Originally published in Frontier Psychiatrist
copyright (c) 2014 by Anjoli Roy
I grew up in southern California and was continually mistaken for Chicana. During college in New York City, I was also confused for Latina, Greek, or even Egyptian. In Hawai‘i, where I’m now a graduate student, a Korean boy I tutored asked me if I was Filipina, tracing his seven-year-old finger down my brown arm. When I was younger and people asked “what” I was, I would say that I was white. I’d watch embarrassed clouds of confusion cross their faces. “And Indian,” I’d add, eventually.
To clarify: I wasn’t trying to pass for white; in fact, I’m pretty obsessed with my ancestry, as might be obvious from my blog, Fatherland. I just hate the casual way that (usually white) folks ask about ethnicity, as if it were no big deal, as if any person who deviates from the unmarked (white) race must surrender racial identity on demand. As if I was making them ask me. As if I should have told them already. Ultimately, these questions felt like barriers to community.
So, when I was awarded a two-month scholarship to uncover my family history in India, I hoped to glimpse a feeling of belonging. I wanted to uncover and preserve the story of my great grandfather who fought for India’s independence from the British, who my family both in the US and in India were in danger of forgetting. I wanted to learn about my thakurda, my grandfather who was a famous mathematician and died long before I was born. I wanted to see if I could fit my feet into my father’s childhood footprints. He’d left India when he was eight, but had vivid memories of life with his beloved family in Kolkata and of his boarding school in the mountains of West Bengal. Finally, I wanted to spend time with this side of my family, who I had last seen nearly two decades before, at age 11, when I visited India for the first time for a tiny two weeks. While I have dedicated a good portion of my graduate work at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa to studying South Asia, I knew the trip to India would reveal how little I actually knew.
I don’t speak a South Asian language. I was raised largely without South Asian cultural traditions. My dad left India when he was eight in 1950 and my momma is white. Much of what I “know” about the subcontinent I learned in classrooms. Still I was hoping to blend in. After all, I am Indian. Or half. Whatever that means.
“You are looking so much like your mother!” my cousin Piyali-didi said to me almost immediately upon my arrival to Kolkata.
I thought it might be my recent haircut, a sloppy bob that looks a little like mom’s short, permed hair from her last visit to India back in the 80s. Or maybe it was ombre thing I’d done to lighten the tips.
“It’s in your shoulders,” she clarified. “Joya-didi is so tiny,” she said of my eldest sister. “She is obviously Indian, an Indian beauty. You are all beautiful. You and Maya, you two are mixed.”
Later, on a flight from Delhi to Bagdogra, the security officer in the “ladies” screening line stopped me. She looked at my passport, at my face, and then back at my passport, trying to reconcile my appearance with the markers embedded in my name.
“Is your husband Bengali, madam?”
“No. My father is, I said, most likely sounding like a child. “I am.”
Racial confusion became a lasting motif in our journey, and not just for me. I was traveling with my dad, who is recognizably Indian, and my partner, Donovan, who is Kanaka Maoli, Chinese, Filipino, white, and Cherokee. Donovan experienced his fair share of racial confusion in India, mostly in humorous and loving ways. So few people who we encountered could even find Hawai‘i on a map.
“Is that near Cuba?” our guide in Delhi asked me when Donovan was out of earshot.
When we arrived to Kurseong, the mountain town that cradles hard secrets from my father’s boarding school past, we walked single file as we were used to doing to avoid cars on sidewalk-less roads. A mother cloud had wrapped herself around rain-soaked, green hills, and we were so dazed and grateful to have escaped Delhi’s dusty 118-degree heat that I didn’t notice when an uncle flew out of his house and was all over Donovan, exclaiming in an unfamiliar language that might have been Tibetan or Nepali, smiling and hugging him tight and rubbing his hand all over Donovan’s belly and chest, the way that men sometimes do when they’re teasing each other. When I turned toward the commotion, the man spoke to me in probably Bengali, emphatically trying to communicate. He must have realized that we didn’t understand, because he eventually just smiled at us, and we, stunned, laughed and caught back up with Dad.
“Maybe he was saying that you looked like his son,” I said. “Maybe he’s part Chinese too?” I resisted the urge to take Donovan’s hand—we’d agreed that PDA on this trip was a no-no—and instead flashed him a big smile.
Donovan looked confused.
For me, the most pronounced moment of racial confusion came at Amer Fort in Jaipur, which we visited before seeing the Taj Mahal on another short break from our family-research work in the Delhi archives. As we crossed the car to the queue for the elephant rides through the sun gate, we saw a thick of hawkers, selling sandalwood figurines, postcards, and garnet necklaces.
“Don’t talk to them,” our guide had warned us in the car. “They are like honeybees. More will only come if you do.”
The problem is, I’m not really good at ignoring people, walking blithely past them as if they aren’t there, as if they aren’t human, all those things that capitalism tells tourists to think when they visit countries that force them to check their privilege.
“No, thank you,” I said to the man handing me a wood carving of Ganesh. Perhaps because of my foreigner’s voice, or an American tell in my walk, or my lack of confidence in how I wore my salwar, dollar signs flashed above my head and a fleet of hawkers clustered around me, as the guide had warned. Up ahead, I saw similar clusters around Donovan and Dad, who walked with their heads down, their hands saying no.
The Ganesh figurine seller asked me in English if I spoke Hindi. I shook my head, embarrassed as I am whenever someone asks me about speaking a South Asian language, especially Bengali, the language of my ancestors.
