The Fracture Between Punjabi Culture and the Sikh Religion

Warning: The following piece includes references to sexual assault and violence. 

“Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows” is a string of text that I never thought I would see in print, but there it was in front of me on a book cover. It was not even a question because I immediately knew I had to buy it.

I was immediately engrossed in the plotline of Balli Kaur Jaswal’s book and felt so much pride in reading a critically-acclaimed novel written by a fellow Punjaban such as myself.

The story follows Nikki who thinks of herself as more modern than her Punjabi counterparts: She dropped out of law school, works as a bartender, lives in her own apartment, and doesn’t want to have an arranged marriage as her sister did. In search of some extra money, she signs up to teach a “creative writing” class at the local Punjabi community center. Nikki is unpleasantly surprised when she arrives at a classroom full of middle-aged Aunties dressed in white who could not even pass a basic literacy test.

However, Nikki soon realizes that these widows have much more depth than society gives them credit for. They have been watching their own life from the sidelines and are finally ready to stand and speak up, provided it is in the safety of Nikki’s classroom.

But as the imaginative stories begin to unfold, a very real, dark story begins to reveal itself in Nikki’s life as she uncovers the mystery of a Punjabi woman who committed suicide and who, much like herself, was thought to be “too modern.”

The following section contains some spoilers, but you should still read it because I don’t give it ALL away. 

Nikki comes to find out that this woman, Maya, did not kill herself and was actually murdered by her own husband after she found out a secret that could destroy his reputation and status in the community.

When I finished the book, I was shocked by Nikki’s revelation but even more surprised by the idea illustrated throughout the novel – that a community of deeply “religious” people would rather murder a woman in the name of not forsaking honor and respect.

I kept thinking to myself that this is clearly a matter of artistic license because if anyone knows Sikh Punjabis, I do… I grew up with enough of them to know that this is just an exaggeration of the culture.

But is it just that?

[Read Related: Punjabi Daughters: Reclaiming Value Through Art and Activism

Because when I put my bias aside and look with more of a fact-based perspective, Punjabi communities have some of the highest rates of female feticide as well as higher rates of domestic violence. Moreover, many Punjabi women who have been sexually assaulted do not come forward and in the rare case they do, the assailant is almost always a close family member or friend – because why should a woman feel safe when there are familial ties at risk?

It was only a couple of weeks after finishing the book that I then decided to watch the BBC documentary on the Partition of India. I was lucky enough in my life to have interviewed my Nana Ji in the 9th grade about his experiences as a survivor of the atrocities the British caused us. Everything he told me about the bloodshed and the religious warfare deemed to be true as I watched the presented facts unfold in this film.

In fact, one of the most contentious areas during the partition was Punjab. Muslims and Sikhs were forced out of their houses to switch sides from Pakistan to India and vice versa. This caused so much religious tension and fighting that sometimes trains that crossed the border would be filled with dead bodies inside.

At a certain point in the film, an older Sikh Uncle Ji appeared onscreen and began to describe his experience of living through the tension that peaked during and after the partition. He explained that in his pind or village, there was a rumor that Muslim men in a neighboring village were going to attack, rape, and convert “their” women to Islam.

As he continued with his recount, he paused and started to tear up, and that’s when a chill went down my spine.

When the elders in the village heard this news, they gathered all the women in a farmhouse and proceeded to behead them one by one.

And. Not. One. Single. Person. Said. A. Thing.

No one protested as their sisters, cousins, and friends, were being killed in cold blood directly in front of them.

[Read Related: Why is No One Talking About the Brutal Attack of Sahib Singh Natt?]

Again, it was a matter of never forsaking your honor and respect. God forbid if their bodies had been tainted, death was clearly the more formidable choice. Needless to say, I couldn’t watch anymore.

Thoughts started to swirl in my head but it was primarily confusion that prompted me to wonder, “But my religion is progressive, young, and modern! How could this be happening in a community that was legitimately built on the foundation of gender equality, abolishment of the caste system, and a newly written text so all could read and benefit from religious scriptures?”

