I tried, in whatever ways I knew, to be “Indian.” I took my cues from Western movies with Indian characters, like Bend It Like Beckham, which were way more accessible to my teen self than three-hour Bollywood movies. I would look to my Indian friends, whose parents had immigrated later in their lives, and who still had a grasp on their parents’ language, or practiced Hinduism. When I became a vegetarian, I started to cook more curries. I listened to popular Indian music and started teaching myself Hindi with books from the library. While I developed a genuine love for all these things, it still felt hollow to distill an entire culture down to food, music, and language, and my superficial knowledge of all three. Reading texts on Hinduism, or the history of India’s independence, I felt like I was coming to the subject as an outsider, like an academic studying the subject of India rather than someone trying to connect with her family.
My grandfather and I started talking all the time when I was in my late teens. I went through a depression in university, around the same time he and my grandmother moved into an assisted living home. While my Nana required full-time care, Poppy became restless within the new boundaries imposed on him. Soon we were talking on the phone several times a week, seeking escape from our respective boredoms through each other’s voices. We had a ritual: I would call him and he would answer the phone, hang up immediately, and call me right back so I wouldn’t have to pay long-distance fees. We’d each ask how the other was doing, but since most of our days consisted of sitting alone in our respective rooms, there wasn’t a lot to report. So I starting asking him about his life.
There was that summer he met Gandhi. There was the story of how he became “Peter” (when he was studying to become an engineer, one of his instructors got him confused with the only other nonwhite guy in the class, and it stuck). These stories became my cultural history. My understanding of India wasn’t shaped by the Asha Bhosle songs on my iPod or the mutter paneer on my stove—though I still love those things very much—but by the relationship I forged with a family member when I needed somebody to talk to.
This past March, when Poppy became sick—like, really sick—I came home to be with my family. His sister, my great aunt Shakuntala, was in from Chandigarh and was staying at our house. She came to visit every few years, but she usually stayed with my grandfather, who would act as her cultural host and Hindi translator. Now, she was staying at our home full time, and without Poppy acting as a buffer, it became clear to me how different my mother was from the people she’d left in India, and how assimilated my immediate family had become.
One day during Shakuntala’s visit, some of our family were in Nana’s room at the retirement home, trying to organize plans to visit Poppy in the hospital. In the midst of our conversation, my aunt started crying. She avoided eye contact with all of us, then she got up and moved to the washroom. A few minutes later she came back out, dabbing at her eyes.
“How are you doing?” I asked in broken Hindi, one of the beginner phrases.
She replied using words I couldn’t recognize. My course had taught me to understand “I am well” and “I am not well,” but hadn’t bothered with colloquialisms. I responded with a look of confusion. “She says she is OK,” a cousin translated. My aunt and I exchanged small smiles, which had become a default during that visit. It was my only way of communicating with someone with whom I shared a family connection but seemingly little else, not even a common language.
I reached out to my sister over a Skype chat late one recent night and asked how she answers the question “What are you?”
“I think of myself, race-wise, as white, I guess, but of Indian descent,” she said. “I don’t want to play up whatever the most ‘exotic’ part of our culture is supposed to be. I’m proud of all the parts of our background—British, Indian, Catholic, Protestant—and the way they mixed despite the circumstances. I just think of myself as a mutt.” I showed her an earlier draft of this piece, and she cringed at one instance where I described the brownness of my grandpa’s skin. “What are you trying to prove to the internet? Poppy is Poppy.”
Four days after Poppy died, I celebrated my 23rd birthday. I had originally planned to go out with friends in Toronto, but due to the circumstances I found myself in my hometown of Ottawa. My aunt wanted to go to the Hindu temple, and my sister, mother and I decided to accompany her. Shakuntala took us to each shrine, explaining the importance of every deity.
She stopped at Durga’s shrine to pray. She dipped a finger into the bowl of red powder in front of the shrine and gently dotted all of our foreheads. I tried to make my face look solemn, which felt appropriate in the temple. I thought that by adopting a serious air I could appreciate the sacredness of what was happening, but in truth, I didn’t know the significance of the red powder. I didn’t know why she had stopped to pray at Durga and not the other shrines. I wanted to understand, to react the way my aunt does, to feel that sense of connection: This is my history, this is my family, this is my identity. But I couldn’t feel it—not there in the temple.
Later that day, my brother drove my sister and me downtown and dropped us off in front of a tattoo parlor (“It’s your birthday present,” my siblings explained). I showed the man behind the counter the blurry cellphone picture I had taken of my Poppy’s forearms last Thanksgiving, and within moments I was sitting in a leather chair, gripping my sister’s hand, as the ink-filled needle scratched an s.d. and an s.p. into my own skin. ♦