Earlier this week, I posted about learning about Indian culture to pass a sense of Indianness on to my son, Mir. In the comments, there are some wonderful suggestions for reading material, including a suggestion from Nethra, that we try the Ramayana and Mahabharata. And although part of me wants to run to the bookstore and pick up copies right now, the other wonders if that would be cultural misappropriation.
I grew up in a Muslim-Catholic household. We celebrate Easter, Christmas, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha, and Ramadan (though only my father fasts). At Christmas, my parents literally deck their halls–tinsel and ornaments overrun the house, half a dozen animatronic Santas carol in the living room, and a Christmas train chugs through a snowy wonderland on the dining room table. We’re a marvelously mixed-up family, and I love it. But my father’s family, the Indian side, has only two Hindus, both of whom married into the family. Our Indianness is a Muslim-Indianness; I have little knowledge of Hinduism beyond recognizing pictures and statuary of Kali, Shiva, Ganesh, Krishna, and Brahma.
Hindu Gods do hold a certain fascination for me. I’ve always been interested in polytheistic religions, and I’ve read widely about the Greek, Roman, and Norse traditions. I’ve read many myths to Mir; we even have a few mythology picture books. But Hinduism is a living religion. If I read stories about Krishna to Mir, am I simply reading him a story, or am I stealing someone else’s belief system? Moreover, am I misrepresenting myself, and by extension, him?
Will reading Mir sacred texts teach him about being Indian? Probably. Is that theft? Possibly. Although I believe in religious conversion and anthropological study, I worry that I’d be teaching him something that is not mine to teach. During an interview earlier this year, I asked the interviewee about being Hindu in the US. One of the things he mentioned was frustration with the American use of Hindu symbols in a non-sacred way, such as using religious wall hangings or giant statues of Ganesh, Shiva, and other deities as mere decoration, or wearing t-shirts with Hindu deities and jewelry with religious significance.
As the product of a mixed-household, I’m not offended by the secular use of religious artifacts. It doesn’t bother me when people hang prayer mats on their wall; fashion crucifixes don’t worry me either (though some of the gorier looking crucifixes with Jesus on the cross and colored dabs to represent blood do make me shudder a little). I tell Mir about Santa rather than the three wise men, because we aren’t a religious household, we’ll open presents on Christmas Day and Christmas Eve, because Joe’s Danish heritage celebrates with a feast and presents on the 24th, and we’ll be putting a small, homemade owl ornament at the top of our tree. Cultural misappropriation isn’t really an issue for us, because our culture is a hodge podge of traditions. Nonetheless they’re traditions we grew up with, that came from our families, not traditions we’ve made up in search of something we’re not sure how to find.
Ultimately, I want Mir to learn about Indianness. But Indianness is a many-headed thing. My father’s family was moved from then India to Fiji sometime in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. Although we have few details, it seems that his mother was from the northen Punjab area and his father from somewhere over the border, in what’s now Pakistan. As a group, my father’s family, myself included, self-identify as Indian. Yet I’ve never been to India, and we speak a Fiji-specific dialect of Hindi (though Joe and I are learning what my family refers to as “pure” Hindi, from an Indian-born speaker). We eat Indian food, though things are often a little different; we even tell Birbal stories. Indianness, it seems, transcends place–not just in terms of first and second generation immigrants, but first generation immigrants removed.
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