I had not yet answered these questions when I found out about another horrifying, and unfortunately recent event: the murder of Paviter Singh Bassi.

[Photo Credit: Peel Regional Police]
Paviter was just 21 years old when he was beaten to death in broad daylight by five other PUNJABI men in Brampton, Ontario. This was no hate crime or random act of violence. These men, of the same culture and religious background, felt it justifiable to take Paviter’s life. A life that his parents worked so hard to give him that they left their own homes and families behind in hopes of giving him what they did not have growing up. And these men decided that it was their right to take that life for no explicable reason.

First I was horrified.

Then disgusted.

Then enraged.

But after, I felt an incredible ache of sadness and unexpected feeling of emptiness as I came to the realization that what was depicted in Jaswal’s book was not only a probable occurrence but something that has been proven to happen again and again in the history of Punjabi culture.

There is a very severe fracture between what men are being taught in the gurudwaras (Sikh houses of worship) and what men are being taught at home.

[Read Related: Paviter Singh Bassi: Making Sense of a Tragedy Beyond Words]

When sons see their fathers hit their mothers, they are being told it is okay because she made a mistake. When sons see their fathers scream at their daughters, they learn it is okay because she was dressed disrespectfully. When sons see their fathers motivated by societal status and respect they think it is okay to act in accordance with how you feel instead of what is right.

This son now sees his father on a pedestal, not knowing that it was built off of the blood of his mother, the tears of his sister, and the sweat beads of nervousness he feels every time his father is displeased.

This issue is no longer isolated to the older community, it has sadly trickled its way down onto the younger males of our generation.

We see the repercussions of men choosing to act with entitlement instead of enlightenment.

But be wary of your so-called pedestal because your misdeeds will come back to haunt you.

And now I am talking directly to the murderers of Paviter Singh Bassi, who as of right now, have all been released on bail and are continuing to live their lives as if they did not take away someone else’s.

Your time is up and you WILL be held accountable for the atrocious act you committed and you will pay the price for it.

[Photo Courtesy: Neelam Heera]
By Jasleen Chawla

Jasleen Kaur Chawla is a sassy but fierce advanced analytics analyst – whatever that means. She enjoys long walks through … Read more ›

Holi Celebrations: A Time to Reflect on Diversity and Inclusion

Holi Celebrations

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.

[Read Related: Holi With Kids: Celebrating the Festival With Your Family ]

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).

[Read Related: Mithai Memories from Holi to Eid and Diwali]

Some of the books we enjoy reading are:

  • “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!

By Taneet Grewal

Taneet Grewal's passion for storytelling began at the age of six with many fictional/magical characters. This grew into a love … Read more ›

‘The Eid Party’ – A Short Story

In honor of women’s history month and Ramadan, we are publishing this short story by award-winning author Adiba Jaigirdar. We had the pleasure of interviewing and connecting with Adiba in the midst of the pandemic, and she has remained a supporter and a friend of the literary vertical and Brown Girl Magazine. This short story by Adiba encapsulates the spirit of friendship and community in a time of celebration. Adiba’s next book ‘Do and Donuts of Love’ will be out on June 6, 2023. 

 

[Read Related: Author Interview: Adiba Jaigirdar of ‘The Henna Wars’]

 

It’s not Ammu yelling my name over and over that wakes me up on Eid morning, it’s the sweet aroma of payesh, floating up from the kitchen, through the floorboards, and making my mouth water.

It only takes me a few minutes to roll out of bed and down the stairs, peering at the massive dish of payesh right in the middle of the kitchen table. It’s what I’ve been looking forward to for all of Ramadan — Ammu’s famous payesh recipe.

“Safa, don’t you dare touch that,” Ammu calls from where she’s standing, by the stove, making a fresh batch of porotas for our Eid breakfast.

“But it’s been so long since…” I start to plead, but Ammu cuts me off.

