Enlightenment From a Former A.B.C.D.

Ta-din-na-ka. As my body staggered to the beat, Guruji repeated this mantra in rhythmic sets of three. Heavy from the ghungrus that were wrapped around my ankles, my feet pounded against the floor, while my hands joined in a namaskar position towering above my head. As Guruji’s voice grew louder, my hips raced against the rhythm. While the other girls effortlessly repeated this dance exercise, I lacked fluidity in my movements. “Pick up your speed,” Guruji demanded. I bit my tongue, took a deep breath, and angrily stomped my feet.

As a tenacious first grader, I barely had any interest in Odissi dance and wished to take ballet classes like my American friends. Constantly brainstorming ridiculous excuses not to attend class, I eventually succeeded in convincing my parents to surrender to my lack of interest. Though I was thrilled for my victory, I could sense subtle disappointment coming from my parents.

At the time, I could not comprehend why my parents enrolled me in Odissi dance. Rather I felt that they were trying to force me into accepting a culture that I could not relate to. After my lessons stopped, I experienced a sort of unexplainable “freedom” – like there was no one I had to satisfy or impress. However, my feelings were short-lived. It was this same “freedom” that made me lost in a mess between two cultures, two diverse communities in which I struggled to define and create an identity out of.

As I watched other children of my age performing at Indian social events, I started to feel that my “freedom” was a bit damaging. As children performed classical dances, sang Bollywood melodies, or chanted Sanskrit prayers, I tried to reassure myself that they were forced into this by their parents or were just being boastful. However, it was those self-reassurances that repressed my true jealousy. They had such passion for their performances that it was evident that they had something that I lacked – a meaningful connection to their culture.

To fill this inner void, I tried to find a perfect balance between being an Indian and an American. This balance was a frustrating wish that I soon accepted as a fantasy to be dreamt of rather than a realistic goal. I watched Bollywood movies, listened to Hindi music, practiced Hindu traditions, and conversed in Oriya, yet I felt no deep connection to my heritage. I even hoped that by reading The Namesake I could find a parallel between my life and that of fictional Gogol’s. However, I was ironically pushing myself to build an unnatural and forced cultural identity.

Through all these doubts and frustrations, I finally grasped that there is no pre-constructed mold for a first generation Indian to fill. Neither books nor movies can instruct me on how to be a “proper” Indian American. My identity is a puzzle composed of different elements from two rich cultures, and now I appreciate that my parents have given me the freedom to pick the customs, beliefs, and pieces that form me. Developing my identity was such an emotional experience that I failed to realize the beauty behind my individuality.

With time, I finally understood why my parents introduced me to Odissi dance in the first place. They could only hope that I would gain some respect and acceptance for my Indian roots – something that I eventually did. About eight years after my first Odissi dance class, I found myself moving to the memorable rhythm of Ta-din-na-ka once again, hoping to give Odissi dance and my cultural heritage a second chance.

*A.B.C.D. — “American-Born Confused Desi”

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