September 7th 2011, Paramount Theater. 9:15AM. My husband and I sit quietly in the cool, dark auditorium. A woman brushes past us. Congratulations! she mouths. I give a wry smile and wave back weakly. A man come out onstage and takes his place behind the microphone. The ceremony begins.
It’s time to get our American citizenship.
My heart is sinking.
I glance at my iPhone; a missed call from my mother. I hesitate to call her back.
My family has a long and passionate love affair with India. My grandmother, aunts, grandfather all fought in the freedom struggle under Gandhi. Just a month ago my aunt appeared in the media, supporting Anna Hazaare, denouncing corruption, recalling her memories at the Gandhi Ashram. One uncle was the Foreign Secretary, another uncle served in the Air Force, my mother is a Commissioner in the Information Commission. To be Indian and serve India has been the constant chant in my ears growing up. And yet—here I am. At the Paramount Theatre, ready to be re-baptized.
My head hangs lower.
The presenter is now making light jokes, eliciting nervous giggles. He introduces another colleague, a lady from the electoral office. She informs us about the importance of voting. A few more pleasantries and then we are asked to stand up and sing the Star Spangled Banner. My eyes are welling up and my voice chokes. The hall is ringing with melody; but I am thinking Sujalaam Suphalaam Malayaja Sheetalam Shasya Shyaamala Maataram….Vande Maataram. I sink back into my chair. I cannot go through this. I feel claustrophobic.
I suddenly, desperately, wish my children were there. I know it’s impossible— they’re in school—but, at their thought, my restlessness disappears. Instead a reel starts spinning. I think back to their birth—the nurses helping me lovingly; their schoolteachers helping them patiently. In my mind’s eye I see the parks we play in, the roads we travel on, the policeman who patrols our neighborhood at night, my colleagues back at the office waiting to hear from me, the restaurants we eat in, the roses in my backyard, my favorite printed quilt on my Cal King bed—what has this new motherland not given me? For 13 years she has fed me, petted me, nurtured my dreams, my children and yet, today, I hanker after another mother I left behind. I think of Sri Krishna. Born of one mother, reared by another. True to both. Yet belonging to none. Known for himself, yet known as theirs too!
So the question is, can we be like that? Can we belong to all and yet to none at all?
Of course I can’t find an answer in the middle of Paramount Theatre, but I am much calmer.
Now a lady is reading out an alphabetized list of countries and applicants from each country are standing up. I like that. I am yearning to hear India’s name, acknowledge one last time I am an Indian. India! I hear it at last and spring up. I think about the people who designed this ceremony—what an incredibly sensitive thing to do. I love standing up for India this one last time, as an Indian!
The presenter beams down at us. She is acknowledging that each of us brings something special from our motherland. Yes! I nod emotionally. I see many people doing the same. But now, she continues, today we will all come together as one.
Is that the true meaning of being American, I wonder? Am I being re-born a global citizen?
The oath dispels my illusions.
We stand up to take the oath. This time my voice is steady. I pledge allegiance to America. I renounce my fidelity to any other sovereign nation. I promise to bear arms for America. It takes all my strength to say the words aloud, but I do it. I know some people fall silent or pacify themselves knowing they “don’t really mean it.” But I repeat each word clearly. There’s no waffling mid-stream.
And so I have embarked on a new journey—from my Janmabhoomi to my Karmabhoomi. Many have crossed this chasm, so I want to believe it can be done. For now I am poised at the precipice. I am patiently weaving a new tri-colored net. Orange, green, white.
Red, white, blue. White… the white is comforting… White… Peace to me. Peace to my motherlands. Peace to my bittersweet tri-colors…
Shailaja Dixit has a Masters in Mass Communication and currently lives in San Ramon, CA where she divides her time between writing, singing and home-making.