This post was originally published on our partner website India.com.
The current state of Indian culture in the U.S. is similar to that of a flaky pastry—while it may seem crumbly from the outside, within it lies a strong, deep-rooted essence of values and wisdom. There is no doubt that Indianism is a canvas of various shades of viewpoints, thought processes and lifestyles. However, there is a common thread that connects all of us desis—it is the spirit to succeed, excel and face even the toughest situations with immense courage and prudence.
I arrived in the U.S. on an H4 dependent visa, shortly after tying the knot with my husband. A few years ago, people on this visa status were not allowed to work for a salary, which meant you were financially dependent on your partner. It’s true, that those of us in this situation do not walk into this arena of dependency blindly—we know about the consequences. However, when you are caught in a situation where all you can do is volunteer, cook, decorate your home, take long walks or wait for your husband to get home, loneliness starts to sting you.
When I first saw the neighborhood I live in, I thought it was like a movie set—almost too good to be true. I had never seen such unblemished, spotless, clean roads. It took some time for me to differentiate between the real and the reel scenes I had watched in Bollywood movies.
A week later, I heard a few people talking in Hindi in my neighborhood, and it was like music to my ears. I ran outside as though I had found a lost piece of precious jewelry. I was overjoyed to find that we had Indian neighbors—and it did not take much time for this woman to figure out that I was a newlywed from India.
One of the first things she asked me was, “You are a desi, right?”
It was the first time I had heard someone use that word. From that day on, I have been trying to fit into the desi community of the U.S. I have found that they are a lot different from the actual desis living in my desh, my bharat.
To me, being a desi in this part of the world has meant wearing typical embroidered Indian salwars and kurtas, visiting Indian grocery stores every week, and trying to make other desi friends. From the moment I arrived, these were the only ways I could meet people of my kind—or at least that is how it seemed.
To get into the desi groove, becoming a part of Indian community potlucks, in particular, was a must. At these gatherings, mostly Indo-American foods, such as Indian versions of pasta, or creamy, rich curries without too many flavors, are served because Indians living here usually prefer the mild taste.
I began to realize that Indianness in the U.S. is like a cocktail—the lines between the Indian and American identities we carry have seemingly merged together into one.
A year after moving here, after taking a course in business management, I entered the U.S. job market.
Coming from a non-engineering background, the companies I worked for were mostly marketing and PR-related—which meant that these companies are comprised of mainstream American women. In some places, I was the only Indian. Some of my co-workers embraced me with open hearts and minds while others took a dig at my “alien” identity. On a few occasions, for example, I would bring sandwiches to work for lunch because the aromatic fragrance of the sambhar I carried in my lunch box bothered a few of my colleagues.
My journey of finding my place as a desi reminds me that each person’s strength lies in the identities that make us who we are. As immigrants, we are a part of a Diaspora—but while trying our best to fit ourselves into the Western desi ways of life, we must not forget who we are.
Superficially, it seems like dressing up in Indian clothes and eating Indian food forms Indian culture. However, attire and food are only the tip of the iceberg. I see that a lot of Indian parents here make it mandatory for their children to visit temples and sing bhajans. We must know that the real meaning of being desi—and in capturing the essence of Indian culture—is not just about reciting shlokas, but actually understanding their meaning and practicing it.
Poorvi Adavi is a freelance web content writer and editor in San Diego, CA. She is inspired by observing people around her and being aware of things happening in the world. She has completed her Masters in Communication from Christ University and also has a Business Management Certificate from UC San Diego.
Featured Photo Credit Kevita Junior | Left to Right: Tu hiya ka kare he, Tu kaha bate, Tu hamar ke bate
Thundering waves clawed on the body of the vessel as the sea swallowed the voices of terrified passengers. They clung to the shreds of the Eagle Speed as each hour submerged the ship deeper within the kala pani (dark waters). Steamer ships were sent for rescue, finding two children alone, clenching to the remains of the mast. The unscathed captain and crew fled in boats, leaving the lives of coolies (indentured laborers) to the fate of the dark waters. TheEagle Speed set sail on August 19th, 1865 from Calcutta to Demerara. This tragedy took the lives of over 300 hundred indentured laborers. The coolies onboard were not just casualties of the kala pani, but a larger system of British colonialism.
The crossing of these tumultuous seas wasforbidden for Hindus, as it meant the severance of reincarnation and the unraveling of caste. Yet more than 2 million Indians were taken across the kala pani. The forbidden water carried stories along its transatlantic waves, bearing witness to history lost against its tides. The restraints of caste drowned along the voyages as surnames and relations were cast across the seas. They became Singhs (lions) and Maharaj’s (great kings), Brahmins by boatinstead of birth.
These indentured workers were mainly taken from regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to different corners of the globe, with some of the largest to the Caribbean. Guyana experienced around238,909 workers, Trinidad 143,939 and Suriname 34,304. With 399 Indians, the Lalla Rookh docked on June 5, 1873, at Nieuw Amsterdam in Suriname, later becoming known as the coolie depot. As workers poured out of ships and onto plantations, they experienced violence and oppression at alarming rates, especially against women.
They were nameless and barefooted with gold jhumkas and bangles adorning their bodies. As tourism increased in the Caribbean’s, photographing indentured women on postcards became part of its selling point. These women became subjects to appease the white colonizer gaze and fetishized exotic ‘Coolie belles.’ A bulk of these postcards were shot in Trinidad and sold in local shops to visiting tourists. Yet these postcards failed to translate the hierarchy of power between the photographed and those behind the camera. The white European men who carried out these photoshoots chose backdrops that masked the real conditions of sugar cane fields and living quarters. Who were these women? What were their names? The women were juxtaposed with the term ‘Coolie,’ a slur for laborer and ‘Belle,’ the French word for beautiful. They were coined as laborers of beauty, yet their eyes tell a story of fear of pain.
Tu hamár ke bate? (Who are you to me?) Tu hiyá ká kare he? (What are you doing here?) Tu kahá báte? (Where are you?) Artist Nazrina Rodjan posits these questions that rummage through the minds of many Indo Caribbean descendants. Who were my ancestors? What did they experience? Rodjan aims to explore the experiences of indentured women through her oil painting series “Kala Pani.” In this series, she reimagines the postcards of indentured women alike the depictions of European nobility. In conversation with Rodjan she mentions,
I’ve thought long and hard about whether it would be ethical to reproduce these staged images of women who might have felt scared and uncomfortable being brought into these studios to be photographed by men. I will never know their true experiences and how they might have felt knowing a stranger in the future will decide to paint them in the same positions they were put in for the original photograph.
Rodjan’s art series started as a way to commemorate 150 years since the first indentured workers arrived in Suriname and expanded to include regions like Guyana, Trinidad and Jamaica.
Wanting to reclaim these images comes from feelings of injustice whenever I see these postcards. They were made from a dehumanizing perspective. Reclaiming these images becomes necessary knowing how the violence Indo-Caribbean women still face today is just a continuation of the violence brought onto indentured Indian women then. To me, creating this piece, symbolized the acceptance of questions remaining unanswered, stories being lost forever, and realizing that after a history full of trauma, there’s a treasure in the women that are still here to tell their stories.
The ratio of men to women arriving on these ships left little to no autonomy for women. Experiences of violence on ships and plantations were common throughout the Caribbean. Despite this, indentured women became trailblazers and pioneers in uprisings against poor working conditions.
Everything about these women seems to be a question we can never answer, but I decided to give them titles in Hindustani that are questions they might have for me as the painter who looks at them and sees both a stranger and a loved one. Tu hamár ke báte? Who are you to me?
Living in the Netherlands, Rodjan talks about her experiences tracing her ancestry and honoring this history:
Unfortunately, in the Netherlands learning about the history of Dutch colonization only meant memorizing all the different spices they brought in and listening to teachers talking proudly about the Dutch East India Company in elementary school. Tracing back my ancestors has so far only led to a picture of my parnani and a few more names in the family tree.
OnMay 5, 1838, Anat Ram stepped foot on the rich grounds of Berbice, becoming the first Indian laborer in Guyana. The Whitby and Hesperus departed from Calcutta on January 13 and arrived in Berbice first then West Demerara. Over the course of 79 years, approximately259 ships voyaged from India to Guyana. While the experiences of these ancestors may remain unknown, artists like Suchitra Mattai aims to revitalize the voices of our indentured ancestors.
Suchitra Mattai is an Indo Guyanese multi-disciplinary artist. Through her work, she uses the experience of her family’s migration and the history of indentureship to rewrite and expand our notions of history. In her piece, Life-line, a rope of saris pours out of a tilted boat, mirroring the experiences of her ancestor’s journey across the transatlantic. The saris serve as both water and a connection to two lands, India and Guyana. Mattai further explores indentureship in the piece “Coolie Woman,” depicting a woman seated with a sari, embellished with jewelry and flowers.
