Voices of an Emerging Indian American Consciousness: Bharati
Mukherjee and Shreela Ray
From being a marginal minority who came to America with the sole idea of
securing well paying jobs after completing graduate studies and professional
training, and saving enough money to settle down in India, and lead a fairly
affluent retired life, indian immigrants are now coming of age, and having
second thoughts about returning. The green card holders who came to this
country in the sixties, and had planned to go back to India after fifteen,
or at the most twenty years, have taken up citizenship, and are now reluctant
to leave America permanently. There are many reasons for this. The longer
one gets used to the conveniences of this affluent country, the less inclined
one is to forego those comforts by moving back. Aside from the material
benefits, attitudes also play a part in the reluctance to go back. While
in Indian society, one is taught that the needs of the family or the community
take precedence over those of the individual, the opposite is true in American
society. The fostering of this individualism, call it rugged if you will,
engenders a fetish for privacy that makes one unfit to live in India where
the "I'II do my own thing" mindset does not work, There is also
the question of the children. Unlike the first generation immigrants, whose
cultural moorings have always been in India, the second generation, children
of indian parents born and raised in America, feel their Americaness more
strongly than their parents. They are very much involved in the affairs
of this country, and don't feel any different from other Americans. With
America becoming"home" to Indian Americans, this ethnic minority
is making an impact on mainstream society in visible ways.
The price of involvement is a heavy one. One cannot seek immunity from the
pain of being a part of American society by bunkering in one's ethnic ghetto.
America is a continent of Circe. Her enticements insidiously pull in those
who have landed on her shores, and transform their personalities. It is
futile to cling to an unvarying Indian past that may have survived in' tradition-bound
india, but the circumstances and
opportunities in this country are different and affect Indian immigrants
in unconscious ways. Daniel Boorstin, the American historian, observed that
America was" a fertile repository of hopes," beckoning every immigrant.
The American Dream , an enduring myth that has been shaped and reshaped
by waves of immigrant groups to this country, is still evolving, and it
is now the Indian immigrants' turn to make of it what they will. Like all
myths, it exists in the imagination of the mythmaker, and the harsh reality
that awaits each immigrant, often leads to disillusionment, and despair.
The roads of Philadelphia are not paved with gold. Hard work is not always
rewarded. The gap between the rich and the poor is not narrowing but widening.
Racial discrimination has not been
eliminated with the magic wand of the Civil Rights Act. I remember when
I was new to this country, 29 years ago, an Italian American asked me quite
innocently:" Do you have colored people in your country messing things
up?" He meant "black people." And instinctively l looked
at my brown hands, and asked him: "What do you think I am?"
Three decades ago, when I was a graduate student in a predominantly white
town, I would be looked upon as an exotic oddity, a live geography and history
India, my sari and bindhi providing an aura of magic to this perception.
For most people
in this Upper New York town, India was almost another planet. Things have
vastly today. In spite of the paranoia of purists like Allan Bloom (Closing
American Mind) , multiculturalism has come to stay, and Asian culture is
as much a part
of American society as African-American or Hispanic. Asia is no longer ignored
American campuses as increasing academic programs in Asian Studies seem
Aside from changes in the academic environment, there are visible changes
in the rest of
society as well. "Little Indias" have been springing up all over
America, with Indiatowns
whose sights, sounds and smells remind us of Bombay or Madras. Temples,
gurudwaras, and Indian Christian churches are being built in all the major
America. While this preservation of "identity" is largely a first
generation activity, our
children are going the other way, and prefer to be American rather than
choose careers like the armed services, the Peace Corps, the media, film,
studies, jazz music etc., which are non-traditional for Indian immigrants.
Bruce Springsteen over Bala Murali Krishna. Young Indian-Americans are also
becoming increasingly involved in the political life of this country. Like
all other ethnic
groups, immigrants from India are altering the pattern of the patchwork
America is, in quiet but significant ways.
The experiences of Indian-Americans, a term that has come to denote a distinct
group in the American mosaic, are unique enough to provide a rich source
imaginative writing. American Literature today reflects this variegated
of American society. Indian-American writing is becoming as noticeable as
of other ethnic minorities: Jewish, African-American, American-Indian, Hispanic,
Chinese-American, to name a few. The tension of belonging to dual cultures,
of being an exile group with feelings of guilt at turning one's back on
root cultures that
are several thousands of years old, a nostalgia for an idealized mother/fatherland,
opposite pull towards integration and acceptance, and the strong desire
to be "American,"
are experiences common to all ethnic minorities who have come to this country
various reasons. Like other minorities, Indian-Americans are increasingly
their experiences in their own authentic voices. Two such voices are Bharati
Mukherjee, a novelist, and Shreela Ray, a poet.
When I heard that Shreela Ray, a friend of mine, died last year, I was shocked,
though I had expected the event to occur any day. She was very ill the last
time I saw her
in 1989,with an oxygen tube to help her breathe easier. In spite of acute
tire had not gone out of her eyes, and her breathlessness did not prevent
arguing passionately about the injustices of the world. She had taken great
pains to cook
an Indian meal for me the last time I saw her. She came to this country
in 1962, a
young woman full of idealism and anger at the wrongs of the world, an anger
carried within her till her last breath. She received several scholarships
from the Atlantic Monthly, the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, and the New York
Council on the Arts. She has published in several poetry anthologies like
Poetry Review, Choice, The Minnesota Review, Poetry, and the American Dust
collection, Night Conversations with None Other, to name a few. She taught
in the College
of Liberal Arts, Rochester Institute of Technology. She married Hendrik
de Leeuw, and
they have two sons, Gawain and Kabir.
