A banned commenter left the following pain on a thread yesterday:
I cannot stand it when black or hispanic women try to get into the “bollywood” trend. They are so superficially involved with indian culture and dont know shit about the true meaning/history behind why things are done. I doubt they have any respect for the indian culture; they just like the trendy-cool look of things.
I didnâ€™t delete it, nor did I summon the intern to stop fanning me as I lounged on my throne, to do so at my behest. I was too overwhelmed, at how in much the same way a smell can invoke a memory consummately and instantly, bigotry could, too.
Reading the bitter words in that comment sliced my age in half with the precision of my Motherâ€™s Wusthof carving knife; once my eyes left my laptop screen, I was sixteen again and utterly miserable. It was a Sunday morning, just after church, during the coffee hour, and I was waiting for my Father to finish chatting with one of his acquaintances, a local professor named Dr. Pappas whom he didnâ€™t get to see regularly.
I never felt entirely at home at church, because I was Indian and it was Greek. Though my parents both come from indefatigable Malankara Syriac Orthodox bloodlines, my sister and I were not baptized in the church of our ancestors. The reason for this sounds droll when I narrate it, after I am inevitably asked why Iâ€™m Greek Orthodox; personally, however, it is borderline painful, as it created a chasm between me and other Malayalees which can never be closed. I find it bitterly amusing that the only time I was ever â€œconfusedâ€ as an American-born desi was when I was trying to reconcile who I was as an Orthodox Christian.
Was I really Indian? I had kicked and whirled through the makellarikos horos since I could remember, but I was never enrolled in Bharatnatyam, despite being fascinated by and drawn to it; the one time I timidly introduced the subject, my mother gave me such a withering look, I slunk back to my books and my room. As an adult, my refrigerator was filled with filo, feta, mizithra and kalamata olives; the only salad I knew how to make was horiatiki. I didnâ€™t take rusk with my kappi, not when there was koulourakia to be had. As much as I crave my beloved semiya payasam, nothing thrills me more than the one time a year I get to dyson down a few dozen loukoumades. Long before I turned up my nose at Starsucksâ€™ obnoxious frappuccino fusterclucks, I greedily slurped up Nescafe frappes. In fact, those luscious, frothy glasses of caffeinated perfection are probably why I choke on what the mermaid serves for $5 a pop.
Sure, most of this has to do with food, but I have always felt that what we eat defines us just as much as where or whom we worship and what we believe, since all of the above are often intrinsically connected. My family is TamBrahm-level vegetarian in our strictness, in part because we always have and will observe a permanent lent. My father was so religious, he felt it was the least he could do to further exercise his faith, especially after being influenced by the eldest of his nine brothers, an ascetic who refused to marry, preferring instead to haunt Parumala and other holy sites. My eldest Uncle had observed a similarly severe, never-ending fast and when he died at age 33, my grief-stricken father, who was then barely six-years old, decided to emulate such dietary self-denial.
Imagine then, what it was like for him in the late 60â€™s/early 70â€™s, when he was one of (if not the) first of his kind to settle in strange Southern California. After almost never missing church for the first three decades of his life, having nowhere to worship on Sunday mornings was untenable. So, he picked up the phone book, looked up Orthodox churches and spotted â€œGreekâ€ before â€œRussianâ€ and â€œSerbianâ€. A Greek Orthodox Church it was, then. And with that unbelievably simple turn of events, lives would be altered forever, leaving me and my sister fractured Malayalees who would never quite fit in anywhere. She and I were the first and perhaps last babies in our family who would be baptized by a man chanting in Greek, not Malayalam or Syriac.
When called out for his concomitantly uber-Orthodox and unorthodox decision regarding the salvation of his daughtersâ€™ souls, my father simply responded that to him, it was far more important that we go to church weekly vs. monthly, which was all that could be managed for the nascent Indian Orthodox community of Southern California, who flew in priests to officiate at services which were held at borrowed facilities once every few weeks. What made his choice all the more audacious was the fact that my Father was instrumental in starting what would later become the Los Angeles and San Francisco parishes of his native church; he mailed letters to Kottayam on Saturday while snapping at us to prepare reverently for the following dayâ€™s Greek holy communion. The duality which I cannot escape was modeled for me from birth.