“Get dressed, get ready, and after Eid prayer, we can have some payesh,” she says, though her voice has already lost some of its fervour. When I glance at Ammu, she has that familiar look of nostalgia. Unfortunately, I know exactly what she’s remembering.  “If only it was the payesh that your Nanu used to make…” she says softly.

I heave a sigh, and say, “okay, I’m going to get dressed,” before slipping out of the kitchen as fast as I can. In our house, you can’t really talk about payesh without Ammu’s long-winded story. It always starts with how she wishes we had the ‘real’ payesh recipe that our family — the Jahangirs — have been known for around Bangladesh, since the Mughal era. It’s the recipe that’s been passed down for generations in our family. That is until, after our Nanu unexpectedly passed away two years ago, the recipe seemed to disappear.

This is where Ammu’s long-winded story ends: her bitterness that her older sister has the recipe but refuses to share it with Ammu.

Now, we can only have Ammu’s payesh. Even though she has spent the past two years trying to recreate our family recipe, she insists that there’s something missing. A key ingredient that made our Mughal-descended recipe famous around all of Bangladesh. So, Ammu’s payesh comes with a bitter footnote — a strange kind of loss that people outside of our family would probably never understand.

Back in my room, I shut the door and take a deep breath. Because today isn’t just any ordinary Eid. Today is the day that I reunite my family.

But Ammu doesn’t know that yet.

I fling open my wardrobe and pull out the dress that I had bought online weeks ago. It’s a long violet kameez with floral stitching running down its length. Silver embroidery lines the cuffs of the sleeves, and the ends of the dress; making it sparkle when it catches the light. It’s perfect.

Better yet, it’s part of a matching set.

My phone pings just at that moment. As if, my partner in crime can read my mind.

“Ready for today?” Marwa’s text reads.

My hands hover over the keyboard for a moment. And even though my heart is beating a little too fast in my chest, I type back “totally ready,” and put the phone back on my bedside table. I’m hoping that acting like I’m totally confident in our plan will actually make our plan 100% successful. But truthfully, I’m not sure how Ammu will react once everything is in motion. And I’m not sure if I’m a good enough liar to convince her.

But if all goes to plan, by the end of this Eid day, Ammu’s payesh story is going to get a lot shorter. And Marwa and I won’t have to hide our friendship any longer.

With that thought in mind, I change into my Eid dress.

#

“I don’t understand this Eid party business,” Ammu complains during the drive from the mosque to the community center, where the bi-annual Bangladeshi Eid party always takes place. “In Bangladesh, there aren’t any Eid parties. It’s just visiting your family and friends; not this ‘party purty’ with virtual strangers.”

“Yes, Ammu, I know,” I groan, glancing out the window and trying not to roll my eyes. I know that will lead to an entire lecture about not being respectful to my parents. “If you made up with Khala then we could…”

Ammu cuts me off by glancing back at me with a stone-cold glare that I’m pretty sure has the ability to kill. It’s the same glare she sends my way every time I even mention that she has a sister. That I have a khala. That these people exist and live in the same city as us. That we could be celebrating together, but the years-long feud between our families has kept us apart.

“No more talking,” Ammu declares, staring straight ahead. She’s clutching the dish of payesh to her chest now as if it’s her lifeline. Considering how much she has sacrificed for her payesh, I guess it kind of is her lifeline.

But, as I glance out the window at the rush of trees and cars and buildings zooming by, I can’t help but think about what our Eid celebrations used to be like. And wonder how Ammu is so okay with letting all of that slip through her fingers.

The buzz of my phone distracts me from my thoughts.

“We’re here!” The text from Marwa reads.

“We’re five mins away,” I text back quickly, before glancing at Ammu. She has her lips pursed — obviously still annoyed that I dared to bring up Khala on a day as special as this. My heart beats a little faster at the thought of what she’ll say when she spots Khala at the party. She hasn’t come to one of these parties in the two years since their fall out, and it’s thanks to Marwa’s spectacular lies that she’s there now. Not knowing exactly what’s waiting for her.

