Sunday, January 28, 2007

Vasudeva Kutumbakam

First off, I do not profess to be the Cliff Notes for raising the best adjusted desi kid in the west. It will take another decade and something to test the efficacy of my theories being that my child is only all of five at this time. That said, I have always been an interested observer of the coconut syndrome that kids of Indian origin growing up in the west are supposed to suffer from. I am sure other ethnicities who are relatively recent immigrants would have similar travails and like us desis pour their angst out just as copiously.

One would think given the great diversity of India, the desi has a distinct advantage over most other immigrants when it comes to being able to acclimatize with ease to a new culture. Even within our own country this is an essential survival skill that those of us who have not have the chance to grow up in their native state already have. It should be a skill we can teach our kids quite easily.

Yet children born and raised in this country continue to feel cleaved in the soul. Maybe as parents we set them to an impossible and unrealistic standard of being more desi than the desi back home. To expect a child who has never been part of a Ganesh Chaturthi celebration to be able to relate to cultural and communal aspects of festivals in India is unreal. You can simulate it to death in suburban Chicago and never have come even close. In fact the difference between the real thing and its simulation can result in a sense of not belonging and not quite "getting" it. There is no local context they can relate that experience to and so it will be met with disinterest, resistance and finally rejection.

The child may be better served coming in cold to India and actually seeing what happens for themselves. There is always a first time for everything in every child's life. Parents abroad often turn overzealous fearing that they are not desifiying the kids nearly enough. No longer is it enough to just visit the temple sometimes like they may have done if they lived in India. Active participation is deemed necessary to get the most of the experience.

Growing up we walked in and out of whatever temple grown ups took us to. We went through the motions of puja like we were told to. That was the most anyone expected of us. We were lead half way and left to discover on our time. There is a lot to be said for leading a horse to the water but not coercing it to drink.

Having been born as raised in India , I find it hard to understand the exact dynamic of feeling like a coconut though it has not been for the lack of trying. I never lived anywhere close to my home state, had at best a smattering of Bengali until reaching adulthood and most definitely did not have any friends that spoke the language I spoke at home. I learned to adapt to fit my surroundings, learned new languages to be able to make friends and assimilated culturally over time so I did not feel left out. All of this came about quite naturally and without any concerted efforts from my parents.

To my advantage, I am a Hindu and most people I knew growing up were Hindus as well something that a desi kid growing up in America would most definitely not have. Being a religious minority is obviously much more difficult than being an ethnic or cultural minority and I had no experience of the former in India.

Far be it from me to suggest that my childhood growing up without the Bengali context in India is similar to the first generation immigrant kid experience in the west. But there are undeniable parallels. The minute you step out of your cultural and lingual comfort zone, you are challenged to do one of two things – assimilate and blend in or maintain your indigenousness and stand out. You also have the choice of going to extremes of each way.


Left to my own devices, I happened to choose the middle road which was also the path of least resistance. I imbued new cultures and languages and held on to some things that suggest the essence of Bengaliness to me. Whether that is indeed the true essence of my culture is debatable at best. It worked out well for the most part though I was never an insider in either world. My Bengali credentials were suspect in Calcutta and the cousins teased me to death over my ridiculous accent and relative unfamiliarity with traditional customs and rituals.

Back “home” elsewhere in India , the locals thought it charming how well I had adapted and learnt to participate in their way of life despite not being one of them. They befriended me, indulged and included me but I still remained an outsider in their world. The pan Indian experience enriched my life in innumerable ways and I would never trade that for living in the cocoon of Calcutta all my life.

Raising J outside India to me is merely another step away from that cocoon. I think my own childhood prepared me for this adventure. Not only does she lack the Bengali cultural context, she also lacks the desi one that I had. The challenges are proportionately greater. Just as I was left to fend for myself and figure out how I could participate in the lives of those around me, I have left J alone to find her own way.

Just as Bengaliness was not thrust upon me, I do not thrust desisness upon her. I am convinced that it will grow on her organically. It is important to spark a child’s curiosity, lead them half way and let them discover on their own thereafter. My love for my language grew from listening to my mother recite Bengali poetry and my father sing Bengali songs. In time, I would grow curious about the books my mother read and ask her to read them aloud to me. She read and I absorbed even if I did not fully comprehend.

If parents have a passion for something, kids are highly likely to gravitate towards it. The key is to leave them alone and allow time to work its magic. J is as familiar with songs from Madhumati, as she is with Spongebob. At this point, she is only acquainted with both. Over time, one of them will turn into a more meaningful relationship. My role as I see it is to share with her everything that I care about deeply and chances are she will end up sharing some of them with me.

Sending me to Bengali school to bone up my language skills would have been the surest way to snuff out any interest I might have had in the subject. Knowing that, I am wary about force feeding J any desiness. If this country is what she will call home, she will need to reach out, absorb, assimilate and make herself comfortable. Home and the world outside will continue to be significantly different if not divergent and she must learn to manage multiple cultural identities with consummate ease.

You can feel like a coconut only when you try to juxtapose one identity upon the other specially when they are so disparate in nature. It gets that much easier if you are able use the right identity depending on context which is what I want J to be able to do. To me there is no such thing as an internal and an external identity or any dichotomy thereof and to that extent feeling like a coconut never made any sense to me. Each identity is internalized and externalized to become a composite thing – I have a pan Indian self just as I have a Bengali self. Over time, I might even have a western self.

They are all self sufficient and self contained entities and what is more they do not compete with each other for resources as they have access to the exact same ones. They are all me and skins that I am very comfortable in. I would love for J to have all those selves and many more given the opportunities in a melting pot so she feels at home anywhere in the world. It would make her life incredibly rich and all for taking a chance and venturing further away from the cocoon.

I would know that I have desi-fied J enough if she is able live the mantra of
Vasudeva Kutumbakam every day of her life.

Part 1 : Desi-fication of J

1 comment:

Ricercar said...

v well written approach. i agree :)
what is Vasudeva Kutumbakam?