For as long as I can remember, I have been caught between two identities.
As the daughter of Indian immigrants, I was born and raised in the U.S. When asked, “Where are you from?” I proudly respond, “Memphis, Tennessee.” But then, more often than not, I’m asked the follow up question: “Where are you actually from?”
Like many people with hyphenated identities, as an Indian-American, I often feel like I’m not Indian enough or American enough.
For me, this personal matter of belonging has had professional implications as well. For the past five years, I’ve worked in social impact design in the U.S., creating programs and products so that young people can live lives they can be proud of. But as I’ve immersed myself in communities across America, the question of belonging and responsibility has come up time and again. I believe, fundamentally, that each of us has a responsibility to make our world a better place. But how do I define “my world?” Am I responsible to the country I call home? Am I responsible to the country whose young people look like me? Am I responsible to both?
About a year ago, I decided that it was time to tackle this conflict head-on and get some answers. And so, I decided to do the only thing that made sense: Move to India. It wasn’t long before I realized that there were others like me. In what I like to call a ‘Reverse Indian Diaspora,’ I encountered Indian Americans who chose to leave the U.S. and return to the proverbial motherland, either temporarily or permanently, looking for some opportunity that they couldn’t find at home.
I was intrigued by them and their stories for a few reasons. Selfishly, I hoped understanding their experience would help me understand my own. On a broader level, these Reverse Diasporic Indian Americans represent an interesting wrinkle in the classic American dream—immigrants from around the world coming to the U.S. to give their children a better life, only to find their children leaving and going back to the place they came from.
And so I decided to interview some of these people—I spoke with eight ‘Reverse Diasporic’ Indian American millennials, most of who served as AIF Clinton Fellows before me. They’re from different parts of the United States, have spent time in different parts of India, and each had a unique journey. Six of them have spent 10 months, or longer, in India; two of them, like me, have been in India for just over a month. I wanted to know: What was their Indian-American experience like? Why did they choose to come to India? What were they looking for? And did they find it? Here’s what I learned.
Growing up Indian American
As one of the fastest growing immigrant communities, there are nearly 4 million Indians, or Indian Americans, currently living in the United States. For the majority of the people that I spoke with, growing up Indian American meant growing up connected to a diasporic community in their hometowns; some were heavily immersed in their communities, while others went to occasional events but largely existed on the periphery. In an effort to give their American-born or American-raised children a sense of their Indian identity, each one of them had some distinctly Indian experiences cultivated by their parents—from Bharatnatiyam classes, to Hindu Sunday School, to the food they ate and the language they spoke at home. Several of them reported visiting India for the summers through elementary and middle school (though the majority of these summers were often spent within their relative’s homes); others got to know India and Indian culture through film and TV.
Despite their distinct paths, there were two themes about their Indian-American childhoods that stood out and later became relevant to their journeys back to India. The first was the distinct sense of difference of self that their Indian heritage created for them, which set them apart from their American friends. As one interviewee put it, “I’ve always felt a sense of not 100 percent belonging.” Another said that she felt “a distance between their lives and the one I’m experiencing.” A third said that he “socially couldn’t fully relate to what it meant to be American.” Only one of my interview subjects said that she felt just as American as she felt Indian growing up.
The second theme was that no matter how connected (or not) they were to their Indian heritage, they felt that they grew up with a warped perception of India. There were two main reasons for this. The first I’ll call ‘Time Capsule India.’ As one interviewee put it, Indian American communities often have a “notion of India that is kind of frozen in time.” The Indian culture that they grew up with, another said, was the culture that their parents (or grandparents) left, often 20-30 years ago. One interviewee shared that many of the traditions and customs that they honored in their Indian American home were so outdated that their relatives in India no longer followed them. The second I’ll call ‘Romanticized India.’ One interviewee recalled growing up with a “heavy romanticization of India” that came from learning about culture primarily through Tamil films (another person cited Bollywood as her reason). For these people, India represented a place that had a special, almost magical quality to it where they could find a piece of who they are.
The Call to India
When I asked my interviewees about the moment they decided to relocate to India, I was hoping to hear stories of epiphany—an “aha!” moment that told them that the path to their own enlightenment of discovering their identity was going to India. But, as I quickly learned, this was not the case.
Rather, the call to India was not a one time bang but a gradual process. For all eight of my interview subjects, their Indian heritage played a noticeable role in their lives growing up—and for the most part, this was a result of the social and cultural environments created by their parents and supported by their diasporic communities. But for most of them, there was a second wave of interest and affinity with their Indian identities—some were in high school but for the majority, many were in college. One person shared that she had been resistant to her Indian American identity growing up but college was the first time she embraced and explored it. Whether through joining an Indian dance group, or taking Hindi or South Asian studies classes, college was an opportunity to, as one person said, “figure out what being Indian American really meant to me.”
Alongside growing personal interest, for others, the call to India was connected more to professional goals. For several individuals who wanted to work abroad or in the development sector, India “just made the most sense.” For some, there was a sense of familiarness to India, even if they had not spent much time there in adulthood. For others, it felt less comfortable—one interviewee said that in addition to his goal of working in social impact, he thought that working in India would be a chance to “get back what was missing…to experience a part of my identity that I wish I had gotten when I was younger.”
And when the chance arose to come to India—through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, either through a Fulbright or through a work opportunity—all eight answered the call and made the move around the world.
I asked each of them what expectations they had going into India: Some had an explicit goal around understanding their identities and this country of origin; some to gain professional experience in a place that they were connected to; and some went in with no expectations at all. One person said, “I didn’t want to be disappointed, I just wanted to experience it.”
Identity After India
Finally, I got to the part of my conversation that I was most eager for. I now knew why they came to India but who did they become in and after India? Did they at least feel Indian and American enough?
As one interviewee put it, “India blew me away.” Nearly every person interviewed cited that the India that they saw was just simply a different place from the India they had imagined or constructed. There were many reasons for this. First, the diversity within India made it impossible to fully categorize anything as a singular Indian experience. One interviewee, who is of Punjabi origin, spent 10 months in Darjeeling and experienced an India that “wasn’t what I thought India would look like.”
Second, the modernity of India—the ways in which it had evolved since their family’s immigration to the United States—took many of my interviewees by surprise. As one person said, “I’ve been neglecting the growing, living, breathing country…holding onto this version that’s really frozen in time, not appreciating it for the diversity that lives within it.” The ‘Time Capsule’ version of India was shattered by the reality of India’s growth and development over the past decades.
So India was different than what they had expected. But what did that mean for them? What I learned from my interviewees was that spending time in India did not help them put their identities in a clear box tied up with a pretty bow. In fact, in every case, it challenged them—whether because of language, work culture, or digestive issues, which at times, made them feel all the more alienated and different. But ultimately, the move to India was an opportunity not to “figure out” one’s identity, but rather to find the agency to define it on their own terms—not based on the diasporic community they grew up in; not based on the version of India their parents remember; and not based on the Bollywood depictions of it.
By extension, many of them shared that they now felt empowered to define their Indian American identity on their own terms as well. One person said, “there is not only one way to be Indian American. I can define it for myself.” And with that power comes responsibility—as one person shared, as an Indian American she wants to do better to continue to understand and support the diverse and dynamic country that India is.
So after all this, do these people feel Indian or American enough? Am I going to after my AIF Fellowship is over? What I’ve learned is that this question is flawed from the start—there’s no such thing as being Indian or American enough. I am not sure what my relationship with India will look like over the next nine months and beyond, but my hunch is that it will be enough.
A previous version of this article was originally published on October 17, 2019, by the American India Foundation. AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India while strengthening the civil sector.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.
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.