Identity lost and found
Growing up in the South, a multiethnic girl navigates the cultural divide
Interstate 75 South is a silver line of sedans and coupes, bumper to bumper. My forehead presses against the back window of our family’s Saab. On the two-hour drive from Chattanooga to Atlanta, I daydream about the gleaming Clinique counters at Macy’s, the sales racks at The United Colors of Benetton and the chocolate-chocolate chip ice cream from Häagan-Dazs in the food court at Lenox Square. It’s the only shopping mall within 120 miles of my home that meets my pre-teen definition of a real mall.
This is not how my mother, father, younger brother and I start our day, though. On our monthly trips to Atlanta, Lenox occurs later, toward the evening, when we’ve completed more pressing errands.
We begin in Marietta at Haveli Indian Cuisine where we feast on dal makhani and malai kofta, piling the curries onto our plates over rice, mixing in raita, scooping bites with naan, washing it all down with sweet lassi.
By the time I lick my plate clean, I can hardly haul myself out of the booth.
We leave Haveli and head to North Druid Hills to an Indian grocery store where we buy clear plastic bags of ground spices and lentils, burlap sacks of rice, glass jars of ghee and chutneys. I pop open a bottle of Thums Up, a soda far sweeter than my usual beverage of choice, Coke, gulp it down, wipe my mouth with the back of my hand.
If a trip to visit family living in India is on the horizon, we might drive over to Texas Sari Sapne, a general store possessing a name that makes for endless jokes between my brother and me. Where do you shop for Indian goods in Georgia? Texas Sari Sapne, of course! Giant spools secure swaths of sari cloth. VHS tapes of the most recently released Indian movies line the walls. Music flows out of a portable stereo.
Rajan, the owner, greets us with affection. We may pick up electric shavers for my uncles, small stereos for my cousins and a television for my grandparents. Here, all of the plugs are compatible with the 220 volt outlets in the subcontinent. In the summer we will haul our bounty to New Delhi, where we’ll unload some of the goods with my aunts and uncles, and take the rest to Hyderabad where my grandparents live.
In Texas Sari Sapne, I try on bangles of various sizes and colors, while “uncles” and “aunties,” other customers I’ve never met before, quiz me about where I go to school, what my best subjects are, and where I want to attend university.
For the most part, I enjoy the attention. In this space, with the rhythmic tabla beat pulsing through the speakers, the musky fragrance of incense, I feel a sense of community, inclusion.
But a part of me bristles at being here. For most of my childhood, I’ve been singled out for being different. I’ve worked hard to be accepted as an authentic American, despite the fact I was born here.
To protect myself from bigotry, I’ve had to distance myself from my culture, my ethnicity.
Venues where South Asians congregate remind me of uncomfortable truths — that the façade I put forth is fragile, that I can’t keep hiding a crucial part of my identity to blend in with other white Americans, that I can’t run away from who I am, nor should I ever try to.
What are you?
“Wow, you speak English so well!”
“You’re so skinny. You must be from one of those starving villages in India!”
“Does your family eat monkey brains like in ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’?”
“You smell like curry.”
“Where’s the bull’s-eye that’s supposed to be on your forehead?
“You were born in Michigan? You don’t look like you were born in Michigan.”
“What are you?”
“What are you?”
“What are you?”
When I am young, comments like these, even when delivered in joking tones by supposed friends, are cruel and humiliating. They chip away at my self-esteem. And because of them, a sense of shame follows me around like a shadow.
In response, I fake resilience, am grateful, even, that at least I’m not being beat up (something I’d been fortunate enough to avoid) or being called the n-word (something I’d experienced at least a few times). In those more violent contexts, being accused of smelling like curry didn’t seem too terrible. Oftentimes, I express a baffling sort of optimism. Maybe people are just being curious, not hostile, I tell myself.
Excusing the harm becomes my primary defense mechanism.
The racism settles in my bones, though. It reframes how I see myself in the world. It makes me me feel as if I am a trespasser on American soil despite the fact I’ve never lived anywhere else.
