Monday, August 28, 2006

Old? What's old?

My little sister turns eighteen today. It is such a strange sensation to know that our 6 years apart have caught up to us in such a real way. Six years ago last month I graduated from high school.Now she's done. In my family, the closest thing we have to reunions is graduation parties, which started 6 years ago with my graduation. My grandparents, their 4 kids, two spouses, and 11 grand kids, including me, crowd into my average size house to get together and celebrate this milestone. We live on the east coast, in the mid west and on the west coast. We’re like dandelion seeds, blown across this new nation state we call home by the wind of post colonialism. I am often disappointed by how little happens when we all get together, everyone simply eating together and talking. My planner happy self wants to go on day trips, have events and activities that we can bond over and make memories about since our time is so precious and so scarce. I'm slowly realizing as I grow older that if our families were all still in India, or even in England, that we would be in close proximity to each other, and we would be able to get together for the mundane, and not just the momentous. That is why when we get together, the first thing that happens is we break bread (the children eating first while the parents/adults wait and help serve, clean up spills and fuss over what the kids are all eating, adults next, laughing and talking as they enjoy their much spicier versions of whatever the children had) and then have tea. If blood is the tie that binds, tea is the manna and quail in the desert for my family. Tea keeps us together and keeps us going. Our conversation, our memories, our traditions, they all revolve around that crucial leaf that got us colonized in the first place. Our countries change, the years change, the generations get added to, but tea is the first and last thing we always share together.

I just found out that in the motherland, in the city my family is from (on both sides) there are hundreds of people who are related to me. Who I belong to. Who belong to me. Up until this point in my life, I had never known these people existed. I knew we had some relatives somewhere, but I had no clue that my family has lived in Hyderabad for hundreds of years, for countless generations. I had known that my family descended from some royal line, some time in the expanse of Indian history, but I have a name, and a time. The Khutoub Shahi, who ruled India before the Mughals did, had a king by the name of Loudi Khan. It is his line that my grandmother's family has descended from. My grandfather’s family is apparently a well established, deeply religious Sufi family, which is part of a very old Sufi order. Apparently, one of grandfather's ancestors was a well known, revered saint. (Now I'm very confused about a lot of this, because I know hardly anything about Sufi Islam, and sainthood in Islam is pretty much forbidden, so I don't really know what that is about, but it is still a pretty huge deal.) My family is from Hyderabad, a city in southern India that is larger than New York City and older by at least double. It was the largest independently held state in India while the British occupied the subcontinent. There was a dynasty of kings called the Nizam who ruled on their own up until India's independence. It was larger and more powerful than Rajasthan. I have for most of my life felt rootless and unclaimed. Unbeknownst to me, there are generations of people that claim me and hold my history who I have never known. My journey, my struggle to find who I am, to build who I am around ghosts of the past and scaffolding that is rickety at best is only the latest struggle in a long line of people whose history I don't know.

I feel more like a child who is of multi-ethnic descent than an Indian American. I can’t even go so far as to claim that. I am Desi, which slides off the tongue easier, and I know that I fall into the American Born Confused Desi category no matter how hard I fight it. So many cultures and peoples have informed the person I am, almost no labels, no words exist that can define me. I'm first generation, sure. I'm brown, yup. I'm diglossic. I'm American. I'm a feminist. I'm a woman. I'm a daughter. I'm a girl. I'm confused, alone, and need a guide through the messy entanglement that is culture and history. There are some around me who seem to get it, who seem to effortlessly just live their lives, with no apparent evidence of any struggle with self hate, or white standards of beauty, of growing up Muslim in a harsh, un-accepting western environment, or the idea that is strongly held in America that there is only black & white, of having to be the walking reminder that diversity is more than color, folks. I feel like I constantly try to reach out to them, for some support, for some understanding, some validation, but when I do question and wait, all I get back are dismissive answers and very little, if any, understanding.

I'm about to embark on a journey that I hope will give me some clue as to who I am, and the blood that lives on in me. I will be going to India for the first time, not to Hyderabad, not yet, but to northern India. I will, of course, be headed there with a bunch of young white Americans, but I will be going none the less. I read as much literature as I can get my hands on by brown Desi writers, looking in their words for a reflection of my voice. All the news I read about India says that the cities are changing rapidly, the old world, the older worlds, are all crashing down, unsustainable in this age of globalization and outsourcing. Independence led to a world different than my grandparents grew up in, leading them to Britain. My mom's family settled Luton, England, dealing with the taunts, the ignorance and the hate of the very white English people. My mom married and moved to America, becoming one of the few Indian families in our area, while England became more deeply entrenched with brown people, Islam and the cultures of the colonized. I grew up here in CT, where kids asked me in elementary school what I was, since I wasn't white or black, and there were no other others. I graduated from high school with 2 other brown people in my class of 400. My sisters went to that same high school in a time where there were many more brown kids. My sister just graduated from a class of 345, where there were at least 10 brown kids. Being Indian is not unusual anymore. We aren't as populous as the Greeks or Italians or Irish families in the area, but it isn't as rare as it once was. My sisters both have brown friends. There have always been enough brown people for them to have their pick of whom they like and who they don't. I had to leave, go to DC for college, which is a city teeming with Desis, before I found my first Desi friend.

For years, I have felt uncomfortable around large groups of brown people. I have no context for being surrounded by so many other people who look like me. I don't know how to define myself once I'm no longer the raisin in the rice. I feel so isolated from most Desi culture. I'm too American, too modern, too opinionated, too free-thinking, too critical, too independent, and too strong. I'm not polite enough, I'm too familiar, and I’m too challenging and controversial. I'm too loud, too audacious, too impetuous, and shameless. I'm not modest enough, I'm not traditional enough and I don't have enough respect. I'm not Muslim enough, I don't speak Urdu or Hindi, I don't watch Bollywood movies and I don't wear Indian clothes to anything except a party. I don't know. My best friend says I should take comfort in the fact that other people feel alone too, that there is relatability in feeling culturally isolated. My other best friend, who has a great deal to say about being a cultural transplant, just tries to relate. His otherness is different, he feels distant from a place he once knew that no longer exists, whereas I feel distant from something I've never known.

My family doesn't understand why I'm going to India. They don't understand this emptiness that eats away at me, this blackness where context, history and ancestry should be. How can I know who I am and where I am going if I don't know where I've (my family) been? How can I lay claim to my adulthood if my childhood has been so incomplete? It hurts me that the only way I have seen, heard or understood India is through the fiction I devour. That some white child that has no ties to the country knows as little or as much as I do about the place my family comes from. I feel so betrayed that there is all this history that is relevant to my life, to my family, that no one has ever bothered to tell me. no pictures of Hyderabad, no pictures of the extended family that lives on my great grandfather's compound, no pictures of the masjid my great-great-great-great grandmother built, no pictures of the 10 acres of land in the middle of Hyderabad that my grandfather's Sufi family lives off of, no pictures of the tombs of my ancestors. Now I've resolved to see these things in person, to take my own pictures, to meet this family and hopefully be fluent enough in Hindi to speak with them. To own this culture, this history that claims me, no matter how far I go, or how hard I try to deny it. My children will have a ready claim on the deeds of our shared history. They will not be ill equipped to face the culture of their past or the culture of their present.

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