Honorable Mention for College Prose
I grew up on old black-and-white Hindi film songs, Bhagwan and Geeta Bali dancing together through the doors of a ticking clock the size of a house in the 1951 Bollywood film, Albela. We watched Raj Kapoor with his black top hat, stealing a watch from a man’s pocket in the 1951 song Awara Hoon. I learned to hum these songs at the same time that I memorized nursery rhymes, at the same time that Dad played Jethro Tull’s Christmas albums and old Devo CDs in our little living room. When Dad put me to bed we read Jeff Smith’s Bone graphic novels and Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad, surrounded by stuffed animals. Being an avid comic book collector, Dad had all of the classic superhero comics, as well as Indian comics that retold stories from the Mahabharata. When it was Mom’s turn at bedtime, we listened to Hindi songs on old cassettes and CDs. I knew the films by their dance sequences and lip-synched songs, from black- and-white to retro Bollywood to Qawwalis and traditional dance scenes.
I had bagels with cream cheese for breakfast, and rice and daal for dinner. I grew up on misti doi (a sweet baked yogurt dish) and ice cream cones. With Mom’s mother, my grandmother living with us, I grew up on English and Bengali. I learned the word jhaal before I learned spicy, learned bhaath at the same time as rice. Over a decade later when my grandmother published a Bengali memoir in India, I was the only one of her three grandchildren to understand when she read the stories aloud. Before I turned one year old, I had an Annaprashan, or “rice ceremony,” a Hindu rite of passage ritual to celebrate the transition to solids, marking a baby’s first intake of rice. Despite people’s concerns, I managed to grow up bilingual and bicultural.
Mom packed me tiffin carriers for lunch every day, stacks of cylindrical metal bowls that kept food well heated. My father gave my mother a tiffin carrier board game for her birthday. I was lucky enough to gain the last name “Best,” the best name, literally, and yet it gave no clue to my Indian identity. I first realized the extent to which I look like neither of my parents when I was seven years old, standing in the airport with my mother on our way to Munich, Germany. The German man looked down at me from behind the glass of the immigration booth, which my head just barely reached.
“Is that your mama?” He nodded towards my mother who sighed in annoyance.
With confusion I said “yes…” Of course she was. Who else could she be?
“We have to ensure the safety of children,” he explained to my mother. “There are a lot of kidnapping cases.”
From then on we started carrying my birth certificate along with a consent letter from my father giving my mother permission to travel with me. They named me Maya for the U.S. and India, for Latin America, Nepal, Japan—a multilingual name, easy to pronounce, hard to misspell. There were five Mayas on my school bus in elementary school, three just in my grade. And yet, the first thing my advisor said when she met me in the summer before my freshman year of college was, “Maya! What an unusual name! Does everyone in your family have such unusual names?” I knew this was code for—what are you, what mixture of genes and hereditary chemistry made you? Because Maya is far from an unusual name for an American citizen, far from unusual for a Pittsburgh native because my parents named me Maya for Maya Angelou, an American writer. Four common letters, one ordinary name, but Maya when matched to my face would always be ethnically ambiguous.
But in my childhood there were no questions. We were all the same wobbly walkers, feet running through grass, clinging to hands. We were picture books and innocent smiles until we learned to speak. Back when we were all the same grammatical mistakes and silly exclamations, I used to speak Bengali, not only with my grandmother, but also with all of the Bengali adults we knew. When I was six years old my mother had me taking Bengali singing lessons with Indian classical singer Banani Ghosh, learning songs written by Indian poet and writer Rabindranath Tagore. There were only about six of us, sitting on the carpet in someone’s house while Banani Mashi sat in a seat, playing the harmonium as we sang in Bengali. After class we would go up to our teacher, Banani Mashi, to say pranam, bowing and touching her feet to show our respect before she smothered us in a tight hug and lip-stick-stained kiss.
While the other students excelled in Bharatanatyam (Indian classical dance) or had musically talented parents, my mother went through the pronunciations of each word with me when we practiced, listening to recordings of the songs on our old cassette player as she tried to play them on our little keyboard. But despite the fact that I was the smallest and the only student whose father was American, Banani Mashi made me feel just as worthy as the others. There was no difference when we were children. We were all the same in her eyes, until her Alzheimer’s became severe and she moved back to India with her husband, stopping the lessons. I was suddenly without a teacher. While the other students prepared for Indian dance performances or sang with their mothers who were classically trained Indian singers, I lost the one Indian skillset I had managed to develop and maintain since childhood.
