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Musings: Becoming Desi in the Midwest

By Jessica Namakkal Email By Jessica Namakkal
January 2019
Musings: Becoming Desi in the Midwest

 

(Left) The author’s parents, Carol June Sarraillon and Srinivasan Sadagopan Namakkal, at their Hindu wedding.


In the 1970s, mixed marriages were uncommon in the United States. When the author’s parents took the big step in 1975, they were both, she says, rejecting the expectations of conservative institutions (the Catholic Church, caste supremacy, and nationalist ideology) that, in varying ways, rely on ideas of racial and sexual purity for their continued existence.

 

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(Right) The author's parents at their
Christian wedding in Minnesota, 1975.

My parents, Carol June Sarraillon and Srinivasan Sadagopan Namakkal, had two weddings during the summer of 1975. The first was a Hindu ceremony in the basement of my Aunt Saroja and Uncle Rangy’s house in Toronto, and the second was a Catholic ceremony in a church in St. Paul, Minnesota, the city where my parents met. Both weddings included all the things a good wedding should: copious amounts of food (South Indian food in Toronto; hamburgers and hot dogs in Minnesota), friends in fancy clothes, music, drinks, and dancing. While my Indian grandparents could not be present at the Toronto wedding, it was significant that the ceremony took place in the home of family, and despite some initial resistance from my maternal grandfather as to my mom’s choice of husband, he and my grandmother traveled to Minnesota for the occasion. Adjustments were made, cultures were blended, and a new family came into being.

My mom was born in Nebraska in 1944, the daughter of a Catholic farmer and a Protestant school teacher. On September 8, 1963, she entered a convent and began her journey as a nun with the Sisters of Mercy in Omaha, Nebraska. The first entry in her convent diary begins “This was both the worst and best day of my life”: the worst because she was leaving her family, but the best “since it [was] the first step in [her] lifelong ambition to be a sister” and to devote her life to helping those who needed it. Despite some initial hesitations and consistent bouts of homesickness, she stayed with the Sisters of Mercy until 1971, earning a college degree and teaching high school in Chadron, Nebraska for a few years.

While my mom was contemplating taking final vows and committing herself to a life in the Church, my dad was half a world away, traveling between his hometown of Secunderabad and Madras, where his parents had a house and where he was starting a career in advertising. Born in August 1946, a year before Indian independence, my dad was born into an emergent India that would change in many unpredicted ways during his childhood, including the increase in South Asians going abroad.

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(Left) The author’s father came to U.S. as a student.

My mom left the convent a few years before she met my dad, to pursue a career in social justice work. But while she was in the Church, she had taken a vow of chastity and it was understood she would never marry. My dad, the only male child in a Tamil Brahmin family was expected to marry a woman who would complement, and blend seamlessly into, his family. He left to gain more education abroad, at the University of Minnesota, with the expectation that he would come back and be married in India. Both my parents were, in similar ways, rejecting the expectations of conservative institutions (the Catholic Church, caste supremacy, and nationalist ideology) that, in varying ways, rely on ideas of racial and sexual purity for their continued existence.

While “love marriages” were not unheard of in India in the early 1970s, they were not widely accepted either, especially for those who chose to marry outside of their own caste, religion, nationality, and race. Not that the United States was any better when it came to mixed marriages: Loving vs. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated laws prohibiting mixed marriages, had been in effect only since 1967. If my parents had met ten years earlier, their marriage would have been illegal in the United States. Though it was not always a conscious decision, my parents’ choices often pushed back against structural norms. My mom was always very proud that she chose to keep her name, recognizing that to be married did not mean the complete sacrifice of her identity but the beginning of a partnership that could transcend the strictures of institutions.

Like many people who break with cultural norms and family expectations, my parents had to negotiate unfamiliar spaces and create new traditions. The geographic locations of the two weddings, one in Canada, one in the United States— neither in India—reflected the migrations of multiple people and families, and became the site of my parents’ integration and the formation of our family. A year after the weddings, in 1976, my sister Sheela was born, and three years after that, I came into the world. I like to think we were the first Catholic-Hindu family to set up permanent residence in St. Paul, at the early end of both the wave of South Asian migration into Minnesota and the gradual increase in mixed-race marriages in North America.

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(Left) The author's father and mother (back row), with author (in pink) and her sister (in blue), in their maternal grandparents’ living room in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1987. The sisters are wearing matching Sears-purchased 'India: Eastern Adventure' sweatshirts featuring a pastel-colored Taj Mahal.

Outside of social expectations, many negotiations had to be made on a personal and cultural level, especially around food. The first time my dad, a lifelong vegetarian, went to my mom’s house for dinner, she made him a steak. Whenever they told this story, my mom would laugh as my dad detailed how he carefully picked the red peppers off the top and ate those along with some Spanish rice. My mom may not have been fazed by dating an Indian, but she had no idea how to feed a vegetarian. She was from Nebraska: a good steak was the ultimate meal. By the time I was born, my dad had given up his vegetarianism in favor of my mom’s meatloaf and those Jell-O salads so popular in the Midwest in the 1980s (lime Jell-O, canned pineapple, carrot shavings). Despite my father’s adaptations to Midwestern eating habits, he was (and is still) known at the local diner for asking for a side of salsa with his pancakes, and regularly made my sister and me peanut butter or (processed) cheese dosas on the weekends.