I wanted to reimagine the photo to give her agency. I also wanted to address the desire for people of the diaspora to connect to their homelands and ancestral pasts. The painted wallpaper drips and fades to parallel the way my memory of Guyana ebbs and flows, Mattai says.
Anchoring at the Port of Spain on April 22, 1917, the last ship to ever carry indentured Indians made its final stop. A system that bound Indians to an unknown land finally ended after 79 years.
To invoke conversation and pay homage to their memory, artist Gabrielle Francis creatively analyzes indentureship. Gabrielle Francis is an Indo Trinidadian queer interdisciplinary artist, writer and organizer from Queens, New York. In her piece “206:21 Queer Altar Mixed Media Performance,” Francis pays homage to her indentured ancestors with a focus on queer identities. The title 206:21 reflects the ratio of men to women that journeyed on the Fatel Razack, the first ship from India to Trinidad. A mirror is decorated with the colors of Trinidad’s flag along with six candles embodying the pride flag and vibrant red carnations. Written across the mirror is, “I wonder how many of you were queer?” A question that allows for openness and conversation around potential queer ancestors. Written records around indentureship were translated and produced by European men, leaving little to no room for women or queer folks. Francis’s work aims to transform and challenge Eurocentric narratives surrounding indentured history.
As descendants of indentureship, it becomes difficult to sit with questions that may never have answers. Visiting National Archives or exploringdigital databases can help connect descendants to learn about their own history. As we unravel difficult experiences of the past it’s important to ask, how do we carry the legacies of our ancestors? How do we honor their sacrifices?
As they were stripped of their identities and reduced to passenger numbers, they fostered new relations—jahaji bhai and jahaji bhain (ship brother and sister). From shipmates to family, to present-day melodies of chutney music to the stew of pepper pot on Christmas morning, these bonds of community have evolved and are seen across the diaspora today.
Holi is a Hindu festival that celebrates the coming of spring and is observed near the end of winter. It’s also referred to as the festival of colors or the festival of love. Although my daughters and I are not Hindus, (we are Sikhs) we still celebrate Holi. Our Holi celebrations always include reading about this festival, making colorful art, playing with the colorful powders, and making some delicious, traditional sweets. This is always such a great occasion to discuss the diversity of Indian culture with my daughters. I use this opportunity to teach them about inclusivity and respect for different cultures around the world. All across India, different states celebrate this festival in their own meaningful ways.
My first experience celebrating this beautiful festival was in university. My roommates, friends and international students put together a lovely day of Holi celebrations outside. We were completely covered in variety of colors — pinks, purples, and blues. There was music, laughter, dancing, and an overall joyous atmosphere (including bhang, which is essentially a cannabis milkshake). It was particularly heartwarming to see so many Indian students coming together as a community, so far from home, to connect with such a beloved tradition.
For those of us, brought up in Canada, such celebrations were amazing opportunities to genuinely experience the true spirit of Holi. Similar to how it is done in India, everyone became one – there were no small groups or cliques doing their own thing; class lines and caste systems, predominant across India, disappeared. Everyone joined together; our skin tones hidden under the bright colours of the Holi powders. It surely was an unforgettable time.
As a child, I got to experience Holi only through Indian Cinema. Bollywood films like “Silsila,” “Darr,” and “Mohabbatein” stand out in my memory. The actors are dressed completely in white at the beginning of the song, enjoying Holi celebrations, and are then painted from head to toe, in various bright colours, by the end of the song. Since then, I’ve learned that certain colours hold meaning and significance. Red symbolizes love, fertility, and matrimony; blue represents the Lord Krishna; and green stands for new beginnings.
Now, as a mother, I don’t want my children to experience our culture through a screen. So we bring these Holi traditions into our home in our own creative ways. We certainly tend to get creative since around March there is still ample snow on the ground outside and a chill in the air!
The activities we have fun doing are:
Making rangoli designs using coloured powders (this is a helpful site we’ve used)
Making paper flowers to decorate the house with (like the ones here)
Making tie-dye shirts (we’ve got a kit for this because the girls love it)
Baking a traditional Indian snack, like gujiya (we bake them because I get paranoid about the girls being around hot oil).
“Let’s Celebrate Holi!” by Ajanta Chakraborty and Vivek Kumar (for three to seven-year-olds)
“Festival of Colors” by Surishtha Seghal and Kabir Seghal (for two to eight-year-olds)
“Why Do We Celebrate Holi” by Anitha Rathod (for eight years old and above)
This year, Holi falls on the same date as International Women’s Day! To combine the two celebrations, my daughters and I plan on sketching South Asian females we look up to the most, and then adding bright colours using different types of paint. For another element of texture, we might add the paper flowers to these as well. I’m thinking these are going to be frame-worthy pieces of art!
Eid-ul-Fitr is a special holiday that marks the end of Ramadan — the month of fasting — for Muslims worldwide. Ramadan is a time of gratitude, spiritual focus, forgiveness, celebrating community and helping the needy. Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations mark the conclusion of the holy month of Ramadan.
Rubab Bukhari is a busy mom of five based in Calgary, Canada. She shared that Eid, for her family, is a day of gathering with loved ones and sharing a delicious meal together as a symbol for breaking fast. “Eid is celebrated as the most joyous occasion where we put up Eid decorations and exchange gifts with everyone in the house. New clothes are made for everyone; the girls get excited about getting henna on their hands and the boys get more excited about receiving their Eidi (gifts/money).”
A published author, spoken word artist and dance fitness instructor, Nazhah Khawaja shares how she’s built new traditions with her two children and husband in Illinois, Chicago despite not being exposed to the “Eid flavor” herself while growing up.
“My sister suggested decorating the house for Eid with the goal of getting the kids in the holiday mood,” she said. Regardless of the exhaustion that followed due to decorating while fasting, Khawaja realized that her sister “was onto something.” She added that “kids are very visual learners and interpreters — the visual display of decorations helps them to feel the festivity more. Forever grateful to my sister for encouraging this tradition that our family has embraced.”
Another new tradition that she has embraced is celebrating Eid festivities with her husband’s family who are non-Muslim. Furthermore, she insists on taking photographs during Eid-ul-Fitr to keep memories alive because one never really knows if the people in the photos will be there next time around. She also includes that the “Eid nap is a must — which means adults are dozing off while the kids are running wild; ample heavenly chaos and beautiful noise.”
Passing down familial customs from her mother, Khawaja remembers a story she had told her of how as soon as the dawn of Eid arrived, the villagers in Pakistan walked down unpaved streets welcoming Eid with a tune: “Mubarak Eid Mubarak/ Mubarak Khair Mubarak/ Saheliyon Eid Mubarak!” Khawaja’s mother used to sing it every time. “Growing up, my siblings and I would sing this tune in our not-so-refined Urdu, giggle at one another, create our own, often goofy lyrics, and even dance silly moves,” she shared.
Meanwhile, Bengali shemai, Kashmiri kheer and ma’amoul are the favorite Eid desserts in Janan’s household! She is the founder and CEO of the publishing company, Global Bookshelves Intl., a pharmacist by profession and a mother of three young girls, based in Louisville, Kentucky. They look forward to dressing up their best for Eid prayers the most.
Likewise, Ursula Sarah Khan who is a mom influencer and an accountant by trade, said that they fill their Eid-themed gift bags with all sorts of goodies like candy, bubbles and pencils. On Eid-ul-Fitr, her eight-year-old son, Ibrahim, distributes these bags amongst the boys after Eid prayers, while her five-year-old daughter, Eliyah, hands them to the girls.
They also bake Eid cookies together in addition to swapping their Ramadan decor with Eid decor, while still in their Eid pajamas in their Northern Virginia home!
Blending older traditions with some newer ones, Sarah carries on her mother’s age-old tradition of making sheer khorma — a Pakistani dessert made with vermicelli, milk, dates and nuts — in the morning.
She also explains to her children the importance of Zakat or charity, which is what her mother taught her: “I now take this same approach with my children to ensure they have a deep understanding of the generosity Islam teaches.”
Speaking of home and family, Haffsa Rizwani — a Canadian, currently residing in Stockholm, Sweden, as a PhD candidate — said: “Living away from home, Canada, where my immediate family resides, we have a tradition of traveling from Stockholm to my aunt’s house in Oslo, Norway, every Eid. Especially to mark the celebration as a family event for my children.” Together with her aunt, Haffsa’s daughter gets her henna done and goes shopping for bangles! She goes on to explain how Eid-ul-Fitr is an opportunity to not only dress up, but also regain that morning ritual of chai and evenings with games like carrom board; “a game played till my uncle wins.”
As Rizwani so eloquently puts it, “While my children are still quite small, my daughter is now of age to appreciate and understand the meaning of gratitude, blessings, and giving back. She now has the empathy to comprehend the inequalities and injustices in the world. Ramadan is therefore a month of being thankful and making extra duas. Eid is a day of celebration with gratitude and blessings.”