I was seated on the kitchen counter, my favorite perch as a four-year old. I watched my thatha, my maternal grandfather, draw a “U” shaped white figure on his forehead with what looked like a metal toothpick. Carefully, he placed a red substance with water on the heel of his hand, and with the precision of a chemist, mixed them to the perfect consistency. He washed the ever-silver rod, and, in one stroke, drew a red line in the center of his forehead. I begged him to draw one on my head as well. He simply laughed and said, “This is not for you, ma.” Seeing my wide eyes, he placed a small red line on my forehead and lifted me away.
Daily, I would watch my Ramanju thatha repeat the same process over and over again. A deeply pious man, he would bathe early in the mornings, draw his thiruman, and say his prayers for the day. The thiruman is a mark or symbol that Iyengars (members of a sub-sect of Hindus who worship Vishnu) wear on their foreheads in order to show their subservience to God.
When I was eight, I had a birthday party at my school. I was more than thrilled to celebrate with my friends and my favorite teacher. Being the bossy third-grader I was, I ordered my mom to bring cupcakes to school to share. Not wanting to anger me on my special day, she agreed to heed my wishes, but asked me to do her a small favor in return. She asked, “Swathi chellam, please can Patti and Thatha come to see your birthday celebrations? Patti would love to see your friends, and you can introduce Ms. Roberts to Thatha.”
I contemplated about this for a few days, and I came to a conclusion. My grandparents could come to my school, only if thatha erased his thiruman for the day.
“It’s too Indian, Amma, I just want to have a normal American birthday, and I don’t want my friends to keep asking questions.”
My grandfather was indignant, “Do you understand the purpose of this mark, Swathi? All my ancestors wore this on their foreheads.” I tuned out the rest of his tirade, and all I can remember is a blur of some Sanskrit phrases, and the word “God” multiple times. I never bothered to understand the significance. He never agreed to take it off.
The next day, my mom came to school at 2:00 sharp, as per Queen now-nine-years-old’s wishes. My thatha stepped out of the car, and I looked up at him. He now had a bare forehead; the first time I had ever seen this. Pleased that my thatha had chosen my side, I skipped off to play with my friends. No one asked questions about my grandparents, and no one bothered me about my Indian-ness. I was a happy birthday girl.
The symbols of tradition, in that moment, were so insignificant to me. They were a reminder of the past that we had left behind to come to America.
Every first-generation child of immigrants undergoes this inner turmoil, attempting to find the balance between culture and the American ideal. Whether being embarrassed about the parent’s over-emphasis of the “w” in “jewel” or bringing a peanut butter sandwich to school every day, we all go through the process of shunning our roots.
Some of us find the equilibrium between the cultures, and others reject either side in favor of the other. To each their own. But these visible marks of tradition, in language, in symbols, and in food, are dog-tags that point us out as “others,” not part of the American standard. Attempting to fit in, we try to minimize the exposure of this immigrant side of us, until we can understand where we truly fit in. This innocent, albeit rude, rejection of my thatha’s thiruman was an expression of the culture wars that I faced, even at nine years old.
But, as time progressed, I learned to appreciate my heritage more and more. The simplicities of rituals and wealth of knowledge in my Indian blood mean a great deal to me now.
Through many of my thatha’s visits, I began to learn more about the Hindu religion. He taught me many of the slokams and their meanings. He instilled a great sense of tradition within me, with his stories of mythology and staunch beliefs that he continues to impart to me. Although we argue about many facets of the differences between the cultures, we respect one another immensely. And as I developed a closer relationship with my thatha, I came to associate that familiar thiruman with him, his ideologies, and the tradition that he represents in my mind.
“Thatha, it isn’t just. How can you continue to be so rooted in your misogynistic ways?” At fourteen, I found each and every reason to reject the patriarchy. A number of our conversations would start and end the same way: with me criticizing the backwardness of the South Indian cultural processes.
He tried to explain to me, “Illa, ma, appidi illa. It isn’t like that. The woman was always given control of the wealth and the gold that the man brought home. She had an equal part in the control of the household as the protector of the family’s riches. Only she could decide when to sell the jewelry for money.” I, a sharp-tongued teenager, could not take this as an answer. I could not accept the inequality that continues even to this day. “How come only men can don the sacred thread or even the thiruman you wear as opposed to a devout lady?”
Again, my thatha was the poster face of tradition. All qualms I had with the culture were directed at him. He was always ready with a response, “Women wear the bindi. Wouldn’t it look weird if I wore a sari and Patti wore a veshti?” I kept quiet for a minute. Quickly, my next rebuttal came to me. It followed the rule of my family: when all hope fails, change the subject, even if ever-so slightly. “Thatha, American people treat men and women more equally, why can’t we?” Once again, I held the American culture to an executive ideal.
Last summer, my thatha and I decided to embark on a mission: to use the Silicon Valley public transportation system. We would take these, mostly empty buses, to places around our neighborhood. A bus driver one day, noticed the mark on my thatha’s forehead, and asked him what it was. With his thick accent and expressive hand gestures, my thatha said, “It is the Lord’s feet. When we worship Him, we must remember that we are simply his subordinates who bow down to Him.”
I remember clearly the pride that my thatha felt that day that someone from another culture cared enough to ask about his thiruman, a symbol of our religion and his faith.
It was then that I learned that in order to be “American” or “modern” it does not mean we all have to be the same, factory-made people with no story or no heritage.
Being American means accepting and taking an interest in what each person of every background has to offer us. We are known as the melting pot, a seamless mixture of countries all over the world. Accepting the American character is having a certain blend of old and new, custom and innovation.
My thatha’s adherence to the role of ancient practices but to the acceptance of modern convention reflects this duality. As paradoxical as it may sound, my thatha’s thiruman, which I once repudiated so greatly has actually not only come to be a symbol of tradition for me but also of being American.
Swathi Ramprasad is currently a junior at Presentation High School. She enjoys being a child of two cultures.
First published in February 2016.