Anybody who knows me knows that waking me up at an ungodly hour is like asking for a death sentence – but once a year, on Vishu, I allow it.
What is Vishu?
Vishu, a Hindu festival, is essentially Kerala New Year; it’s the start of our astrological calendar. For farmers in Kerala, it also signifies the start of the harvest. A good harvest means a happy community, so Vishu is filled with prayers for a prosperous year to follow. Religiously, it is the day celebrating the victory of Lord Krishna when he killed the demon Naraksura.
How is Vishu celebrated?
Rather than throw vocabulary terms at you and expand on mythology that—let’s be honest—is fuzzy to even my parents, I want to take a different approach. Here’s one of the first Vishus I remember in 2002.
I am awakened by my mother’s ice cold hands covering my eyes. I curse her to the extent that an 8-year-old’s vocabulary permits but then ultimately let her guide me out of my bed and to a corner of the kitchen. She uncovers my eyes to reveal this year’s Vishukkani; a beautiful arrangement of mirrors, fruits, vegetables, a vilakku, gold, coconuts, and various Gods.
Vishukkani (which is derived from the Malayalam word “kani” which means “to see”) is the first thing one must see when they wake up on Vishu and is set up the night before by the woman of the house (shout out to my mom). The idea of waking up to Vishukkani is the tradition that seeing good things at the start of a New Year will inevitably lead to prosperity and I mean what’s better than gold and coconuts am I right?
I get back into bed and thank God I still have two hours until I have to wake up again for the school bus.
I patiently stand outside my parent’s bathroom, waiting for my dad to finish getting ready for work so I can ask for my Vishukkaineetam.
Vishukkaineetam is when the elders of the family give money to the younger ones of the family out of the belief that it will bless them with prosperity for the year. I think my dad feels pretty blessed now that I no longer qualify for Vishukkaineetam (though Achan, you can feel free to transfer money into my bank account whenever you want). Not limited to the family, Vishukkaineetam is also an opportunity to distribute wealth throughout the community whether that be through charity, sponsoring meals, etc.
I stare at my naked hot dog and twinkie as I begin to daydream about the feast that awaits me when I get home. I wonder what payasam my mom is going to make for dessert (maybe the only time I’ll say that white is superior to brown).
Payasam (essentially kheer) is a rice pudding made with milk and sugar and flavored with raisins, nuts, cardamom, or saffron and is always on the menu on Kerala holidays.
I’m finally home from school and put on an outfit that I will later complain is “too scratchy.” The women of the house usually wear sarees while the children (aka me) wear a pavada (a long skirt) and a blouse. Men will wear a mundu and button down shirt. What makes traditional Kerala clothing unique is the kasavu border that borders the entire outfit.
The most wonderful part of being from Kerala commences the sadhya. An array of traditional foods that is only served on special occasions. Eaten on a banana leaf, the feast starts with rice, sambar, papadam, and various smaller dishes. My favorite is chakka upperi, which is sautéed jackfruit in coconut oil, mustard seeds, curry leaves and probably a bunch of other stuff. The meal ends with sweet payasam eaten on the same banana leaf.
**cue food coma**
At the end of the day, Vishu is about spending time with your family. And although this year, I won’t get to be physically with mine, I take today to reflect on the decisions I’ve made thus far in my life and how to look towards a bigger and brighter future. I hope you all will too!
Happy Vishu, everyone! And for those who aren’t from Kerala but may need a Jan 1 do-over: You’re welcome to join us!
Culture, in the broadest sense, is a shared set of norms, values and beliefs. We pass down our culture to our children based on our own lived experiences, and what we believe in. The decisions we make for our families reflect the values that we want to prioritize. We also hope that our children will want to pass them down to their own children.
As parents, it’s important to reflect on our cultural values: Where did they come from? Why do we believe in them today? Also, what values seem outdated or irrelevant in modern times and for our own children? By reflecting on these, parents will consciously be aware of the values that they believe are relevant, meaningful, and important to articulate to their children before they leave the nest and fly off into the world.