Mixed marriages have become much more popular in the South Asian diaspora since the 1970s, although there is not much discussion about what this means or of the great amount of diversity these “new” family formations have brought to the community, both in South Asia and globally. By the mid-1980s, most of my Indian family, including my grandfather, my five aunts and their families, and my cousins, had left India and lived in Canada, the United States, and areas of the Gulf States. This meant that growing up, instead of learning about India by going there, I developed ideas of India that were largely shaped by people and places in the diaspora. Most of the Indian family I saw were in Toronto or came to stay with us in Minnesota—our house became a sort of way station for Indian family on the way to bigger cities. When I was in Toronto, I interacted primarily with Indian people, ate Indian food, heard people speaking Tamil and Hindi, went to Hindu temples, and watched Indian films. Despite the white landscape (including both the snow and the people), when I was young, I practically thought Canada was India.

For many years, I thought my knowledge, of India and of myself, was inauthentic because I learned it in North America, not in India. I expected that, had I been in India, I would somehow have a deeper understanding of “my” culture. This is an idea that many immigrants and diasporic peoples seem to carry with them and pass on to their children, perhaps because of the sadness that comes with the loss of homeland, or with the realization that you have produced children who are culturally different than you. For my father, what must it feel like to be an Indian but have children who are Americans, who do not desire the foods of his youth and do not understand his mother’s native tongue? And for my mother, what must it feel like to have children who have a different last name from her and are often assumed to not be her children because of their brown skin and dark hair?

The first time I visited India was in 2004. My dad took us to the Meenakshi Amman Temple in Madurai, a site of significant spiritual and historical importance for Tamil people. As we approached the inner chambers, we were stopped. Pointing to a worn sign that prohibited entrance to non-Hindus, the woman at the gate did not want to let my sister and me into the protected space. She read our bodies as foreign and therefore as potential pollutants, offensive to the purity of the deity inside. As my father argued with the guards in Tamil about how we are his daughters and were obviously therefore Hindus, we stood to the side as they looked closely at our faces, seeking out the resemblance, and ultimately turning us away. In recent trips this has become less of a problem, but the question is always asked, our bodies always examined.

The connections between Toronto and India and Minnesota have become important to me and to my understanding of what it means to be South Asian in the diaspora, and to be a multiracial desi. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and going to racially diverse, but deeply segregated, junior high and high schools, resulted in unexpected friendships with other young people negotiating their ambiguous brown identities: one of my best friends—we were often mistaken for each other—was half-Tongan, another half-Japanese. When I moved to Los Angeles for college, everyone in L.A. assumed I was Latina. While this initially frustrated me—‘why can’t they see me for who I am, an Indian (sort of)!’—I quickly learned that my own politics were much more closely aligned with anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperial compañeras than with the largely conservative South Asian groups on campus. While, over time, I have met many radical South Asian thinkers, organizers, and artists, including a good number of other multiracial desis, learning from the wide range of Brown and Black cultures and movements in the United States helped me think outside of performing a specific national identity.

The ways in which our bodies are read by others can project back onto us where we think we belong. While the term desi has come to refer generally to people of South Asian descent, the original meaning, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “local, indigenous, native.” There is a sense of purity foundational to the meaning. As a person born in Minnesota, the child of an Indian man and a white woman who was the daughter of recent European immigrants, I am not indigenous to my homeland. I was born on occupied Dakota land. As a young person, I was often confused when people asked if I was American-Indian: while the answer, in my mind, was clearly ‘yes,’ I had to learn that this term did not refer to me. Not quite Indian enough, too brown to be white, another brown body on occupied land. I have asked myself repeatedly, where do the children of the diaspora belong?

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(Left) The author and her sister have “Namakkal” tattooed on ​their backs in Tamil.

Being a multiracial desi may be categorically impossible, yet it is an identity I now claim. Despite my parents’ cultural and geographic distances, they found ways to fully immerse themselves into being Minnesotans, complete with a devotion to the Minnesota Twins, a garage full of sleds and closets full of mittens, and occasional trips “up North.” We religiously attended the Minnesota State Fair, and my sister and I have matching tattoos of the state of Minnesota on our arms. We also have our last name, “Namakkal,” tattooed on our backs in Tamil. A few years ago, I added another tattoo, a quote by the great anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon from the conclusion to his book Black Skin, White Masks. Underneath the Tamil script, it reads “In the world through which I travel, I am endlessly creating myself”—a reminder that one body can encompass many histories and create new ones simultaneously.


Jessica Namakkal is a historian and writer based in Durham, NC, where she teaches in the Programs in International Comparative Studies and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. She is currently working on her first book, a history of decolonization in French India. The article originally appeared in Tides, the online magazine of the South Asian American Digital Archive (www.saada.org).



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