I was only two months old when my parents brought me from Kerala to the United States in a small carrier. The family joke is that the cab driver almost put me into the trunk of his car, believing that I was extra luggage. I was being transported to another land, one that promised to offer a better life for my immigrant family. My father was an electrical engineer and ended up making a good living. I grew up very sheltered, enjoying the protection of my parents as well as the safety of my suburban environment. I rarely encountered another person of color.
When I was 12 years old I confessed in my journal that I wanted to be white. I hated the color of my skin and despised my appearance. I wanted to be like the other beautiful Caucasian princesses at my school whose chestnut and blonde hair fell gracefully across their shoulders. I wanted aquamarine eyes. I secretly dreaded growing older and not being able to have a white boyfriend. Of course, I kept these thoughts and feelings to myself.
It made sense that I wanted to be white because I did not grow up learning to celebrate Indian culture. When we came to this country in 1980, my parents made a decision to Americanize the entire family. My father chose to not teach us siblings Malayalam. When I was older, I asked him why he did this. “Who would you be able to talk to?” he asked. He did have a point. My mother could not speak the language. She was punished as a child in her convent school in India if she used anything other than English. In addition to not knowing the language, I was not familiar with other Indian traditions. We were Catholic and attended mass every Sunday. We were a minority in India but also in the United States because of our color. My mother rarely made us coconut curries or delicacies from Kerala. She served us fish sticks, meat loaf, and pot roast instead.
I did not directly experience racism growing up, but I was incredibly sensitive to my differences. This sensitivity resulted in a deeply ingrained sense of self-rejection. Most teenagers experience alienation from their peer group at some time or another, but alienation from the self is incredibly painful. I felt very sorry for myself throughout my young adulthood. For many years, I was unable to find my roots because my ancestry remained a complete mystery to me. If you reject such a vital part of yourself, it creates a void in your subconscious mind. It whispers to you, calling your name.
My name was originally Manjula. While I have understood Manjula to mean “sweet” or “beautiful” in Sanskrit, I have most enjoyed a friend’s translation: “the one who leads you to your destination.” When I was 15, my father legally changed my name to Jula, the name that I had always been known by. It was as though that part of me was surgically removed. But when I turned 30, something awakened in me. I knew I had to return to my roots. One of my spiritual teachers encouraged me for many years to embrace my Indian heritage. He knew that I needed something because I was empty inside.
And so began my quest. Last year, my father brought my siblings and me to Kerala. It was a homecoming for me, a pilgrimage of sorts. I had not been back to India since I was 11 years old. For the final part of the trip, I had the opportunity to stay in an ashram for a week to receive nourishing Ayurvedic treatments and rest. I drank in the experience.
Each morning at the ashram, I sat on the cool veranda and sipped my freshly spiced chai. The sounds of Vedic chanting were broadcast through speakers. Every day, I attended classes in the ancient martial art named kalari. Sweat pored steadily from my forehead as I concentrated on each movement. After a bath and a delicious breakfast of idlis and chutney, I would wrap myself in a bright saffron-colored cloth. I entered a small treatment room where two Malayali women kneaded my sore muscles with medicated oil. Despite their limited English, we found ways to communicate with each other. They tried to teach me a few words. Afterward, my skin would glow, radiating a beauty within me.
The ashram was directed by Guru Hanuman Das, a kind spiritual leader who treated me as though I was his daughter. He would meander around the garden some mornings and I would shyly walk beside him. He asked me about my family, my divorce, my life. I posed questions about Indian philosophy and spirituality. He graciously answered each one. I felt a kinship with him among the beautiful coconut trees, green plants, and tropical butterflies. I was temporarily able to shed my unknown longing. I was able to listen to my own voice. Kerala spoke gently to me. She was able to share her secrets with me. It is a plentiful country, replete with lineages of great saints, poets, and mystics. This was the country of my birth, the roots of my ancestry.
Since that trip last year, I have been able to spend time with two other Indian teachers who have greatly impacted my life. They are Vishnu, my traditional Indian dance teacher and Vasanti, an extraordinary woman whose deep love of the Vedas shines through. Both teachers have inspired me to connect more deeply with my culture. To me, they embody the principles of Indian culture. My life is greatly enriched by their presence. As I learn more about my culture, I am able to accept my own history. I am more capable of witnessing the power and beauty that I had previously rejected for many years. I am coming into myself and learning to love the dark, rich tones of my skin. It is wholeness that all of us seek. To find this sense of security, we need to find a connection that fulfils us. I have been able to do this by exploring my heritage. Hopefully, I will also be able to inspire others to let go of their shame and to fully accept themselves for who they truly are.
Jula Pereira is a writer living in Santa Rosa, California. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.