Our South Asian-American culture is constantly shifting and adapting to reflect changes of the modern times. Today, we are continuing to hold on to the celebrations that bring us the most joy and meaning in our lives. For example, I am attending a family wedding, this October, where the bride is Gujarati and the groom is Tamilian. They have decided to have a Sangeet which is traditionally a Punjabi custom, but they wanted to celebrate both cultures in this new way with their families because they both love music and dancing to Bollywood songs. They are also honoring their individual cultures during the ceremony by having a mangalsutra (the most important piece of the Tamilian ceremony) and the sindoor (the most important part of the Gujarati ceremony).
As we approach Rakhi this year, I think back to how I used to celebrate Bhai Phota, which is a Bengali version of Rakhi celebrated during Diwali. Today, I have chosen to celebrate Rakhi with my brother and with my Bengali-Gujrati family as a separate celebration, that takes place in August, because this way we can spend more quality time celebrating this sibling bond.
Post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha puts forth how when cultures mix together, we often open up a hybrid, third space, which forms new ways of being and living in the world. This idea of hybridity acknowledges the space in-between cultures which is filled with contradictions and indeterminate spaces. By negotiating between these differences, we are able to create new forms of culture and identity.
“hybridity… is the ‘third space’ which enables other positions to emerge.” – Homi Bhabha
Today, South Asian American children are forming new ways of connecting to their cultural identities. This summer, I launched my new children’s book, Shanti and The Knot of Protection: A Rakhi Story, to provide more context to children about the historical origins of Rakhi, while also capturing the new and unique ways Rakhi is being celebrated in contemporary times. In contemporary times, we don’t just celebrate with our immediate siblings, but also with our network of family and friends that we have created in our communities.
We celebrate individuals in our lives (boys or girls) who provide us with a sense of protection and security. This could mean siblings that are both girls, siblings that are both boys, only children, or children who identify as LGBTQIA+ and don’t identify with traditional gender norms. I wanted this story to highlight images of inclusivity and to represent and validate the experiences of all children who are celebrating this festival in the modern day and age. Through this story, children learn the importance of creating a community and feeling secure with not just their siblings but with their friends and other caring adults.
Shanti and the Knot of Protection also helps parents open up the conversation about what values they want their children to prioritize in our post-pandemic world and how to live a balanced life. In this story, Shanti’s parents die and she decides to rule her queendom based on the four values that her parents taught her: strength, curiosity, community, and security. In addition to highlighting the importance of relationships, this book also highlights the importance of balancing one’s life with the four domains of well-being: physical domain (strength), cognitive domain (curiosity), social domain (community), and emotional domain (security). These domains are all connected to one another and influence our overall well-being and happiness in life.
As parents, we want to be the North Star for our children and provide them with an inner compass to know what values are important and why. We also want them to know how to be resilient during difficult times. As Ann Landers states, “It’s not what you do for your children, but what you have taught them to do for themselves that will make them successful human beings.” Through this story, I hope parents can have important conversations with their children about prioritizing values that will contribute to their overall well-being, happiness, and resilience in their lives.
July 7, 2023September 10, 2023 11min readBy Ushma Shah
BGM literary editor Nimarta Narang is honored to work with author Ushma Shah in this utterly creative and novel, pun not intended, story about a young woman who has just moved to the United States with her husband, and her trusted diary. Ushma is a short story writer and an aspiring novelist. She has her short stories published in a few anthologies and online literary magazines like Kitaab and The Chakkar. She was born in Mumbai and raised in Mumbai and Cochin. She has an MBA and works in the corporate world. Work and life have given her the opportunity to live in multiple cities in India. She currently resides in Seattle and goes by the handle @penthythoughts on Instagram.
She is the kind of person who doesn’t like to go into stores without a purpose. But she sometimes does. And that’s how she becomes a hoarder. She also prefers only tried and tested places. The kind where she doesn’t have to go out empty-handed. The urge to not disappoint people is strong. So she ends up buying useless things. Like a snow globe with a turnkey. Or 12. She loves the tiny magical people and animals in it. Rotating. Glowing. Musical. But I am deviating from the point. Who am I, you ask? I am her. A piece of her. She takes me everywhere. Writes down her thoughts in me. Writes how her day was. That’s why I know her so well. Why am I telling you all this? Because she hasn’t written for a week now. Longest she has gone in half a decade. I don’t understand it. She won’t tell me anything anymore and I am just so curious. No, curious is the wrong word. The intensity is just not right. I am impatient. Restless. Maybe even hurt, too? I see what she does. How she looks. But that’s just not enough. Not for me. Her confidante for five years and suddenly it’s all poof.
