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Knowing Me, Knowing You

Knowing Me, Knowing You

November 27, 2010

The more I learn for my son, the more I learn about myself.

Writing about being Indian is hard. It’s hard because it’s something we take for granted--being Indian is not an existential exercise. There’s no check list or recipe for how to be Indian, just as there’s no recipe for how to be a woman, or a mom, or a wife. And yet there are so many ways to be Indian--clothing, cooking, language, literature--that it’s easier to feel less Indian than it is to order pakoras from the takeaway down the street.

Perhaps it’s silly, but I try to do one Indian thing with Mir per day. It’s our special thing, mommy time that no one--except perhaps my brother, Ben--can share, because Mir, Ben, and I are the only mixed kids in our family. In fact, until I moved to the US, Ben and I were the only mixed race kids I knew.

Although my list of Indian things is small, I keep to it with Mir, arguably more for me than for him. Little things, like conversations purely in Hindi or spicing his mashed potatoes, take on new meaning; reading an all-Hindi picture book is a special adventure, both of us struggling through the text, are still new. Much of my old, pre-baby life is unrecognizable, and not just because of the sleep deprivation--I’m more connected to my Indianness now than I have ever been.

It’s not uncommon for children to help us discover new things about ourselves. Yet my being Indian is not a new thing-- I’ve been half Indian my entire life. My skin has always been this color, my nose has always been slightly crooked, and I’ve been in love with lime pickles since the first time I tried them, around age three. I’ve neither hidden my heritage nor declared it--at least, not until Mir. Now, I regularly find myself owning my Indianness, talking about my family, our Hindi lessons, and Mir’s penchant for dal and baingan bharta at the drop of a (sari) pin.

Connecting to being half Indian with Mir is fun. I love our chats--he can say lal (red), dud (milk), and understands another dozen or so Hindi words. But I often find myself wondering why I need him to learn about myself. I’m a modern, twenty-something woman, a college grad with a pretty good grasp of who I am and my miscellaneous, particolored baggage. My life is not complex enough for me to claim a lack of time, or understanding; what’s left?

My lack of knowledge of India, of geography, is not crippling, but ignorance of customs and language are. And knowing neither of these makes it harder to connect to culture--Bollywood movies make less sense without a cultural context, and there’s only so much singing and dancing a girl can watch. Worse, the shiny, Anglicized versions tend toward condescension--Bride and Prejudice, the Bollywood-influenced 2004 version of the Jane Austen novel, is a glamorous, underwritten and overproduced romp, light on storyline as it plays to audience expectations of Indian cinema. But as an NRI--or rather a PIO, a Person of Indian Origin, my options to learn about my heritage have been somewhat limited--and I’ve been too lazy to chase them.

For the most part, my lack of Indianness has done me no harm. I’m not suffering from any physical harms, I have a close circle of friends and family, and I love what I do. Granted, family gatherings and trips to the Indian shop can be a little fraught, but these are not every day occurrences. Yet I wonder if my fascination with Indianness--with The NRI, with Mir’s heritage, with Hindi--comes from missing something I didn’t know I missed, until now.

Perhaps it’s simply that children force us to better ourselves; perhaps it’s that I want Mir to have the comfort among Indian family I craved as a child. Perhaps it’s that it’s fun to have a special mommy-baby thing, particularly as he grows more attached to people outside the home. Regardless of the cause, discovering more our shared heritage is something I look forward to.


  • Amitha
    23.12.10 02:12 AM
    "there’s only so much singing and dancing a girl can watch" LOL! Hilarious!

    Seriously though, it is hard trying to teach my child Indian culture when I feel like I haven't a clue what constitutes Indian culture and what is just stuff my family does that no one else in India does. :) But I like your idea of doing a little bit every day. It's good to get out of the mode of thinking where you feel like being Indian is an all or nothing kind of deal.
  • Jennifer Kumar
    Jennifer Kumar
    11.12.10 06:17 AM
    Interesting story! Glad you are able to get in touch with your heritage. What a cool thing!!

    By the way thanks for using my photo in your post.
  • A restless mind with a sensitive heart
    A restless mind with a sensitive heart
    30.11.10 11:23 AM

    This was really an experience peeping into the world of and NRI, a person who wants to inculcate something Indian in her child. Good to see that.

    Hey, read my post on Karva Chauth, on my blog, u'll like it! It's about a modern view on this ancient ritual.


  • Priyanka
    30.11.10 10:32 AM
    Hi Peta,

    Just stumbled on this post. I think you have more than half the issue resolved. You want Mir to have a special bond, that you wanted yourself - I'm sure you'll leave no stone unturned. :)

  • nalini hebbar
    nalini hebbar
    30.11.10 09:38 AM
    You could read him the Amar Chitra Katha comics which are available in English...the old stories are great!...Really it does not need to be in Hindi...
    Your post really explains why I feel so excited by anything Kerala!...ROOTS!
  • Nethra
    29.11.10 12:50 PM
    How about reading Ramayana or Mahabharata? You can surely know what's being Indian is all about.
  • arpana
    28.11.10 06:52 PM
    Touched your longing and love- life is everywhere so is the love, where ever you are, who ever around you , you will be able to harness love .Have a great day!

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