Born in Orissa, Shreela was a boarder at Loreto Convent in Darjeeling. Grace
Chapell, one of Shreela Ray's classmates at Loreto, reminisces that Shreela
at the center of a maelstrom, an ardent communist whose favorite poet was
Byron, and an
idealist. The strict discipline of the nuns must have been irksome to this
free spirit. She
had frequent bouts of depression even as a student at Loreto.
Even as a young girl, literature, and in particular poetry, was Shreela's
describes this in "five virgins and the magnolia tree":
When we were seventeen or sixteen
and sat in the tennis courts
under the Magnolia Campbelli
-under one of the largest flowering trees in the world-
we had lost our senses and we talked our heads off.
Two were to be doctors!
Two students of literature!
One was about to die
and so could not make plans
to heal the world.
Adrienne Rich points out in Bill Moyers' "Language of Life" PBS
series that poems
come out of a thousand points of stress. The many different cultures that
silenced before have now.found their voices, and their anguished confusions
forth in poetry. Shreela is one of these voices articulating the anguish
of the Indian
American: the heartaches, frustrations, and racial prejudices that an Indian
faces in this country, and the sad realization that you can't go home again.
remembrance of things past runs through her poetry.
Religious conflict was one of the things that troubled her, Born and raised
Christian, she achieves a resolution of this conflict in a poetic synthesis,
born out of a
syncretic religious heritage she inherited from India. Her naming her son
represents this synthesis, in personal life. In "Notes from the East,"
Take me to your leader.
What is your name?
Where do you live?
What is your number?
Interracial marriages are still only tolerated but not accepted as normal
America or India. In "Poem for Gawain," dedicated to her son,
you are the colour of the earth,
limbs of trees and deep rivers.
Only in them can you find sanctuary .........
And if you should meet Aristophanes first
when a man goes in search
of his sundered female half
must she be of the same race?
Racial conflict was rooted in color prejudice. Color is a barrier even between
In "Two Love Poems of a Concubine," Shreela describes the poignancy
of the rejection of
love, when that love is not color blind:
Crawling into the black box on the wall
I call myself in the name
of fathers and friends and lovers
and most of'all"
in the name of one whose face
engraved on a stone turns
away from me and looks
into its heart.
when you turn your white back to me
l lie awake in the dark remembering your words.
"I wanted to keep some distance between us."
Had I no rights? Was something
wrong with me? I touch
my Indian body lightly.
True love, however, has no racial bariers. In "The Road to Puri,"
Paddy fields ripple in the blood, bone and tissue succumb
to tamarind and shad.
We have ten miles to go
I don't want to go back to America
or to change the fabric of my first body.
I want to sleep with a man
raised on dahl and rice.
But at five miles to go
we pass a man digging a small trench by his house...
and I see you,
on your knees
behind over the furrows, scattering bonemeal for tulips,
your Dutch hands sifting the coarse dirt,
and I swear to you, my one rose in the enemy dust,
co-heretic of love, defender of the faith
the human woman needs, I will be back.
(Shreela's husband Hendrick is of Dutch heritage.)
Like all expatriates, Shreela felt a sense of exile, as if the door had
closed on her for
ever. In "Poem (for my father)," obviously written on her return
to India, she writes:
From a neighbouring roof
a gramophone blasts out
the latest film hits
and from somewhere below me
a gentler voice sings,
perhaps by .design--
What a stranger you are in your own land.
What a disgrace to forget your own language..
Why do you drift through unknown streets?
Whose house will you make your home in?
But Shreela achieves her reconciliation with her kin through her poetry.
Sisters," written two years before her death, Shreela finds her way
back to the hearts of
her mother and her aunts:
My mother lives with three sisters.
One is a widow, one sings and can make
the tuberose bloom in the evening
(or so I believe), and one is a nurse.
Theirs is a household of faith.
So the day goes
One will read the Oriya Bible.
One will repair a petticoat, a blouse
one write to a favourite niece lost
for thirty years in America, who might
just call out of the blue and ask,
"Tell me again how that line goes ..."
And sister nurse will give an odd
little laugh and quickly pass
the phone to sister voice
who will say, "Rani?" and then sing
a few lines until each and all
together sing, as if one voice,
for theirs is a household of faith.
And I know where to leave my sandals,
and there's room on the stand
for my sari right next to my aunt
the nurse's, for she loved me best,
and will relinquish to no one,
for l will too ask her, although I'm
to ask anyone, for anything, forever, anymore.
Poignant, elegiac, and lyrical, Shreela echoes the feelings of most of us
who are neither completely accepted here nor in the home to which reentry
forever. In Shreela's words: "It is possible that I have come too far./The
gypsy, and the saint/are left behind in mysterious union with cripples and
stiff and upright in the chair/and drink to them alone./I bless them, I
write for them/
but the song can't find the way back."
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