Human addiction is a true addiction. I was superior for those glorious thoughts that nobody knew about her. She doesn’t look happy. She opens and shuts me, picks me up and then back down. In her new Michael Kors bag she bought recently at a premium outlet mall. She always wanted to see a new country. 32-years-old and she had never visited any country other than the one she was born in — India. She should be happy she is finally here. She couldn’t stop chirping about it when they got their visas approved. She and her husband. She has been here for three months now. Initially, she was happy. But then the euphoria died down and anxiety kicked in. The last thing she wrote was: “I haven’t had a bath for a week now.” Her husband is too busy with work to notice. The new project takes up most of his time. Plus navigating life in a new country is a project in itself. I hear him not understanding why an appointment is required for a self-guided tour of the apartments. And that they have appointments only till 5 p.m. which means they have to go house hunting during his office hours. Downtown Bellevue mostly has apartments for rent that are managed by corporations rather than individuals. But at least he is okay with the cold, having survived Delhi weather all throughout his life. It also doesn’t help that she is not used to the cold, having lived in Mumbai all her life. It only needed to turn 22 degrees Celsius in Mumbai when she used to set off; removing her sweaters and jackets from the untouched-for-a-year cupboard. So house hunting is a major bummer, painstaking process even for her. In a place where it always drizzles but doesn’t bring the smell of wet mud. Everything around her is concrete. Asphalt. Sterile.
One day on their way back, they visited the Meydenbauer Beach Park along Lake Washington. I saw a hint of a smile. The first one in a week. The pine trees are a solace. They stand strong, holding their ground at maybe a 100 feet. She cranes her neck back and tries to catch a look at the tip. Making her feel dizzy. She feels like she is falling back. Tilting her five feet frame. She removes her feet from the shoes. She looks at the rounded stones. Big stones. The size of an ottoman big enough to comfortably sit on but hard enough to not sit for long.
But by the end of the visit, she looked worse. That night she wrote and I was thankful for the visit. The first sentence read: I feel claustrophobic. She has lived in Mumbai all her life and never knew that subconsciously the sea made such a big impact on her psyche. The sea, unending in its view. Its waves crashing and rebelling against the rocks gave her a sense of space even though she lived in a one-room kitchen apartment. The warmth. She missed the warmth, although sometimes too stifling. The sweat, and the saltwater smell. There was much to be thankful for here in Bellevue, even though there were no crashing waves and it was 45 degrees Fahrenheit today. The sand, too cold. But there was peace, there was calm. But what about the sounds that she craved, the feeling that stimulated her senses? That accompanied her every morning: the ‘tring tring’ of the cycles, the ‘tip tip’ of the water overflowing from the tank after it was filled. The daily TV news her Ma watched. The smell of her morning chai with grated ginger. The ting ting of her small bell during pooja. These are the things that she does not write but I know her. I know how to read between the lines.
But somewhere I have failed her. I must have. If she did not find comfort in writing. For how could she have gone on without it for a week? How could she? She is as used to me as I am to her. Or at least I thought that.
But now is not the time to feel irritated. She has started writing again. I was overjoyed; I thought everything would be back to normal now. How naive was I? A few lines in, and I am worried. I am also worried that my annoyance will seep through the pages and into her hands. She writes: I miss my place where the duration of the days and nights are almost the same throughout the year. A place where I don’t have to see a 4:30 pm sunset. Or a sunrise after 7:30 am. Nobody prepared me for less than 10 hours of daytime. I feel like I took the sun for granted. When I first came here in October, the sun set at around 7 p.m. Every day, the sun set a little early from then on. 6:50, 6:43, 6:22, 6 p.m., 5:54 p.m. And then on November 6 came the thing I was least prepared for. The Daylight Savings. I would gain an hour, they said! What I gained was a sense of doom. Because the clocks were set back by an hour, the sun set before 5 p.m. every day from then on.
The seasons are what make me. Why then, am I afraid of the seasons? No matter what the weather, the weather is constant. It is constantly too hot, or too cold or just not warm enough or just not cool enough. Every day in itself brings a new season.
