I realize that most of what I convey to my three year old son, Adi is borrowed from my own childhood. As I grow older, I feel closer to those memories. By sharing those experiences with Adi, I feel that he will understand who I am and why I believe in certain things that root me to my identity and view of life. Growing up in Africa was like being alienated from my motherland in every way. Initially, it was tough to survive in school because of obvious differences. Some girls would pull my hair and ask, "Why do you have such hair?" or "Why is your skin color different from ours?" or "Why do you worship weird looking gods and not Jesus?"
It wasnt just non-Indians who had questions to ask. If I spoke with African friends, I had Indian friends who told me, "Listen, they are blacks so dont mingle too much. Their culture is different." No offence meant, but I've lived all my growing years with African people and I believe they are really warm, caring and godfearing people. I can't say the same for my Indian counterparts with the same confidence because I believe hypocrisy - the art of saying one thing and doing the opposie - is truly an Indian trait. I dont know why and where it originated from but I see it so rampant that it is hard for me to mingle with my lot of people because its difficult to trust them. Of course I am very proud of being an Indian but I am not excluding myself when I say this: we assume we are the best moral police, so our whole existence revolves around jumping to immediate conclusions about other people's lives. In comparison, Africans dont do that. They respect privacy a lot and care about being helpful. Please note the thin, blurring line between the Indian idea of nosy-helpful and the African idea of helpful-helpful.
Gradually, I learned to deal with these questions with confidence by saying that I am an Indian and my culture is deep rooted in how I think and what I do. Think about it this way: You may cut the umblical cord but mothers and children don't stop connecting to each other with strong emotional fervor. In the same way, my roots stayed very Indian because of my parents. They understood the importance of helping me strike a balance between my life as a kid in Africa and my identity as an Indian girl. Not every one had it so easy.
In primary school, I remember a Korean guy in my class who never spoke a word to any of his classmates because it was his way of dealing with people who kept asking him about his 'different' eyes. He always kept silent. I used to imitate him for a day or two and then i got fed up because I could never stop talking. I had to always keep talking. During school holidays, my dad would teach me how to write and read Malayalam, which is my mother tongue. He would put on Malayalam music, explain the poetry and the lyrics and what the poets may have intended to convey. I was really small at the time but I soaked up all of it like a sponge.
At the same time, my dad didnt try to choke my individuality. He encouraged me to do what I believe is right and that continues. Its not about being forced into one's identity but about being aware of who I am and what my choices are when growing up in a totally different place.
When I came back to India as a teenager in 1992, it was very difficult to fit in but I think I managed the transition pretty well. I like to share most of my childhood and growing up moments with my son.
Recently, I got my son a picture Atlas book and showed him the map of Africa. I told him that this is where your mom grew up and went to school. So now, he really wants to know about it. When I show him the Pyramids, I tell him that this is a place your dad visited and he loves that place. Anytime we see anything resembling a pyramid, my son remembers that at once and likes to hear my husband talk about it. Sharing these memories we hold close to our heart becomes priceless when we share it and leave it as a legacy with our kids. I know that when my father talks about his childhood, it makes me feel closer to him. It helps me understand and appreciate him though it makes him very nostalgic. By telling our kids about our past, the good and the bad, I think they will respect us more even if they dont really agree with us.
When I tell my son about little things like what made me cry when I was a kid or how my dad took me for walks and perched me on top of an old plane wreck so that I felt like I'm flying that plane, I can see how Adi loves it. His imagination takes him to that spot in Africa because I describe it for him and he listens very carefully. I tell him these little stories so that it helps him understand me and the choices that I make.
I believe that it will make kids stronger and emotionally secure when we are honest with them about everything. Learning from the past is definitely a good way to start.