There is an awkward moment, every time I take a flight in or out of India where I find myself being asked a question, and searching for the right way to answer it; the right tone of voice, the correct phrasing and most importantly which accent I use – the way it comes out, changes everything.
Why? Because for the last nine years or so, I live a kind of double life-halfway between England and India – two different places with a very complicated past. It has meant two sets of clothes for two different climates, and two sets of slang words, two sets of beliefs, two sets of friends, and families. Always two-twos.
Once, when I was younger, I read a book about a girl with divorced parents, who called herself and her brother two-twos. It meant, because of the divorce they lived a little here and a little there, two-two of everything. Sometimes, when standing outside a plane bathroom when an Indian uncle starts talking to me and says “beta, where are you from?” the only answer that comes to me, is “Uncle, I’m a two-two.” Though, I almost never actually say it.
Instead, I say “half-British, half-Indian” uncle. To which the uncle will almost always say:
“But you sound Indian beta, where do your parents live?”
“In Bangalore, uncle, I live in London.”
“Then, you are Indian only, beta.”
“Of course, uncle.”
And then I will walk away, and take my place in a seat, next to a British girl. She will be my age, with long brown hair, pulled into a top-knot, and wear leggings. She will have her white Apple earphones trailing across the plane floor and her Macbook open watching a show she downloaded before taking the flight.
She’ll smile when I come up to the seat, and get up to let me through, “cheers,” I’ll say and take my seat, and then we’ll start talking.
“I love your jumper, where did you get it from?”
“There’s a vintage market near where I live.”
“Ah, cool. Whereabouts is that?”
“Out West, just on the border of X and Y.”
“Oh, yeah, I know the area well, my mum’s from around there.”
“Oh me too, wait which school did you go to?”
“Oh no, I grew up in India.”
“Oh, of course, I just thought…”
For years, I tried to hide my Indian side from my British world and my British side for my Indian world, carefully packaging up parts of my identity into suitcases and swapping them over as I entered and left an airport. As though, my identity formed of two beautiful and different countries, could be divided as easily and marked by lines.
As a product of two cultures, I’m now a two-two. I love both of them because I am both of them. I’m now 26, and I have spent ten years in India, and almost ten years in England, it means I’m rapidly approaching the point at which I become exactly split down the middle.
It’s important because, for years, I have been told I am one or the other – that I ‘should’ be Indian because I grew up there and I am brown. Except that I also born in London and raised by a British Indian mother, who raised me very British. So much so, that coming back to England when I was 18, felt like I was coming home to a country that was full of people like my mum, people that said “jumper” and “wellies”, and drank tea with only a little milk mixed in. But I still call her Amma.
I love India and England equally, India’s sense of humour and England’s attention to detail, India’s sense of design and art and England’s practicality. India’s willingness to innovate and England’s desire for equality. Together, and apart, I have learnt to love two cultures as home.
What is challenging is when one of those two identities is questioned. In India, I’ll sometimes be asked if I have a ‘British’ accent when in England. I do, I use it often. I actually think in it. Friends in England will giggle when they hear me talk to friends and family in India. “Stop putting on an Indian accent!” they’ll say, or “Why has your voice gone weird?”
I use my two accents to navigate two cultures, two identities, two groups of people. Two entirely different worldviews, cultures and contexts. Two-twos.
It took me years to stop hiding my British side from my Indian and my Indian side from my British, as though by being one, I was somehow less of the other. Recently, I let some Indian friends hear my Indian accent, and they smiled. My closest English friends have said they find my Indian accent endearing. Slowly my two worlds are colliding.
Sometimes, just sometimes I’ll meet an Indian in England, and my wires will short-circuit. I can tell that sounding English, makes me seem foreign to them and alien, hard to relate to. I see them watch my lips form words as they tilt their heads to one side and think, “Why is she putting that on? Did she grow up here? She must have never been to India.”I know that look, I’ve seen it so many times before. It’s the exact same look I get when I sound Indian in England.
After lots of years in India and England, I’m making my peace with being both. Not because anyone else validates who I am, but because I do.