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Essay: "The Space Between" - by Chaya Murali 

Chaya lives in Texas and is an undergraduate at Rice University.


© 2008 Chaya Murali


It is a fear, a possibility, that I carry with me always. It is one that my parents are familiar with, but one their grandchildren may never know. What if my children's children don't understand Tamil? What if my own children never visit India, never walk through ancient temples, never ride through a village in a bullock cart? What if they never sit upon an elephant, never know of the wiry hairs that litter its back and prick the flesh of childish thighs? What if they never know what it feels like to ride in an auto rickshaw through frenetic traffic, the air full of beeping horns and assaulting smells, the wind whipping in their faces, this experience so utterly Indian? But I suppose these tangible experiences aren't as important as the beliefs that my parents have passed down to me. I suppose so, anyway. But if this is the case, then why are the tangible aspects of my culture so dear to me?

I mean, I am something of a practicing Hindu. Though I only visit India every four years, I do go to the temple in Houston at least once a month. I have a small idol of Ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, on my bookshelf, and packets of vibhuti, holy ash, next to it. There is a bag of rice in my pantry, and Indian food provided by my mother sits placidly in my fridge. Every once in a while I'll attempt to make curry on my own, though I've yet to prepare a potato curry with just the right seasonings, fried to perfection but not burnt. My Tamil (my mother tongue, a South Indian language) is passable, decent, and I speak a bit of Hindi and understand some Kannada (another South Indian language). And I love Indian clothing, jewelry, music, and dance—who doesn't? But is this enough? Will these islands of Indianness littered throughout the ocean of my American lifestyle have enough influence in my own life that they will inevitably be passed on to my children? Or is there more I can do, more I should do, to ensure that my heritage doesn't slowly die out of my family as the generations go on?

My father says that when we first moved to America, my sister and I, aged seven and four, respectively, refused to speak English or eat anything but Indian food. We stubbornly clung to the traditions of India until, slowly but surely, we began to shed our immutable affinity to Indian culture. When we lived in Puerto Rico, during my first trip to Pizza Hut, I was exposed to a mushroom for the first time in my life. Initially, I shied away from the reproachable brown things, fearing them to be the meat my parents never fed me. Ramani Aunty, a family friend we were having dinner with, told me that the offensive morsel was called a mushroom (I imagined four miniscule rooms in the head of the mushroom and wondered if I could walk through them), and I was surprised to find that it tasted good. On our first night in Puerto Rico, in the midst of a rainstorm, complete with wind bending the palm trees and water splattering on the ground, my father's boss took us to Taco Bell for the first time. He showed us that we could order things with beans instead of beef, and cheesy bean burritos with spicy jalapeno slices burrowed in their midst soon became a family favorite.

Yet despite these small culinary assimilations, my family remained definitively Indian. Throughout our younger elementary years, our mother would dress my sister and me in flashy pavadai sattais, sets of matching long skirts and blouses, for the first day of school. These south Indian outfits were inevitably topped off with brand new Velcro sneakers with the most popular cartoon design of the year on the sides. For school picture days, Swathi and I dutifully wore the gold jewelry our mother handed to us, along with a red sticker pottu, a dot worn by Hindu women between the eyebrows. These trinkets testifying to our Indian heritage were worn for the benefit of grandparents, aunts, and uncles in India, to whom school pictures were mailed every year. I suppose my mother wanted to show her relatives that though her family lived in the United States of America, they had not and would not give up the traditions of the motherland. My mother's wardrobe choices never bothered me when I was younger. I loved the poof and sway of my pavadai (skirt) and the privilege of wearing a gold necklace to school—I felt that these things made me stand out amongst my classmates, and uniqueness was a great concern of mine as a child. Now, looking back at first day of school pictures makes me cringe at the jarring juxtaposition between Velcro sneakers and gold embroidery.

But my family's Indianness was not and is not limited to clothing. My mother rarely, if ever, cooks anything but Indian food at home. She has a few non-Indian recipes in her repertoire—spaghetti with marinara sauce, pasta with Alfredo sauce, Chinese noodles and fried rice—but though these dishes taste distinctly Italian or Chinese when she first begins making them, they inevitably acquire an Indian flavor by the third or fourth time she prepares them. My parents let my sister and me listen to our favorite American radio stations when we are all in the car together, but they prefer Carnatic and Hindu devotional music. At home, my father almost always has some music playing: the throaty voice of M.S. Subhalakshmi, the late renowned Carnatic singer, floats through the house, rendering Hindu slokas (prayers) or Thyagaraja kirtanas (extended classical pieces composed by Sri Thyagaraja). What would have been the utility room in our home houses hundreds of pictures and idols of the many gods and saints in the Hindu pantheon. Our washer and dryer, their rightful place superceded by the gods, are banished to the garage. A string of plastic mango leaves, said to bestow auspiciousness upon a home, hangs above our front door and serves as a landmark for people when they are trying to find our house.

