“Are you from India?”
The question burst through the air like a gunshot shattering the transparent glass enclosure that had been my reverie.
I had barely noticed the man who got into the train a few minutes earlier from one of the stops on the Circumvesuviana line after Ercolano Scavi. He had walked in and taken the vacant seat across me.
The gunshot seemed to bring with it an eerie silence in the train. It felt to me that all the other passengers in the compartment of the train from Naples to Sorrento on that lazy Sunday afternoon were leaning in to hear what my answer was going to be. I looked at the man again who was eyeing me with the intensity of a laser beam that could have been used to punch a hole through solid metal.
“Sorry?” I answered, buying time. This was very much like the response of contestants in a beauty pageant who either wait for their translators to very slowly voice out the question they already understood or begin their answers by repeating the question- buying precious seconds whilst combing their minds for an answer- a way out. But this was a moving train- short of hurting him or hurting me there seemed to be no other way out of the situation.
“Are you from India?” the man repeated- this time with a knowing smile of a commander whose battle was already half won.
I ventured a hasty “yes” this time around and turned my head to look through the window- desperately trying to calculate how many more stops remained to my destination. It seemed like an awful lot remained until Torre Anunziata- my destination.
Already I was regretting my having answered him. I could have spoken in French or in Spanish, pretending I didn’t understand his question or got up from my seat and got off at the next stop which was coming up just then. But then I do not have native proficiency in French or Spanish and there was only about one Circumvesuviano train every half an hour. I would rather face this man’s interrogation about my nationality and background than face a raucous beach destined teenage crowd alone on a deserted station along the line.
“I knew it” he replied with so much glee, I could almost visualise him clapping his hands. “I always know when someone is from India, I never make mistakes”. ‘Damn right you don’t!’ I was quite angry into this intrusion into my private space. He must have spent the last few minutes looking at me with his laser beam vision, analysing evidence for ‘Indianness’- and there were plenty for the ones who knew how to look- my gold earrings for starters- they were small but the design was conspicuously Indian. Then there was the ring I wore on my ring finger- gold again with square designs that you could find nowhere else on the planet but in the Indian subcontinent. I had worn this ring since I was 15. And to top it all, there was the gold Timex Indiglo watch- both for good luck (it was my lucky travel watch!) and for the time in the dark (I am paranoid about missing my stop on overnight trains). To a man whose obvious passion was to spot Indians in un-Indian situations I must have been a no brainer- a level 1 Sudoku puzzle to a maestro who solved level 9 puzzles in 45 seconds.
I was both annoyed and desperate. It was clear this man was not going to stop- he was going to take a very familiar ‘Indian’ path of questioning- a path that would grow from being a dirt track of “what are you doing here in this train?” to an asphalt city road of “Where are you employed and what do you do?” to a monster eight-laned highway as it approached the sacred question “Are you married?”. I was not willing to entertain this road building at any cost.
Of course the situation was a bit ridiculous. Here was a man desperately trying to engage the person in front of him in conversation whereas the said person was determined to do everything she could to not open her mouth anymore. You might think me a snob to not answer questions or may think it would have been easier to just answer him and get it over with. But I had my own reasons for withdrawing like a tortoise into my shell.
I have always been possessive about my identity. And unless asked to disclose in CVs, job interviews or on anonymous online forums I do not part with information about who I am very readily. Maybe it is a reaction to the annoyance at being stereotyped. A single 30 year old woman from Chennai, South India could only be this or that. The assumptions that covers peoples’ mind like a slick layer of gel is perhaps what keeps me away from talking to people about who I am and where I come from. It is difficult to avoid these questions in the city where you live- where you have been born and brought up- when familiarity with people you hardly know is taken for granted most times in the Indian context. But travel is different- and this is why I love travelling.
Travelling makes you anonymous- at one with everybody else. When I am on the Via dei Fori Imperiali at Rome admiring the Colisseum I could be anyone- a gap year student from the US on a shoestring budget, a business traveller from Asia on an afternoon off- just about anyone and there was no necessity to explain or justify my presence there. All my decisions until then had led me there and I was answerable to no one.