Indian, American

I’ll tell you when it happened to me

floating unsuspectingly

inside a watery balloon

muffled Tamil filtered through.


The world outside awaited me

Mama and chittis, thatha, and patti.

dhal and iddli, curds and rice

scents of spices to entice.


My fate was settled it would seem

a child of India I would be

destined to live in families’ arms

plying my first- granddaughter charms.


But then, a hairpin turn in fate.

My life in Bharat would have to wait.

A conversation passed between

mother and father still unseen.


He left for opportunity

she stayed and waited there for me

then later she would make her way

the crying babe would have no say.


Together they would meet him there

and build a life in Delaware.

And now I am the me you see

American minority.


So much of who I am today

the things I think and do and say

are born of one small change in course

that had an immeasurable force.


Indian I will always be

but American is what makes me, me.


NaPoWriMo 2013: Day 9



At home in Delaware it passed with little fanfare. Perhaps we would light some dhiyas and put them out on the front steps. But my mom would soon blow them out, murmuring about the fall leaves catching fire.  I remember holding illegal sparklers in my hand, arm stretched out as far from my body as I could. I was nervous that police would come and see my holiday transgression. In the pitch dark of a suburban, North American, East Coast, November evening I thought about the monkey-god Hanuman leaping across the sea to Lanka.

The first time I visited India in the fall, I was 18, just graduated from high school, taking a year to discover my roots before going to college.  My two best friends from school came with me.  That night, we perched high up on a rooftop in Gujarat, languishing in the evening cool after a day of sweat and mosquitos. The night pulsed with drums beating from the street.  Shots of light zoomed from roof to roof, the playful warfare of longtime neighbors.  New bangles sang on our wrists,  gifted to us by a real life queen of old India.   On the streets, families piled onto scooters in their fancy dresses, off to trade sweets with friends.  No one spoke of the great deeds of the warrior prince. No one spoke of his return from exile.  No one spoke, but the scent  of victory, of triumph,  of duty fulfilled was thick in the air that festival night.

This year I forgot about it.  Life has been too full with living. We recently moved back in with my parents,  that same old house in the suburbs, those same dark November skies.  My kids, still small,  are in tune with the other holidays we celebrate; Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover.  Their world helps them to remember these days, to anticipate, to expect.  This night I forgot, and so they did not know. But at the last minute, my mom said,  “Let’s put out the dhiyas. Let’s do sparklers with the kids.  Let me sweep away the leaves.”

Together we stood on the front steps, the chill in the air keeping us close to the house.  The kids were dressed for bed, flannel nightgown and footie pajamas.  My mom held the sparkler tip to the dhiya’s flame. The old sparkler, unlit for years, burned slow before bursting. The kids gasped. I opened my mouth and sang, “Ram nam raas peeje, manava!”  A song my grandmother taught me that year, 18 years ago poured out from my heart.  My daughter told her teacher in school, “We said Happy Diwali last night!”   Perhaps I smell the scent of victory in the autumn night, perhaps the monkey-god still leaps across the sea.  Last night, we were three generations bringing light to the darkness, three generations erasing ignorance with knowledge, three generations singing songs, Diwali, last night, Diwali.


Born in New Delhi, capital city

of the largest democracy

in the world.

Raised in Delaware, first state

to ratify the constitution

of the USA.

Chose to become, U. S citizen

on my 21st birthday.

Relinquished allegiance

Pledged allegiance

Listened to the speaker

U.S. war veteran

telling us all

to speak English only

from now on.

Wondered why

I had chosen

a land of one language

over the land of 100 tongues.

Posed for pictures.

Voted for change.

Watched towers burn.

Mourned with my countrymen

but feared persecution

by the Real Americans.

All the while

lyrics swim in my head

from the dozen fireworks displays

of my youth.

“I am proud to be an American,

where at least I know I am free…

and I’ll gladly stand up, next to you.”

But sometimes I still wonder,

will you stand up next to me?



Something about Shashi

There’s something silly about Shashi

Something strange. Something queer.

When she’s here, she wants there.

When she’s there she wants here.


There’s something odd about Shashi

Something hard to define.

Shashi’s heart has two homes

She lives life on the line.


There’s something sad about Shashi.

Something making her sigh.

She left there to come here.

But she can’t say goodbye.


There’s something changed about Shashi.

Something strong, something true

Though her heart says, “Go back there.”

She can’t leave without you.

Indian, Western, or Fusion?

Scenario: I am attending the wedding of a good friend.  He’s a White guy marrying a White girl in a traditional White American wedding. My husband is in the wedding party.  Therefore, I will be attending the rehearsal dinner, the wedding itself, and the brunch that follows. With so many events to attend, this question inevitably arises; should I go Indian, Western, or Fusion?


Rehearsal Dinne/Cocktails:  Indian

Why:  Sparkly ethnic clothes are good conversation starters, and I don’t have to be the one to start the conversation.  Also, White Americans usually don’t know whether the particular outfit you are wearing is worn everyday or for special occasions so there’s no danger of being over or under-dressed. The outfit is so eye catching, I don’t have to feel too self conscious about my face, hips, belly or butt or any of the million other things I am stressing about.   I can draw attention to myself and deflect attention from my flaws at the same time.  However, this plan can backfire if it attracts the wrong kind of attention. For instance, at one wedding I attended years ago, the father of the bride said to me, “So. Y’Indian?  Bet you’ll have a horse at your wedding. Or an elephant or something. Right? Ha, ha, ha, ha.” 


Wedding:   American

Why: The wedding is the bride’s day.  I don’t want to stand out too much from the crowd.  I’ve already met people using my Indian clothes tactic from the day before, so I don’t need to worry so much about my outfit’s ice breaking qualities. My husband will be wearing a tux, and since there will be probably be pictures of the two of us together, I want us to look complementary. Since I will be drunk by the time we get to the real socializing, my normal insecurities about wearing dresses will be numbed (Is it too revealing? Not revealing enough? Does my belly stick out?  Is my bra showing? Is my skirt tucked up inside my underwear? How long should I wait to change out of these heel into my flip flops?).  Also, I plan to dance my ass off and Western dresses are often easier for me to dance in. I just can’t seem to figure out how to get down and dirty with six yards of fabric wrapped around me.  What’s the downside to going American? Many of the guests who see me dressed Indian the night before will be expecting an enhanced repeat performance. I may hear, “If I were you, I would only wear Indian clothes, they are so beautiful.”  There’s no quick and easy response to this one so I am risking a lengthy conversation with someone whose name I can’t remember, and who I never plan to see again.


Brunch: Fusion

Why:  The brunch is at the bride’s parent’s home so I am guessing it should be  casual.   However, because they live in a fairly tony neighborhood I am guessing this crowd will tend toward “dress casual”. Dress casual is my most difficult dressing zone.  In my mind it’s really “casual for the wealthy”. I worry that the clothing I wear will not match the designer quality Western clothes that the other guests will surely be wearing. I am convinced that designer clothes are made for slim, tall, White, women and have never been comfortable even entering the stores that sell them.  Because of this, my style has tended toward the eclectic.  I like to shop at vintage stores, Target, inexpensive hipster boutiques, and my mother’s closet.  I mix it all together and get fusion!   I will distract these well dressed White people with my cunning pairing of a hipster knee length dress with an ironic cat on it,  leggings from a Indian outfit my mom just brought back from India, and some heels I picked up at payless.  They will not be able figure out where any of my clothes came from, so they will not be able to judge me!  What’s the danger in going fusion?  I am not really that fashionable. Sometimes I just don’t have the vision required to pull it off.  Instead of looking fashion forward, I look like a prime candidate for What not to Wear.

This question –  Indian, Western, or Fusion? –  is more than just a clothing choice.  My own hyper awareness of race, class, and gender related social norms makes me feel like I am engaged in a political act. It’s exhausting. Maybe that’s why I find the idea of a nudist colony so very appealing. Indian, Western, or Fusion? It’s all me.






three worlds

World One

homeland, old country, country of origin

the place where mother’s mother lives

the place where things make more sense

the “where you came from” when they say

“go back to where you came from.”

World Two

the adopted homeland, the country of presents and futures

the place where mother’s body lives

the place where things are what they are

where i grew up: Wilmington, Delaware

a place to be somebody

World Three

immigrant’s house, the space in between, home

where mother speaks Tamil and I answer in English

the place where we can rest

from the push and pull

of all the worlds, and all the selves, and all the homes.




Going home


The kids sleep in my old bedroom.  I sleep in the guest room.  There are rooms to spare and we spread our things  across the house knowing it will take hours to find them again when it is time to leave. My parents get up in the morning and do the same things they have always done.  Dad’s arms sway up and out and down to the floor.  He stretches to get the blood flowing.  Mom lights the candle on her altar, says a quick prayer under her breath as the kettle sings its insistent song.  “I am ready! I am hot!”  She makes the first of three cups of morning coffee. Each one will be left in an unknown location in the house, two-thirds full, stolen away by the coffee elves.  The kitchen smells of incense, and cumin, and burnt toast.   The floor is cold.  My kids run around, and around, and around from the kitchen, into the hallway, into the dining room, and back into the kitchen.  Outside, I hear leaves rustling, acorns drop, birds twitter.


For the first week I am groggy. Day is night and I cannot keep my eyes open. I have never been good at dealing with changes in sleep.  The air is thick with the smell of dust, and sun, and people.  Vendors sell vegetables and hot chai. They sing their insistent songs, “Hot chai!  Ready! Good price!”  I roll out my mat to sleep on.  The floor is hard, but I soon become accustomed to sleeping this way with my cousins nearby.  I wander the streets during the day, to market and back.  I am absorbed into my uncle’s family.  We catch auto rickshaws to go to see a movie.  The roads are jammed with people and cars and motorbikes and animals. I can hardly hear myself think.


