October 31, 1984
“Mummy, Daddy can I dress up for Halloween this year?”
“No. You are not allowed to participate in this ritual begging for candy.”
“Daddy, I meant for school…we’re supposed to…”
He eyed me suspiciously. “I thought fifth grade would mean the end of such nonsense, but if you are supposed to…what do you need to wear”
I had thought about this. Based on what the popular girls were last year, I decided…“I want to be a cheerleader!”
“Absolutely not. Those skirts are indecent.”
“Caroline Auntie was a cheerleader!”
“In college. When you’re in college, I’ll forbid you then, too.”
Nine-year old me promptly burst in to tears. Later, my mother came to my room and helped me match a v-neck sweater from my old Catholic school uniform with a pleated skirt I usually wore to church—i.e. one which went to the middle of my knee. She unpacked a box in my closet and wordlessly handed me my toy pom-poms. My six-year old sister glared at her indignantly, so Mom rolled her eyes and did the same for her. I was so excited. Finally, a “cool” costume, one which didn’t involve an uncomfortable, weird-looking plastic mask to secure with an elastic band, from a pre-packaged ensemble. I went to sleep feeling giddy.
The next morning, for the first time ever, I was tardy for school. I don’t remember why, but I was. When I walked in to class just before recess, everyone froze and stared at me. The hopeful smile on my face dissolved; this year, the popular girls were all babies in cutesy pajamas with pacifiers around their necks. I thought the weirdness in the air was due to my lame costume, but within a few minutes I discovered it was caused by something else entirely.
The moment the bell rang, my desk was surrounded. This couldn’t be good. Was I going to get locked in a closet or a bathroom again?
“Why are you here?”
“Yeah, we thought you weren’t coming.”
“Shouldn’t you be at home crying?”
“Mrs. Doyle said you wouldn’t come in today.”
The questions assaulted me one after the other. I was baffled.
"Why…would…Mrs. Doyle say that?” I stammered.
“DUH, because Gandhi’s daughter got killed.”
“Isn’t she like your queen or something? Or a Hindu God?”
“No you buttheads, she’s like the president of her country.”
At the end of the last sentence, the boy speaking gestured towards me. When did they get so enlightened? Last week, they asked if I was Cherokee and said “How” whenever I walked by, or pantomimed yowling war cries with their hands and mouth.
“She’s not the president of my country. I’m…I’m from this country. My president is Ronald Reagan.”
They got impatient and vaguely hostile.
“No, you’re Indian. Mrs. Doyle said you were in mourning.”
“Did you not like her or something, is that why you don’t care?”
“I heard they dip her in milk before they burn her up.”
“Duh…that’s because they worship cows.”
I put my head down on my desk, as if we were playing “heads up, seven up”.
“See? She’s crying now…she is Indian.”
And with that they walked off, to do whatever it was that popular fifth-graders did.
I was sitting by myself (as usual…it’s always awesome to transfer to a K-8 school in the seventh grade, when no one is interested in making new friends with some outsider), reading something from the “The Babysitters Club”, pretending I was Mary Anne Spier.
“Hey ugly girl…”
I looked up to see a tall 8th grader whom every girl was crushing on…he was standing with his best friend, who elbowed him and muttered, “ask her!”
“Weren’t you supposed to be aborted?
I was horrified and confused. Horrified because these people never talked to me, confused because…
“You know, since you’re like…a Hindu and we just learned that they only like to have sons. So we were wondering if your parents wished they had aborted you. You should ask.”
The sidekick started guffawing and both of them ran off. I sat there, my book still page-down in my lap, unable to read for the rest of recess. I wished I could go home.
Four hours later…
“Where is your sister? What is she up to? I haven’t heard any noise.”
“I dunno…reading the dictionary or something nerdy”.
I realized my father was headed to the dining room, which is where he left the huge, so-heavy-I-couldn’t-lift-it Webster’s dictionary open for me, so he wouldn’t have to constantly retrieve it from the shelf. I slapped half the book over, to obscure what I had been looking at…
“What are you doing? Why did you just do that? What are you hiding?”
I tried to slip my finger out from the page I was trying to bookmark, but he was too quick. The pages flipped back to “A”.
“ABORTION? You are looking at ABORTION? Oh my God, why did I sacrifice and struggle and come to this country, so my 12-year old daughter could be impregnated? Were you raped? Did someone do something to you? WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT THAT WORD!”
I actually didn’t know what “raped” meant, either. My parents hadn’t explained anything like that to me yet. I was still playing with Barbie and sleeping with my stuffed Persian cat; they saw no need. I made a mental note to look up “rape”.
