To me, what binds the Jhumpa Lahiris, Mira Nairs, and Punjabi MCs of the diasporic art world together is their ability to transform seemingly mundane daily experiences into a sort of Indian poetic. Indian mothers didn’t quietly walk through their homes; their bangles made a soft chun-chun sound, creating fond childhood memories. Annoying, corpulent aunties doting over the community’s children are actually endearing, in retrospect. The dhol isn’t simply a percussion instrument; it’s the sound of a generation’s heartbeat.
These “moments in art” that literature, film, and music deem the (usually feminine) symbols of our collective desi experience didn’t really exist in my home. We didn’t throw or go to family parties, considering my parents had no friends. Karnatik ragas and Hindi films scores weren’t the soundtrack of my childhood; my mom opted for Oprah Winfrey and preachy intellectuals on talk radio. My mother never wore a bindi and sari to my school’s open house, killing my chances of telling a dramatic story of adolescent culture clash.
Welcome to the world of the detached desi.
I would say: “You know who we are,” but you probably don’t, and we really don’t care. Indifference, at best, is our hallmark. At Indian functions, when we show up, we’re mere space fillers. We’re the ones who sit on the top rows of the bleachers at garbas. We get all dressed up for the one party we go to a year, and sit in a corner concentrating on the food because we don’t know anyone. We walk in ready to leave, we yawn a lot, and we give you blank stares when you offer us prasad.
My dad never forged any Indian cultural niches for us, so I never went to Gujarati pride camps, Bal Vihars, or weddings. The only Guju thing about my dad is him saying: “Life is about the making of the money!” with a flick of the wrist and some hand contortion that resembled a bharatanatyam gesture. And he didn’t really even live up to that.
I could simply blame it on my parents not having many desi friends, but it goes beyond that. We just don’t actively pursue or ponder Indianness. The detached desi, mind you, doesn’t resent being Indian—oh no, that would require too much passion. There’s no fantastic ill-will, no morose declarations of longing to be something else. It’s simply a disengagement from anything sustaining or resonant. In other words, my parents will drive 50 miles to try the new Indian buffet in Southern California, but they’ll claim fatigue when someone actually invites us to a wedding, or poverty if I ask why we’re the only family that’s never been back to India.
I’m assuming (and I can only assume, considering how illogical it would seem for a detached desi to actually talk about being detached) that the offspring of these ho-hum parents go either of two ways: an even further detachment from “being Indian,” as in my brother’s case, or a desire to learn what this whole desi thing is all about (enter me).
A combination of curiosity, boredom, and an inherent lack of machismo drove me to overcompensate for this lack of desiness in my life. I became an undercover Indophile in my teens in hopes of pushing this indifference to the wayside. Considering this truly was a covert operation—there would be nothing more embarrassing than my parents laughing at my desperate attempts at an identity—I started stealing.
My first boon was the Saudagar soundtrack I acquired one evening from my friend Deepak’s house. Deepak’s family was one of the very few Indian families my parents associated with. They weren’t as detached as we were, but quite dysfunctional, so we got along just fine. To this day, there is nothing quite as exciting as opening up a new audiotape or CD that you distantly heard somewhere else and hearing it on your own stereo, especially when it’s ill-begotten. I had an instantaneous affinity with Hindi film music, for whatever reason—whether it was because it was Indian, or melodic, or that I was simply drawn to the “dramatic laaaa!” of it all, as my roommate puts it. “Ilu Ilu” will always have a special place in my heart.
College wasn’t as simple and innocent, and after a short spat of self-hate engendered by never having been around so many white people before, I delved back into my idealized desi dreamland. I joined desi organizations, took desi classes, watched desi films, read desi books and made friends with the progressive, hipster desis who resented but secretly wanted to hang out with the superficial, stylin’ desis in the mainstream crowd. I was all desi, all the time.
But the inevitable mockingly and suddenly hit me one day: “Is that all there is?” After a steady diet of overconsumption, I slowly started to deconstruct what it all meant with my new-found college progressive vocabulary.
For one, I began to realize that many of these suburban desis who had ties with all the other suburban desis in California would’ve killed to be in my shoes. I realized the obvious: that being desi meant more than simply listening to songs and attending endless performances. I had it easy, with my flighty, pick-and-choose self-created Indian-American culture.
My Indian culture isn’t my mother’s Indian culture. The reason we never went back to visit India, I learned, was because of the horrible relations my mother had with our callous relatives. To her, India represented a string of bad memories.
Moreover, my mother is her own person, independent of ethnicity. Despite the indifference I described earlier, she’s a very vibrant, intelligent person who would rather listen to talk radio and read books on investing than watch silly films, Indian or not. My mother doesn’t hate India, but can’t help but associate it with oppressive memories.
Nothing was ever forced down my throat. I sensed this when I couldn’t relate to my friend when he told me, with a trace of desperation in his voice, that he really needs to get married to an Indian woman soon. Or when I read Ragini Srinivasan’s article in India Currents (August 2003) about taking her bharatanatyam training for granted and only years later realizing its value. Because, when you think about it, what if the mridangam player really only wants to be the dancer, and vice versa?
Lastly, some desis are detached out of necessity. Dance lessons, temple donations, performance costs, Indian clothes, and satellite dishes can cost a pretty penny. If you’ve got a debt at the India Video Emporium, you don’t want to fry a pakora for the auntie who brushed up against Hrithik Roshan in her front row seat at the Megastars concert.
With this jaded reality in mind, I decided to reveal to my mother the last secret in my cache of desi tricks: my months-long affair with bharatanatyam. After an initial reaction of “boys don’t do that,” my mother started to take a sincere interest in what I was doing, and this new world I was exploring.
We took a collective interest in the most accessible aspect of Indian culture in Southern California—art. Whether it was day trips to the Norton Simon Museum, catching Shabana Azmi’s new play or our monthly trips to dance performances, my mom started to really get into being Indian. Sure, she romanticized it here and there, but considering what she’s been through, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the more beautiful aspects of our culture. So while I was steering towards a heady deconstruction, she was commencing a celebration.
Last week, she asked me when the next garba raas is. She said she’d go if she’s not too tired. This time, we’ll sit a bit closer to the action. Maybe even dance a bit.
Anand Shah is a recent graduate of UCLA.