What’s in a Name?

My friend and I sat down to watch the movie, based on the real life of a female boxer who won many world championships. The film was created to empower women and to provide inspiration to those who want to achieve. The movie was in Hindi, as my friend is accustomed to watching Hindi films more frequently than myself due to being born and raised in Calcutta, India. I, on the other hand, a descendant of Indian immigrant parents, am a first generation Asian American.

The movie was interesting and thought-provoking in itself, but the realization I had while I watched it with her was even more profound.

As the movie progressed, we saw the female protagonist proposed to by her boyfriend in front of a street food stall. “Even I wouldn’t mind being proposed to in front of a ‘puchka’ stand!” my friend exclaimed. “Puchka” is a colloquial term used in northeastern India to describe a light pastry puff filled with beans, onions, tamarind sauce, and mint water and is usually eaten as a light snack, a delicacy easily prepared by street vendors. My friend’s use of the term, “puchka” did not surprise me this time for I had heard her use it many times before. The first time I had ever heard it, however, I had no idea what she had meant. Where my family is from, near the midwest area of India (Bombay), the more commonly used term is “pani puri” whereas elsewhere in northern India (Delhi), people commonly say “gol gappa.”

A small realization such as the differences in terminology always makes me reflect on the underrated diversity that exists in India. It amazes me that such a common street snack, eaten by the rich and the poor, has three different names in major urban areas (and possibly more!) Just as these names come from different regions, representing diversity in the naming of food–in the same way, the people are a bigger representation of the diversity present within the nation.

Pani puri is a famous snack eaten on the streets of India.
Pani puri is a famous snack eaten on the streets of India.

Two of my closest Indian friends in college come from completely different backgrounds than myself. My international friend from Calcutta who uses “puchka” to define the famous snack, is a “Marwadi,” traditionally a group of people from the northwest region of India known for migrating to other areas throughout India in order to set up successful businesses. Although her native ancestral language is different, today, “Marwadis” have adapted to speaking in Hindi, one of India’s national languages in addition to English.

My other close friend, is a Catholic from the southern part of India–Kerala, known for its beautiful, tropical atmosphere. As she once explained to me in a quick history lesson of her family history, the Saint Thomas came to Kerala centuries ago and converted seven Brahmin (upper-caste) families to Catholicism. Today, the Catholics of Kerala are known to be the descendants of these seven original converted families. My friend speaks a language completely different than those spoken in northern India, known as Tamil. Neither I nor my friend from Calcutta would be able to understand her!

And then there’s me. As my grandparents tell me, the group of people I call my ancestors, immigrated from the northwest desert region of Rajasthan ages ago and have been residing in the state of Maharashtra (midwest region including Bombay) since then. We are known as the Marathis (and our language is called Marathi). Famous for our performance abilities–dancing, acting, and singing– we are sure to perform these skills at local tamashas or shows.

As one can see, simply with the example of one film and three Indian girls, there is so much diversity within the Indian community that not only is it ignorant to assume that we are all the same, but it is rude to demean each of our individualistic cultures in such a way. Getting comments like “You don’t look Indian” are not necessarily viewed as compliments by my friends or me but rather as statements that undermine the rich culture and diversity that India has to offer. It is amazing that despite having so many distinct religions, cultures, and languages, India still has the ability to call itself one nation. The coexistence of so many major world religions–Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity–convinces us that it is not so much a conservative nation as we think it is. Its tolerance has allowed India and will always allow it to be a gem in the ancient and contemporary world that others can always learn from.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Nicely written. Reminds me of the first chapter of Ramchandra Guha’s novel, ‘India after Gandhi’. He rightly named that chapter which talks about this unity in diversity as “Unnatural Nation”.

    1. Thank you so much! I think it’s incredibly important to discuss the diversity aspect of India and hope this helps people understand. I will definitely check out Guha’s novel!

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