Reclaiming My Roots
|Here’s my dirty secret. I stayed away from Slumdog Millionaire for a full two months after the film came out. My initial decision had nothing to do with rebelling against media hype. No, my reason is rather embarrassing. It’s because Slumdog was about India and I’d revoked my identification with my parents’ homeland long ago.|
It wasn’t always that way. I had a personal romance with India in childhood. Like a girl willing to brave icy patches on I-80 to visit the love of her life, I eagerly sat through nauseatingly long plane trips for the joy of seeing the happy faces of relatives at the airport and feeling the gush of steamy Calcutta air on my skin.
In India, I ceased to be an only child. I had cousins who became my brothers and sisters. Everything about Calcutta stirred my senses: the jasmine incense wafting from elaborately grilled windows, the garlanded Ganeshas staring from street-side temples. Even the calls of early-morning peddlers became a welcome alarm clock. I was thrilled that this exotic place was in my blood.
My attachment to India would remain even after I’d flown back to New York. While other grade-schoolers raved about Madonna and Michael Jackson, I played songs from Khoobsurat until the tape broke. I spoke loudly in Bengali with my parents in public places, indifferent to the strange stares that elicited from other children, but so what? I was born an individualist.
As I grew older, however, I realized that individualism did not mesh well with my Indian background. The revelation first came to me in middle school. The key conversational themes for both children and adults at Indian social gatherings were stellar grades and competition. Who’d made it into Honors Algebra 2 by age 12? Who had an IQ that made Einstein look like an idiot? Not me. I was — to my deep shame — ordinary.
I wondered, why should mathematical accomplishments decide an Indian child’s value? What about talents in art, literature, self-knowledge? But I was too young and my mind still too undeveloped to clearly articulate these thoughts. Instead, I just stopped attending Indian parties and pujas. Thus came my first break from the Indian crowd.
The trips to India changed too. I’d always been physically affectionate, but now throwing my arms around my male cousins prompted strange glances. Relatives and friends told me my skirts were too short. In a strange twist, everyone became more protective as I grew older. And if I wanted to go anywhere by myself? Forget it. For the first time vacationing in India, I’d daydream about being back in America, with the freedom to take long drives at night with only Jim Morrison’s voice for company.
I stopped visiting India. I felt too confined there now. Thus came my second break with my culture.
By the time I left for college, I was Indian only in name. But I attended a large state university, and I started noticing packs of desi students everywhere. I became jealous watching them enjoy each other’s company. There seemed to be a special bond among them, and I felt I was missing out. Perhaps I’d been too hasty in denying myself the company of Indian friends. I attended parties sponsored by the South Asian Students Association, but soon discovered that the main conversation among female students were methods and the right makeup to snag a hot Indian male.
Now, I like discussing men and makeup as much as the next woman, but I also love pondering current events, art, and music. My forays into these topics elicited blank stares or rolling eyes. When I admitted I preferred Bob Dylan to Bollywood soundtracks, people looked at me as if I’d sprouted a second head. I dropped the Indian crowd and befriended students who shared my interests.
By the time I reached my early twenties, I’d decided that being Indian was a limitation; it meant living in a box. So, I should have just calmly accepted that I was born into the wrong race, right? Well, kind of. I did go on quietly with my life, but I was angry. It sounds narcissistic, but I was convinced that my own people and culture had failed me.
Then Slumdog Millionaire came out. Acquaintances assumed I’d seen it. “Are you insane?” was their response when I replied in the negative. After I heard this one too often, I decided to suck it up and buy my matinee ticket. I went inside, fully prepared to criticize. But when the lurid scenes of Bombay appeared, all the anti-Indian sentiment I’d garnered over the years was turned on its head.
Pride. It’s a much maligned word, but that is what it took for me to reclaim my roots. Pride stirred in me as I watched Prem and Jamal grow up onscreen. I was proud to have origins in a land that claimed the gleaming majesty of the Taj Mahal. It also brought back sweet memories of walking by that same “swimming pool,” as Jamal hilariously referred to the pond. I understood the characters’ satisfaction as they sipped cold Cokes on a blistering day. It reminded me of the good times spent in my cousins’ cozy company, feeling that same heat, drinking those same Cokes made unique by India’s water. The nostalgia was almost painful and for the first time in years, I was dying to take the next Air India flight out of JFK airport.
Ironically, my biggest source of pride came not from the arresting image of the Taj Mahal, but from little scenes throughout the film: Latika pouring chili powder over tyrannical Prem to the orphans’ amusement, Jamal’s glee, in spite of being covered with feces, in getting Amitabh Bhachchan’s autograph, and the exuberance with which Jamal and Prem chased trains throughout India. It’s likely that many audience members forgot these scenes as soon as they left the movie theater, but their impact stayed with me long after.
Why is that? It’s because I’d seen my own Prems and Jamals in Calcutta — children growing up suffocated by the filth and poverty that average Americans see only on television (assuming they’re watching CNN instead of Dancing with the Stars). I saw those children, in spite of their desperate conditions, chase each other through congested streets in childish games. I saw their faces alight with happiness on receiving a simple paise or orange rind. It was astounding to me then — and still is — that a human spirit constantly beaten down can remain unbroken.
The same can be said about India in general. It is a land that has been torn by invasions, violence, and corruption. But it still manages to remain, more or less, united, strong and vibrant. I was humbled by and indebted to my roots. Now I’m wearing my Indianness again like a rediscovered favorite piece of clothing.
It’s been seven years since I last visited my parents’ birthland. In many cultures, seven is a magic number. It is time for me to revisit home.