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Living a Desi Life

November 2005
Living a Desi Life

By Vandana Murty

"So, how do you pronounce your name?" people always ask. "It's like bandana with a ‘V,'" I reply. My name is not remotely pronounced that way. I sometimes wonder how my older relatives would feel if they knew the Sanskrit name they deemed perfect for me was butchered numerous times every day. My name refers to the reverence one feels in the presence of scholarly individuals, pious people, and God. In America, however, I resort to identifying it with a rectangular piece of cloth that cowboys wore around their necks and bikers now wrap around their heads. Mixing of cultures calls for compromise. I learned this method of explanation as the easiest way for non-Indians to say my name and the only way I sidestep the 100th repetition of it when meeting someone. This pronunciation aid for my name is a witticism, my own creativity at work, yet I consider whether society holds no responsibility for inappropriate identifications. Nevertheless, the goal of such a quip is to trigger the name that goes with the face upon further encounters. At times I wonder whether people would be able to repeat and remember if I were to introduce myself in the correct way, so I try?time and again, to no avail. Growing up in America has many advantages, but the process of assimilation is a double-edged sword, promoting integrity and harmony on one hand but often leading to ignorance and disregard on the other.

My parents are from India, near Madras. Both are religious, love Indian culture, and make it the primary mission of parenting to instill the same pride and affection for it in their children. Since my childhood, my parents have stressed "Telugu at home, English at school." My father and I used to play a game in the car where he would say two or three sentences which I had to translate into Telugu. As I grew older it became easier for me, but I soon realized something more: that English vocabulary doesn't provide for certain sentiments I can easily express in Telugu. Since Telugu is a language directly derived from Sanskrit, I also began to appreciate the passion and beauty Sanskrit has to offer. Through poems, prayers, or plays, this ancient language adds grace and dignity to the most routine situations. In America we hear about great writers such as Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and Chaucer, but we aren't exposed to men like Kalidasa, Lilasuka, and Sankaracharya, who molded Sanskrit like clay and wrote literature that teases the mind and transforms the soul.

I owe much of my appreciation for my heritage to my parents. When I was nine years old and my sister five, my parents took us to India to stay for a year. My father was a visiting professor in his alma mater, Andhra University. My mother quit her job so she could stay with my sister and me in her parents' house. I was to go to school in the little village. I did not understand completely what that entailed until I had to use the bathroom and realized there was no toilet or toilet paper, only a small room with a hole and bucket full of water. Worse than culture shock was having my communication restricted to two people, my sister and my mother. I could speak Telugu only in incoherent fragments and understood it only slightly better. The first few weeks, a constant flow of relatives would smile, say something, squeeze my cheeks, and go on to speak with my mother. I remember the first time I had to break the language barrier: my aunt was making breakfast and I had to take a shower. My mother and grandmother were visiting with friends. After a futile attempt I realized I did not know how to light the fire beneath the big black water pot. After stalling for a few hours I decided that I needed to ask for help. My aunt was the least intimidating of all my relatives, always laughing and considerate, so I explained my dilemma to her in my broken Telugu. She then did something for which I will be grateful for the rest of my life. She understood. Without laughing or expressing any sense of surprise, she got up to help me. Her acting as though everything were normal slowly allowed me to open my shell. Within a week of that incident I became an integral part of my cousins' playgroup. I soon learned not only to speak well, but also to read and write Telugu. The year of 1996 has my favorite memories interwoven through its days and months. I had the rare opportunity of actually getting to know my cousins and to be treated as an equal in the household instead of the "cousin in America who visits once in five years." It was such an experience to see the kind of food that my mother cooked at home sold on the streets instead of in restaurants labeled "Indo-Pak Cuisine." I learned about my culture firsthand, no longer vicariously through my parents and relatives.

I have tried over the years to balance my American self and my Indian self. Just as I had become fluent in Sanksrit and Telugu, I attempted to seem as fluent in two Western languages: I received the Outstanding English Award in my high school and was nominated for the Governor's Honors Program in both Spanish and English. I learned Indian classical music and cello. I performed Indian classical dance and attended my senior prom. I've made concessions and compromises my entire life, yet I cannot find equilibrium between Indian and American. Every decision I make results in a war between the two cultures. Questions pop into mind: Am I being too American?; Will I still be considered a good Indian?; Am I being too conservative?; What will my American friends say?; What will my Indian friends say? The list goes on.

Since I've been fortunate enough to live in a progressively multicultural society, I have always been able to find someone somewhat knowledgeable in my culture and interested to learn more. Still, I encounter those who ask if I have to eat more often in a day since I'm vegetarian, or if Indians eat monkey brains and worship satanic idols. Not only is it frustrating to be asked such questions, but also it is infuriating to see sacred traditions materialized. The henna sported as a temporary decoration was originally meant to be symbolic for brides and new mothers, drawn on hands and feet for good luck and peace. Yoga has been commercialized: an ancient Hindu discipline meant to free the self from body and mind is used simply for exercise and relaxation, with an entire market for yoga equipment. Not only have traditions been exploited but Sanskrit words also. Guru refers to a person who has achieved higher concentration through deep meditation but is now used even by Indians in a secular context. Mantra means a sacred phrase used for meditation but is also bandied about as a secular term. This is a complication of assimilation. When traditions and terms are introduced, they can become distorted. One can feel conflict between educating others and fear of dilution of culture.

The balancing act of being desi (from the motherland) is difficult. Still, I wouldn't exchange the life I have now either to live in India permanently or to become entirely American. My Indian-American culture is unique and adds to the diversity in this nation. Annoyances and dilemmas are a part of my routine but have helped me grow as a person to realize and sympathize with others in the same position. I have learned not to judge what I don't know completely. Bringing cultures together brings people together and promotes appreciation for other cultures, and therefore, appreciation for fellow man.

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