It’s not easy being a ‘foreigner’ in one’s own country. Ask Mahommad Sanaullah, who despite fighting the Kargil War and extremists in J&K and Manipur under the banner of the Indian Army, was locked up in a detention camp in Assam meant for illegal migrants from Bangladesh and excluded from the NRC.
I have no idea what foreign ‘element’ the authority found in him to award him the foreigner tag.
I have been forced to wear this tag ever since I came out of my home state, Assam, purely because of my accent. As a fresh entrant at Abdullah Hall at AMU, where diction and pronunciation are as sacrosanct as the grammar of the language, I had failed to integrate myself into the Urdu-speaking crowd miserably on all counts.
Even after rehearsing a simple word like ‘piyaz’ 10 times before uttering it in front of the kitchen staff, I would get it all wrong. ‘Bibi, aap toh bahut door desh se aayi hain na,’ they would say sympathetically. Sometimes I would let them go with their belief as their sympathy would translate into an extra piece of meat or an egg.
But it was not always a happy ending. Especially, when I would try to sneak out of the hall on a working day, disguising as a day-scholar, with a headscarf and dark shades for camouflage. It would always be my accent that gave me away when the security guys stopped me at the gate to find out if I was a hosteller. And, unceremoniously, I would be sent back to my hostel. It was hurtful and humiliating.
I have come a long way since my AMU days, but the tag has more or less stayed with me, and so has the accent.
During my recent trip to Germany, when I landed in Munich two hours late, I had to rush to catch my connecting flight to Dresden which had to be rescheduled. Spotting a man who looked like an airport official, I approached him for help.
‘Where are you from?’ he asked.
‘India,’ I said.
‘You can’t be from India.’ I was taken aback. Without saying a word, I pushed my passport towards him. Taking a look at it, he said in an accusing tone, ‘You don’t look like an Indian.’
Hassled and tired to the core, my first reaction was to retort, ‘Should I chant Jana Gana Mana or Bharat Mata ki Jai?’ But knowing that my sarcasm will be lost on him, I tried to explain patiently, ‘I come from the Northeastern part of India. Since we are of Mongoloid origin, we may or may not fit into the image of a typical….’
‘You are an Indian all right,’ he cut me sort. I was puzzled. What made him change his mind? The question mark in my eyes must have told him what I was thinking. He explained, ‘Your accent. You speak like a typical Indian.’
Wow, my accent proved more potent than the passport I was holding! Finally, I had a reason to be grateful to it. For, it’s not easy being a foreigner in a foreign country either!
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