The sun pours in through our windows into our living room, amplified by the yellow of our walls.  It is a cozy apartment.  Living room bleeds into dining area into kitchen.  Two tiny bedrooms tucked away at the back of the apartment hold all our things and all our dreams.  High shelves keep cherished books away from tiny hands.  On nice days, we choose which playground to go to.  Our playground? The school playground? The far away playground?  On rainy days, the children roam the hallway in our building, imagining worlds behind doors.  Outside, birds, sirens, hammers, helicopters, and neighbors all shout for attention.  “We are here! See us working!”

La India

She called me La India.  She was a tiny brown nut of an old woman with a crinkly hard shell.  She only wore house dresses. Her silver hair hugged her head with tight curls.  She called me “La India”  because she could not remember my name.  She was right to save that space in her brain.  I only stayed in her boarding house for two weeks.

She called me La India because I was from India, and that is all she knew. She did not call me La Americana. I spent the summer of 1998 in Puerto Rico.  It was a strange trip, a trip that came together quickly and haphazardly.  I had some contacts.  Names, addresses, and phone numbers.  I had some vague, amorphous goals.  I had a plane ticket.  When I arrived in Puerto Rico,  the telephone workers went on strike.  I could not call the people I was supposed to contact.  So I wrote them a letter.  I found a boarding house to stay in and I waited.

The old woman called me La India and I called her Senora.  Two other girls were living in the house for the summer and taking courses at the University of Puerto Rico, a few blocks away.  They were friendly but busy, and my Spanish was limited.  I spent the days wandering San Juan.  I took the bus to the beach. I walked around campus. I read books and took naps in the library. I went to the market and bought canned macaroni and cheese.  I waited.

She called me La India and it fit.  In Puerto Rico, I passed for Puerto Rican.  People were surprised when my Spanish came out in fits and starts.  They looked at me and saw una India – a Puerto Rican with native blood, indigenous.  In Puerto Rico, I passed.  My head hurt from trying to understand, trying to communicate, trying to find my way around.  My head hurt, but something else was at ease.  Eyes did not pick me out and wonder.  It felt like being in India.  It felt like another home.

She called me La India, and so often, that is what I am.  I am the Indian friend, the Indian on staff, the Indian at the party.  But for a few months in Puerto Rico, I wandered the streets of another place and was just me – alone, unobserved, free.




Primary Impressions: Age 6-8 or so (Vol 1)

Swollen feet pinched by tight fancy Rajasthani shoes that point at the toes.  Been on the plane for 8 hours. This nice old man next to me in the turban keeps giving me candies. They are gross.  They taste like flowers or soap.  I am alone, chaperoned by airline hostesses.  Almost home. Excited to show off my outfit to mommy and daddy. Off the plane now. Waiting in long lines.  My feet hurt!

Up to the counter now.  Airline hostess left to go back to work because I am, “pretty much out now.”  Man asks for my passport and green card. I have my passport, but I don’t know anything about a green card.  My face feels hot. My feet hurt.  My stomach is buggy.  A lady comes over in a suit. “Come with me honey.”

Inside an office. Sitting at a seat.  Man behind the desk asks me question:

Him: “What’s the name of your school?”

Me:  “Jennie Smith.”

Him: “Where do you live?”

Me: “1955 Lakeview Drive.”

Him: “Where are your parents?”

Me: “Waiting for me out there!”

Tears form but I squeeze them back. I am a good girl.  The lady who brought me in says, “Are you sure you don’t have a little plastic card with your picture on it?:

“You mean this one in my pocket? But it’s not green. It’s pink.”

I don’t tell my parents what happened. I am too embarrassed.

Exotic (a silly-sad song)

If you can say my name,

I’ll give you 50 dollars.

And if you spell it right

then you deserve a billion more.

That’s one for every person

in the country that i come from.

No, I don’t know them all,

or your friends in California.



Oh I’m exotic

I guess there’s no denying

I’m so exotic

sometimes it leaves me crying

Yes, I’m exotic

That’s why I’m always flying home

To bring you presents from the Taj Mahal


I ride an elephant

Yeah, all my cows are holy

And I’ve got monkeys all around me

everywhere I go

And when I leave the house

I always take my cobras with me

It never hurts to be this charming

when you’re on your own


Well I’m exotic

I guess there’s no denying

And my food’s exotic

sometimes it leaves you crying

I am exotic

That’s why I’m always flying home

to bring you peacock feathers for your wall.


Well that red dot I wear

Means I’m feeling homesick

I lost my identity

Can’t tell you why or when or where

I’ve got a feeling

that it happened when I was a baby

On flight 291

from New Delhi to Delaware

Yeah, I grew up in Delaware.


That’s not exotic

I guess there’s no denying

I’m not exotic

Sometimes it leaves me crying.

So un-exotic

That’s why I’m always flying home…

to bring you presents from the Taj Mahal.

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