What follows is probably my most personal post to date, about culture, identity, discovering some stuff about myself, and an epiphany buying curtains. It means something to me, so I wrote it all down…its longish, but entertaining & interesting I hope…
By default, I was pretty Indian growing up, I mean, I wasn’t raised by wolves you know 🙂 Then I stopped being Indian for a long time, mostly out of necessity, but somewhat out of choice. And now, that I’m like CRAZY old 🙂, I don’t think I’m very Indian, and probably never will be, but there were a few moments, culminating with a trip shopping for curtains, that really changed my life….
The first important moment was about 10 years ago when I heard some oddly familiar music while I was out at a club one night. It was Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan remixed by Massive Attack & it blew me away. It was crazy cool & really fun. Cool? Fun? Indian? What? These were 3 words I hadn’t associated before….
Growing up, there was never anything cool or particularly fun about being Indian. There never were any cool Indian stars to emulate, or cool Indian things to identify with growing up in NC. I guess, the movie “Gandhi” in the early 80’s was kinda cool, but that was it, and wasn’t all that much for a young kid.
It was also that there was never anything fun about being Indian. I know now that I would have LOVED The Festival of Colors, “Holi” (basically an excuse to blast your friends and family with color-filled water balloons & powders and stuff), and my cousin swears Diwali was a lot of fun when he grew up in India, but mysteriously we never celebrated any of that growing up, at least not any of the fun parts (still havent!). We did see lots of Indian movies as a kid, but the only thing cool about them to me, the songs and dances, and general campiness, was wasted on me as a child, though now I love it.*
So anyway, that moment, hearing “Mustt Mustt” at “Slim’s”, was such a stunner because Nusrat’s Sufi Qawwali music was essentially the same as Sikh religious music I grew up listening to at so many religious events, but I never realized how beautiful it was & it was certainly never cool. Also remixed by Massive Attack, & played loud at a club, where I could groove to it? It was fun! That was another stunner.
Cool & fun. I guess this was another reason why SF was such a good fit for me. Here, in the early 90’s, like only a few other places I know of, Indian music mixed with electronica was getting cool and cool fast, and many great great nights dancing to DJ Cheb I Sabbah followed from there.
But I wasn’t “not Indian” at that point, just because it wasn’t cool. As I said, I grew up pretty Indian by default & would have stayed that way I guess, but for the schism with my parents in my late teens. They wanted me to become a doctor (a very Indian ambition) and live my life as I was told, and I wanted to think for myself. There was no middle ground, so I pretty much had to go it alone from there & in that process I lost what Indian influence I had in my life. Luckily, it never really felt like a void, and it never was something I missed. My early late teens & early 20s was like most everyone’s, a time of self-discovery & self-definition. I was doing it on my own & doing so quite happily – despite a few truly tragic fashion blunders & and misplaced definitions of morality** :-). I was me, and always becoming more so and had (as usual) been very very fortunate and very happy on all important scales.
So things stayed like that for a good while, with things Indian becoming cooler all the time in SF & me happily dancing along the edges. In addition to the music, the dot com era brought an explosion in great Indian restaurants catering to all the Indians that had come here for tech jobs, so the Indian food scene was also burgeoning. I should say that the infusion of Indians has been a mixed bag. Many seem to be really boringly yuppie & many of the rest seem well-meaning but really very straight-laced and also boring. Luckily I’ve met more & more really cool ones & though their numbers seem smaller, their existence is a good thing.
Things would have probably stayed that way except for two more important events in the last few years: My trip to India & my trip to buy curtains in Berkeley with my friend Chandra (an Indian name, but she’s a whitey 🙂 ).
My trip to India was my first trip there as an adult and the first time I had been there in 20 years. I hadn’t wanted to go for a while for many reasons; I didn’t want to get hounded by my relatives trying to marry me off, or I was afraid of having a “roots” experience & was not yet secure in my sense of my own coolness 🙂 & I had other travel agendas (megafauna!). But eventually the illness of a wonderful aunt made a trip necessary & so I went. I blogged about that trip a good bit & even commented on how “not quite Indian” it made me feel, but it did leave me with a very new appreciation of Indians and their own sense of identity which was really appealing. As a child & young teenager, my trips to India were filled with questions from my relatives about America and a sense that they thought that everything was better and cooler and nicer and more perfect in the US, and that India was somehow backwards and moribund.