So, though I occasionally went to the Saturday services of the Indian Orthodox church (we were borrowing churches, remember? They were never available on Sundays) , it was the Greek Church which nurtured me and taught me to pray each Sunday. I had perfect attendance at Sunday school and was an alto in our junior choir. As mentioned before, I learned Greek folk dance, practicing maneuvers my ancestor never made while preparing for annual folk dance festivals. And while my spoken Malayalam was at a toddlerâ€™s level of proficiency, I spoke plenty of Greek, especially since my best friend Demetra and I used it to bitch about our snotty prep school classmates and equally annoying teachers; there is nothing like gossip to motivate you to learn a foreign language. Every night during evening prayers, when my father commenced â€œOur Fatherâ€¦â€in what was his AND my mother tongue, I mentally murmured it in Greek.
All of this was why I was standing in the reception hall next to a huge, beautiful white church, which looked as if it should be on a cliff, jutting out against the unforgettable blue of the Aegean Sea. This was the only spiritual home I had ever truly known, but my skin prickled and my heart rate never dropped to â€œrestingâ€ while I was in it. I was constantly anxious and self-conscious, about not looking a damned thing like anyone else in class or choir, about not sharing their histories or their familial village…about not belonging. I felt as if I barely had any right to be standing there, gazing out at the pretty courtyard where I had hunted for Easter eggs every year since we had moved.
I looked back at my father impatiently. He was laughing raucously at something wicked the good Professor had just said and I sighed with a melancholy acquiescence; I wasnâ€™t going anywhere, not anytime soon. I wandered over to the table which had been picked over by the hundreds of adults who were drinking coffee while eating butter cookies. Picking up karidopita, I was about to return to my fatherâ€™s table when I heard hissing, about me. I froze.
I cannot stand it when stupid Indian girls think theyâ€™re Greek. They are so superficially involved with Greek culture and donâ€™t know shit about the true meaning/history behind why things are done. I doubt they have any respect for Greek culture; theyâ€™re just wanna-besâ€¦why isnâ€™t she worshipping a cow or something?
Before Alexandra had finished uttering her final insult, I was crying. There. There it was: finally out there, and uglier than I had ever anticipated it could be. The hideous, dreadful sentiment which I was certain lingered behind every glance which lasted a second too-long, was out and proudly unpleasant. Whenever I had gingerly broached the subject with the few people who mattered–like my erstwhile Sunday school teachers who wanted to know why I, consistently the most knowledgeable student of church history, cycled between participating in and withdrawing from class discussions–they had immediately dismissed my insecurity, often pointing out that there were Copts, Palestinians and Ethiopians who also attended our church; theyâ€™d always close their pep talks with, â€œtheyâ€™re not even baptized Greek! You are!â€, as if that somehow helped my cause. I timidly refrained from pointing out the obvious, that yes, we had such families at our parishâ€” a whopping one of each and NONE of the three ever felt welcome enough to stay and mingle, let alone Hoover all the air out of the room like my flamboyant, unapologetically comfortable father.
I tried to stare at a wall to stem the saltwater which would further humiliate and differentiate me from the cheerful crowds, bedecked in their tweeds and chalk-stripes, quilted bags with interlocking Cs dangling from the arms of women attired in the former. While my classmates were wearing starter Chanel suits, I was trussed up like a six-year old in Jessica McClintockâ€™s Gunne Sax. On that ignominious Sunday, I was wearing lilac cotton, trimmed in JMâ€™s signature lace, ruffles and giant bows. Mein Gott in himmel, could this get any worse?
Yes, yes it could. A younger child of about eight, whom I had never spoken to, was staring at me without even attempting to hide it. I spun away on one suitably conservative heel and rushed back to my window, where I could be alone with the emotional maelstrom that Alexandra, that vicious girl with the piliferous face and arms had caused. Now, upon reflection, I know she was ostracized for being morbidly overweight and well, mustached. Whom else could she pick on, being at the bottom of the svelte, outrageously well-clad and perfectly manicured Greek food chain? Ah right, the sad Indian girl.
I numbly stared at my cake, which I couldnâ€™t eat. I just wanted to go home. I looked at my dad again; he was oblivious to all of it. I was relieved; if he had discovered what had transpired, he would have installed a new anal orifice on Alexandraâ€™s fatherâ€™s rear, as he blazed through a speech my sister and I now had memorized, about how in 52 A.D., St. Thomas himself converted MY ancestors while most of ____â€™s were burning animals for Zeusâ€™ pleasure. No, better that he not know. Perhaps it would be best if I trudged to the girlsâ€™ bathroom and washed my faceâ€¦
There was a huge, warm hand on my left shoulder; it belonged to our massive, barrel-chested priest who had the most commanding, thrill-inducing voice I had ever heard. I let him turn me slightly, until we were facing each other.
â€œAre you okay, koukla?â€
I mutely shook my head and soon it was buried in his chest, just above the giant, jewel-encrusted cross which he always wore.
