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
| 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
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
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
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
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.
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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