Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Discovering a collective Indian identity

(Sunset over Munnar, 2006)

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be Indian, and the collective Indian identity. 

I think this is because of two reasons. The first, is that I'm waiting for my PIO to arrive and wondering about how I will feel when I see my picture on a legal document that says "Person of Indian Origin". The second, is that through my blog, I've interacted with so many other Whindian couples / other Indians, who have so much in common with many of the topics that I write about.

Who would have thought? When I started talking about THE family, and THE culture, I always tried to make sure to point out that certain customs are distinctly South Indian, or Tamil / Telugu, or Iyengar Brahmin, or specific to our family, etc. I even have the header on my blog (to the right) that says Tamil Iyengar so that everybody knows. 

In Vancouver, we've often felt left out of everything over the years, as many of the Indian community is Sikh and keeps to themselves, and the South Indians are few and far between. If there are any South Indians here, they usually are the cookie-cutter software engineers / IT professionals, and in turn judge us for being different - my husband for dressing different, for working in fashion and not being the "good Brahmin boy: doctor or engineer" (as if those are the only career options); or us being an intercultural couple (as if that makes him less of an Indian).

I assumed that when I started writing about OUR culture, that the only people who would be able to relate to it would be other South Indians.

Lo and behold...I've had so many interactions with other Indians / other Whindian couples who are not even from the same region or religion, who can deeply relate to many of the Indian customs that I talk about. In fact, I have so many Punjabi Sikh readers - who would have thought? The northernmost point of India, people with a completely different religion, who I used to think were the polar opposite of South Indians in so many ways...these folks can relate to me? They can relate??? I was shocked, but at the same time I felt happy. I felt the connection to them too, for the very first time. I thought...we are not so different, after all...We all drink the same chai from Munnar, after all...!

India is an incredibly divided country. Sometimes I wonder how it can survive as a nation with SO much diversity. Not just between regions and languages, but also because of the differences between modern urban India vs rural traditional India; not to mention the endless inequalities. At times, it seems that the nation is so disconnected from each other. Hindi is the national language, but many Tamilians refuse to speak it or learn it. Not just differences within the regions, but also in the rampant inequalities in the social system....if you go to one house from another it sometimes feels as though you're shifting planets. A lot of foreigners don't realize how diverse it is until they travel throughout it. It would literally be the equivalent of if Europe was one country - with all the different languages and regions.

Lately, with having so many open interactions with other Indians / Whindians (who may feel more comfortable revealing things to me through the anonymity of the internet), I'm starting to realize that there IS a distinct Indian identity. An identity that wraps up the entire nation and all of it's children, and embraces it with it's warmth. The true mother...that is Mother India. 

What's starting to emerge for me is a collective Indian identity that is as diverse as it is similar. There are so many Indian mannerisms that are distinctly an Indian mentality. There are so many ways of thinking that are distinctly an Indian psychology. And me, having traveled so much all over the world from birth, having so many friends from different cultures - I do notice how deeply the culture runs. Culture trumps religion, language, and region all the time. That is why many Indian families would be more comfortable with an Indian DIL than a non-Indian. That is why so many Indians are more comfortable making other desi friends; or going for Indian food (whether it is Tandoori or Dosa) nearly every time they want to go out to eat. If Indians didn't have such a distinct culture, then we would not be one of the rarest mixes within our Intercultural-couples community. That is why I have so many readers of my blog who are not even South Indian, but can relate to the stories I tell about MY experiences within the Indian culture. As for me, I like to know the cultural mannerisms not only out of curiosity, but it explains so much about the way husband-ji acts in certain situations. Why he has road rage (have you seen Indian streets? No patience!). Why he has a difficult time saying sorry ("No need of saying sorry to close family members" = too formal). Why he is so ambivalent about things (What to do, da?) Why his masculinity is directly connected to having a job and being "the provider" (as many men are in a patriarchal society). Why he won't ever raise his voice to my parents even when he's angry (respect to elders).

If you get to know the Indian culture, on a deeper level, you will notice many patterns and parallels even within India's different regions. "Atithi Devo Bhava" for example, is practiced all the way from Punjab to Kanyakumari. Indian food and mealtime is a HUGE centralized/integral part of Indian culture, more so I find than any other culture (even much stronger even than other Asian cultures). The presence of religion & superstition is also a big part of daily lives (even if you are an atheist, there is not even an atheist box to check on many government forms). There is a social hierarchy in terms of age (respect to elders), caste, community, gender, financial standing. The family as a whole is valued above the individual, and don't even get my started on the family dynamics - they are soooo complicated. Marriage, Birth and Death are huge parts of life, with rituals and traditions marking the passage to each phase...there are even rituals when you're going out the door for work!  Festivals (no matter the religion) are a huge part of life within Mother India. The process of naming a child is a very important ritual. Performing arts, such as music (from Bollywood pop to Carnatic classical music), dance (Banghra to Bharat Natyam), films (Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood) is a very beloved celebratory part of Indian culture (much more than the West). The dreaded Indian MIL is notorious - for a reason! And don't get me started on that freakin' head wobble (my beloved head wobble which I've happily adopted as my sporadic daily dance move!)

