My hometown is Tampa, Florida, where I was raised in a community of Indian American families. My “normal” was being surrounded by people of all ages, eating bhaat and daal (rice and lentils) all the time, celebrating Hindu holidays, and watching Bollywood movies. These experiences are now what I associate with home.
I didn’t understand how special it was at the time, but every year, our community pulled together for Diwali celebrations. Diwali is celebrated by Hindus in the month of November. It is a 5-day holiday during which the goddess Lakshmi is worshiped, and it is referred to as the “festival of light”.
It was special because we live in America, where Asian immigrants so frequently feel pressure to assimilate to the dominant culture and downplay traditions. In Tampa, our Diwali celebrations were carried out with much fanfare. Diwali frequently coincided with the Tampa India Festival, a 12-hour affair that attracted up to ten thousand attendees, and where dance performances by people of all ages were showcased. By the end of high school, I had taken part in performances at the India Festival for 9 years.
When I was completing my undergraduate degree, I was only a two-hour car ride away from home, so I usually came back for Diwali. While I was no longer performing at the India Festival, I still attended gatherings in the households of family friends. A group of 5 or 6 families would come together for dinner and light lanterns and fireworks in the driveway to celebrate.
For my graduate degree, I traveled to Amherst, Massachusetts. In late October of my first year, I learned there would be a Diwali celebration at one of the colleges nearby. I looked forward to attending. I was feeling a little spiritually drained, as I had not taken other opportunities to connect with the students of Indian descent on campus.
The celebration was supposed to begin with prayers, followed by dinner and dancing. I took the bus to the venue with a friend. It was cold and the first snow flurries of the year were falling.
We climbed two flights of stairs above an auditorium to reach the room where the prayers were being held. We knew we had reached the right place when we saw several pairs of shoes outside the door of one of the rooms. We entered to find a number of people sitting on the ground: students, mostly women, dressed in traditional Indian salwars, one or two Indian faculty members, and in the middle of the room, leading the prayers…a white guy.
I stayed in that room for maybe a minute before I told my friend I had to find a restroom, and left. Later that night, I would look up who this white guy was, and I would discover he had apparently devoted the last 25 years to learning and leading kirtan (a call-and-response chanting performed in India’s devotional traditions (MacDonell, 2004)). This information would do nothing to assuage my heart.
There is no known way to convert into Hinduism (Sarma, 2013). At the most, a person can say they are a very dedicated scholar of Hinduism. But there can be no Hindu “converts”. I don’t necessarily endorse this facet of the religion, but it remains a widely held belief.
Thus, to see these students of Indian descent (and mostly women, at that) repeating the prayers that this white man was saying was at best a farce and at worst, a mockery of all that history has born. I could safely guess that most of these women had been raised in Hindu households and were taught to respect that these words are sacred. They have been passed down for thousands of years and are still said today. These women, whether or not they were aware of it, probably knew more about Hinduism than this white man could ever know.
I also could guess that that man could not have been raised that way. Sure, he might have discovered Hinduism at a very young age. Heck, he might even have been born in India. But his ancestors are not the people who passed down the words of Hinduism.
His ancestors are the people who colonized the land of my ancestors (and if not mine, then those of other people of color), enslaved them, raped them, murdered them, sterilized them, terrorized them [edited 12:27 p.m. on 8/30/2015] and ravaged their land to make a profit—for hundreds of years. Yet there he was, leading the Hindu prayers during a Hindu holiday, as if these centuries of history had not happened, as if India is not still trying to overcome the effects of colonization to this day.
It took me a long time to recover from that episode. Even now, I’m not sure that that wound has fully healed since it is so constantly reopened. I feel that same sting when I see people who are clearly not South Asian sporting Om tattoos, when I see celebrities appropriating saris and bindis, and when skinny white women in sports bras claim to be very dedicated to “yoga”. I feel that same sting when people of the dominant culture try to erase history by claiming their appropriation is a “fair cultural exchange,” as if millions of people had not been enslaved, raped, and murdered for these things to be taken.
In order to continue the healing process, I find that more and more frequently I take matters into my own hands. I have decided that this year, I will hold my own Diwali celebration. I can light lanterns the way I used to in Tampa, and make bhaat and daal. I can decide my own guest list. For at least one night in the year, I can feel as if I am at home.
MacDonell, A. A. (2004). A practical Sanskrit Dictonary. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Sarma, A. (2013). On a Wing and a Prayer. New Delhi: Thomson Press.