history. While my father secretly held a desire to seek a reunion with his father, he like the rest of the family was swayed by pride and abandoned that desire. A desire I too was holding close to my heart. I almost wish at that time that I had a great persuading power to change everyone’s mind because I know that reuniting with Leilaram is an integral and essential part if not for my grandmother or my father and his siblings but for us the grandchildren. It would have been our chance to decide whether he is what he is from all the stories we have been repeatedly told or was he an entirely different person that we could have had the chance to find out.
Growing up surrounded by the stigma towards Indian nationals living here in the Philippines, I would be teased by the very common racial slurs hurled at every “Bombay who’s into 5/6 and selling payong riding in a motorcycle with a turban in his head”. While I have been teased about all that, I was never traumatized because at the same time being teased as “Bombay” I was also teased as “mestizang bangus”. I just thought that all those who teased me were plain stupid in the head because they couldn’t even see the irony of their teases. Besides I’m not so scared of punching anyone who didn’t know how to stop teasing as a matter of fact my mom has been called to school because I did punch someone in grade two once, we eventually became friends though, after she has forgiven me.
In my teens while teasing still came my way once in a while I was saved from that by going to a bigger school where the population was a bit more diverse and pure blooded Indian schoolmates came a lot more than my elementary school. If teasing happened in my elementary years, questions arose in my high school years and for most of my adult life. I would always be asked about India. I would always end up openmouthed. What I know of India, I learned from the travel channel, from what I read in history books and travel magazines, and from what I heard from people who have been there. I don’t know much about half of my origins because of some unfortunate family events and I keep getting asked about that other half.
As an adult I have a great responsibility to learn about that other half of my story. I don’t have an identity crisis, I know who I am Filipino and Proud, but to fill the missing pages of my story I will have to someday pack my bags to go to India. Not just this trip yet but someday. It will be for me to learn, to see, to taste the flavors of India, and to experience both beauty and chaos. That trip will not include reunion plans anymore as my grandfather died years ago. It will just be a trip to help me answer some questions and help fill some pages of my life’s story, the least of that story will be about where my surname came from, the country not the person anymore.