In our front yard we have hibiscus plants and a jasmine bush that bursts into bloom every spring and does not stop flowering till mid-November. My mother tirelessly treks out to this bush every evening to pick the pinkish-white buds right before they open, sweating beneath the sun and fighting off mosquitoes. She says that having flowers with which to worship the lord is a blessing in and of itself, and though I am usually physically miserable while doing so, I join her in her quiet act of worship. My sister stubbornly maintains that religion is not about ritual and refuses to subject herself to the misery of sweat and mosquito bites. She, too, is right. Our backyard is filled with plants that grow various Indian vegetables: long, green snake gourds, kovakai that look like mini cucumbers, fat purple eggplants, and plump green drumsticks. (How can I describe drumsticks? They are called murungakai in Tamil. They are shaped like, well, drumsticks—the kind you use to beat on a drum, not the kind that comes from a bird's leg. They're green and have a tough outer shell which, when broken open, reveals juicy translucent green flesh and bulging seeds with growths resembling wings coming off of them. They are incredibly tasty.) We also have banana trees; we use the leaves as plates during festivals and pluck the big maroon flowers for use in some foods. Preparing the tiny sprout-like things within for storage takes at least an hour, if not longer.

But a discussion of the flora surrounding my home is beside the point. The real issue is this: though the heart of my heritage is firmly within me, all of its accessory characteristics—tapes of Carnatic music, knowledge of the precise ritual and timing of festivals, the ability to cook obscure south Indian dishes—lie solely in the realm of my parents. This dilemma is not limited to immigrant lives. We all grow up watching our parents drive, pay off their mortgages, and file their tax forms, and we confidently believe that one day, when we are finally "adults," we will wake up with all that knowledge and ability magically transferred into our brains. But as we grow older, we come to realize that this type of educational, skills-related inheritance is not easy to come by. Without even trying, we inherit all sorts of things from our parents: the curve of a nose, the characteristic slant of handwriting, that annoying habit of nagging. But this type of heritage does not extend to those things we need to learn. An understanding of health insurance and checking accounts is not passed down in the DNA double helix the way skin color and height are. And so as we age, we begin to see the distinction between active and passive inheritance. As a matter of course, we get our looks, our health issues, and even some of our mannerisms from our parents. But we won't get our father's love for the Beatles if we don't listen to music with him. We won't inherit our mother's prizewinning sewing abilities if we don't learn from her.

As a child, I was frustrated by my inability to quickly grasp the alphabet and reading. Sitting in bhajan (devotional singing) sessions with my mother, I used to marvel at her ability to quickly find the lyrics to a bhajan in the alphabetized book, and I worried that I would never be able to do the same for my own children when I became a mother. Needless to say, that childish fear will not be realized; I now know my way around the alphabet. But this type of worry has persisted throughout my childhood and still lurks as a specter in my early adulthood.

When I was young, I thought I had all the time in the world to learn the intricacies of the Tamil language, to learn how to cook like my mother, to learn how to draw elaborate kolams out of rice flour, to learn epic prayers like the Lalitha Sahasranamam, the Vishnu Sahasranamam ,and the Mahishasura Mardhini. And so throughout my childhood, I carelessly waved off my parents' exhortations to learn about my culture,  choosing instead to watch television or read a book. I suppose my nonchalance was not as genuine as I made it seem because the fear I did not recognize then, and try to push away now, projected itself into my subconscious in the form of a dreaded nightmare. This dream featured an infinitesimal Chaya struggling to overcome an elephantine obstacle. The obstacle was never clearly defined; all I knew was that I could never surmount it. Nevertheless, I toiled in vain in my dream to climb over (or was it walk across?) this terrible impediment while I moaned uneasily in my sleep. The setting of this dream was as amorphous as the conflict it presented. Sometimes I saw myself standing on an eerily lit, futuristic concrete plain of sorts. Intermittent shafts of dim light shone from above, and the plain stretched on as far as I could see. I knew that the horizon, where more light could be seen, was my destination, but the more I walked, the farther away the horizon became. Other times I was standing on top of a giant, gray and black mountain range, no vegetation to be found anywhere. The path was uneven, and I walked across the mountains' summits, stumbling and struggling to reach some unknown destination. Perhaps I was trying to reach the end of the range, hoping to be able to climb down from its dizzying heights. Perhaps I had no goal. Perhaps I was walking aimlessly. I never managed to get to the end, or the other side, or whatever, of this field, this mountain, this obstruction. I inevitably woke before the dream could reach its natural conclusion, drenched in cold sweat and gripped by horror and a feeling of helplessness and powerlessness that I could not define. I shrank away from this object of terror, yet I was morbidly fascinated by the nameless concept that scared me so.

