Different Shades of Brown

“Yes, I’m Indian. Well, actually, my parents are from there…I was born in the U.S.” Every time a question from

“Yes, I’m Indian. Well, actually, my parents are from there…I was born in the U.S.” Every time a question from a curious stranger prompts this explanation, I surprise myself with the recollection that I’m not white. I grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, a town virtually devoid of an Indian population, although it was within the heartland of the Indian diaspora. Because of this, I had limited exposure to Indians outside my immediate family. And the inevitable disconnect between my school and home lives fostered a disconnect between my Indian and American selves.

In my day, Princeton High School only had a maximum of two or three Indians in each year. So naturally we took part in the activities of the dominant populations. My particular crowd happened to be mostly Jewish—my attendance at more than my share of bar and bat mitzvahs, deep love of Challah and inadvertently acquired knowledge of Hebrew prayer tunes eventually earned me the title of “honorary Jew.” I also sang in an Episcopalian church choir for ten years, a fact made even stranger by the fact that I was, officially, a temple-going Hindu girl.

My “true” ethnic identity came out exclusively in the realm of my home life. I spoke Bengali with my parents and ate Indian meals. Family occasions and religious festivals were, among other things, excuses to get dressed up in my favorite ghagra outfit. I was raised strictly Indian, with the standards and cultural values to match. But among my high school friends, my “Indianness” was, more than anything else, a source of amusing stories about strict parents and endless weddings, and the justification for sitting through a four-hour Hindi movie.

I found that I could use this truncated version of my cultural identity as a means of setting myself apart, if and when I felt compelled to. I was the token Indian who gave cultural presentations about South Asia in World Cultures class. Clad in a traditional salwaar kameez, I would bring in Indian snacks and handicrafts, and explain to my—no doubt fascinated—classmates that India is a land of great diversity, where 21 different languages are spoken, and that’s not even counting the dialects! One year I wore one of my Indian outfits as a Halloween costume, easily convincing my neighbors that I was meant to be dressed as an Indian princess. And every time my friends would request that I place the table’s order when we went out for Indian food, I couldn’t help but enjoy doing so with the assumed confidence of a native.

As much as I relished my “token” status back then, the notion of ethnic identity was well below the radar in high school, where defining oneself socially and academically seemed the utmost priorities.

And then Harvard happened. During pre-frosh weekend, I took it all in: my as yet untarnished reverence for The University, the bounty of potential friends, the slew of academic and extracurricular options, I happened upon a South Asian Association barbecue, peopled with Indians (like me!) who were eager to welcome the class of ’05 into their fold. In an environment of unlimited choices, ethnic identity seemed to be yet another extracurricular activity I could choose to participate in.

In the context of college, being Indian went from being a constant but unexamined presence in my life to a deliberately chosen pursuit, an aspect of myself that could explore in concentrated portions.

Rather than the uniqueness of my cultural identity, I now revel in the new experience of relating to Indian people my own age, of hearing stories about arranged marriages and “that time my family visited India” and being able to respond. Thanks to South Asian Association board, there are forums on campus for every imaginable political, artistic, and literary interest. Ghungroo, the explosion of subcontinental song and dance that boasts sold-out audiences and a cast of over 130, is the quintessential expression of this newfound freedom of exploration.

There’s certainly no need to explain to my fellow cast members that India is a land of great diversity when the dances we perform span the entirety of South Asia; our costumes are enough to display that fact in shimmering silvers, brilliant teals and rich orange hues. Bengali table, when we’ve managed to organize it, has been a relaxed setting in which to hone my inevitably dulled language skills. My sophomore year, I produced two plays with South Asian themes, in a slightly unorthodox and attractive mix of ethnicity and theater. And I’ve nourished my cultural curiosity from an academic angle, by taking all of the South Asia-related courses I can get my hands on.

I’m aware of being, in some sense, a peripheral Harvard Indian-American—or at least one who is still getting her bearings. I had never heard the terms South Asian or brown before college. I still haven’t brought myself to use the latter in regular speech, maybe because in grade school race had predominantly been presented as a negative social construct. Not knowing that I had a color provided a comfortable layer of separation from these discussions. And my perhaps irrational fears of being a stereotype led me to wildly equivocate every time my pre-med status becomes apparent. Another Indian doctor? No, not me — that is, I probably won’t. Ultimately, I like having the choice to be as Indian as I want, when I want.

Throughout this process of conscious cultural exposure, I have gained a means of evaluating my Indian-American-ness in a modern context, to replace the 1970’s culture and values that my parents preserved on their trip across the Atlantic.

The notion of an Indian-American “fusion culture,” one that is rapidly gaining exposure in the United States, has an undeniable appeal.

I get a kick out of the Western shirts made out of sari material at the local Urban Outfitters, and an even better feeling when I buy similar shirts made by an Indian tailor (for one tenth of the price). Punjabi MC’s bhangra beats blend with Jay Z’s hip hop stylings to produce a top ten hit, bindis are the newest craze at pre-teen jewelry retailers and American movie stars take pilgrimages to India to try out the latest mehndi designs and yoga moves. In short, Indian culture has become trendy, and part of my quest to discover an Indian-American identity seeks to take ownership of the fad. In the past few years, as well, the cinematic endeavors of South Asians in the U.S. have fed our cravings for such fusion fare. In the India Post, a newspaper that caters to the Indian diaspora, film director Krishna DK said the recent upsurgence of “crossover films” can be attributed to second generation Indian-American audiences who “want films that reflect them, their lifestyle, their problems, their joys and their lives.” A few weeks ago, several Indian friends and I headed to MIT for a viewing of Where’s the Party, Yaar?, the latest in a slew of films attempting to do just that. They paint stereotypic portraits of the Indian-American family: the overbearing, chauvinistic father, the sari-clad mother who urges her children to eat more chapattis and focus on their studies, and the son who just wishes his parents would get with the program. The titles of these films — American Chai, American Desi, Popcorn Chutney — foreshadow the inevitable conclusion: the fusion of East and West, and the tearful realization that the generations are not so different after all. They are convenient endings, and I look forward to the day when a movie can simply have Indian-American characters without having to explain that choice. But I appreciate such forms of expression as another way to construct my own cultural identity.

Last night, while bringing bottled water to the register at the grocery store near Mather, I heard the clerk say something to his co-worker in Bengali. “You’re from India too?” I found myself asking him in my best Bengali accent. A five-minute conversation ensued, in which I learned that he was in fact Bangladeshi, but originally from Calcutta, and that his family owned several grocery stores back home. We laughed together over a joke only South Asians would appreciate, and as I walked out of the store I thought to myself: Speaking Bengali. That was nice. I think I’ll hold on to that one.

Ishani Ganguli ’05, the Crimson staff director, is a biochemistry concentrator in Mather House. See? There are minorities at The Crimson.