Once, a friend of mine in the USA insinuated that Nepali restaurants in the USA serve nothing but Indian food. The resulting conversation was, to say the least, highly confrontational, with one member spitting out that India doesn’t have a copyright on its food.
That discussion stayed in my mind long after it was over because it was actually just an example of many such discussions that happened during my stay abroad. Many people had trouble recognizing where I was from, and it was easier for them to understand if I said my country was near India.
This I did not mind. But being confused with an Indian at every step, particularly in sensitive matters, had tempers flaring, and not just mine alone.
Most of the times, the most intense assertion of exclusive Indian rights over cultural property comes from Indians themselves. For example, coming back to food, Indians are quick to claim Naan, Pulau, Samosas, and many other foods served by Indian restaurants as traditional Indian dishes. Though it may have entrenched itself in popular Indian cuisine, Pulau, alternately called pilaf, plov, and by many other names, is of Middle Eastern origin, and can be found today all over the Balkan region. Similarly, Samosa, originally Sanbusaj, or Sambosa, is of Persian origin, and Naan and Biryani are also western imports.
While it is true that many Nepali restaurants serve these cosmopolitan items, India has as little, or as much, claim to them as Nepal because these items were an earlier generation’s equivalent of today’s globalized foods, like pizza and burger, so to speak. A closer look will reveal that Nepali restaurants do not serve ethnic Indian food like idlis and uttapams and dhoklas and the like. A still closer look would reveal that the menu is usually peppered with ethnic Nepali dishes like gundruk and chhoyela.
Another aspect where Indians stake their claim is the cultural dress. For a Nepali girl wearing her national dress, there is nothing more annoying than to hear this question “But, isn’t the sari Indian?” Well, sure, Indian women have worn it for ages. But then, so have Nepali women, too. Our saris have evolved according to our needs, we have several dozen different kinds of saris right in our backyard: the thick Haku Patasi for cold winters of the hills, the one-piece Dhimal sari that leaves the shoulders bare for the hot Terai, and many others, and India has its own varieties. But it so happens today that after centuries of evolving separately into several hundred unique designs, modern women everywhere eschew such ethnic dresses and wear the sari in almost similar ways. That does not mean that Nepali women have a lesser right to sari, and silly questions such as the one mentioned above accomplish nothing but put Nepali women on the defensive.
ILLUSTRATION: SWORUP NHASIJU
Foods and clothes are just small parts of a larger and more important aspect of Nepalis that is often bulldozed: our cultural legacy and identity. India has so glorified itself that Indians claim anything associated with Hinduism to be Indian. It is sheer annoyance to have to reiterate every time that “Yes, I am Hindu,”, “No, it is not just Indians who are Hindus, people as far apart as in Cambodia and Bali may be Hindus”, and “No, my script is not called Hindi, it is called Devnagari and there is no copyright on it!” Besides, we Nepalis have grown up on the legacy of Sanskrit poets and philosophers like Kalidasa, Valmiki or Chanakya. While it may be true that the geographical area where these personalities lived happens to be in India today, which Indians often cite to prove that these and many other personalities as solely Indian, it is impossible and unfair to dissociate Nepalis from the wisdom they have inherited through their language and culture.
Indians are not the only ones who confuse Nepali identity. Because India is famous and highly romanticized, sometimes individual cultural items like Samosas or saris are recognized by many foreigners. Starting from George Bush, American presidents have wished the “people celebrating Diwali” on Tihar. Though George Bush and Obama both refrained from naming any particular country, the messages still helped in identifying Diwali as Indian, because the accompanying Diwali functions at the White House were mostly attended by Indians, and because Indians’ reception of these messages were vocal and widespread. Consequently, it has become even harder to convince anyone that Diwali is not just an Indian festival. We are all familiar with the Budhha being assumed to be Indian, but other vestiges of Hindu culture like the Vedas, the concept of Karma, and names of famous gods are also immediately assumed to be Indian by the few foreigners who have come across them.
Though I mean no offence to India or to Indians individually, especially as I myself have many Indian friends, it is clear that the kind of shrill nationalism almost amounting to jingoism that pervades in Indian media leads most Indians to think of Indian culture as uniquely Indian. And sadly, India’s monopoly over South Asian culture (I have heard similar complaints from people of other South Asian nations) continues at the international level. While there may be many reasons for the instant recognition that India gets internationally – that India is the largest and most visible country of South Asia, that Indian press and government are very good at exoticizing and publicizing Brand India – the sad truth is that there is very little we can do to counter Brand India at the individual level without a similar branding and publicizing of Brand Nepal. Since it is too much to hope that all Indians will start thinking rationally and stop believing everything dished up by an ultra-patriotic media, it is up to us Nepalis to be more aware of our history and identity and assert the same whenever the opportunity arises.
The writer is a poet and a wannabe storyteller