Whenever I find myself in conversations with peers who can trace their ancestors to the Civil War, or even the Mayflower, I envy their sense of connection to our nation. I refrain from mentioning my paternal grandfather, my Tata, who argued legal cases before the High Court in Hyderabad; my maternal grandfather, my Opa, a Puerto Rican boxer who served in three wars in the U.S. Army; my maternal grandmother, my Oma, an Austrian immigrant who survived her family home’s bombing in Linz during World War II; or my paternal grandmother, my Avva, who befriends cobras.
Summers in Hyderabad
I spend hours rolling around on my grandparents’ bed, positioning myself in the pathway of the only fan. I watch Avva brush her silver, waist-length mane and weave it into a braid, while Tata slaps his face with aftershave, tosses a thin white towel over one of his shoulders and putters about the room.
The sari chest in their bedroom stands nearly ceiling-height next to my grandmother’s vanity. Sunlight highlights its swirling, rosewood grains. It smells like oak and early morning dew. The single door has a thick round knob almost the size of Avva’s palm. Inside, four shelves hold short stacks of saris folded into rectangles. They are maroon and brown and blue. She always preferred dark colors.
In the center of the chest, there’s a shallow drawer I’ve never seen her open. I prefer fantasizing about what it contains to asking her outright. A diary? Old letters?
In my grandparents’ hometown, no one here questions whether I am American. No one compliments me on my English. (Their English is just as good, if not better than mine.) No one furrows their eyebrows at the sound of my name. Here, in India, the way others see me mirrors my self-concept.
I have to leave the U.S. to be free of the white American gaze, to be fully American.
It’s Naga Panchami, a Hindu day of worship of serpents and snakes. I was born on this day 14 years earlier in Michigan.
In the morning, a snake charmer arrives with a small round basket and sits crossed-legged on the concrete ground of the courtyard. The air is thick with summer’s humidity. I wipe sleep from my eyes and station myself a good 10 feet away, near the door, in case I need to make a break for it. So much for being born on this day — I’m terrified of snakes.
The charmer removes the top of the basket.
A cobra peaks out, rises and shifts its head from left to right, as if calculating the threat I pose. I take a step back, swallow hard. My heart pounds in my chest.
My Avva enters, greets the charmer in Telegu, a language I do not speak or understand, though after a few weeks in Hyderabad, I can pick out a few words. She and the snake charmer fall into an easy conversation. Avva squats on the ground next to the cobra and holds out her hand.
Her fingers hover inches from the cobra’s head. I anticipate a sudden jolt, the cobra’s fangs plunging into Avva’s flesh. Instead, my grandmother continues in her animated conversation with the snake charmer.
In that moment, I realize something: My Avva is one of the bravest people I know.
My 22-year-old father left Hyderabad and flew to New York in August 1971. Soon after he stepped off the plane at JFK, he came upon a man sitting on the ground, strumming a guitar, his case splayed open. The other passengers paused and deposited coins and bills. My father, in his first attempt at assimilation, felt compelled to do the same. He removed a $5 bill from his wallet and tossed it in the guitar case. He expected to receive change. Instead, the musician continued strumming and ignored my father’s eager expression.
My father was stunned. His wallet now contained only two $1 bills and a one-way plane ticket to El Paso, Texas, via Houston.
Over the years, I imagine this scene in my mind. I picture my father standing in the glaring white fluorescent lights of the airport, sense the pit in his stomach when he walks away, nearly penniless, the weight of everything he left behind in India suddenly pressing upon him. I hear him telling himself it was a minor setback, to push forward.
Everything will be OK.
In El Paso, my father shared living quarters with other medical residents who worked at the same hospital. The next summer he met my mother, a nurse; they married the following year. I was born and then my brother as we moved from Detroit to Houston to Baltimore and back to Detroit again.
In 1984, we moved south to Chattanooga. I was 10 years old.
I spend weeks before the first day of school scrutinizing the deep pockets and Velcro enclosures of Trapper Keepers. In drugstore aisles, I carefully consider the patterns of Contact paper to decorate the inside of my locker. I dog-ear catalogues filled with colorful backpacks at the kitchen table. At JCPenney’s, I try on deck shoes, penny loafers and saddle oxfords. I can never seem to decide which pair goes best with my school uniform.
There is only one thing I dread about going back to school.
