My post from 2011, reposted today. Happy Diwali!
When I first came to the United States, I had just turned 23. It was the late 1980s. Beginning a master’s degree in a small liberal arts college in New England was far easier than figuring out which side of the street to stand on to catch the bus home or what the percentage sign on a carton of milk meant. My enculturation was rapid and not particularly hard. Harder to adjust to was what seemed to be a diaspora – Indians coming over to this brave, new world escaping not necessarily persecution, but the tethers of poverty, limited education, censored libraries, and economic hardship. The promise and pursuit of a better life beckoned. I was immediately cast in the minority – I had nothing to escape from; no reason to be here that involved escaping something; I was here because of a hunger to learn, to round out my education, and take back to my birth-land what I had learned and so transform the world. I ended up staying, but that story is for another time.
Everywhere I looked, my fellow Indians having chosen to fly half way across the planet, seemed to be re-creating the very worlds they were trying to get away from. They gathered not only as Indians, but within that nationality, by ethnic group; chattering in local dialects, humming tunes from Hindi films, cooking up aromatic feasts that evoked for them not just a country left behind, but the warmth, acceptance and love of a close-knit family. They were drawing a circle bounded by all that they were familiar with and longed for. Before my very eyes a graduate-student-from-India colony was emerging. I was witness to an emerging culture that I wanted no part of but yet was somehow bound to, not out of choice, but simply because of my background.
In the face of this attempt at preserving ethnic bonds, I did the only thing I knew – I rejected this emerging world outright. “That’s not for me!” I said with indignation, “I’ve come to America to study and widen my horizons. Why would I want to spend time with anything or anybody that I am already familiar with?” I drew a circle, bounded by a hard line, around me and my “American” world. There was no place within that boundary for anything that might hark back to my birthplace. I stepped with the conviction of my superiority and elite world, into the circle of welcome extended to me by Americans, by Unitarians, by fellow non-Indian students. What I failed to acknowledge, was what it might take for a stranger, one from a far-flung corner of a country left behind, to extend a hand to me, that aloof and arrogant Bombay chick, who seemed to think she knew it all and had it all. I also did not see that there might be a world that was wonderful, and full of love, warmth and acceptance and that it was being handed to me; that it was mine to claim if ever I wanted it; that the circle drawn by my fellow country mates was permeable while mine was dense and impenetrable.
In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, Ram and Sita are banished for 14 years into the forest by a jealous step mother. When he steps out to hunt for food, Ram draws a draws and circle around their hut, to keep Sita safe. Sita is warned to not step over the line, to cross the bounds of that demarcation etched in sand. She is lured by evil and steps over the line, and so ensues a battle of good versus evil and although it turns out more or less ok in the end, Sita is somehow tainted by the risk she took in crossing over that line.
And so this Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, I will light a lamp and as I do I will join many other Indians, for once-a-year food and firecrackers, lights and worship offerings, in a celebration that I am invited to be part of, and will no longer turn away from.
As I do so, I am reminded of these words by A. Powell Davies:
Here we are – all of us – all upon this planet, bound
together in a common destiny,
Living our lives between the briefness of the daylight
and the dark.
Kindred in this, each lighted by the same precarious,
flickering flame of life, how does it happen that we are
not kindred in all things else?
How strange and foolish these walls of separation that divide us.
Namaste and Happy Diwali! May good triumph over evil and may your year be abundant.