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Desi Roots, Global Wings

Fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay titled “The Girl with the red dot” that was accepted by alternet.org for publication on their website. Through my writing, I was trying to explore my motives for wearing a bright red bindi during my years as a Ph.D. student in Baltimore.

Having grown up in Bombay in a traditional family that valued education, I had been sent to a convent school, a decision taken by my mother, which her mother did not approve of, for the simple reason that school rules forbade me from wearing a bindi. 

My orthodox grandmother had strong opinions on a variety of subjects, most of which didn’t agree with my cosmopolitan outlook and free thinking. Not having to wear a bindi to school didn’t bother me one bit, it was actually a relief since it meant one less thing to do on busy school days. I do remember being perversely pleased that my bare forehead vexed my grandmother, since we constantly locked horns on most subjects.

Given my ambivalence about it, why then did I choose to earn the title of “the girl with the red dot” on campus?

Far from home, without any pressure to conform to a particular style of dressing, I had adopted the bindi as part of my new identity in America. Acutely aware of my presence in a new country, among people of many races, I noted all the ways in which I was different. Even amidst my Indian peers in the department, I was the youngest married person.

Was it because I was trying to redefine my identity while grappling with all the changes that had transpired in my life in a short time? Did the bindi give me a sense of control over one aspect of my appearance which was different from that of the majority? Did it serve as a link to my former self?

Identity, defined as “exact likeness in nature or qualities”, come from things we inherit within our cells. It shows up in the way we use our bodies, in our speech and mannerisms. The feeling of belonging that arises from similarities that we perceive within our family and the larger community in which we come of age is an intrinsic one and seems pre-ordained, to some extent.

Identity, however, is also defined as the condition of “being oneself and not another”. By moving away from a racially uniform, albeit culturally diverse home environment, I was perhaps trying to re-calibrate my place in a new system on many fronts, both within and outside my home.

My bindi was neither a symbol nor a statement. My bindi was as much a part of me as my long black hair that I wore in a single braid, a unique, visible identifier. It was as important to me as the clear contact lens (which I had also taken to wearing in the US) that although invisible to others, was essential for me to function.

The question about the bindi receded to the background when I moved back to India. But the essay gained momentum when it was featured in a college textbook alongside essays by Maya Angelou and Bharti Mukherjee. Recommended across college campuses for freshman composition, a study guide was appended to each essay. Simple but incisive questions prompted the reader to try and understand my background, my motivations and my analysis of the situation. What had come as a natural progression of my thoughts and coalesced into an essay, was a matter of interpretation for students of a different generation, for people who I wouldn’t know but who would try to know me through my words!

Although I had not visualized such an audience when I first wrote the essay, I felt a sense of validation and accomplishment that my words would help connect people by opening a window to understanding. I hoped my message that “even though I look different, my struggle with conformity and identity, is part of the universal human struggle to find our place in this world,” would shine through.

****

Brown is the new black. I hear this refrain all across the world, including in Singapore, where I now live. This tiny island, hidden among large nations in Asia, is a multiracial, multicultural society that seeks to be inclusive and secular, and calls itself the Little Red Dot. Although it is common to see people of different races and religions freely walk about in saris and headscarves, and listen to announcements in four different languages on trains, recent events indicate that sensitivity to racial differences, particularly by the ‘brown’ minority simmer below the feel-good icing of harmony peddled by media channels.

The problem is not unique to Singapore. As I browse articles on the New York Times and Medium.com, I come across prickly rants by ‘people of color’ who choose to attribute every single unpleasant experience to one immutable fact, the color of their skin. Rude behavior or an impolite remark on the part of one crass individual is sufficient to malign an entire race.

In today’s charged environment, I wonder if my essay about the red dot on my forehead would have been considered suitable for publication in print or digital media, leave alone chosen for inclusion in a college textbook.

My essay was a gentle exploration of what was fundamentally a personal issue, a matter of finding my place when displaced from my familiar surroundings. It did not occur to me then to find fault with curious colleagues who asked whether my dot was a permanent tattoo or made of velcro. Nor did I take offense when a tall blue-eyed professor mentioned that my long braid reminded him of the girls in his school whose braids he used to pull as a little boy. Genuine curiosity on both sides helped us learn a little bit more about the other through exchange of information and joint reminiscences.

Several years later, when an American colleague expressed interest in wearing a sari, I went over to her home with a few options suitable for her tall frame. We had a fun fashion show and photo shoot, with her doing a ramp walk in my green silk sari, with a multi-colored bindi on her wide forehead, her long blond hair forming a golden halo in the late afternoon sun.

On another occasion, a Scottish colleague who had grown up in Trinidad asked me if I had read V.S. Naipaul and Arundhati Roy. I hadn’t. He lent me his books. And I added two new authors to my list. Instead of being upset with him for my lack of knowledge about my culture, I was grateful to him for expanding my literary world. Through these interactions, each of us learnt a little bit more about the other through our literary and sartorial exchanges.

There is much that is unique about each of us, much that divides us. But what about all that unites us? Our curiosity, our need for community, our desire for kinship. By drawing lines, by using lazy, superficial adjectives like black and brown, we diminish not just ourselves but our shared humanity. Color may always remain the first thing that we notice about another person. But if color is all we can grasp, then we will forever remain short-sighted.

As I continue to wear a bindi in each country that I have called home, I am happy being  called “the girl with the red dot”. What I will not accept, however, is being called “brown girl with the red dot”.

 Desi Roots, Global Wings is a Column inspired by: Roots hold a person close. Wings set the person free.  We need both to live fully with confidence, thoughtfulness, and intention. In that spirit, Ranjani Rao and Nandini Patwardhan, co-founders of Story Artisan Press, explore what it means to be open-minded and curious global Indians.

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training and a writer by avocation. She has been a long time contributor to India Currents. Her writing has appeared in digital and print media in the US, India and Singapore. She is the author of several books.

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