My mother came running, “What is this?”
“She is looking at ABORTION!”
“Was I supposed to be aborted?”
My parents faces fell slack from astonishment.
My Mother looked at my Father, then me. “Why…would…you…ask…such a thing?”
“Some kids at school asked me to ask you if you wished you had aborted me. I didn’t know what that meant…”
My Father walked away. My Mother came up to me, looked me in the eye and said, “No. We did not wish that. Your Father was very excited, in fact, he always said he hoped you would turn out to be a girl and he was so happy you did.”
My Mother seemed sad. “You don’t like your new school, do you?”
I shook my head, no.
“Class, today we are going to do something a bit different—we’re going to look at Catholicism’s impact on the world.”
I tried not to smirk as I recalled my Father’s rants about how Catholicism destroyed things and was rather evil.
“We’re going to start with India, which is where Anna is from!”
“One of the most visible Catholics in the world has chosen India, to serve. Mother Theresa uses her faith to care for the filthy, the neglected, the unfortunate…”
Oh, sweet Jesus.
“…let’s start our discussion by asking our Indian student more!”
“Um, I’m American.”
“Yes, dear. But you’re Indian. What’s India like?”
“I’m just saying, I was born here, so I don’t really know—“
“Now, let’s not fib…I now for a fact you just came back from your country.”
“Well…um…yes, but it’s my parents’ country…no, wait, even they are American citizens.”
The nun was getting impatient. “May I remind you that discussion counts for your participation grade? Now would you like to add something constructive to this conversation?”
“Uh…sure. Well, I did just get back from India. I had not visited it since I was five, so I learned a lot.” The nun nodded, with an encouraging smile.
“And tell us about the poverty you saw, the contrasts with America.”
“I…didn’t see poverty really…”
“Calcutta is very impoverished! How is that possible?”
“I went to Kerala. I’ve never been to Calcutta. I’m from South India. I went to where my parents are from and visited their families. And Kerala is lush and green and so pretty. The people are all really smart and the museum I went to—“
“How far is Careluh from Calcutta?”
“It’s really far.”
“So far that you didn’t see beggars?”
“I saw a few…”
“JUST a few?”
“No more than I see when I visit San Francisco.”
“That’s it young lady. I will not tolerate your smart-aleck behavior. To the principal’s office you will go and you’ll have detention, later.”
“But I didn’t…”
“Would you like me to double your punishment?”
I nodded miserably and walked out, reaching in to my backpack for my headphones. Reel Life’s “Send Me an Angel” accompanied me as I dawdled on my way to the office.
I thought of all of those moments, yesterday. I’ll get to why in a mere moment.
Besides my younger sibling, I was the only Indian kid at all of my schools except for the last one I cited. Obviously, my little sister did not accompany me to high school, but there was one other Indian girl there. Unfortunately, she wanted nothing to do with me, because she couldn’t relate to me; she told me I wasn’t Indian enough, that I was white-washed.
I was South Indian and Christian, I didn’t do garba or understand what she was talking about when she asked me about whether I preferred Salwars to lenghas--in fact, I didn’t even know what a lengha was…just like I was clueless about which Bollywood actor I should have a crush on. Once she realized that I had no experience with such things, she decided she had no use for me. We didn’t speak, despite sitting next to each other, in home room.
This is now a well-known tale, this trial-by-ignorance which older 1.5/second gens went through. I am amazed and relieved when I understand that things will never be that brutal for generation 3, not in this world where the internet sates curiosity while dissolving international borders and knitting us all together via the web.
India is no longer so weird or foreign; today, people don’t eat monkey brains on the big screen. The little ABDs I’ve met recently who are nine, 12 and 14 are informed, empowered, righteous and sassy. Once upon a time, if you had told me that girls in this country would wear lenghas and saris to their Junior Prom or in their Senior portrait, I would have thought you were a bad comedian. I would have and did wear Gunne Sax, to both, way back in the early 90s.
I often say that I didn’t become a desi until my final year of college, which is when the ISA was allowed back on campus; nothing like “India Night” to give you a concentrated dose of culture. By the time I commenced my second semester of graduate school, in 2000, I had crossed over in to what felt like another realm—for the first time, the majority of my friends were brown. That was life-altering for a girl who lived through the three situations I detailed at the beginning of this post. The more people I met, the more I experienced, the more I learned.
