Musings: Mixing Colors
By her early 30s, ANJALI ENJETI had mostly forgotten what little she’d learned about her Indian heritage during her childhood in the American South. Then, after a long stint in the North, she moved with her family to the Atlanta area. For this attorney-turned-writer, it turned out to be an eye-opening experience, allowing her to reconnect with her Indian self.
I enter through the side door wearing a pair of old, white shorts and a T-shirt. In the kitchen, scents of curry and chai waft through the air. There are at least a dozen shoes—crocs, flip-flops, sneakers, and chappals—lined against a wall.
It’s quiet, though, and I wonder where everyone is.
One of my neighbors is stooped over the counter wearing a cotton sari. Its pallu runs the length of her long, loose hair. When she turns around, she has a wide smile, but her lips are pursed, as if keeping a secret.
“Where is everyone?” I ask.
Her hands fly up and sweep my face. A powdery substance cascades down my cheeks then spills onto my shirt. The blue and green grains resemble the color of the ocean on a clear, cloudless day.
“Happy Holi!” she shouts, squeezing my shoulders.
It is a baptism of colors. At 38 years old, I’m celebrating my very first Holi.
* * *
My father immigrated to El Paso, Texas, from Hyderabad in 1971. He married my mother, a half–Puerto Rican, half-Austrian army brat in 1972, and I was born in Southfield, Michigan, in 1973.
I spent much of my formative years in a small southern city in Tennessee where, with my Southern twang and big ’80s hair, I identified far more with Madonna and McDonald’s than mehndi and Carnatic music. I never learned Telugu, my father’s native tongue, and rarely visited temples. Our family attended a few Diwali celebrations over the years, but we did not otherwise immerse ourselves in the local Indian community.
On trips to India, I’d beg my parents to let me wear T-shirts and jeans instead of salwar suits. I found the dishes too spicy, the streets too dusty, and the un-airconditioned flats too suffocating. While I loved seeing the Taj Mahal, building elaborate mosquito net tents with my cousins and playing carroms on the floor of my grandmother’s living room, at the end of every vacation, I was relieved to board the plane back to America—to return to my wholly American life.
* * *
Sunlight floods the back deck, which is lined with fold-up chairs and card tables. An uncurled hose snakes along a patch of dormant grass, struggling to display the first signs of spring. Toddlers to teens huddle around a bucket, dipping their painted hands in water up to their elbows.
“Mama,” calls my youngest, flashing me her orange palms. “Look at me.” Her hair sticks up at odd angles. Cheetah-like spots dot her limbs. I’m grateful she’s wearing a bathing suit.
Before I can wave back, I am deluged from behind with a bucket of ice-cold water. It stuns me like an electric shock and runs down my body in rivulets.
“Happy Holi!” my neighbor shouts. He retreats to the faucet to refill his bucket. Apparently, I am only one of many victims on his radar that afternoon.
Children squeal and surround me. My drenched shirt serves as their personal canvas.
Eventually, I get the hang of Holi. I cup copious amounts of colors, pour them onto my daughters’ scalps then work them into the fabric of their clothes. I sprint through the yard to avoid the vengeful spray of the garden hose. When I manage to steal away the bucket, I douse a group of preteens.
I can’t believe I waited this long, to know this kind of fun.
* * *
For an eighth grade homework assignment, I had to create a pie chart utilizing any type of data I wished. With a dinner plate, I traced the circumference of a circle, and bisected it like the equator. I labeled one side “50 percent Indian.” On the other half, which I further divided into two equal parts, I labeled one section “25 percent Puerto Rican,” and the other, “25 percent Austrian.”
I embellished the graph with brown scrambled lines for hair, and added a stick figure body for a pie-chart self-portrait demonstrating my total ethnic make-up.
My teacher, more likely impressed by my diverse ethnicity than with the skill of the project itself, gave me an “A.”
I wonder now, whether my teacher saw beyond the crayon markings on a chart, beyond the lesson itself, to what the pie chart really represented—a young girl grateful for her mixed heritage, but clueless how to integrate it.
* * *
There are theories, none too optimistic, about culturally blended families. When combined, the ethnicities, the religions, and the nuances of heritage fade away. Ceremonies are redacted. Index cards detailing ancestral family recipes deteriorate. Family rituals are abandoned. Younger generations don’t learn enough of their language of origin, to pass it down to their progeny.
Perhaps, there’s some truth to the theories.
By my early 30s, what little I’d known about Indian culture from my childhood—the names of the gods and goddesses, the holidays, the South Indian dishes my grandmother had cooked—I had all but forgotten.
But in the summer of 2007, I moved with my family from suburban Philadelphia to an area in North Atlanta that is predominantly Indian. My neighbors and most of my friends are Indian. Several of my children’s classmates are Indian—some even speak Telugu. Within a ten-mile radius, I have my pick of Indian restaurants, grocery stores, and temples.
Our relocation has afforded me the opportunity to immerse myself in an Indian culture that I’d kept at arm’s length. It has reintroduced me to customs, traditions, and dishes that I had long forgotten.
It has taught me a few invaluable lessons, too. When it comes down to it, culture isn’t genetic or biological. It is a choice, an aspiration, a deep-seeded appreciation of all of the distinct parts that make a person whole. And culture doesn’t expire.
It is not conscious of ethnic percentages.
At the end of the day, I am fully Austrian, Puerto Rican, and Indian, no matter how much or how little I express those cultures in my day-to-day life. The countries of my ancestors, no matter where I live, will always reside in the home of my soul.
* * *
The following spring, sunrays flood the veranda. We lather sunscreen on cheeks, noses, and shoulders as the first butterflies of the season stretch open their wings. Verdant grasses carpet our bare feet and soaring temperatures mean getting wet will offer much-needed relief.
I am no longer new to Holi. When we set out bowls of colors on the patio, I strategize while digging into the fine, loose particles. Within minutes, I have stamped my handprints on dozens of bare arms and legs, and emulated Monet in graffiti on the concrete patio.
And I am immersed, too, in purple and yellow, orange and green. The pigments cling to my hair, stain my fingernails, and coat my clothes. Their various hues coalesce into a vibrant palate, much like the way cumin, coriander, and cardamom unite to create savory garam masala.
When we are finished, when empty tubes scatter on the pavement and upturned buckets congregate near the swing-set, I find I’m in no rush to change out of my clothes. So instead, I settle on a step, stretch out my legs, face the bright blue sky, and inhale the spirit of the celebration, as the colors continue to seep in.
Anjali Enjeti is a staff writer for ArtsATL, a comprehensive news source for the arts scene in the Atlanta area. A recovering attorney, she’s an MFA student in creative writing at Queens University in Charlotte. You can find her articles, essays, fiction, and poetry at www.anjalienjeti.com.
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