But this time, things were different. While my relatives verbally remain somewhat cynical about India and its future (I now think that’s just an Indian style of talking), they do seem to have a lot of pride in its accomplishments and its trajectory and a very appealing sense of their own worth. India’s economic boom has given India a sense of itself as a player on the world stage, and that coupled with the exodus and then return of many Indians has given them a truer appreciation of the US and of their own country and that too feeds a sense of their own value. One of my aunts put it well (my aunts are awesome) when she asked me “So it seems that though America is a wonderful place, it is not for everyone isn’t it?” As an American, and someone who loves many things about being one (while not liking some), it was really cool to hear an Indian making a more sophisticated assessment of our country & this Indian self-appreciation & self-assuredness gave me a new found respect for their country, and all things Indian.
So all that left me back here in SF, with a new found respect and enjoyment of India and with stronger ties to the Indians that were my relatives, but still I wasn’t Indian. I didn’t see anything other than genetics in my current life that seemed Indian, and in many ways my trip to India reinforced my sense of non-Indianness. Which was fine by me. I returned from India, sense of self intact & set on my merry way. Everything could proceed more or less as before (Ok I will admit that suddenly Indian women seemed a lot cuter 🙂 ). And then the weirdest thing happened:
I had just moved into a new house, and my interior decorator Chandra*** demanded that we get curtains. Chandra had made very few demands up to that point. In fact, I couldn’t tell you where my ideas left off and hers started up til that point (except that my place looks both more me and much much better than I could ever have done on my own) & so when she said “curtains” I rolled my eyes a lot & tried to resist. But she had proven herself repeatedly & so I had to go along. She had mentioned all along that we would be going to a sari store to get curtains & I thought that at least sounded like it would be interesting. Did I mention that Indian girls had gotten cuter? Anyway I digress. So shortly thereafter, I walked into a sari store on University Avenue in Berkeley with Chandra & BLAM. It hit me like a ton of bricks. SARIS! I loved them. They were so me! Too bad I’m not a drag queen! My love for all things shiny and sparkly? SARIS. My constant frustration with the world of drab colors that is the urban hipster norm? SARIS. Blam! Here is where my inner Indian had been showing itself for years and years. I love rich vibrant colors. I love all things shiny sparkly and glittery. SARIS! Wow! I am at least a little Indian after all. Who knew?
The funny thing is that most Indians here don’t seem to get my love all things sparkly (at least not the men) but oh well. I am a San Franciscan after all too you know :-). We’re crazy like that.
This of course is what lead to the particularly ‘Deepian fusion that was my GLAMIndian Birthday Party….
* The things I love about Bollywood movies are the completely over the top songs and dances and the general sillyness (like when the guy & the girl poke their heads out from opposite sides of the ubiquitous tree in the big love song) – but even now I don’t know how to find Indian movies I like! Unfortunately, most Indian movies that have been suggested to me by Indians are the ones they think are “good” because they are more Western-like. But that is the part of Indian cinema that seems the flattest to me. I want outrageous production numbers with big dances and big songs. Please somebody have some suggestions? So far my favorite by far is Lagaan (though that is not campy or silly, it does have great songs & a good plot). Oh, and while we are on the subject of Bollywood, and I should apologize to Amitabh Bachchan – even as a kid I knew he was cool 🙂 but none of my friends did so it didn’t help much 🙂
** As in some things I thought were right growing up turn out to be oh so wrong (like being Right) & somethings that I thought were wrong, turn out to be oh so right….
*** Props for Chandra my awesome decorator
So for the record Chandra is Mexican-American with a whole lot of LA rocker chic thrown in. And she is a great interior decorator (click here to see more pictures of her work at my place).