How do you tell your family and friends that your preferences are your own, that culture isn’t conformity?
Vellakaari. A term I’ve been teased with at home ever since I started making my own choices. Literally translated from my native tongue Tamil, it means ‘white woman’. The undertones are sarcastic and exclusionary, and it’s often followed up with statements like:
‘India is not the right place for you. Why don’t you settle abroad?’
‘Are you going out wearing that?’
It’s the equivalent of food-related racial slurs like coconut: brown outside and white inside. The worst of it is, this judgement comes casually from parents, uncles, aunts, cousins and the multitude of relatives through adolescence and adulthood.
It's a bit harsh, but I also know some of them won’t hesitate to help me in a pinch. There’s no malice behind their words, just an insistence on and a not-so-subtle derision of my ‘otherness’.
In my extended family and community, especially with the older generation, when you wear a skirt to an anniversary party, read English classics or enjoy movies and music from the west, it’s immediately seen as going against the grain of your ethnicity. A dilution; a betrayal. You’re considered a youngster who has been led astray by western ideals and forsaking old traditions.
I don’t remember the first time I was told this, maybe it was at a family get-together, or at a wedding. It was probably from when I refused to wear a saree. (Sarees didn’t seem very ‘me’ when I was younger). That’s slowly changing and I’m holding out to try it on my own terms, but every time I picked something I preferred to wear instead, I was usually considered as someone who thought 'she’s white’.
This residual, atavistic resentment comes from their own past when foreign suppression was an everyday reality, and mimicking the white man was seen as the sign of an upstart with delusions of grandeur.
Years later, it happened again at my wedding and this time it was a little different. My partner’s mother is an expert seamstress and she painstakingly made me a beautiful wedding gown. My partner and I also chose a small garden party over a grand affair, just how we liked it. But not everyone was happy. My sister heard one of my cousins ( a boy I grew up playing with) announce loudly to everyone around him: ‘This is a white man’s wedding’. It upset her but I brushed it off because I was used to it. It does makes me sad.
My cousin and I, barely a couple of years apart in age and yet, these reverse stereotypes of ethnicity persist.
Culture is not static.
It constantly changes with time, from person to person. If it’s your calling to preserve a particular custom or a way of life, I respect that. The moment, though, it becomes a taunt or an obligation, your stance becomes a rigid ‘my way or the highway’.
There’s no denying that cultural dilution is a widespread problem. And I believe that culture-shaming those who are different isn’t the solution. It is sparking interest and curiosity by bringing fading cultures to mainstream attention. But that’s much harder, right?
I don’t aspire to whiteness. There are wonderful things about American and British culture (or any culture, for that matter), but I am who I am. I love my roots, and appreciate my fascinating corner of the world.
My friends learn and teach classical dance, theatre and music. They absolutely adore wearing Indian outfits. My business partner often talks about two of her loves, koothu , the traditional performance art of Tamil Nadu , and parkour in the same breath. I’m so happy to see through their eyes and understand why they love what they do.
Most important of all, they don’t stigmatise personal choices that lean toward a part of the spectrum they don’t inhabit themselves.
Badassery, curiosity and kindness are the banners they hold up high, not regional dogma or a narrow patriotism.
Artists like Babbu the Painter and Maria Qamar (a.k.a Hatecopy) are ripping holes in closed definitions of culture set to outdated standards. Their art is fire and satire in equal measure and it's the Indian-ness I’ve been looking for since I was a child.
It took me several years and encounters with different people to understand and appreciate this. Culture is a multi-faceted, complex, evolving concept encompassing all kinds of stories and many different ideas. You can’t box it in and label it, just like you can’t label a person.
Many ethnic and minority families abroad and at home understandably want to preserve their culture in varying degrees, but sometimes the best way to do that is to reserve judgement and simply show children what’s beautiful about the things they identify with.
Even if they decide to walk another path, they will circle back and use that knowledge to enrich the old ways with new ideas. Like Amruta Patil’s Kari — an English graphic novel beautifully detailing the dark inner thoughts and life of a queer teenager from Mumbai that’s read all over the world. What it means to be brown or black or any other colour is a relevant social question for all of us who come from a minority and step into a larger global stage, personally and professionally. And each of us answers it differently.
This diversity in what makes us happy is beautiful, it must be loved and encouraged, not put down. We are all the products of our time.
To my family, my cousin and the countless other families across the world who are uncomfortable with the blurred boundaries and cultural mixing that’s inevitable in our global village, I say this:
I wear jeans and t-shirts all the time. I love reading and writing in my language of choice: English. I’m a rock n’ roll girl.
But whoever said that doesn’t make me Indian? I’m as Indian as you, inside and out.