It was in my teens that I stopped tying my hair in a braid every single day and wore it down, even though it was a hassle, extending past my hips, down to almost my knees. It stuck out over chairs and under the bottoms of my raincoats. My mother had only trimmed my hair a few times in my life, she and my grandmother growing up both always having very thick long hair. I didn’t cut it off, of course, because my grandmother wouldn’t hear of it, because in India having long hair was normal. As a child, my hair had always been in one or two braids, tied up from embarrassment because it was far from “normal” to have hair that long, because when people saw how long it was they switched between marveling at the thickness and length, and then criticizing my selfishness for not sharing, for keeping it all to myself instead of cutting and giving it to those who needed it more. They found it abnormal, it made no sense, as if my having long hair was an inconsideration to those who didn’t. It was a hassle, impractical, and another addition to being different. So in my freshman year of college I finally cut it myself, and my grandmother couldn’t understand it.
“Why did you change?” she asked. “Why did you cut away your beautiful hair?” “Because everyone wanted me to,” I didn’t say.
Sixth grade and I was madly in love with Shahrukh Khan who made me swoon with his furrowed brows and slick dance moves on the top of a moving train in Dil Se, a film my mother said was still too violent for me. In high school, I was old enough to date but my plots to replace his wife were no longer of interest because he was over 50 years old, but still playing shirtless romance roles with young female actresses. While older Indian actresses like Kareena Kapoor and Kajol Devgan retreated to older roles as mothers, younger, newer, sexier actresses emerged. In their mid to late twenties they danced their slender bodies against Shahrukh’s somehow unwrinkled skin, showing faces increasingly paler through the decades. Katrina Kaif was the newest hit star. I first saw her in Jab Thak Hai Jaan, and she was white enough to pass for Italian but dark enough to get by as an Indian. She could barely speak Hindi, only knew how to read the script, play the sexy roles, yet she was admired by millions of fans for her pale skin and beauty. She, just like me, was now the new face of the Bollywood industry with its preference for light skinned actresses, with whitening creams and powdered faces, lightened dark hair. Katrina Kaif, half Indian, who mixes Hindi with English and was raised in the U.K., defines the new Indian, the new desire to be the best of both.
I’m used to hearing the question: Where are you from? This question won’t accept “Pittsburgh” for an answer, reshaping itself as: No, but like, where are your parents from? It’s the first question I’m asked on a date, used as a pickup line, a conversation starter. In high school, there was a boy I never talked to, unless to ask to borrow a pencil, or what homework was due tomorrow. But he surprised me by sitting next to me on the bus despite there being other empty seats. It was a day I’d tied my hair in two braids.
“So you’re Indian right?” was the first thing he said.
“Yeah,” I said surprised. “My mom is…my dad is American.”
“I just find your culture so cool. You know, subsistence hunting…. Such a unique way of living.”
I then understood why he’d chosen that seat. It wasn’t because he thought I was pretty, or liked my personality; it was because he was fascinated. Once I clarified that my mother was from the country India, not Native American, his eager smile sagged in the corners and we didn’t talk for the rest of the ride.
While most Indian American children had already traveled to India by their first year of life, it took until I was almost 18 years old to finally go with my mother. She didn’t expect me to like it, expected the heat and culture shock and crowded streets to result in my dislike for the place, but it was an obligatory trip, and one that had been long awaited. But she was wrong because despite all of our relatives having moved out of the country, leaving behind distant ones we didn’t get to see, I didn’t want to leave. We went to Delhi, and Mumbai, and Pune, to Jaipur and Agra. The trees wore dust on their leaves and stray dogs pressed up against our feet. We ate dosa for breakfast and rode auto rickshaws in the streets.
It was in India, alone with my mother, that I wished more than ever to have that authentic experience that all of my friends with Indian parents were able to have. To, for just three weeks, be able to look like my mother, to travel to India like a local, not like a tourist, like someone who belonged. But when people saw me paired with my mother, they could tell that we weren’t exactly the same, that while she looked and spoke like she’d been born and raised there, I stood pale and mute beside her. I obsessed about this insecurity, not realizing that having my mother had enabled me to experience two sides of India: the experience of a foreigner and a local, the experience of something in-between.
I’d never felt so strongly connected to a place, but in a way that felt so different from everyone else. I grew up knowing Hindi films for their songs, for high-pitched female voices and men’s goofy smiles at the same time that I watched Sesame Street. I was raised with framed Indian textiles next to action figures. I was given my paternal grandfather’s mouth and my maternal grandmother’s long hair, my mother’s round face and my father’s pink cheeks. I looked like neither of them. I still don’t. I was given bits and pieces, contrasting features and characteristics. I have always been a bit of both, or neither, or something in-between.