I had taken plenty of South Asian studies classes as an undergrad, but going to a hyper-International school like GW was like getting the practical experience to complement years of theory. Now, I have a rich, self-defined relationship with the subcontinent, a relationship which I’m so immersed in, it confuses and vaguely irritates my parent. She shakes her head when she catches me reading “Learn Malayalam in 30 days” or when she overhears me interrogating my cherished, fobulous friends about everything I don’t know (which is obviously a LOT).
The end result of all this is that though I’m not from India, now, I am of it. I love it, but not blindly. I celebrate it, but I don’t do so because of inherited jingoism. India is like a family member; I will bitch about it and worry and criticize…but heaven help someone else who attempts to do so in my presence. I know I have annoyed and even enraged some of you with some of my posts; some of you have accused me of being anti-India, when that is the furthest thing from reality. “I love my India”, I’ve written cheekily a few times at the Mutiny. Once, one of you pushed back; “What does that even mean? How is it YOURS?”
It’s mine because it just is, because I want it to be and also, because for my entire childhood, I felt like I was being thrown in to a deep well by my classmates, in an extreme act of othering. My sole company? No, not my Babysitters Club or Cheerleaders books—it was my ancestral country, which had been roughed up along side of me, before being tossed in the pit after me.
Once, when I couldn’t take the torment meted out to me, I burst in to tears in front of my Father and told him that I hated my uber-competitive, ultra-bitchy high school, where uniforms which were meant to equalize were an ineffective joke played on girls who didn’t have Dooney and Bourke backpacks, Gucci purses or polo players on their shirts and socks. I wailed that I was miserable, that I hated sticking out like the stench of patchouli in a room full of Chanel, that I didn’t fit in anywhere, especially with thick, long hair which reached the backs of my knees. “Where am I supposed to go? Where will people be nice to me?”
For once, instead of dismissing me or mocking me, he looked lost in thought, before he murmured, “India”.
Later that summer, we visited Ooty, another boarding school I can’t remember and two private high schools, one in Kottayam, the other in Cochin. Though I had hated India the first week I was there, after being terrorized by insects which looked like they had been imported from my nightmares, finding myself mired in a decades-old family feud and realizing, to my hostile resentment, that no, Indian girls did NOT have hair so long that they could sit on it, that I was the only naïve moron who lived up to that now passé ideal...I eventually calmed down.
Two weeks in to our two-month long trip, I was fluent again in my first language, Malayalam, and after my first month in Kerala, whatever resistance I felt to this strange new reality melted. I felt a peace I had never known before, because for the first time in my life, everyone looked like me, worshipped where I did and ate what I ate. I was enchanted and fine with staying; I daydreamed about waving to my father and sister at the airport in Madras, before being whisked back to Kerala by either my Dad’s elder brother or his beloved best friend.
My father realized that he couldn’t bear to leave me on the other side of the world, and that was the end of that. I returned to the U.S., to nuns who loathed non-Catholic, uncooperative me, to girls who yanked open my cardigan so that they could exclaim, “OMG, she’s still poor!” when they saw no logo prancing across my breast, to once again being exiled and alone. Daddy was troubled. Had he been selfish? “You know, you can always go to India. In a way, it will always be your home. If you are fed up…you could go back. You have that option. You are not rootless. I know you were happy, there…”
So, to me, India has always been synonymous with sanctuary. A naïve sentiment, I know, but also, a necessary fiction; it helped me survive.
How could I disparage my refuge, my roots? And could I stand by idly, when, on a popular blog, India was repeatedly tarnished?
Jezebel is part of Gawker’s online empire. Its tagline is Celebrity, Sex, Fasion. Without the airbrushing. When I stumbled upon it, it was love at first browse. It was smart, defiant and allergic to bullshit. It was fierce. For the first time, in many, many years, I felt like I had found the successor to Sassy, the teen magazine which saved my sanity in a “YM” world. And who were these commenters?! These women who were righteous, bawdy, witty and often, hilarious? This was like the best of my sorority years, with none of the annoying idocratic declarations or pesky monthly dues. After weeks of lurking, I wanted to dive in this rollicking online hot tub...but there was one catch: you had to audition to comment!
Audition to become a commenter. To become a registered commenter on this site, you first need to be approved by our team. We're looking for comments that are interesting, substantial or highly amusing. So write a comment, polish up your words and choose a username and password below. Your comment will only appear once (or if) you're approved. Want to know more? Consult the Comment FAQ. [Jezebel]
I submitted my thoughts and then spent an anxious day or so wondering if I’d be deemed worthy; a few hours in to the weirdness, I realized exactly what it reminded me of—the end of sorority rush, when you make your choice and then sleeplessly wait for a bid. When my comment finally appeared on the site, I cackled triumphantly. YES! I was allowed in! I was a part of the coolest clique ever, the anti-clique, which called out anyone and everything. This was AWESOME.