“Stephanie, Jennifer, Kate, Libby, Jennifer, Michelle … uh. Huh. I don’t know about this one. AN-jel-ee? Or is it An-JELLY?”
My face burns. My hand creeps up. “Actually, it’s AHN-jah-lee.”
The teacher clears her throat, tries twice more. I repeat myself again, this time more slowly. She manages to get two out of three syllables correct. I let it go.
Once, a teacher asks if I have a nickname. When I respond no, she offers to bestow one on me that’s easier for her to say than my birth name.
I have always loved my name, but during my adolescence I would have traded anything to be known as Mary or Rachel, especially during the first week of school.
All in a name
During my first pregnancy, I spend a long time searching for the perfect Indian baby name. One of my first cousins sends me a book containing Sanskrit and Hindi names with pronunciations and meanings. I pour over it for hours late into the night, highlighting and circling ones I like, placing a question mark in the margins of others I’m not quite sure about. I weed out all names longer than two syllables, as well as names that contain sounds not typically made in English.
Avva calls me one evening from Hyderabad when I’m in my second trimester. She is now a widow — my sweet Tata having died years earlier. We talk for some time about the baby’s kicking and what my husband, Brian, and I are doing to prepare for his or her arrival.
Then she asks whether we’ve picked out a name. I think of the book sitting on my nightstand, tell her we have a few ideas floating around, nothing concrete.
“Siri would be a beautiful name for a girl,” she says, without hesitation.
It’s tradition in many Indian families for the elders to name new babies. This is what my Avva wants to do for my first child, her fourth great-grandchild. But I had such a fraught history with my own name. I don’t want to relinquish the right to name my child to my grandmother.
I feign enthusiasm for the name. It means wealth and the gift of love. I promise her I’ll consider it, and I do. But when I deliver my daughter that November, Brian and I look into her eyes and see a Mira, not a Siri.
Avva doesn’t suggest a name two years later when I give birth again, though she seems thrilled we selected the name Leela for our second daughter. When she and I talk, her primary concern is getting to meet her two great-granddaughters.
“When are you coming to India, Anjali?” she asks. Her tender voice is laced with desperation. “Have you forgotten about me?”
It’s been a decade since my last trip to India. I long to return. But with work and two small children under the age of 3, a visit anytime soon seems impossible. I don’t want to disappoint my grandmother. She’s never once asked anything of me.
I tell her that I love her, miss her and that yes, I’ll bring my daughters to meet her.
Avva dies two years later before we can make the trip.
In 2007 we move to Johns Creek.
For the first time, I live in a large, vibrant South Asian community. I don’t cook Indian food because I don’t have to — fabulous, authentic restaurants from multiple regions abound. I’m a stone’s throw from several Indian grocery stores. I join other customers in long lines in front of a man with a machete who lops the tops off coconuts and plunges straws into their pulp. I often slurp half the juice down before I make it to the car.
Moving here, to this corner of the world, has helped foster a sense of pride in who I am. It’s mended some of the racist damage done in my youth.
Living here makes me feel like I belong.
The following spring, our third daughter arrives. We name her Siri.
When I cradle her in my arms for the first time and peer into her blinking eyes, a powerful truth takes my breath away.
I’ve never met a child who looks so much like her name.
When Avva dies, she has few possessions aside from her rosewood sari chest. No one can take it. Most of my Indian relatives, particularly the cousins of my generation, have emigrated from the subcontinent. Only two elderly aunts and two uncles remain. None of them has enough space in their flats to accommodate such a large, bulky armoire.
When my father calls to ask if I want it, I picture it in my mind, its grand stature, its burgundy, interlocking grains, its smooth surface. The corner in my office would be the perfect place for it, right next to the window.
Babu Uncle, my father’s older brother, arranges to have it shipped east across Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Weeks passed. I await the phone call to schedule home delivery. I hear nothing.
Finally, I track Avva’s sari chest down to a warehouse in San Francisco. I am told I owe for shipping costs.
I fax a shipping receipt stamped “PAID IN FULL.” When I call to follow up, the woman who answers scoffs.
“You still owe us money,” she says, demanding several hundred dollars more — double the shipping costs we’ve already paid, quadruple the value of the sari chest itself. I ask to speak to her supervisor.
