another reason I haven’t been back

“Each year, thousands of young Indian women are doused with gasoline and burned to death because the groom or his family felt the dowry was inadequate.”

via Indian government crime statistics show one Indian woman killed every hour over outlawed dowry payments.

There’s strong suspicion that a distant relative of mine, a woman whose wedding I attended in 1981, met this fate. Only a few years later, I learned she had been killed in an accidental kitchen explosion. I got the distinct impression, even as young teenager, that nobody believed it was accidental.

An American girl in India

“Seven years ago, my husband and I uprooted our two daughters, Ranju and Malu, from their comfortable lives in Manhattan and moved to India to be closer to our aging parents, and to allow our American-born children to know their Indian heritage.”

from “For Girls in India, the Pressure to Conform Comes From Family” –

I cannot even imagine what would have happened, had my parents moved us back to India when we were young. I was last there when I was 11.

Pressure to conform.

I think that’s what I felt in India. An intense pressure to be anything but myself: as if “me” were inadequate, incongruous, generally incorrect. I didn’t have the wherewithal to silence those voices that Ms. Narayan describes. I didn’t know how to push back without being rude. (I may have learned how, since then. And my difficulties then may have been exacerbated by the severe illness I had–my maternal uncle used the word dysentery–making me lose 15 percent of my bodyweight.)

Maybe that’s one of the myriad reasons I haven’t been back since. It’s embarrassing that my 11-year-old self dictates the actions of my 43-year-old self. But it does. (for now)

I don’t know Ranju and Malu. But they impress me. Tremendously.

developing definitions

Take a few minutes and read two things today:

1. “India Is,” a lovely poem by a friend, who is maintaining a highly entertaining blog. She sees things about my parents’ country of origin that I saw when I visited there as a child of 10. She makes me wish my visit to India had been when I was old enough to process it with a bit more grace. (I have not visited India since then, which is about 33 years. I have reasons, none of which are good.)

2. “Ayn Rand is for Children,” an epiphany of sorts written by David Sirota. Bottom line: Ayn Rand acolytes probably haven’t seen much of the developing world. I find Ayn Rand’s work to be… silly.

When I was 20, my roommate and I took a goofy 1-credit course in college called “Human Development and Awareness.” At the time I had come to the conclusion that I wanted to study political science and social welfare policy, and there’d been an exercise in the class that required each of us to go around the room and explain a “defining moment” that we believed shaped who we were as students.

I knew immediately what it was.

The moment came in India, in 1981, as we walked through the streets of New Delhi, and children, my age or younger, would come to me and ask for money. I’d see babies relieving themselves in the street. I’d see not-poor people angrily shooing “untouchable” people away as easily as they shooed away stray dogs. I can still see all of their faces. I can still smell all of those smells and hear all of those sounds.

It was a terrifying place for an atypical 10-year-old. For example, I had seen at age 7, in 1977, “Roots,” and at age 8, “Holocaust,” two television miniseries about some of the very darkest times in recent history. (Friends in grade school had not seen these shows.) I knew that people were capable of being and too often proved to be unfathomably evil, cruel, and unjust.

I knew that, as a child. And then I saw it, as a child. In India.

Couple that with the fact that my father took his wife and new daughter (my older sister) away from India, and to the United States, all on his own, to pursue his education, on his own merits.

It defined me… or at least, a key part of me.