“Oh, there is a heavy rain forecast for the whole day today.”
“Do you know it’s going to snow today?”
“Amazing weather! Isn’t it a perfect day to travel?”
Seasons are a universal language, everyone understands it. It transcends manmade boundaries. Just as I am feeling the cold under the layers of clothes I wear. A breeze rippling through the surface of the lake water makes me shiver. If the seasons are what make me, why do I feel cold and sad. Maybe because I long for a different weather. Having grown up in a tropical city, my body is not used to the cold. But is that all? The great reason for the hollow? It can’t be. And I am restless because I can’t figure it out. If not this, then what else? What else could it possibly be?
When she writes this I figure it out. I am always able to figure her out. Her mind does not want to go there. Because after all, this is the life she chose. Of course, how could I have been so blind?
Around two weeks ago I observed her. Observed and observed for a few hours. A few days. Even then I knew something was amiss. She was writing but her heart wasn’t in it. It was dwindling. She doodled and dawdled. A sentence here. A sentence there. Then I was discarded on the coffee table in front of her. My observations, you ask? She scrolls through LinkedIn, going through a series of posts about the looming recession. She searches and applies obsessively to 50 job openings every day. And day after day, her laptop or phone chimes in with a rejection email. She refreshes. Refreshes. Refreshes. Every 10 minutes. Whatever she is doing. No matter if she is in the kitchen or the washroom or the living room. She is glued to her phone checking for a new email. A new job opening. She set her filters to relevant job openings… And then goes on to the painstaking process of filling her details out on different company portals. When she reached the USA, she was hopeful. Of finding a new job. Was very optimistic. She had worked with global companies in India after all. Surely that had to account for something. But with each passing day, the light within her dimmed just a little. Bit by bit. I hate to admit it but I didn’t come to this conclusion when I observed her. It struck me when I stopped and she wrote again. Sometimes I need a macro perspective after micro is too much. She is so inside her head and not on paper that she cannot understand. But I also don’t think it is as easy to pinpoint. It’s a combination of things in her life, culminating in a single point of paralysis. Even now, who knows? It’s just my opinion of a subject I don’t understand completely. She is talented enough to fool everyone around her. Her friends and family also do not know this about her. They think she is enjoying her break from work. They think she is immensely enjoying the exploration of a new country without a worry in the world. She hates admitting that she is miserable. She wants them to feel that she has got it all together. That her life is perfect. When they go through her social media profile, they find her happy pictures. Ecstatic even.
A couple of months ago when she was leaving for the USA, her office colleagues had warned her: “One of my sisters lives in the States. She is miserable there. Wants to come back but her husband doesn’t.”
“He has a high-paying tech job and all so he is okay. But he is on an H1-B visa without an I-140.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“Which means the spouse can’t work. So she can’t work.”
“I am surprised you didn’t know this.”
“I haven’t started my research yet on the visa types and job search. But I intend to.”
“It is very important to understand your options. It is not always as picture-perfect as it seems. My sister is busy doing all the household chores. And she is not happy. Her social life was here. She has no friends there. Only his work friends they mingle with.”
“I know about my visa type though. I can still work there.”
“Oh, honey,” she gives a sympathetic smile, “but everyone wants to convert into an H1-B once they go there. So there could be a brief period where you might have to be unemployed.”
“But that doesn’t matter. Because we intend to come back in a few years. We just want to experience a different work environment and culture and to have that thrill of living in a new country. But only for a few years.”
“Honey, they all say that. As I said, consider your options once you are there before you decide anything. Okay?”
“I will, thanks. I am sure my husband would also check about these things. It is a major decision after all.”
“Oh, I am sure he would.”
She was very emotional on the last day of her job. She had worked there straight out of B-school. She had met some people who would become close friends and some who were toxic. But on the last day, she knew she would miss them all. She didn’t think that saying goodbye would be this difficult. Her name on the desk and chair in bright white letters with a black background came alive with memories. Memories of birthdays celebrated, lunches ordered, huddles and meetings, apprehension of deadlines, the adrenaline rush of getting it done just in time, the accolades. It felt empty by itself if not for the people she surrounded herself with. Her friends.