I can tell the party is already in full bloom as soon as we pull into the parking lot. There are barely any spaces left. And the inside of the community centre is like a burst of colour. Whoever decorated the place for our Eid party did a marvelous job. There are multicoloured balloons and streamers hung up around the room. A giant banner on one wall reads ‘EID MUBARAK!’ and the other side of the room is filled up with kids’ drawings from the annual Eid art competition.

“Too many balloons,” is Ammu’s only observation as she shoves one of them aside in order to place her payesh on the large table, in the middle of the room. It’s already filled with different dishes — but I know everyone’s dying for Ammu’s payesh specifically.

I heave a sigh and glance around the party. Through the throngs of people hugging and cheering and laughing, it’s not easy to spot two people. But I do. In one corner, closed off from everyone else, stand Marwa and her mom. Khala doesn’t look happy at all, though she’s wearing an expensive-looking sari and a full face of makeup. And Marwa is looking around impatiently. She’s wearing a salwar kameez that matches mine perfectly — except instead of violet and silver, her outfit is blue and gold, perfectly complementing her bronze skin.

When Ammu’s back is turned, I wave to Marwa. Her face breaks out into a grin as soon as she sees me. She waves back, before motioning to her phone. My own phone vibrates with a text.

Marwa: “Meet me by the bathrooms in two minutes.”

“Ammu, I…have to pee,” I say.

“You couldn’t have gone before we came here?” Ammu says with a sigh. “Okay, go.” She waves me off. But just as I’m leaving, I notice that she’s already trying to push her bowl of payesh on our Bangladeshi neighbours. Not that the payesh needs much pushing. It may not be the recipe descended from the Mughals — but it’s still pretty damn good.

“You’re late!” Marwa says as soon as I’m in her earshot. She pulls me to the little corner just by the bathrooms — almost completely out of sight.

“Ammu wanted to talk to way too many people after the Eid prayers,” I say. “I tried to stop her, but you know what she’s like.”

“Stubborn,” Marwa mumbles under her breath. We both know all too well about that. “Did she bring the payesh?”

“Would it be an Eid party without it?”

She smiles, even though I can tell her heart’s not quite in it. Just like me, she’s nervous about the plan. About how both our mothers will react — after declaring each other enemies years ago and refusing to even be in the same room together. All because of a dessert recipe.

“What if this doesn’t work?” Marwa asks the question that we’re both thinking about. After all, convincing both of our moms to bring their payesh to the same Eid party so that people can taste them both and show our mothers how it doesn’t matter who has the family recipe or not, seems like a good idea — in concept. In execution, it has way too many chances of falling apart. There are so many factors that Marwa and I just can’t control.

But after months and months of trying to come up with some way to get our moms to reconcile, this was all we came up with. Once upon a time, our moms were so close that they named their two daughters — born within months of each other — after the two hills in Mecca. For years, we grew up side-by-side, like sisters more than cousins. Until our parents decided they would ruin all that. Over a dessert that non-Bengalis think is as simple as rice pudding.

“It has to work,” I say, with more conviction than I’m feeling. Marwa nods in agreement.

“Was she suspicious?” I ask.

“Not even a little bit. Once I convinced her that Khala had gone back to Bangladesh to celebrate Eid and that she had the chance to showcase her payesh recipe, it was easy. She wanted to get here early to scope out the best spot for her payesh,” Marwa says, rolling her eyes, but I smile. Because that’s exactly the kind of thing Ammu would do too. The two of them are so alike — and that’s exactly why this feud has kept up for so long.

“Even if this doesn’t work,” I say slowly after a moment. “We’re not going back to being friends in secret.” It’s been too many months of secret phone conversations and text messages. Too many days where I’ve lied to Ammu about meeting a friend from school, just so I can see my cousin. When before, it was sleepovers every week and seeing each other every day. A friendship that seemed boundless.

“We’re old enough to fight them back on it,” Marwa says, not sounding convinced at all. Bangladeshis don’t talk back to their parents…but ours are being ridiculous. They have been for too long now.

So, I gave a determined nod, and the two of us step away from our corner, and back to the main room in the community centre. Where all hell broke loose.

