When I was 13, I learned a new meaning for the alphabet, or at least its first four letters. “A, B, C, D,” my cousin said one day over a family lunch. “American Born Confused Desi.”
I laughed: We all did. It was a joke. Born to Indian parents in the U.S., we called ourselves American but we felt Indian. Right? I convinced myself that I did. In retrospect, I should have paid more attention to the fact that I had just swallowed a seed of confusion. If I told my grandma, she’d correct me and call it a mango pit—I learned disappointingly late in life that the pits are not edible, that they are, essentially, seeds. As I sipped my water, I felt the confusion growing, spiraling out into that newly defined capital “C.”
I ignored the thoughts. I wasn’t ready for an existential crisis at 13, or 14, or 15. Yet, when I turned 16, I was suddenly at a ripe age for cultural panic. It started at my grandfather’s funeral, where my cousins and I were told to recite pujas. They did so successfully. When it was my turn to share a song in my family’s native Gujarati, my tongue twisted itself into a knot, and I fell silent.
Despite my cultural failure, this is not supposed to be a dramatic story. That moment did finally convince me that I was indeed confused, and for once, I admitted to myself those four letters that I had so tactfully avoided for years. I was an ABCD. My mom recognized this too, and found humor in it. She once called me an ABCD, smiled, and then tossed me a book titled “Born Confused.” The cover had a picture of an Indian girl with a bright red question mark stamped in the middle of her forehead. The synopsis revealed my life in fiction-form: A girl named Dimple Lala grows up in New Jersey to Indian parents, feeling torn between American and Indian cultures.
Five years later, as a senior in college, I decided at last that I was too old to stay confused. I might be 21 years late, but who’s counting (apart from, maybe, my grandmother)? Inspired by a desire for self-discovery, I signed up to take Diana Eck’s class on Gandhi this semester. It may sound arbitrary, but don’t worry. I didn’t open up the Spring 2013 catalog, close my eyes and point to a random course listed under South Asian Studies. I’m not that confused, I hope.
The previous semester, my dad had sent me an email with a photo of Gandhi standing with my great-grandfather. I had heard about my great-grandfather and knew that he once served as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Slowly, I began to learn what that meant, and over J-Term, I devoted an afternoon to hearing my grandmother’s stories of growing up in the capital. However, I soon realized that this was only the beginning of my family’s history.
As we began reading Gandhi’s autobiography in Diana Eck’s class, we came across a certain Mavji Dave, whom Gandhi knew as a young boy. This is when the ABCD in me rang out loud and clear. Incredibly excited that Mavji and I shared our last names, I called my dad asking if we were related. He laughed and told me that while our last name was uncommon in the U.S., in India, there are thousands of Daves. The odds of being related to Mavji were slim to none.
Disheartened and confused, I dropped that conversation and we began discussing other things. Then a few minutes later, my dad suddenly interrupted me. “Have you heard of a Nanalal Kavi?” he asked. “We’re related to him.” What? Apparently, this man was a poet in Gujarat and also my great-great-great grandfather.
I Googled Nanalal Kavi expecting to find no results. However, instead, I came across a Wikipedia page, websites with his writings, and even a few images. In the rush of my excitement, I plugged his name into Hollis.
Once again, I was surprised. I found 73 hits. After scrolling through, I realized that his works were on microfilm in the Library of Congress and that there was even a book located in the bowels of Widener on the one and only Nanalal Dalpatram Kavi. Squirming with excitement like a five -year-old, I couldn’t fall asleep, I remember, until 2 a.m. that night.
Post-thesis, I finally made my way over to Widener for a leisurely (if that’s possible) stroll through the stacks. I pulled out the book. It was coated in dust, and the records slip showed that no one had checked it out since it had been donated to Harvard in 1959. I didn’t mind. Corny as it was, I felt a rush of pride as I held a bit of my family’s history.
When I told my dad, I could feel him glowing with pride over the phone. However, I wondered how my great-great-great grandfather would have felt knowing that there was a book about him and his poetry sitting in the Harvard library system.
I perched myself on a windowsill in the stacks and skimmed through the book. I was immediately stunned to find that he was a die-hard romantic. Then, as I continued reading, I came across one of his passages, which has since stuck with me:
The barque of Destiny, Having flashed its ardent callUnto our resurgent souls, Is waiting on the shore,To take us on our voyage, past the turmoil of human life.
Maybe I like these verses because I’m graduating soon, and the idea of destiny, and leaving my future to fate, seems quite lovely right now. Yet these lines might also explain why I stumbled upon his poetry in the first place, and how maybe that “C” is slowly shrinking into a “c.”
Eesha E. Dave ‘13 is a sociology concentrator in Leverett House. She’s still working on the rest of the alphabet.