 To this day I don't know what my inscrutable obstacle was, but in my youth, I associated the dream and its obstacle with my fear of never learning how to read and write in Tamil. I imagined myself walking across giant plastic Tamil characters, doomed to trudge across the letters, stretching all the way to the horizon, but never to reach my destination. But even as I constructed this waking association to my dream, I knew that it was inaccurate. I would never be able to truly describe it, to pin down its meaning or its physical details (Could you even call them physical details if they were in a dream?). Upon waking from this nightmare, I would invariably hasten to my parents' bedside, wrapped in my blanket, for comfort. My mother and father would urgently ask me about my dream—what was it about? I don't know. Who was in it? Just me. Why was it scary? It was just so impossible. Safely ensconced between my mother and father (and probably slipping the folds of my mother's sari between my fingers), I drifted off into a calmed sleep. Whenever I tried soothing myself instead of going to my parents, the dream would come again as soon I slept, and I couldn't shake off that indescribable feeling of unease. Comfort could only be found in the space between my parents.

I haven't had that horrible nightmare in years. Perhaps I finally succeeded in pushing away that ineffable fear. But now I find myself twenty years old and nowhere near where I thought I would be, culturally, by this age, and the horror raises its ugly head once again. My knowledge of Tamil is basic, but not great. I vaguely remember how to draw one kolam design, taught to me by my grandmother, but the delicate skill of etching these designs in rice flour evades me—possibly because I've only ever tried doing so twice. I do know part of the Vishnu Sahasranamam, but I don't recite it regularly, nor do I know the rest of the slokam. The tune of the Mahishasura Mardhini is familiar to me, but its words of praise are not.

I know that all is not lost. Eventually, I will have to learn how to cook Indian food. I love it too much to go without it when I finally move out of range of my mother's pre-cooked dishes. If I put in enough effort, I could teach myself the Lalitha Sahasranamam and the Mahishasura Mardhini, even without my parents' help. And maybe if I made myself speak to my parents exclusively in my mother tongue, instead of falling back into my English comfort zone, I would gain a better understanding of Tamil's nuances. All I need to do is take the first step, and a world of cultural expertise will be open to me. Yes. Of course it will. 

But even if I do take that first step and submerge myself in a self-constructed ocean of Indian culture, will this sea be big enough, and deep enough, to accommodate the splashing of my American-born children? Or, when I ask my children to jump in, will I find that my ocean is more like a shallow puddle, one that appears in the grooves of my life only after monsoons in the form of Hindu holidays and particularly good Indian meals? I don't know. I suppose only time will tell. It's no use, is it, fretting about the Indianness or non-Indianness of my children and their children and so on? I suppose no one really knows what the future holds. Besides, I plan to do all that I can to make my future home feel as Indian as my childhood home did—and still does. I will make sure to visit India with my family, no matter how tourist-y the trips may be. Even if I lose touch with extended family and we are forced to stay in expensive hotels instead of the hundred-year-old home occupied by my maternal grandfather, I will still drink coconut water from streetside vendors and worship in ancient, giant temples—and make sure my children do these things too. I will figure out which trains to take from Chennai to Thanjavur, Thanjavur to Bangalore. Which bus to take from Bangalore to Puttaparthi. How much to pay the auto rickshaw driver when he takes me from Adyar to Pondy Bazaar. How to haggle with the salesman when I know he's charging me too much for that flashy, but inexpensive, sari. How to feel at home in a land at once frighteningly foreign and intimately familiar. I will figure it out. I will learn, and I won't let my birthright, my heritage, fall by the wayside because I thought my passive inheritance would bestow upon me those things that can only be gained through active engagement.