Her colleagues. They motivated her and pushed her to give her best. Her manager was always an inspiration. Solving problems and giving solutions in a way she herself didn’t think was possible. She learned a lot from each of them. But she was excited to begin a new chapter. But the isolation in a new country was what she hadn’t counted on.
Her husband noticed when she hadn’t had a bath for a couple of days. He thought it could be laziness. When he asked her about it, she said she would. Her reply was curt, and tone grumpy, so he left it at that. After a week of the whole no-bath scenario, her husband thought it was time to have a talk. This wasn’t one of those phases she would overcome on her own. A little push. A little nudge would maybe do her some good. When he saw her refreshing her Gmail inbox for the umpteenth time that day, he said,
“You know, we came to this country to experience a new place, a new city.”
“Hmm.” Eyes glued to the screen.
“Don’t you think it’s time to do that?”
He places his hand in front of her phone.
“What are you so worried about?”
She looked at him for a moment before answering. “That I won’t find another job. Every day on LinkedIn, there is a new company that’s laying off or announcing a hiring freeze and I am worried that my career break will just go on longer.”
“But weren’t you always saying that you needed some time off to pursue your passion of writing?”
“All that’s good to talk about. But I need to focus on my career too.”
“I understand that, but the recession is not your fault. You are doing everything you can.”
“I need to do more.”
“You need to get the bigger picture. Zoom out. You have a glorious opportunity to work on your writings. You have notebooks filled with stories. Don’t you think it is time you polished the pieces and submitted them somewhere?”
“What I need to do is get a job.”
“You will get it but the time that you have right now, in between jobs, is hard to come by. Think about it. You can try to do what you always talked about doing. Or was all that just big talk?” I could see, she took the bait.
She considered. “Hmm,” was all she said.
“I also found something for you.”
He had searched for a public library nearby. A magnificent three-storied red brick building standing beside a park. Just a mile away from their home. She could get herself a membership there. I thought this was an amazing idea. She had always wanted a house near a library. I could tell that this piqued her interest even if she feigned indifference to her husband. She wanted to see it first. I could see it in her eyes. And here I thought that the husband was too busy to notice her worries. I guess he was letting her be. Well, I couldn’t have guessed it. I can’t read his thoughts.
The next morning, she woke up to her alarm at 7:30 a.m. and had a shower. She was ready by 8:30 a.m., in time for the library to be open by 9 a.m. She was armed with her warmest winter jacket and a beanie. Wandered around the streets on her way to the Bellevue library. Taking in the strollers with their prams and pets. Warm coffees in their hands. In 10 minutes, she was standing in front of the library and was not disappointed. Covered with floor-to-ceiling glass panes, she could peer inside as she walked to the front door. She was also pleasantly surprised at a life-sized bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi just outside the library; in the midst of now barren trees. There was ample seating space inside. Aisles and aisles of books: classics, romance, historical fiction, new interesting fiction and non-fiction sections, choice reads, monthly picks, and a dedicated holds section for reserved books.
Her husband was right. Isn’t this what she always wanted to explore? Read and write. Write and read. Surround herself with books and pages. She had found her place. She touched her fingers in reverence to the cracked paperbacks, reminding her of the piles of books she left behind at her place in India. She borrowed a few novels and set off with them and me in her backpack. Couldn’t resist a warm cup of coffee from a cafe she spotted. Picked a window-facing table overlooking a park. She read as she finished her coffee. A good girl’s guide to murder was a page-turner. It was the first time in months that she had ventured out on her own. She felt at ease. At peace. Her breath, a little lighter. A little deeper. She saw two dogs playing outside. Free and wild. She picked up her phone and googled bookstores and art galleries around. She found that a couple of independent bookstores nearby also host monthly book clubs and writing clubs. She signed up for them and started off in the direction of the art gallery.
I was happy. She was bouncing back. One step at a time.
Growing up in suburban Connecticut, being the only brown face in a room has never fazed me. I was always the little brown girl in the corner with waist-length hair and a name that made every teacher pause, but the feeling of “otherness” captured in this line was something I knew all too well.
This feeling isn’t unique. It’s the same experience of many immigrants and first-generation South Asian Americans, and that of the main character of “The East Indian”as well.