If you would have said anything about India's identity to me a few years ago, I would have said, "Oh don't be ridiculous...the North is completely different than the South, and so on" (and sometimes I'm still guilty of saying that). But now, I'm beginning the process of linking all the parallels. I guess you could call it my journey to understand India - discovering my second homeland, my Indian family and people, a part of my husband, and half of my daughter. Not just South India, but ALL of India. And the more I talk to other blended families like us, the more I realize how similar we all are. There is this collective Indian identity that is emerging for me - no matter the region, no matter the religion. I'm understanding what it is to "be Indian", not just what it is to be South Indian, or be the "wife of an Indian". What is it to just "be"...

Maybe this is the final evolution in the typical "foreigner" digestion of India - as Sharell says, the cycle goes: honeymoon, frustration, acceptance. Even though I may always be seen as a "lifetime foreigner", I will always have that puzzle piece in my multi-layered heart that is the of a soul of an Indian (past life, maybe?) Although it seems to outsiders that I try so hard to understand the culture, there are a lot of things about it that come naturally to me. From the outside it may look like I'm out of place, but deep inside there is the calmness that I have found my place. And although I'm drawn to India, Indians are also drawn to me...my first Indian friend was a girl in my school who wanted to be friends with me because I had a Ganesh lunchbox filled with samosas. She said it was a sign that we were meant to be friends. There is something familiar about me to Indians; and there is something familiar to Indians about me. 

In my thirst for knowledge for my second homeland, I think I have finally realized that despite my dichotomous relationship with India - to just "be". To just embrace my Mother India as she has embraced me. The answer has been inside me all along, no need of so many books or questions - or even to try to comprehend. To just "be"...

(Ahobilam, 2006)

***A special thank you to one of my readers who inspired this***


  1. I was just talking with my mom before, and she told me something that fits right into your post. My brother has lots of friends. He has a group that he is friends with since the first day of school in kindergarten. Last time, when he visited India, he and his friends went to Tirupathi. It so happens that in his group of friends, there is a Muslim and a Christian. They went with him too, not just for the journey but also for darshan. This is their first time in Tirupathi, and they went for the morning darshan. Lord Venkateshwara's statue was still being decorated. After coming home, they told my mom that their parents told them that the statue would be so beautifully decorated, but it was not. My mom then explained that was because it was too early in the morning, and they are still in the process of decorating. My mom was telling me that they loved the ladoos and ate most of them and also took home for their family and neighbors. lol.
    This is the same India where there were horrendous communal riots repeatedly. When India was formed in 1947, the world predicted that India will split up shortly after because of the diversity 67 years later it did not happen and hopefully with God's grace will never happen.
    India is a paradox. You cannot put your finger on India and say this is how India is? Funny how we cannot fit India into a box but we Indian's want to live within a box. Paradox again lol.
    Maybe every place has a paradox. I say that because many Americans are very friendly to immigrants and make us feel at home, but there are some that have their reservations.

    Any ways Good post. Being able to accept shows you are growing.

    1. yes, growing every day...is what I'm all about!

  2. I also think it is important to know about Indian culture in order to understand my husband better. Although he and his family are very independant and open-minded, sometimes it just feels like I'm facing a wall. It takes a lot of time and effort to identify and understand cultural differences.

    My husband is so much the alpha male, and it makes me laugh because I hear some western friends complaining that they can't meet "real men", and I just know they would find it very difficult to live with a real alpha male. It takes a lot of work to redefine gender roles in a subtle way when you've been educated as a western feminist, doesn't it ? Other women, from my mother's generation especially, think if you are in a relationship with this kind of man you can only be submissive... yet my feminist mother is submissive in ways I would never accept.

    In fact, I think intercultural couples are inventing new gender roles, and it is very exciting. (Padparadscha)

    1. I totally agree 200%...how profound...

  3. Alexandra

    Really enjoyed reading this piece. I have been a follower of your blog for a long time and really enjoy your perspective. A few points:

    1. As you mentioned, diversity in India is almost the same as in Europe. This is partly due to the fact that India is almost the same size as Western Europe.
    2. Indians have become much closer to each other since independence. You should watch a delightful movie called New Delhi starring Kishore Kumar about the struggles for acceptance of Punjabi-madrassi and Punjabi- Bengali couples.
    3. The role of Bollywood in particular in promoting the idea of pan-indianness and national integration has been huge but is often overlooked.


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