HOST: You’re not alone if you’ve felt out of place in a foreign culture. Well, it’s possible to feel that way in your own culture sometimes. Commentator Anjuli Sastry describes her lifelong struggle to connect with her family’s Hindu heritage.
The Hindu elephant god, Ganesh. Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons.
SASTRY: I grew up in a small suburb just outside the San Francisco Bay Area. There weren’t too many Indian families in our town, but my mom always wanted me and my brother be more “Indian.”
My mom is a devout Hindu. She would wake us up on holidays like Diwali, the ancient Indian festival of lights, with a greeting and then we would recite prayers in our coat closet-turned-prayer room filled with pictures of Hindu Gods. These prayers are called shlokas, and they are in Sanskrit. “Om gananam thwam ganapathi ghum hawa maheh. ” I struggled to wrap my tongue around these complicated words.
But I remember seeing the joy on my mom’s face as my brother and I finally mastered these shlokas.
Another challenge? The saree. I was expected to wear it during our celebrations. But I didn’t know how to tie the yards of saree fabric around my body without my mom’s help.
When I went off to college, mom gave me a picture of the Hindu elephant God Ganesh to put up in my dorm room so he could watch over me. I think that picture ended up in a drawer somewhere.
But try as I might, I couldn’t shake these childhood memories. They are what ultimately got me to attend Columbia’s Diwali celebration this past November.
I’d donned a blue and gold saree number, to match with the other South Asians in traditional dress at the event. My roommate from India helped me tie it but the heavy fabric was in danger of slipping out of place. As I walk into the event, I saw girls spinning to the sound of traditional Indian music. Miniature lights were set around the room to commemorate Diwali.
Members of the Indian multicultural association were chanting prayers They describe the significance of Diwali before it’s time for the most important part: the food.
The line for the buffet stretches out the door. Mmmm, my mouth waters.
So I can’t cook Indian food to save my life. But as I look at the dishes served up by the Indian multicultural association, they remind me of my grandmother and mom’s cooking styles.
There’s navratan korma, a fiery curry of peas and carrots, and palak paneer, a blend of forest green spinach and cheese tofu. I’m full to the brim and satisfied. I wandered around to watch female students waiting for green henna designs to dry on their hands. Others have put on bindis, the colorful red dots that Indian women wear between their brows to signify marriage. These days, Indian girls wear them as decoration.
It’s amazing to me that these girls are embracing Indian culture in a way that I have not. I call my mom after the event to let her know I went to celebrate Diwali. There’s happiness in her voice but that doesn’t stop her from guilt tripping me: “Why didn’t you do that kind of stuff back home?” she says.
It’s not like Indian culture is that different from other cultures. Parents impart traditions to their children who are then expected to pass them on to their own children. I can still repeat my shlokas and tell you the significance of each Hindu God. I may never stop questioning my religion and heritage, or whether I believe in God. But if I can make my mom even the tiniest bit proud by attempting to embrace our heritage, I’ll take it. BACK ANNOUNCE: Anjuli Sastry still hasn’t learned how to tie a saree.