             But now, after gaining all this rhetorical momentum and mustering the will power to go out and conquer my fear of never learning enough about my heritage by starting to learn, I am beginning to wonder why it's so important after all. Would I have my children and their children take part in rituals and eat Indian food and learn Tamil and recite slokams and grow jasmine in their yards no matter the cost? No. Of course not. To me, what is much more important than the knowledge itself is the desire to gain it. A slokam is mere words, a kolam simply a random design in rice flour, if one does not understand the motivations, the emotional underpinnings that lie beneath these cultural markers. I became frighteningly aware of this fact during my last trip to India, a trip that evolved into a series of unfortunate events leading me to question my self-declared Indianness. On one particularly instructive evening, I was watching the musical fountain in Brindavan Gardens (a large park of manicured lawns and exotic flowers outside of Bangalore) with my mother, my sister, my aunt, and her family. The fountain had been dancing to one cinema song after another, its jets of water shooting high and swooping low, when the music suddenly faded into the opening strains of "Sara Jaha se Accha," an Indian patriotic tune. I was caught off guard as the atmosphere in the audience shifted from revelry to reverence and watched as nearly every mouth moved in sync to the words of the song. I complacently waited for that familiar twinge in my heart that always greets American patriotic songs, but was abashed when that twinge never came. The song finished as suddenly as it had begun, and once again the crowd chattered happily, but I was left alone to struggle in silence with my alarming lack of Indian pride. Ever since that disconcerting moment, when the cultural connection I took for granted revealed itself to be weak, I have wrestled with the meaning of being Indian.

I have come to realize that being fluent in an Indian language or knowing every ritual conducted for every festival does not automatically bestow an appreciation for the poetry, the romance, of India as the motherland. In fact, the progression travels in the other direction—the desire for fluency in Tamil, the interest in the rituals used to celebrate Diwali, stem from the love of India, not just as a country, but as an idea. The dance of harvesting rice from the paddy fields. The dust-covered calves of uniform-clad children on their way home from school. The incessant rumble of cars, buses, and auto rickshaws zooming past a temple housing carvings from the ninth century. The living, breathing pulse of what is now the world's largest democracy, what began as one of the world's most ancient civilizations. The musty smell of the earth right before the start of a monsoon downpour. It is this visceral love, this poetry, this romance that I must transfer to my children if they are to be as Indian as I hope. But I invariably come up short when I think of ways to pass this love on to my children. How can I teach them to value India when my own life is so dominated by American culture, when my English is better than my Tamil, when my knowledge of the vast Hindu religion is not as deep as that of my parents, when I prefer American pop songs to devotional Indian ones? Perhaps this, then, is why I am clamoring to learn as many aspects of Indian culture as possible. I want to believe that as soon as I make that perfect potato curry, once I have memorized the Vishnu Sahasranamam, upon completing a solo trip through India without my parents' guidance, I will finally be a true Indian, and will thus have the ability to make my children true Indians. But somewhere I realize that the real marker of Indianness—and, indeed, the marker of belonging to any heritage—lies in effortlessly carrying out the traditions of my culture without extrinsic motivation. And I also realize that this type of effortless practice is not yet fully formed within me, and therein lies the source of my fear.

As a child, suspended between the practices of India and my day-to-day American reality, I was generally blissfully unaware of the cultural precipice yawning just below my feet. But in times of deepest psychological vulnerability, the inevitable anxieties that arose from cross-cultural living invaded even the idyllic sleep of my childhood. Common childish fears were invested with deeper gravity because of the ever-present need to balance assimilation with retention. And as I grow older, what was only a small chasm in my childhood continues to grow with me, gaping wider and wider. I feel sometimes as if I must choose to cling only to one side or the other of the widening gorge; attempting to straddle both sides would end in a precipitous fall into the abyss of no culture whatsoever—never attaining true assimilation, but never being a true Indian. I never used a security blanket as a child. Instead, I would slowly rub one of my mother's saris between my fingers, savoring the sensations of impossibly soft cotton, gauzy chiffon, and structured silk. My mother's saris helped me span the space between the waking and sleeping worlds and carried me safely through my dreams.

Now, as I attempt to navigate the treacherous space between India and America, I metaphorize the sari bridge of my childhood to help me reconcile the Indian roots of my tree of life with its American branches. I know that a sari bridge isn't exactly the pinnacle of engineering. It would be pliable, dipping lower and lower in the center as I gingerly walked across, testing to see if it could support my weight. But thin though a sari may be, its fibers weave together to form a tenacious network of cloth with enough give to mold to the curves of a body and enough strength to withstand the tightest of stretches, the hardest of pressures. My mother's sari bridge has saved me from having to pick one side of the gorge upon which to build my life. My home lies not just in America, not just in India, but in the space between, where colorful patterns and gold embroidery, song and dance, English and Tamil, spices and smells weave together, forming a bridge beneath my feet.









All work is copyrighted property of Chaya Murali.





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