Friday, January 15, 2016

On India, religion, and belonging

It makes me laugh when people talk about India being their Eat, Pray, Love experience. Even if I momentarily push aside how problematic and offensive the suggestion is, I can't help but appreciate the irony of the implication that this is why I came to India. For one, I take great pride in knowing and appreciating truly good food. And although I appreciate paneer and garlic naan and dahi puri way more than is probably healthy, I didn't come here for the food. And unless Hrithik Roshan or Farhan Akhtar is suddenly considering dating a twenty year old, some overdramatic Bollywood fling isn't what brought me here. As for the praying—well, that's complicated.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how I don't really belong anywhere. When I'm around my Indian-American friends, I'm me; identity doesn't really come into play when you're around people who all identify the same way. But of course, I don't live my life in a little bubble, nor would I want to.

I remember speaking with a Creative Writing professor about a year ago about how the only time we're aware of our identities is when they're made unique, when they're made other. I rarely feel uncomfortable about my racial and national identities at GW, but I spent the majority of my life before college being ashamed of my Indian background. 

And it's weird, going from being the Indian kid in America to the American kid in India, and now, when I'm with my friends in my study abroad program, being the Indian(-American) kid among Americans in India.

But I thought I had come to terms with that. I thought it was an initial shock or a surprising sort of irony of winding up in this situation, that I had adjusted to that. But we visited a temple last weekend, and it made me really uncomfortable in a way I hadn't expected. 

I've been an atheist since seventh grade, since I was twelve. In the eight years that have passed, I've visited temples more times than I can count and have pretended to pray for the sake of placating family, for the sake of avoiding conflict and avoiding explaining myself to people who might not care to listen, who might never understand.

When I first started telling people in my family I was an atheist, over a year after some of my close friends knew, I wasn't received very well. Some told me I was going through a phase; others went so far to tell me they pitied me. And for a while I did, too. It's not easy losing religion. It's not easy reconsidering all you've ever known. It's not easy being twelve and being the only one in your entire family who isn't Hindu. But after an understandable period of time in which she adjusted and opened up, my mom came to accept my faith, or lack thereof. She stopped urging me to go to the mandir, stopped encouraging me to pray before exams or long trips. She gave me the support I didn't know I needed. She allowed me to have a bit more strength in myself, and so I got to do me.

I've been okay with what I am for years now. I'm not angry at religion, I'm not angry about being alone sometimes. I'm secure in what I am, so I was confused when my group and I attended a temple and I got weirdly choked up. I just sort of shut down, avoided my friends, tried to walk around on my own. And I got really, really sad. I started thinking about the factors that caused me to question religion and Hinduism in the first place. I started thinking about how isolated I felt as an atheist sometimes, how I'm still sometimes afraid to identify myself as so, how I use euphemisms for the sake of not offending others, as if even though I'm not offended by others' faith they should be offended by mine.

And I thought about how isolated I feel as an Indian-American sometimes. It took me years to get to the point where I can explore my identity, to where I don't hate being Indian, to where I don't recognize being American as the only way or the better way to be. But being there reminded me that I'll never really belong anywhere. The ship has long sailed on being Indian, pun fully intended. And at the same time, I'll never be American—not simply American, not only American. I am so incredibly grateful for every part of my identity for all that it has taught and continues to teach me. But sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's lonely and sometimes it hurts.

I'm so happy I came to India. I'm so happy I'm around people who are critical and questioning and open and welcoming, all at the same time. I'm with friends and family who are supportive and engage in conversation with me, allow me to talk about the things I've been sitting on for years.

In a way, I'm happy I got upset at the temple, at the fact that I got choked up because the smell of the incense reminded me of my grandma and how much she means to me, that the marble steps reminded me of the many staircases I've walked up when I didn't want to, that the faces around me reminded me of the bindi I didn't want to put on my forehead and reminded me why. I think of these things as growing pains. It hurts because it matters, and maybe someday it won't.

It's only been three weeks so far and although I haven't booked my return flight, I know I have about four months to go. I'm glad that I came here even though I repeatedly considered going elsewhere, even though I considered not going at all. I'm not in India to ~find myself~ but while I'm here, I'm able to explore my identity and what's important to me and I'm able to open up myself to parts of me I spent years shutting out. I'm here to be me.

~ V


  1. A while ago I was browsing the photos on the People of New York page and remember viewing a photo of a woman with a caption "I belong to me". Your post reminded me of that caption. :)

  2. Good to hear that you are not shying away from confronting your thoughts & view & maybe this experience/trip was needed for you to explore yourself & discover the "real You" :-)
    keep blogging, i njoy reading it.

    1. Thank you! Although I have to say, I've been exploring myself and have been open about my identity for years now; all that's changed here is my openness on the internet. Thank you again for reading and commenting!

  3. Loved this one, Virali. For many reasons, this one I could identify the most with. Love your blog! Can't wait to read more.

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