My father, who grew up in the segregated U.S. South, never spoke Bengali to us and even now speaks it like an eight-year-old. Still, I felt that niggling at the back of my head. Why have I still not studied South Asian language? What does it mean to write my family’s history in English? How can I tell decolonizing stories when my own mouth is still colonized? How can I claim an Indian identity at all when I’m only half, when my closest connection to India is my father’s macher jhol, dahl, papadum? How could I think that in coming to India I’d feel like anything other than a tourist?
“200 rupees!” called the man with the necklaces, holding out a blue stone strand. “150!”
“¿Español?” the Ganesh figurine vendor asked.
I smirked at being asked this familiar question in India of all places. “Poquito,” I muttered over my shoulder. Donovan and I climbed onto an elephant that started ambling away from the vendors. I was just shy of a minor in Spanish at NYU. Do elephants sweat? I wondered, wiping my forehead.
“¡Español!” the hawker cried loud enough for the other hawkers around him. The exclamation carried through the crowd and the hawkers started exclaiming in Spanish, with the same fluidity as they had in English plus newfound enthusiasm, as if someone had flipped the channel to Spanish-language television.
“¡Un regalo para tu madre!”
I focused on Moata Lake, which curbed the fort, and the patterned green gardens at the water’s edge. As our elephant eased up the incline to the fort, I read a sign that said that there used to be banyan trees all along the shore. Donovan and I took turns taking pictures of the painted elephants heading back down the hill. I noticed that the Indian woman and her son, presumably, who were on the elephant in front of us, had been spared the swarm of hawkers. I noticed that said hawkers had given up on us as well and we had a moment of quiet now too.
As we turned a switchback to the sun gate, we talked a bit—us asking questions, the driver answering in single syllables—as a photographer who had stationed himself on a craggy hill to take tourist photos and identified himself as Ali Baba, implored us to “Kiss kiss! Look here! Remember my face! I will meet you after!”
We gave up on conversation as we edged to the entrance. I wondered how many times the elephants had to make this slow, hot stretch up and down the hill to the entrance to the fort, before they finished, mercifully, before the midday heat. I felt bad for looking forward to this elephant ride, for mistaking tourism for connection.
I watched two men mount a motorcycle at the entrance to the gate. The second one hopped on behind his friend and asked me where I was from.
“California,” I said.
I shook my head this time, knowing better.
“You have an Indian face,” he said over his shoulder as his motorcycle revved down the hill.
The zing of this recognition ran through me.
“I like you!” he added.
The zing dissipated.
As my two-month trip to the fatherland came to a close, Donovan returned to Hawaiʻi and my dad and I visited family in Kolkata. In talking with my cousin Ranabir-dada, I mentioned that I was worried about making uncomfortable the introverted schoolchildren to whom his wife gave evening lessons in my bedroom. I was a stranger, after all.
“You are fair and beautiful,” Ranabir-dada said matter-of-factly. “They’ll love you.”
The recognition clanked around in my mind of how I would have been received differently in India had my mother been, say, black instead of white, if I had been darker. Images of the onslaught of “fairness” creams, including armpit-whitening deodorants that played on repeat during sleepy, monsoon afternoons, to the “intimate washes” that demand that even your vulva be pale, crowded my vision. From my cousins’ air-conditioned car on the way to and from Gariahat market, I saw more keenly the larger-than-life advertisements of impossibly moon-faced, smiling women lording over the brown-skinned folks who gathered on the sidewalk for the next Tata non-AC bus.
Ultimately, I realized that my desire to blend in racially had been on the surface of a deeper dream. The depth was in spending with family, cracking jokes and telling stories. It was plumbing carefully my father’s forested, mountain-town boarding school with him and my love, talking story with open-hearted people about India’s independence from colonial rule, the heartbreak of Partition and the painful legacy of communalism. It was these visions for the future. It was learning what folks my age are doing on the ground to make connections and bridge tribal and urban communities in mindful, reciprocal ways, and having conversations about parallels between independence movements in India and South Africa. It was the privilege to dig through the Delhi and Chandigarh archives and find my inspiring, freedom-fighting great grandfather who might have otherwise been lost to our family, to time.
On my last night in the fatherland, I sat with the eldest of our family, 92-year-old Moni-kaka, who had just finished tracing our family genealogy six generations back, telling stories from half a century ago with clarity and verve like it had been yesterday. He laid these stories out with generosity and openness, as if the people he was talking about were his family, and mine too. Which, of course, they are.
I was stationed on the far end of the room in my cousin’s South City Garden apartment, whose white curtains danced into the room with a late afternoon breeze. Shallow puddles on the tenth-floor balcony feathered. On the street below, outside the apartment compound, chanting from a religious celebration wafted up to us as hollow voices. The video camera in my hand shook weakly.
I was lobbing into the room persistent questions about my family that the archives hadn’t been able to answer. My dad translated these questions into his ever-improving Bengali, which Moni-kaka responded to, and then my dad or my cousins translated the answers back to me in English. Nearly a dozen members of our family were gathered all around.
Two hours later, when he tired, Moni-kaka stood up beside me and made me promise that I would return in eight years for his centenary.
“Will you tell your sisters everything I’ve told you?” he asked.
I nodded, water clipping my vision.
After a thirty-hour combination of flights and layovers, I arrived home to Hawai‘i with three overweight bags containing hours of tape I’d recorded of Moni-kaka, countless piles of paper I’d amassed from the archives, tangles of family photographs, and so many gifts. It would take a long time to know all that I’d been told, before I could retell these stories with intelligence and care. Somewhere amid my bursting suitcases, I carried with gratitude the recognition that I had found more pieces of myself on this trip than I’d ever imagined existed. My work to honor this knowledge is laid out before me.