In the middle of the room stand our two mothers — both wearing their new Eid sarees that are now in disarray. They’re in the middle of a screaming match, either unaware — or uncaring — that everybody in the room, around them, is watching them with wide eyes. This is definitely going to be the gossip topic of the year, doing the rounds on all the ‘Auntie/Uncle’ WhatsApp and Facebook groups.

“Ammu!” Marwa calls rushing up to her mom, while I make my way over to mine. “Stop! Everybody’s watching!”

“You told me that she wasn’t going to be here. You lied!” Khala says, sending such a powerful glare toward Ammu that I’m surprised she doesn’t wither away.

“Yes,” Marwa says, even though I’m shaking my head at her vigorously. “Safa and I planned to bring you both here, so you could see how ridiculous you’re being. Right, Safa?”

Everybody’s staring at me now. Except for Ammu, who has taken all the power of Khala’s glare and turned it towards me.

I shift uncomfortably from foot to foot for a second before slowly nodding my head. “Yes…Marwa and I planned it. You both brought your payesh, you can see how it doesn’t matter. People are going to love both of them. They’re…”

“You brought payesh?” Ammu’s voice is a whisper, but somehow it seems to envelop the whole room.

“Of course, I brought my payesh,” Khala says, propping her chin up defiantly.

Ammu turns to the table where all the snacks and desserts brought in by various people are laid out. There’s a bowl of chotpoti, plates of shingara and shomucha, boxes of roshogolla and kalojam. But right on the edge is a dish filled with payesh that is definitely not ours.

“Ammu, no…” but I’m too late. Before I know it, Ammu is striding towards the payesh faster than she’s ever walked before. She grabs hold of the dish, and it’s almost like the entire room is collectively holding its breath.

She glances over at Khala, but there’s no wicked grin on her lips, no evil glint in her eyes. She almost looks…sad.

“You should have given me the recipe,” she says, her voice so low it’s a surprise we hear her. “I deserved it as much as you did.”

Khala frowns, stepping a little closer to Ammu. “I should have given it to you?” she asks. “You’re the one who kept it from me.”

“What are you talking about?” Ammu asks. “Ma told me that she gave you the recipe years ago. And after she passed, I asked you for it. You said you wouldn’t give it to me.”

“I said I couldn’t give it to you!” Khala cries. “Because you were rubbing it in my face. You were the one Ma gave it to. She told me so.”

“Ma said…”

“Wait!” I exclaimed, stepping forward. Normally, I would never raise my voice like that to Ammu, but this definitely doesn’t count as a normal situation. “You mean neither of you ever had the recipe?”

“She did!” Ammu and Khala say at the same time.

“Nanu lied to you both!” Marwa chimes in.

“Why would she lie?” Ammu asks.

“Why would I lie?” Khala asks. “And why would I keep the recipe from you?”

Marwa and I exchange a glance. All of these years, our moms had been fighting a feud that they shouldn’t have been. But Ammu is right. What reason would my grandmother have for lying to them both? For pitting them against each other?

“Do you think Nanu lost it?” Marwa asks. “Or…maybe that the payesh recipe descended from the Mughals is just a story.”

“It’s not just a story,” Ammu protests, shaking her head stubbornly. “The Jahangirs are descended from the Mughals.”

“But did the Mughals make payesh, or even eat payesh?” I ask.

“I don’t remember seeing any payesh in Jodha Akbar,” says Marwa, like a Bollywood movie is the best factual reference for our family history.

“If you never had the payesh recipe…what is this?” Ammu asks, glancing down at the bowl she’s holding.

“It’s my own payesh recipe…I made it in memory of the one that Ma made.”

“I made mine in memory of the one that Ma made too,” Ammu says softly. “But…I don’t understand.” She shakes her head, glancing down at the ground like that will have all her answers. “Why did Ma lie to us? Why would she lie to us?”

Khala’s eyebrows scrunch up like she’s deep in thought. But for just a moment. “Do you remember when we were kids?” she asked slowly. “And our Nanu used to make the payesh, before Ma ever did?”

