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From Confused to Confident

By Neelam Patel

Call Me Confused, Please

Life would have to wait. I graduated from college and had a job at the hottest software company in the world in my pocket. But I couldn't be more excited to put it all on hold in order to go on what I told Microsoft was a spiritual journey. I would find myself and be one with my Indianness in the most Zen way you could imagine: I was about to embark on a six-month solo trip to India.

I knew the difference between Starbucks and a cup of true to mom-made masala chai before I left. I could even move from Gujarati to English without missing a beat. And even though I could go on first, second and eighth dates before I decided on commitment, once I found the love of my life, I would call him mera jivan sathi (my life's companion). I celebrated Rama's joyous return from the forest on Diwali and unwrapped Christmas presents. I related ballet to Bharat Natyam. I was ready to be connected to the Indian in me. I was ready to get in touch with my Indian spirit so wholly that, during the trip, I would learn to express myself as an Indian. I really thought it was a perfect plan.

When I arrived in India, I felt instantly at home, just like I had dreamed. Everywhere I looked there were faces that looked like my aunts, my parents, my cousins; they matched me in color and I truly fit in. Hindu images adorned public places; the private corners of my home that my childhood friends looked at curiously were out in the open here. There were images of Parvati on the ticket counter at train stations.

Neelam Patel; Photo by Sushovit Bhattarai
I didn't feel "different" for being a Hindu. I even found museums with signage saying they were closed for holidays such as Ganesh Cathartic (a Hindu holiday in honor of Lord Ganesh). I felt recognized and my plan to find a place that felt like home was going just beautifully.

As my month at Nrityagram came to a close, my identity was becoming stripped of nationhood; I instead felt aligned to the things that evoked my inner stirrings and allowed me to express myself.

With a backpack in tow and an idealistic head on my shoulders, I went to stay at the dance school, Nrityagram, in a village an hour from Bangalore. I'd thought I was going to enjoy Indian dance in its purest form by learning ancient choreography in the place of its creation. Instead, I was touched by an entirely different element. The experience evoked in me a deep love for dance that I had never felt before. Yet the women there were not traditional in the way I had expected classical dancers to be. They were educated, strong minded artists with opinions on every matter -- and they were determined to make something of their lives. I thought the resident dancers would become my "sisters" since we had India as our common motherland. Instead, they became kindred spirits who, like me, felt most alive when they danced.

As my month at Nrityagram came to a close, my identity was becoming stripped of nationhood; I instead felt aligned to the things that evoked my inner stirrings and allowed me to express myself.

With these new thoughts and feelings, I visited a long list of South Indian temples. After all, I thought, they would be a perfect way to deepen and reinforce what I'd learned about myself at the dance village. Since I'd been to numerous Hindu temples in New Jersey and Pennsylvania with my parents, this journey was literary for me; I could transcend boundaries using religion as a virtual dwelling place for myself and my soul.

The exact opposite happened. I was removed forcibly from my dream to connect with higher aspects of life. I was waiting in a line to enter a temple. I had waited in many lines already and had gotten accustomed to it. This time, however, my wait was shortened. I got called out of line by the temple staff. I was told that this temple was open only to Indians. In that one moment, both my plan to experience India as a home and my belief in a road to divinity were not only called to question, but were annihilated all together.

Visiting temples in my own home country was supposed to be a loving, moving experience. Instead, I was left in this unspeakably profound pain. I realized that I would never feel at home in India and that I couldn't just dance from my Indian side to my American side anymore. Confusion would always play a part in my life, and since that was the case, it made good sense to welcome it warmly.

I had gone to India to find myself and came back feeling wonderfully lost.

I started defining myself by the gaps in my rock of identity. Confusion became the place where I could scavenge through wreckage and debris, and actively piece together an organic self. When I allowed myself to feel utterly disconcerted, I was forced to think and speak from deeper parts of myself, to come to true terms with the core of who I am. During those fragile moments when my parents fear I have become "too American," I have to do the work to ground myself in the knowledge

that I am Indian enough for me. I am Indian in my spiritual inspiration, in the imagery of ancient Indian poetry that makes its way into my own verse. And I can think of a hundred ways in which I am American: my love for Madonna, my need for independence, and my freshly acquired taste for country music.

Confused is decidedly an effortful way to navigate through life. It takes steadfast work, since it is a constant fusing together of two distinct parts. I am actively choosing certain American notions and adding them into my life. Then I am reaching around the planet on a regular basis and picking out the Indian pieces that I wish to include. It is not just a juggling act; it is an ongoing creation. In India, I realized that neither nation would fit, so I began the life-long task of originating an identity for myself by allowing confusion.

When I returned to the US, my mother sifted through the piles of photographs I had taken. I laughed endearingly at her reaction to the picture of me sitting on top of an elephant. She said she was so proud that her girl had gone all the way to India by herself and even sat on an elephant. I laughed because my personal triumph there was huge and, to me, far surpassed the effort it took to ask an attendant for an elephant ride and a fellow traveler to photograph me. It was a random picture for me, but one that does serve as a symbol of having mounted and surmounted the difficult challenge of initiating an identity for myself. I had gone to India to find myself and came back feeling wonderfully lost. As Rama bravely entered the forest and conquered his own demons in the tale of the Ramayana, I too must do my work in the jungles of confusion.

Call me confused. That state of mind has been a singular blessing.


First published by Paycock Press, Copyright 2004, compilation 31 Arlington Poets

I’m too Indian to be American
I’m too American to be Indian
I will still need a nationhood, please.
In my motherland,
I was marked as an American by my walk
Pulled straight out of line
Of a temple that smelled looked felt
Just like the one in New Jersey where I was small
Had to prove I was in fact Indian
My body marked me as Indian in color American in walk
I was not at home in the temple bosom of my motherland
At home in America I didn’t coordinate
Well with blond
Allowed to date, shoe-wearing inside
Of the house, having cousins inside of the US
It is painful to have one ear that hears only Indian sounds
And another picking up only American vibrations
I’ve tried to be both in different company
But it gets confusing. I never know which flag to pick
Neither one quite fits my mixed up True Self.
That's why I hold citizenship in a land
The shape of my two feet
Where I step forms the boundaries of the nation I call Myself
With each step I take,
The bells on my dancing feet ring to the beat of
My humanity. My heart. My anthem.
My nationhood.
Now life is my creation and it has just begun.

Neelam Patel is a student of poetry, dance and acting who can be found at least twice a month at various Washington, DC open mics. Her day job is in Ecommerce website marketing.


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