â€œI know what happened,â€
At this, I yanked my face back out of his cassock, out of shock. Howâ€¦? I looked to my rightâ€¦there, about thirty feet away, the eight-year old who had staredâ€¦he was still watching me.
â€œI donâ€™t want to come here anymore, Father. I donâ€™t belong here.â€
A bear paw yanked my chin up so that I was making eye contact with a man who was 6â€™3, 300+ lbs.
â€œDonâ€™t you ever say such things again, not in my church, not ever. You are like my own child; I see no difference between you or Costa, Maria or Eleni. If they come to church here, so will you. Donâ€™t you listen to things said by an ignorant child. She doesnâ€™t run this place; I DO.â€
â€œBut Father, Iâ€™m not Greekâ€¦and sheâ€™s not the only one who thinks that wayâ€¦â€
â€œItâ€™s a sin to think that way. I know the priest who carried you around the altar at the cathedral. Presbytera tells me you know every chant and hymn better than anyone else in the junior choir and I, I have watched you grow up here, just as worthy of blessings if not more so than any other child, because of the purity within you.â€
â€œFatherâ€¦I know you and Presbytera love me, but that doesnâ€™t mean other people will ever accept me. I wonder if I shouldâ€¦start attending the Indian church with my motherâ€¦â€
My mother had stopped accompanying us to Sunday liturgy, because she hated the scrutiny; conveniently, her schedule â€œchangedâ€ so that she had to work most Sundays anyway. She preferred to worship with her own, â€œwhere I donâ€™t get stared at for being in a sari.â€
He placed a considerable hand on each of my shoulders and clasped them firmly. â€œAnna, if you stop coming to this church, I will be very upset. God doesnâ€™t want you to leave us and neither do I. This is your home. Donâ€™t let anyone, no matter how much they upset you, push you out of it.â€ And with that, he kissed the top of my head, patted my cheek and smiled before walking away.
Soon he was talking to Alexandraâ€™s father, who probably agreed with his daughter, and who was not enjoying the conversation one bit. The man turned and gave me a dirty look mid-verbal-castigation from our priest. Just as Father could be a cashmere teddy bear (like he was most of the time, like he had been to me five minutes before), he could also be a fearsome, formidable man when necessary. No matter how ignorant or racist a parishioner wished to be, they would never cross or disobey a priest. Alexandraâ€™s father grabbed his daughter by her arm before dragging her outside, cursing her in Greek all the while. The priest watched them leave, then glanced my way and smiled at me.
I wanly smiled back, but the gooseflesh didnâ€™t go away. It never really has.
When I eat thayirsadham, itâ€™s with this, and there isn’t a damned thing wrong with it. That simple, anomalous combination is the perfect metaphor for who I turned out to be.
No one has the right to be the arbiter of who does and does not get to participate in their culture. Such judgmental “guardians” had the genetic fortune or fate to be born in to what those whom they look down on are drawn to, but that doesn’t endow them with any priveleges like the one our banned commenter wishes she could exercise on all those “black and hispanic women”.
This is why I am especially protective of Nina and her kundi, Preston and his camera, Asha’s dad and his…sick taste in tunes, Andrea and her voice, Maurice and his linguistic pursuits, T-hype and her blog and every other genuinely down-with-the-brown white, black, blue or pink non-desi. I love them for coming here, for staying, for sitting at a table that can often be intimidating if not nearly unwelcome, due to the utterly unnecessary hostility of the few. I’m not kissing the white devil’s ass, but I am like gang recognizing gang in this bloggy bang bang; I feel just as Greek as I do Indian, if not moreso, and no one shall invalidate that. Nor will anyone get away with that here, not while my memory of similar hatred is so fresh and so unclean.
Nina has been to Kerala far more recently than I have; my last visit was back in the dark ages of 1989. In fact, she lived there, which is something I’ll probably never be able to claim. Who the hell am I or anyone else for that matter, to pull rank over that? As long as someone isn’t skeeving me out like Pardesi Gori with her sketchy, spicier-than-thou Indophilia–and it’s just something I can sense, that weirdness which makes my spider sense tingle as I consider that something ain’t right..and I know, several of you might disagree with me about it, but it’s just how I feel about her– as long as someone’s heart is pure, their contributions are respectful and their affection runs deep for this culture which is not “officially” their own, then they are one of mine.
If youâ€™re going to tell Deevani that she shouldnâ€™t sing or participate in the culture which she is lovingly and sincerely invested in, for the sake of not just herself but her three, half-brown children, then youâ€™re no better than Alexandra. And she was a vile bitch. Aim higher, won’t you please? You’re bigger and better than that. We all should be.