“I remember,” Ammu says with a nod.

“When I used to think of Nanu, I used to think of the smell of cinnamon,” Khala says. “Because…”

“That’s what her payesh used to smell like,” Ammu finishes off, glancing up to meet Khala’s eyes. “But Ma never put cinnamon in her recipe.”

I’m not sure what transpires between them in that moment, but it’s like all the years of enmity that didn’t need to exist vanishes just like that.

“So there was no payesh recipe?” Marwa asks, glancing between our two moms, looking a little distraught. I can’t blame her. To think that we’ve built our entire family identity around this and our pride for this famous payesh recipe that goes back generations.

“Maybe once upon a time,” Khala says. “But…I don’t know when it got lost. Maybe it was our Nanu who lost the original recipe.”

“Or…maybe it was Ma,” Ammu says. “And that’s why she lied to us.”

“I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure,” Khala says.

“But…now we have these two payesh recipes,” Ammu glances down at the dish still in her hands. But instead of looking sad or even angry, she looks happy. Happier than I’d seen her in a long time. “Do you want to trade our recipes?”

“Yes!” Khala exclaims excitedly.

And I watch as Ammu and Khala saunter off arm-in-arm to celebrate Eid, catch up on their lost years and — most importantly — trade their payesh recipes.

“I can’t believe our plan worked!” Marwa says, coming up to me with a glint in her eyes.

“Our plan didn’t work,” I point out. “Our plan didn’t even start before Ammu and Khala started going at each other’s throats.”

“Yeah, but…they would have never had that conversation if we hadn’t tricked them into the same room, right?” Marwa shrugs her shoulder.

“I guess. I think we can take credit for this. We’ve earned it.” It definitely feels like our victory watching Ammu and Khala talk and laughs, as if those two years of separation never even existed.

Marwa grins and loops her arms through mine. “Shall we try some of the famous non-Mughal payesh?” she asks.

“We should, especially now that we have two recipes in the family.” And as we wander off to fill up on the tastiest dessert in the world, I think about how Ammu’s payesh story is definitely going to be a lot longer next year.

Artwork by Aisha Shahid

By Adiba Jaigirdar

Adiba Jaigirdar is an award-winning author. Some of her titles include The Henna Wars, A Million to One and The … Read more ›

Reconciling Cultural Dilution With the Inevitable Evolution of my Diasporic Identity

Both of my parents were born and raised in Bihar, India. They dated for a few years before getting married and moving to the United States, where they had me and my two older brothers. To our house in the States, they brought some remnants of home with them: old filmy Hindi music that always echoed in the background, my mom’s masala chai recipe that still entrances anyone who catches even a whiff of it, and a love for dance in any and every form.

[Read Related: Home: A Complicated Issue for Children of Diaspora]

They tried their best to fill our lives with as much cultural celebration and ritual as they could, but despite their genuine attempts to keep us rooted, being a product of the South Asian diaspora was complicated.

 

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Growing up, my relationship with my culture looked very different throughout distinct stages of my life. Despite being a diaspora kid, I had a unique experience in that when I was four years old, my family packed up our lives in California and moved to my parent’s hometown in Bihar. We lived there for almost three years, and for each of those three years, I absorbed every ounce of India like a sponge. I learned how to speak Hindi fluently (along with some cuss words). I tried the classic Bihari street food — litti chokha — and watched how it was masterfully made over hot charcoal. I observed Chhath pooja, a Hindu festival dedicated to the solar deity, unique to the northeastern region of India. I developed an unhealthy addiction to chocolate Horlicks and Parle-G biscuits. I even tried, but ultimately failed, to master cricket. But sadly, all of that cultural immersion was short-lived and eventually came to an end. When I was seven, my family moved back to California. 

Working with the cards we were dealt, my family still tried to stay connected to our heritage in whichever way we could. Our weekends were filled with trips to the mandir and Nina’s Indian Groceries. Festivals like Diwali and Holi were always embraced with parties and poojas. During Navratri season especially, my best friend Camy and I would dress up in matching lehengas and dance with dandiya sticks so forcefully that they would literally break in half.