While a work of fiction set in the 1630s, the novel paints a very real picture of immigration and race in the United States today and the human need to belong.
It is the story of Tony East Indian, inspired by a real person documented in the country’s archives as the first known East Indian in the American colonies, but who is otherwise a work of the author’s imagination and research.
The son of a courtesan from the Coromandel coast of India, Tony unwittingly finds himself as an indentured servant in the plantations of Jamestown, Virginia at just 11 years old.
He accepts “Tony” as his first name — though he doesn’t care for it — because a fellow Tamil once suggested others in the world would find his real name “too hard to utter.” Then he adopts the surname “East Indian” simply because it is thrust upon him when he arrived in Jamestown. The protagonist can no longer even recall his birth name, but soon, he accepts it as a thing of his past.
Over the course of the novel, Tony lands at the center of scandal as he works to establish a new identity as a physician. All the while, he also struggles with isolation, prejudice and the challenges of trying to maintain pieces of the culture he carried with him from abroad.
He is confused as to why Native Americans are also called “Indians” and many colonists simply label him a “moor,” a term used for North Africans or anyone with darker skin, with no context for India or its people in this new world.
He, feeling disloyal to his “many Gods,” converts from Hinduism to Christianity, believing it will give him more credibility and a sense of connection to his peers. He begins to eat meat and spend time at taverns, all in hopes of belonging, and assimilating with colonist ways.
As he comes of age and furthers his physician’s apprenticeship, Tony also begins to ponder questions of race and social class to no avail. He reflects:
“I would talk to Doctor Herman and try to understand the reason behind white skin and black and brown and, more important, what greater distinctions of wit, sensibility, and soul the differences in hue signified. I read and was taught by my master the new ideas put forth by men of learning in England and Europe on the workings of the bowels, the brain, the blood; the causes of migraines, melancholy, and madness, but I never got closer to understanding the real meaning behind what they called different races of men, and if such difference exists in any profound sense that really matters.”
Overall, in “The East Indian,” Tony becomes a man. He learns of the world’s cruelty and its kindness. He learns to work, play, love, hate, scheme, grieve and care for himself and others. But, like most immigrants, he still longs for home.
“For home is singular and unique. Everywhere else is but a stopping place, a bed in a stranger’s house, eating off plates not one’s own, an unfamiliar view from a casement,” Tony said.
When attempts to head West and find an ocean back to India fail, Tony accepts that returning to his motherland is unlikely and resolves that he must learn to adapt.
He worries his love interest, born in the colonies, will not relate to him, for “her heart did not ache for another place beyond the sea” and also wonders what the future of his children will be. Nevertheless, he is never defeated.
“I would thrive wherever the wind laid me,” says Tony. “[I] will be my own shelter, my landing place. Like a snail, I will carry home on my back, find it where I happen to be, make it from what I bear inside me.”
Leaving or even kidnapped from their homes with little to no hope of return, thousands of Indians faced journeys fraught with violence, condemnation and injustice trying to create new lives and identities away from their homeland in places like Mauritius, Fiji, Guyana, and Jamaica. However, like Tony, they also found the strength and courage to survive and establish their own cultures and communities.
While no details are known about the real Tony East Indian, Charry weaves a compelling coming-of-age tale that takes him as well as readers across three continents.
The novel, like life itself, has fast and slow moments, but it is filled with vivid, historically accurate depictions of the colonial world and moving moments that keep you rooting for the main character’s triumph.
It is this authenticity and compassion that makes “The East Indian” an invaluable modern work. There are no known first-hand accounts of the indentured or South Asian colonists in America. The only proof of the mere existence of many are the generations that have come after them.
With several years of research put into it, Charry’s “The East Indian” serves as a rare realistic portrayal of what life may have been for these individuals; the hardships they endured, and the strength they embodied. South Asian or not, it is a rich history not only worth reading but sharing and celebrating.
To learn more about Brinda Charry and her professional work visit her website. The East Indian is now available in print and audiobooks from all major book retailers.
Featured Image: Author Brinda Charry was born and raised in India before moving to the United States for graduate school two decades ago. She considers herself “a novelist-turned-academic-returned-novelist | Photo Credit: Lisa Arnold Photography