Where Do I Begin?

“Where are you from?—the million dollar question—a question doused in curiosity at best, and condescension at worst, that has plagued me amongst many other TCK dwellers.

Up until the age of 9, as far as my memory serves me, such questions of existential bent weren’t slung my way. There wasn’t any subtle posturing or hidden innuendo about my identity and as a result of that, ‘where I was from’ was thought to seamlessly flow from that. I was a kid going to a private school in Karachi, Pakistan, with the large chunk of my friends from the same socio-economic strata. Similar neighbourhoods, similar motor vehicles and similar parental outlooks rendered us all blueprints of the educated upper socio-economic strata who had freedom and mobility.

At the age of 11, I moved to Perth, Australia. Perth was a sleepy town (one of the most isolated cities in the world). For the first few years, I was enlisted into the West Australia public schooling system, whose students couldn’t tell the difference between a Catholic and Protestant but could tell that milky brown skin and deep toned voices warranted questions of identity and belonging.

A few years later, I moved to a private school where diversity, even though not celebrated, was at least, understood and accepted (maybe even somewhat embraced). Summer holidays of many of my class fellows were spent in foreign countries, bumping into people who definitely ‘weren’t from Australia’. It must have been exhilarating for them at the time, which is why I might have reminded them of their foreign carefree escapades.

I moved to Melbourne for university. Living just off campus, the resounding majority of those I interacted with ‘weren’t from Australia’, and had lived either all if not most of their years overseas. I therefore became the ‘Pakistani Australian’ or the ‘Australian Pakistani’ depending on whether I was meeting Sam or Sameet. Nonetheless, where I was from was still limited to the passports I held and the national anthems I sang.

A few more years went on and I returned to Pakistan to pursue a career in the development sector. To my old school friends, I was still Danish (or DK, as I was called), but to many I was the towering Australian, the ‘foreign-educated man’, one who had broken the shackles of the chaos and poverty that the subcontinent throws at you, and had gotten the express ticket to freedom and prosperity. Apparently though, there were a few chinks in the armour. In fact not a few chinks, but there had been a cataclysmic error somewhere along the way. I had returned to my ‘home country’ where I began my life, but instead of settling back in smoothly, I had to start from ground zero.

All these experiences brought a certain strain of discomfort for me, either in terms of the premise behind the mindsets through which people judged where i was from, or the unbridled sense of objectivity people felt towards my apparent identity. This did, however, give me the opportunity to reflect on this question at length and some of my own introspections led me to this conclusion:

I am from the state of Rajasthan (pre-partitioned Rajasthan, where notions of India and Pakistan were non-existent). Within Rajasthan, I am from Jaipur—the Pink City—and Jodhpur—the Blue City (not Chefchaouen—Morocco, the other blue city, though my roots could very well trace back to there). My maternal great grandmother was born in Rajasthan, and one day when the borders open up, I wish to take the day trip from my city of birth, Karachi, to my maternal great grandmother’s place of birth.

I am also from Delhi–the federal capital of modern day India, but one which is not done any justice by this description alone. I am from that Delhi whose name originates from Raja Dhilu, a king of the Mauryan Dynasty, a rich and ancient civilisation and one amongst many which has passed through Delhi gate, Kashmiri gate, Lahore gate, and India gate, one of the many routes to the buttressed city. My grandmother was born there and one day I wish to retrace those steps.

Srinagar is also where I’m from: the largest city and the summer capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. It lies in the Kashmir Valley on the banks of the Jhelum river, a tributary of the river Indus (which now flows through India and Pakistan, as do my roots). Back when my paternal grandfather was born there, Srinagar wasn’t in Indian Kashmir as it is today. It was simply one of the world’s hidden beauties, where the baghs* and lakes stretched across the landscape.

I am also from Kanpur: the city of my maternal grandfather’s birth, which is in the State of Uttar Pradesh (modern day North India) and the abode of many of the pre-partition princely families who migrated to Pakistan, post partition. My knowledge of the city and state is through generational stories of lives lived in large joint families in the presence of music, poetry, and other such feasts for the senses.

I am from virtually every major city in Pakistan. Post-partition, my paternal grandfather served the Pakistan army, where my father and uncle clocked up serious cross-country miles as and when my grandfather’s posting was changed.

I am also from Karachi – my city of birth. I lived an isolated childhood, not venturing outside the 3 or 4 major areas of the city, but my recent move back has helped me acquaint myself with the rich history and diversity the city has to offer.

I am from Perth. In fact, it would be more accurate to say I’m from Western Australia, the huge state kissing the western tip of the continent. I remember road trips to places as south as Margaret River and school camping trips to the northern tips of the expansive state.

If there’s a place in Australia I’m definitely from, it’s Melbourne. All the city has to offer, in all facets of life, make it a place I always long to come back to no matter where I travel.

So in short, ‘where I’m from’ is not as simple as some of the answers people would have been expecting in the past. Even though convenient, simplified places of birth and residence don’t do justice to the narratives and sub-narratives we have sown with our experiences. Next time someone asks me where I’m from; perhaps I’ll ask them ‘where do I begin’?

*baghs: a large garden or orchard