Except...I started to see references to India, in their news roundups and then comments, which would inevitably refer back to the brown element of the post…and unlike the rest of the Jezebel experience…they were less than…fair. Sometimes, they were downright ignorant. Worse still, the female bloggers whom I had been crushing on pretty heavily seemed to not get it; sometimes, it seemed as if they were encouraging the ick. I have to tell you, it really did feel like being a teen all over again, right down to the confusion, the angst and the anticipation of exile.
Does that seem melodramatic ? It’s not, to me. I spend all my time here, at SM. Like a new, stay-at-home mother who is starved for “grown-up” conversation, i.e. that which does not involve poo or puking, I wanted more (and please, no stupid conflation of poo/puke/infancy with SM…sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar and a metaphor is, too.) Unfortunately, my source for what I had craved seemed less than welcoming. And here’s where it gets all afterschool special; would I quietly observe the unfair digs at my “sanctuary” and remain mute, to protect my coveted place in that Jezebel-space? Or would I do what I was aching to—speak my mind, at the risk of alienating the popular and powerful? Yeah, you know how this turns out…
Indian actress Shilpa Shetty has been arrested at the Mumbai, India airport. Her crime? Obscenity. The act? Being the recipient of that overly demonstrative kidd on the cheek from Richard Gere. [Daily Mail] 12:45 PM ON THU SEP 27 2007 BY JENNIFER. 1,428 views
BY WARMAIDEN AT 09/27/07 12:58 PM This takes 'blaming the victim' to a whole 'nother level. yay, India! (PS - Shouldn't they be hanging those guys who drugged and raped the Japanese touristas?)
BY LOVESTOSMILE AT 09/27/07 01:03 PM My lord. I'm Indian and this is absolutely embarassing.
BY LOVESTOSMILE AT 09/27/07 01:11 PM As someone who's Indian, I can say with all confidence that this is a matter of national shame.
BY ANDALUCíA AT 09/27/07 01:11 PM @LovesToSmile: I'm American. We won the Embarrassment Sweepstakes years ago.
BY RAINBOWBRITE AT 09/27/07 01:12 PM You'd think India would be trying to look a little more progressive these days. That "India at 60" campaign is everywhere here in NY, but stories like this one don't really help their tourism...
BY SARAHINSASK AT 09/27/07 01:13 PM What a disgusting, filthy crime. Right? Right? Clearly India has no heinous criminal at large than Shilpa Shetty.
BY AHWANNABE AT 09/27/07 01:14 PM lovely country we're outsourcing work to.
BY HABIBI AT 09/27/07 01:16 PM Jennifer, fix the typo - India is spelled "India" and not "Indnia". Since when is getting a kiss on the cheek a crime? The Indian government should be embarrassed by this.
BY ANNOYINGFEMALELEADVOICEOVER AT 09/27/07 01:16 PM She was let go as soon as the cops realized the charges had been turned over months ago. Not that this justifies the act, but for a heads up.
BY CHOCOLATECOFFEEBEANS AT 09/27/07 01:30 PMIt is things like this that make me completelly terrified to travel to the Middle East at all, even though I consider myself relatively well-travelled. This combined with stories of getting hands cut off for stealing (not that I would steal) or the weird rules about things like alcohol and women's dress. I just know it would take me approximately 15 minutes before I broke a law or offended someone. No thanks.
BY SUITABLEGIRL AT 09/27/07 02:32 PM @ahwannabe: Yes, let's bring outsourcing in to this, it's obviously germane. One tiny reminder: we should also bring it up when Canada or Ireland or every other country we outsource to gets brought up in any context whatsoever-- that way we're consistent.
She wasn't arrested, she was detained by some idiot on a power trip (not rare in India). This is not a matter of national shame, not when there are a million worse problems in the subcontinent. Is it stupid? Yes. Should this have happened? No. But let's not go overboard, even though it is *so* fun and satisfying to snark at those unenlightened, job-stealing misogynists.
BY SUITABLEGIRL AT 09/27/07 02:34 PM @CHOCOLATECOFFEEBEANS: Right, except India is not in the Middle East. And as flawed as it is, its hassles are a far cry from Saudi Arabia, which is what you're comparing it to.
