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.