So How Indian Am I? (or how CURTAINS changed my life)

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).

12 thoughts on “So How Indian Am I? (or how CURTAINS changed my life)

  1. The part about being a kid and having no one fun to identify with is pretty touching. I remember that for me as a little raven headed girl, I had no tv good stars to delight to- all the darlings were blond and it was their evil twins or the villainous counterparts who were brunettes. But beyond hair color and general character identity, there was no deeper divide so I imagine that what you felt was lonelier. In the melting pot of America we each must integrate where we are from with how we exist here. It might be easier if those components are diluted from one’s family having been here longer, but anything but positive cultural self-identity just makes me sad though I have been guilty of that myself. Personally, I didn’t become Jewish until I was 33 and read a quote on the Holocaust memorial at the Legion of Honor that described Jews as “a race of desert people who survived and gave the gift of life.” Suddenly, I felt a responsibility to embrace that survival, but I was also old enough to give myself permission to honor my roots on my own terms. It also felt like this was how I finally chose to identify myself rather than my disdain for other people who I dismissed as mischaracterizing me because they were too insipid to get that it was only one half of the whole. So be Indian however you want to be, but I’m glad that that’s who you are and glad that you are glad that’s who you are. And thanks for a great party!

  2. Oh Deep! Reading this entry, sent to me so nicely by Willo!, made me laugh out loud and nod my head in agreement too many times. Living in Delhi these past five months has been full of identity cris moments and lots of laughter- realizing I am so Indian and yet so NOT Indian at the same time! Anyway, am off to my hectic family evening but I will send you a list of fabulous cheesy old school Bollywood films and wear lots of shiny saris in your honor (especially as I have some family shadis coming up)! Lots of love- Sabrina

  3. i wrote to you a few years ago upon discovering that there was someone else out there who had dressed up as a disco ball for halloween. now it seems we’re going in tandem again. i spent about two weeks of january in india visiting family and thinking about how different my life would have been had my parents not moved to the states and wondering how different i would be as a result. anyway, just wanted to say hello and that i enjoyed your post and that there’s at least one more ABCD (american-born confused desi) out there. i didn’t make that up. there’s a movie called american born confused desi or something. i just remember that it really sucked even though i so wanted to like it.

  4. Thanks arifa! Yeah I’ve heard the term “ABCD” – but for the record though, I never felt like ABCD applied, because I never felt Confused 🙂 Your interpretation of course is your own….

  5. Hey Deep,
    That was an interesting read. Playing in a rock band growing up in India, I wasn’t into the campiness either, and like you, and discovering it all over again (thanks to the fabulous Lisa) and share a lot of the experiences you talk about in your post.
    My parents are still in India, and I quite often feel that their assessment of life is now more sophisticated than most Americans’. It’s changed a lot in the past ten years. A lot. When I do go back, it’s a shock every time. It changes every year, visibly.
    By the way, I got taken off your email list (by mistake, I assume) – could you please put me back on it? Thx!

  6. Deep,
    What an amazing essay. I think it’s the most big-hearted piece of existentialism I’ve ever read. The big question! Who am I?
    Anyway, I was recently thinking about how great it would be to celebrate Diwali in the Mission (I am one of your many neighbors), so if you feel up for a little organizing, I am too. I’m Anglo and not religious — I just think it sounds cool, so there you go. Also, I think you need to get in touch with your fabulous brethren here: Something tells me they’ll have a good line on cinematic goofballism and will appreciate your sparkle. Oh, and I bought a truly amazing and hella sparkly 1970s faux-Indian garment specially for your birthday. I was going to come as a twist on the theme: Buffy Sainte-Marie, the ultimate glam Native American Indian. But I got sick. I still have the floor-lenghth culotte jumpsuit, though. It’s orange and has tiny mirrors. I bet you’ll like it. I’ll wear it for Diwali?

  7. Hey Deep,

    Wow – a very interesting read! Fun and emotional. Having come to the US from India as a semi-adult (I was 21), I had some of your experiences in reverse. I grew up in an Indian heritage boarding school and was always proud of the Indian culture and ethics. But watching the Indian-population boom grow with the tech boom, I was extremely disillusioned with Indians. Their attitudes were either India-is-so-backward or ghetto. Worse, most of them were culturally illiterate. Apparently my schooling, friends and family gave me a very skewed picture of Indian-ness.

    But after I moved to the city and lived there, met you and your friends, experienced city life, my ashamed-of-other-Indians attitude dissipated quite a bit. Maybe the much-delayed maturity is finally hitting me 🙂 I have realized culture and identity are personal and individual. I’m Indian, oh yes, but am not too in so many ways. Absolutely love the Indian dances, costumes, colours, festivals and food!! Loved Amitabh but don’t like the run-of-the-mill bollywood movies. Hate the “chaleyga” Indian attitude that permits blurred ethical boundaries. Hate the lack of civic sense in India.

    I’ll never be or feel American, simply because I didn’t spend my teen years here. Maybe that’ll change over time. Or, maybe people like me who come here and become this weird mix of Indian and American should be called IBCA – Indian-born confused Americans.

    Thank GOD for the Bay Area for so so many reasons!!! Anywhere else I’d feel too un-American, too-brown, yet not Indian-enough. Sorry about the long comment, but your article really really resonated with me!

  8. Pingback: deeptrouble » Liner Notes for My 30s

  9. Pingback: deeptrouble » Project Rickshaw First Report: Trials & Tribulations

  10. In my house? 🙂 seriously you can go to any sari shop and find lovely saris – then you’d have to sew them into curtains….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *