Thursday, May 28, 2009

Who am I?

When my brother and I were growing up, my mother always said, “With age, your roots call out to you.” Of course, as a teenager, I shrugged her postulation, but today, I concede. She was right. Over the years, I feel the Indian in me has become thirsty and wants to find out about my ancestry. I mean, I know what I was told, but there has to be more. For instance, a little while ago, I found out that Birbal, one of the gems in Mughal emperor Akbar’s court, was a Kayastha— the same core pedigree as mine. I couldn’t care less about the Hindu caste system or religious faith, but I was excited beyond human comprehension about this possible linkage. Birbal’s wit and intelligence is something that I have always been in awe of. I wanted to explore the idea of a possible link between Birbal and my family, if any. But, with no grandparents alive, who do I turn to for anecdotes or the truth behind the family tree?

A couple of weeks ago, I met a young writer, Sadia Shepard at a reading – an intimate group of attendees with a handful of impressive authors. It was one of those evenings that’s embossed permanently on my soul. As Sadia read through pages of her first book, The Girl from Foreign, I instantly knew I wanted to buy her work. Her eloquence had the audience spellbound. Like others present, I too felt a connection but to her quest and desire to seek answers about her heritage. Not to give away the core essence of the book, Sadia grew up with three parents and three religions—a Jewish Indian (by birth)/ Pakistani Muslim (by marriage) maternal grandmother, Nana, a Pakistani Muslim mother, and a white, Christian father. Post her grandmother's death, to honor her last wishes, Sadia, a Fullbright scholar, spent years in Bombay researching and documenting her Nana’s Bene Israeli heritage. I was impressed by her gesture and feelings towards her grandparent. In some ways, The Girl from Foreign, which I finished in less than two days and totally recommend, made me feel both guilty and jealous.

Guilty: My generation in India mostly grew up in nuclear families with just parents and siblings. Remember the slogan depicting a family of four—“Hum do hamaare do?” There were occasional visits from the grandparents, aunts, and uncles, but it wasn’t like everyone lived under one roof. Despite the changing societal structure, the culture taught you to respect your elders. Respect is one thing but can anyone teach you to feel attached to another human being? Respect and love isn’t one and the same thing. Even though I enjoyed having relatives over and am still close to my cousins, I don’t think I am emotionally dependent on any of them. In her last few years, my father’s mother, dadi , lived with my parents, but I saw her only when I came home for holidays. Even then, I loved her presence and the smell of tradition, but I think it was more respect and less adulation. I didn’t feel any nostalgia when she wasn’t around and even if I did, it was for a few moments. Life went on.

Sometimes I wonder if my emotions have a pragmatic equation because I grew up in hostels. I live by “It is what it is.” But then I spoke with other friends, who grew up at home, and it seems a significant number of people from my generation lack that devotion and fire that Sadia felt towards her grandmother.

Jealous: My husband’s attachment to his paternal grandparents, Baba and Dadi, is somewhat similar to Sadia Shephard’s to her Nana. My husband spent his formative years with his paternal grandparents. They taught him to walk, ride the bicycle, and solve math problems. I distinctly remember the first time we went back to India on vacation; we visited my husband’s Baba and Dadi before we flew to Bombay to meet his own parents. I was shocked yet enamored by his actions because I didn’t grow up with that passion like him or Sadia, for the extended family. Actually, both of them aren’t the norm but a pleasant minority.

When my grandparents were alive, I enjoyed their presence but didn’t do justice to their stories. As a writer, I feel guilty for not jotting down my grandparents’ anecdotes; as a human being, I am jealous of anyone, who shares that special bond with their grandparents. See, I don't have the dedication to make my grandparents’ wishes a cause for my life.

More until next time.

Copyright © 05.28.2009

"Cynic: a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing" - Oscar Wilde


Anonymous said...

beautifully written. you made me guilty also.

Shantanu Srivastava said...

Who am I?

I remember while growing up one of the maids used to call you "Durga Ma" or was it "Ravan".

shucks! sorry can't answer your question.


P said...


From Venus said...

You're right, priximity does matter, and yet I think it's the charisma and magnetism that certain people (grandparents) have that makes their family adulate them... just mere presence in the household would not do.

My two cents said...

Dear readers,

Shantanu Srivastava is my older and only brother. Now you wonder why I write philosophical pieces:-)

jaya said...

wow..amazing piece...hope our nxt generation values all that we overlooked.The book 'the girl fr4om foreign sounds really nice.

Shuchi Kalra said...

Food for thought grandpa is a great storyteller (I wish I had a fraction of his talent)...I guess I should start keeping records now.

Btw, great to see Shantanu bhaiya here...he used to play silly 'dishoom-dishoom' games with me when i was little :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's crazy man. They should really try to do something to fix that.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, kind of drawn out though. Really good subject matter though.

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