Des Rangila. Colorful land. Ever since I learned them, these are the words that I have associated most with India. Though I was born in the heartland of Kansas, India has always felt as much a part of me as the red, white, and blue that supposedly flows through my veins. As a kid, I grew up dreaming of this beautiful place where women floated through the streets in the beautiful saris collecting dust in my mother’s closet. I arrived in India for the first time as a tiny three-year-old hiding in my mother’s skirts, suffering from motion sickness the entire plane ride over. I barely remember the blur of relatives I met throughout that visit. But I clearly remember the feeling of being inundated by the colors – seemingly everywhere in every detail. The bright pastels of the balloons my uncle gave me against the bright, imposing façade of the Narasimha temple we visited in Tirupati. The comforting hum of chit chatting family members in Telugu over chai on the veranda. The striking combination of colors in the dupattas and churidars that women wore in the street. These fleeting glimpses of India would stay with me.
I hold my memories of India in contrast with those I associate with being Indian in America. My closet is neatly partitioned into Indian and American clothes – as though I can parse out the different, at times clashing parts of me. Tank tops to the right and salwar kameez to the left. I remember the Sundays and festivals spent at our temple in Nashville. The familiar routine of Bharatanatyam dance lessons every week. These were the allotted times to be Indian. I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Telugu movie. As a young girl, I had the revelation that there was this whole tradition and culture out there. Maybe I was supposed to be in India. This far away place where people looked like me (tbh they only sort of look like me because #colorism). I was struck by this misplaced sense of nostalgia for Indian life.
My childhood was an exercise in flipping the switch, constantly managing people’s expectations. My mother’s disappointment that despite my best efforts I could not live up to the ideal of an Indian-born daughter. I was disobedient, too creative, too talkative, just too much. At home and in the Indian community, I would attempt (unsuccessfully, I might add) to quell the loquacious part of me. People would ask what I wanted to be when I grew up. I dutifully replied doctor, instead of journalist or meteorologist or whatever my passing fancy was at the time. My mom would always point out other Indian kids as an example, the ones whose parents bragged that they always did well in school and were excelling at their chosen hobby. I would waver between being grateful I wasn’t boring like they seemed and wishing I could color within the lines.
As I got older, I learned to be what people wanted me to be. I wanted to escape the stereotypes, and the easiest way was to stop being Indian. At school, I wanted to blend in as confident and effortlessly American as everyone else seemed. I straightened my hair meticulously, trying to hide the wavy, thick mass that might give me away. I kept up with the latest gossip and pop music. But each time a teacher struggled with my name (shoutout to the one that called me Rope the whole year) or a classmate told me to go back to wherever I came from (which is Kansas in America for the record), I knew I couldn’t whitewash all the offending parts of me.
Being proudly Indian and (somewhat less proudly these days) American is an awkward middle ground that I am still trying to navigate. Interning at the Mann Deshi Foundation and living in a rural town over the summer exposed the seams of where the Indian in me ends and the American begins. A part of me looks at India through American, unapologetically feminist eyes. Each time I would write the story of an entrepreneur and it began with how she married as a young girl, I wonder how young she was and if she even consented to the marriage. The layered awareness of the nexus of abject poverty, domestic abuse, and misogyny hit me with waves of powerlessness in the face of unbelievable structural violence. Often these entrepreneurs would tell me stories about how they built their business, and I would end up admiring the determination and resilience of these women. I take issue with the characterization of India that movies like Slumdog Millionaire have perpetuated as some backwards, hopeless poverty-stricken country. Most people never see the multi-faceted beauty of the country and strength of its people before they make their judgments.
I am fortunate to claim India and America as my heritage, even on the days when I don’t feel like I belong in either. Now, that I’m back in America. I miss hearing my mother tongue and Tamil being spoken all around me. The explosive red vermilion marking the forehead of passing men and women. The swish of mustard yellow fabric and bright marigold garlands. The beauty of these colors contrasting with rich, brown skin like mine. The way the ornately sculpted temple gopurams rise out of the lush green or dry desert landscape. The fragrant smell of woven jasmine decorating women’s braids. The saturated pink of the sunset after a monsoon rain. I fold each tiny detail into my memory – to keep as evidence that my time spent in India was real, eagerly waiting for the next time I can go home.