With my hands covered in makeshift atta (we used King Arthur’s whole wheat flour), I subconsciously started to hum the elementary school song recalling all of the American states.
My uncle and aunt peeked over my shoulder to see my creations, and it was clear why Alaska-Arizona-Arkansas had come to my mind: the uneven ridges and folds of my roti were far from the 360° of my grandmother’s buttered stacks, and much closer to a geographical model, complete with mountain ridges and hollows.
Luckily, no one in the household had been raised in India or finishing school, so it was more important that our floury mess was cooked with love than perfection.
A few months ago, I shared with my friends what I called the Channa Masala Metaphor. It is the term I give to my honest, but pathetic, version of Indian classics—whether in cooking, writing, or learning to read Hindi.
Channa masala is one of the few Indian dishes I can make without a recipe book, but even that is questionable. Every time I make it, it turns out a different color, with a different taste and aroma. While my mother can deftly identify the need for a teaspoon of turmeric or coriander seed, I’m just capable of watching my pot boil over.
The gap shows up beyond the stove when I miss the humor in old Bollywood movies or have no patience for ghazals. It gapes when I try to explain the sense of belonging I feel to both America and India.
Does it matter? Is this diluted version of classic Indian fare a sign that my generation’s ties to our parents’ culture will be watered down? And if my Hindi is, excuse me for this, “ghetto,” will my kids be pronouncing their own names wrong?
On a lot of things, I don’t think it does matter. I’m not convinced that Indians should only marry other Indians—there are 1 billion of us, so no real threat of extinction. I am also a proponent of culture without borders, and freely accept whatever Kabbalah, Sufi, or Mahayana ideas make sense to me.
But sometimes, when it comes to my headphones or taste buds, the urge to know my roots makes complete sense.
This notion was apparent one late night (or early morning) when I came back from a nightclub in Hyderabad with my cousin and some friends. It was the week after I had ended an immersion trip through India’s slums and villages.
As we relaxed on the couch, my cousin and I started to discuss the India-Pakistan border tension and the role of the Air Force. A stupid discussion for 3 a.m.
With typical pacifism on my plate, I gave my spiel about the inefficiency of war, the power of compassion and the trail that Gandhi left behind. For me, cultures with such palpable similarities had to find a middle ground, and fast.
For my cousin, the tension was wrought in the experiences of friends and family: It was the disabled pilot, the missing friend, and the tenacious politician. The conflict had meaning beyond policy and land, and had little to do with religion. My cousin’s nationalism was at once personal and unshakeable.
I realized my mistake and started to back off, but not before he bellowed, “What do you think, just because you visit and go help out in the slums, you are an Indian? You are not an Indian.”
No. No, I’m not. I have a passport with an eagle and in-state scholarship to college. I know the Star Spangled Banner, but not the full Jana Gana Mana. I am an American on paper, on the phone, and in residence.
But in America, in my country, there is a box to be checked as well: South Asian, Asian Pacific, Indian.
Despite the melting pot, people ask me where I’m from, and they don’t want to hear “Florida.” Employers don’t care that I went to Brazil and Guatemala—they want to hear about my cousin’s 10,000-person wedding and how I stayed in a village with a 13-year-old bride. India is on my skin, my tongue, and in my heart.
So here I am, unable to cook channa masala to perfection, or roast chapattis so that they don’t burn. I can’t be called an Indian by my family, or American in the workplace.
But while my habits might be thinned out versions of Indian originals, they can also be spiced up renditions of American culture. My chapattis are dry, but my pancakes are golden-brown. My iPod plays Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Jimi Hendrix with equal fervor.
The term ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) that was attached to my generation sounds nothing like how I feel. I don’t feel confused, or lost, at least not more than the normal 22-year-old amid job hunts and post-graduation.
I have inherited a rich identity with access to knowledge from two distinct cultures. Thanks to this, I have an extended family that weaves a loving, hospitable safety net, and an endless supply of biryani. I also have a stubborn sense of American independence—a drive to go anywhere and do anything that calls me loud enough.
In the end, a South African poet, yogi, dancer, and friend of mine tells it to me straight: “This is how time takes us to and from our roots, our future, our own life. We find our own sutras to chant and our grandchildren will speak of these.”
I think I’ll try to make another batch of chapattis.
Ankita Rao is a recent journalism graduate working in Washington D.C.