“I am the supervisor,” she says.
I burst into tears. The warehouse is holding Avva’s furniture hostage.
Over the next few weeks, I continue trying to negotiate delivery of the chest and pace the floor.
Finally, I lose it. “I’m taking legal action,” I shout. “I’m filing the papers this afternoon, suing your company for theft unless you immediately release my parcel.”
“Oh, wait a minute,” the woman says. “I see here that you did pay the fees in full. It’ll be shipped to Customs and Border Protection in Atlanta shortly.”
A month later, when the delivery truck finally rolls into my driveway, the final stop on its transcontinental journey, I holler so loudly I startle the children. Two burly men roll it out of the belly of a truck and set it on the floor of my garage. After they leave, it takes me several minutes to dismantle the packaging.
What I find astounds me.
My Avva’s sari chest looks like a piece of junk left at the curb on trash day. Half of its foundation is missing. It stands lop-sided, threatening to crash into the side of my car at any moment. Deep scratches run over its surface. Lint and a fly’s carcass cling to what appears to be the tacky remnants of a large sticker on the door.
I enter the house, bury my forehead in a pillow, sob.
Eventually, I track down a furniture-maker named Dante who offers to restore it for an amount far greater than it is worth. As I watch him load it into the back of his van, I wonder whether Avva’s sari chest had ever been beautiful, whether in my desperation to bring it to my home, I’d romanticized it into something fictional.
I try not to get my hopes up when it is returned to me a month later. Before unveiling it, Dante says he believes it looks pretty good. He’s repaired the foot and is amazed that the rosewood held up so well despite the rigorous sanding.
“This chest is sturdy,” he says. “It’s a good piece.”
I don’t know what I expect. What I hope is that a small part of my grandparents is being returned to me. I want to feel their spirits in my home and around my young family. I want the sari chest to serve as an anchor for my memories of them. I want it to embody our family’s history, for all the generations that followed.
I know I may be asking too much.
When the last of the blankets drops to the floor, I gasp. Avva’s sari chest is a revelation. Its wood grains gleam. It stands tall and straight, like a soldier. I run my fingers down the smooth surface of the door, open it, inspect each of the shelves.
Avva’s saris appear in my mind, the blues and browns and maroons, folded and creased. I can see her standing before it, contemplating her dress for the day, asking me what colors I prefer, which one I like best.
I grasp the brass handle of the narrow drawer, the drawer I used to wonder about in childhood. I tug it open, expecting it to be empty.
Inside are three photos. The first is a stunning portrait of my Avva at her home in Hyderabad. Her eyes smile behind her glasses. She is wrapped in a blue sari. She is glowing.
The other photos are of Mira and Leela, the great-granddaughters she never got to meet. They are chubby-cheeked toddlers, giddy at the attention of the photographer. I imagine my little girls sitting in their great-grandmother’s lap, their heads snugged against her chest, the love that would have flowed around them.
I wish I can turn back time, that I can bring my daughters to India while Avva is still alive. But of course, I can’t do this.
What I can do is tell my girls stories about the people who came before them, the family members who cherished them from the other side of the world. We can bring them to India (which we do, three years later) and encourage them to take pride in their heritage, to treasure and nurture it, no matter what anyone else says or thinks. Because we are, all of us, from here and somewhere else at the same time, and isn’t that the most amazing thing?
I shut the drawer, stack the photos of my grandmother and my two daughters, press them to my heart, close my eyes.
I can almost feel the warmth of Avva’s touch radiating along the lifeline of my palm.
ABOUT THE STORY
As a child, freelance writer Anjali Enjeti struggled to reconcile her life as an American growing up in the South with her Indian heritage. But something took hold when she spent summers visiting family in India and trekked to Atlanta from Chattanooga every month to be immersed in Indian culture. Today she feels more grounded in her heritage and is eagerly sharing it with her own family in Johns Creek. In Anjali’s words, “this is a story about the power of names and the search for an authentic identity.”
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
ABOUT THE WRITER
Anjali Enjeti is an award-winning essayist, journalist and literary critic. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, NBC, Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pacific Standard and elsewhere.