Within our microcosm of a world, I never once paused to think about how I would carry these traditions forward.

It wasn’t until college, when I was trying to navigate who I was outside of my family unit for the first time, that I began to ruminate on my independent relationship with my culture. I didn’t have the structure of my family and childhood home to reiterate and reverberate Bihari traditions, Hindu customs, the Hindi language, or my family history. How would I embody them henceforth? Would I be able to make my ancestors proud?

My college roommates and I used to joke that despite us all being Indian Americans, we all spoke different mother tongues: Hindi, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, and Telugu. This obviously made it tough to engage with our languages, even though we still made our best attempts. I learned how to read and write in Hindi during my senior year of college, but my skills are still rusty and elementary at best. Without continuous exposure and practice, I’m scared that one day I’ll lose the ability entirely. 

As a child of immigrants, out of the context of my motherland, I find myself grappling with guilt or fear of losing touch with my roots. It can feel that with every passing generation, pieces of my culture may slowly diminish or get lost in translation. Bits of wisdom that are so niche and particular that, once I forget them, who will be there to remind me? 

As I’m scouring the web for hair rejuvenation remedies and get overwhelmed by the surplus of opinions, I get frustrated that I can’t remember which ayurvedic oil is better for hair regeneration: Amla or coconut? If I catch a cold and need to make my nani’s cure-all tulsi chai recipe, I cross my fingers and hope that I’ve gotten all of the ingredients and measurements right. When I seem to be trapped in a continuous cycle of ebbs and want to consult my Vedic astrological chart for some insight, I find myself lost trying to navigate the implications of Shani and the meaning behind my houses. 

It took a lot of time and reflection to let go of feelings of guilt attached to this notion of preservation. This isn’t to say that this process isn’t continuously ongoing. But, what I’ve ultimately reconciled, is that as a diaspora kid, I’m creating something that is true and unique to my nuanced experience as an Indian American.

 

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Usha Jey, a South Asian-born and raised in Paris, recently fused urban and Bharatnatyam dance forms to create “Hybrid Bharatnatyam.” This dance form so perfectly encapsulates the blending of culture. As a dancer who grew up performing urban choreo with a mix of Bollywood, this fusion of East and West was such a validating thing to see. Dance has always been a medium through which I’ve been able to connect with my American and Indian identities. A lot of my childhood was spent performing Bollywood routines at temple events or Neema Sari showcases. In high school, I was introduced to competitive urban dance and fell in love. Excited to give my teammates a peek into my culture, I choreographed and taught an urban-Bollywood piece to the classic “Sheila ki Jawani” that we ended up performing at our annual showcase. Similarly, artists like MEMBA and Abhi the Nomad subtly weave nostalgic Indian sounds into their electronic and hip-hop music to create something entirely unique. As someone navigating both of these worlds, their music tugs at my duality. When I lived in San Francisco, during the festival of Diwali, I would cook up a feast and host all of my friends from diverse cultures and backgrounds to eat, do rangoli on the roof, and light sparklers. While that may not have been a traditional celebration, it was my cliff notes version of Diwali that I was giddy to share with my community.

[Read Related: Reverse Indian Diaspora: Indian Americans Going Back to the Motherland]

Historically speaking, in any culture, there are traditions and customs that will be safeguarded until the end of time, but on that same note, there will be so much of culture that will evolve and soon look different. And maybe embracing that is something beautiful in and of itself.

While I’m still navigating my connection to my motherland, heritage, and roots, I’m allowing myself the grace to see that elements of them may manifest themselves differently in my life and the community of culture surrounding me. And while I may be creating something unique to my own identity, I still hope to honor the traditions and customs of those who came before me. 

Feature Image via Shutterstock

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By Shriya Verma

Shriya Verma is a Culture Contributor at Brown Girl Mag. She has a B.A. in Political Science and is currently … Read more ›