BY SPECTATERTOT AT 09/27/07 02:40 PM @LovesToSmile: ditto (on being indian and finding this embarassing)
BY CHOCOLATECOFFEEBEANS AT 09/27/07 03:32 PM Ya know, I realized what I had said right after I posted it. I do realize India is not the "Middle East" but as has been mentioned, it is the crazy mix of government and religion that is a common thread to a lot of these countries and I would just not feel comfortable, and would be terrified of doing something wrong.
BY NARYMARY AT 09/27/07 04:10 PM This is really sad. I hope nothing awful happens to her!
BY NIGERIENNE AT 09/27/07 04:34 PM Way to set India back more than the people of Dell.
BY AHWANNABE AT 09/27/07 05:18 PM @Suitablegirl: AFAIK, Canada and Ireland have human rights laws that are at least somewhat similar to the ones we have in the good ole USA, so if the fat cats want to oursource there because it's cheaper, can't argue with that.
What I take offense to is when our fat cats outsource jobs to countries where this kind of abuse is considered okay, when we have LAWS in place to prevent it from happening here. That is the height of hypocrisy, and yes I will continue to bring up the subject of outsourcing until I'm blue in the face, or people get a clue.
BY SFIKUS AT 09/27/07 06:41 PM @Suitablegirl: "She wasn't arrested, she was detained by some idiot on a power trip (not rare in India). This is not a matter of national shame, not when there are a million worse problems in the subcontinent."
- Were she not Shilpa Shetty, and considered a bit of a national treasure, she could have faced a whole trove of other pleasures reserved for women in India - acid, stoning, etc. Yes, after all the sabre rattling, she was let off easily, but I think much of her reported reaction was compounded by her knowledge of what _could_ have happened...
BY SUITABLEGIRL AT 01:40 AM @narymary: I think she'll be okay.
@sfikus: Were she not Shilpa Shetty, Richard Gere wouldn't have kissed her...I think it's a bit much to call her a national treasure, but hey, I also think it's a bit much to paint this dire, sensational picture of a country which has issues-- just like other countries. The horror is everywhere, India doesn't have a monopoly on it-- to me, misogyny is global.
I'm bemused that I am now in this bizarre situation where I stick up for a country I normally criticize righteously.
Want to call India out on something? How about gender-selective abortions, that I'll agree is an India-specific problem. But acid? Double standards about women who are public figures/tabloids rushing to fan flames? Pot, kettle. As for stoning, again, that's more of a Taliban penalty for adultery, not an "Indian" one; my concern throughout this thread has been exactly that sort of conflation. India is by no means perfect-- but it doesn't deserve to be painted by such a broad, ugly brush.
"a whole trove of other pleasures reserved for women in India - acid, stoning, etc."
I was drawn to this site because I loved the fierce women who were creative, free-thinkers...but I'm chagrined to see less thinking and more reacting here. India is a subcontinent, with an amazing range of cultures, traditions, people...my parents came from a state with a matrilineal tradition, but that's not part of the "India" caricature, so no one knows or wants to acknowledge that. I get sad when I see intelligent, otherwise tolerant women engage in reductionist stereotyping which minimizes and demeans.
Sorry for the extra-long comment. I'm new here, I want to make sure I articulate my position well, because that's how much I respect this space.
Sigh. My inner teen is currently vaguely miserable. I thought I had discovered this amazing group of girls to hang out with, every day (and you know how difficult that is to do after college!), but perhaps I was so desperate to belong, I didn’t consider the totality of what I was coveting. Worst of all, why were the other two brown Jezebels okay with this? Was I wrong to be hurt on behalf of a country I had never even lived in?
That's what really bothered me-- I was the only one who was not echoing the chorus and following the mood; the choice of the other two desis, to toe some stupid line was like NaCl in my wound. Now it REALLY felt like high school. Is this how it is? You have to kowtow to be welcome? Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t do that the first time I was required to, back in 1988. I’m supposed to find it within me to do so NOW, two decades later? Perhaps I’m wrong about my orientation and I’m not a Jezbian after all. The prospect of that is depressing. As much as I love my sepia baby, it’s nice to get out and do more than mother (and smother).
The last time I tried to get in to a sorority, I was surrounded by people who were often clueless and thus, unintentionally hurtful; at least at the DG house they were essentially oblivious, what hurts the most here is that these women are aware, that they know a little something about India. But it’s just like what my Mom always says (especially after meeting a patient who has become “empowered” with drug or other info via WebMD, who is helpfully clutching a printout of such): a little bit of knowledge can be very dangerous. For the first time, ever, I wonder if it’s better to be ignorant about some things.