The most mystical new concept, though, was "native place," which I eventually discovered was the village where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if "recent" meant the year 1500.
"Where are you from?" a typical conversation would begin.
"Washington, D.C." (My family had left Shaker Heights when I was seven yearsold and eventually settled just outside the capital, in suburban Maryland.)
"Yes, yes, that is OK." Pause. "But where are you from?"
"No, no. That is very good. In fact, my brother is in New Jersey, Trenton. I have been to USA, New York, and California also. Twice." Pause. "But what I mean to say is, What is your native place?"
"I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Midwest."
"No, no-your native place. Basically, you are an Indian only, no?"
"Yes, yes, of course."
"So what is your native place? That only is what I'm asking."
"My parents grew up in Bombay."
"So, basically, you are a Maharashtrian. But your name, Giridharadas . . ."
"Actually, I'm half Tamil and half Punjabi."
"Tamil and Punjabi!" my interlocutor would exclaim, eyes bulging at the thought of such brazen regional miscegenation. (Tamil Nadu is in the southern extreme of the country, jutting into the Indian Ocean; Punjab is high in the north, abutting Pakistan.) "But how could that be?"
"They met in Bombay."
"So basically-basically, you are a Punjabi, correct?"
"Well . . ."
"Basically, your father is a Punjabi."
"No, my mother is Punjabi."
"OK, I see, I see. So your father is a south Indian?"
"OK, OK, OK." Pause. Relief. The pigeon had been pigeonholed. "So,basically speaking, you are a south Indian."
"Sure. Whatever you want."
Of course, some of the new language was familiar from my parents' usage - "chockablock full," "prepone," "piping hot" - and now had to be relearned as assiduously as it had been unlearned by a first-generation child eager to downplay his differences in America.
From the Book INDIA CALLING: An Intimate Portrait of aNation's Remaking by Anand Giridharadas. Copyright © 2011 by AnandGiridharadas. Reprinted by arrangement with Times Books, an imprint of HenryHolt and Company LLC.