From East Indian to South Asian

My first day in the United States was so bright, I thought I had flown around the world and returned to India again. I was wearing a blue and white nylon sari, my hair was done in a braid hanging down to my knees, and a wedding necklace of black beads rested against my chest.

The host mother handed me a quarter, and said, “College Avenue bus goes to college,” but I ambled down the road, keeping Campanile Tower in view. Men in long hair and torn jeans just walked past oblivious to me, as if a woman in a sari was the most natural thing in the world.

For the first time in my life I was anonymous, free, and utterly alone.
I loved the sensation.

In that moment I fell in love with Berkeley.

The year was 1976.

A few days later, kicking my suitcase—its handle having broken in transit—down the dark corridors of International House, or I-House as it has always been known, who did I see but an Indian woman in a kurta!

That neighbor notwithstanding, Indians, particularly Indian women, were a strange sight on campus then. So much so that desi men in I-House had apparently scoured the directory of incoming students, searching for prospective brides. I must have been a disappointment, for I was already married, although I had arrived in Berkeley sans husband.

The group of Indians in the dorm was small enough then to be able to squeeze into a Toyota Celica a Sikh student owned. We would ride thus, first to Fenton’s Creamery on Piedmont Avenue, where we would devour huge banana splits before closing time at midnight, and later, drive madly up winding streets to the Rose Garden, where we would stumble on dark terraces, picking flowers. Only Indians could undertake such sacrilege, I would muse, as if making up for the poverty, heat, and dust of their native land.

I remember the same Sikh student driving us to Hill Top Mall for shopping. I recall dining at the Lion of India on Telegraph Avenue on Sundays because the cafeteria was closed. I can even remember cooking vats of food for an Indian girl’s engagement party and wondering if I had come all the way to America only to learn how to make ras malai.

What I cannot recall is the exact moment when I decided to break away from the pack.

Perhaps it was the day I joined a group of South Indians at dinnertime, and a handsome man abruptly inquired where I was from, and upon discovering that I was from Maharashtra, quite rudely asked why the Shiv Sena was attacking South Indians in Mumbai.

As if I were responsible for the actions of every person in Maharashtra.

Perhaps it was the day I went to the Sikh student’s house and listened to his family ridiculing his American girlfriend in Hindi.

Perhaps it was the day I went to a party in South Bay and watched all the desis and their mail order brides vying for status.

Perhaps it was the day I realized that going camping and hiking with my white classmates was more appealing than eating Indian food and watching Indian movies on Saturdays.

Perhaps it was the day I realized that being a married woman alone in Berkeley was hard enough; being an unhappy victim of an arranged marriage, impossible. I had come to Berkeley at my husband’s insistence; he had made me a stepping stone to his material advancement. But I could not find the words to explain my plight to my fellow Indians.

Perhaps I simply knew from that first day in Berkeley that I would have to obtain a green card on my own. I would have to assimilate. I would have to blend in. I would have to become white.

It sounds blasphemous now, but back then, that was the name of the game. There were hardly any Indian women professionals.

Or women professionals, period. Particularly in the field of energy. There were no role models. I was shaping and reshaping my identity as I went along.

So I decided to break away from the pack.

Only later would I realize how monumental that decision would prove to be; how isolating and heart-breaking, in the long run. And how ironic too, considering that in India, I had always belonged to vernacular schools. My family was far from westernized. I did not even know the music of the Beatles until John Lennon died. I did not wear stretch pants. I did not smoke. I did not possess a collection of Enid Blyton novels. I did not speak with a convent school accent, but in a hodgepodge drawl that always made Americans confuse my “t”s with my “d”s until I learned to say “T as in Tom.” I also learned to say, “I am East-Indian,” to distinguish myself from Native Americans.

How then did a girl like me become more American than Americans?

It was for me a matter of survival.

In my quarter century on this planet, I had already faced the kind of hardship most people do not undergo in a lifetime. I had grown up with a mentally ill mother. I had undergone a disastrous arranged marriage. By the time I arrived on these shores, I knew that life was not cushy. And still, I had the desire for something better. I suppose in that sense, mine was a quintessential immigrant story.

After graduation, I moved to Sacramento, a white, middleclass bedroom community where people chatted about engines of pickup trucks and ate at restaurants specializing in spareribs. I did not have a choice. No one but the California Energy Commission, a governmental agency, would offer me a job. There I sat day and night, facing green monitors as I simulated residential building energy demand on mainframe computers. I was so lonely that on weekends, I would drive to Davis and walk around campus like a zombie, longing for the slightest human contact. Other weekends, I would drive all the way to Berkeley just to see the bright lights of I-House.

On one such outing, I came across that same Indian woman I had accosted in the corridor on my first day and told her I was thinking of divorcing my husband. Her reaction was horror, disgust, and repudiation. So I fled, and never saw the Indian crowd again. Already, I was the “other,” a married Indian woman living alone in America; divorce would make me a pariah. Once or twice I would try to tell odd Indian women about my plight, but the questions they would ask would always be the same, “Does he beat you?” And when I said no, the query always would be, “Then what is the problem?”

If that were the standard, I would muse, then most marriages were happy.

So I shut up, telling no one about the inside story of my marriage. I felt ashamed, guilty. I was convinced that somehow I was responsible. Yet, I could not continue in the relationship. It was only very recently, when women in my writing group read drafts of my memoir and commented on the strange and psychologically debilitating ways in which my husband had exploited me, that I realized it was not my fault.

But back in the 1980s, no one in the Indian community got divorced, in India or here. Upon hearing the news, my younger brother felt sorry, not for me, but for my husband. Perhaps he thought I had marred the family name. Perhaps he feared that his own marriage would be hard to arrange because of the blot I had brought upon our reputation. So he began to shun me. Looking back, I don’t know why I did not tell anyone about what my husband had done to me. All I can say is that the things he had done were so perverse and damaging that I did not possess the language to tell my parents about them. Perhaps I was afraid of traumatizing them even further. Perhaps I did not tell them because they never asked. No one asked. Even Indians here chose to judge me rather than support me.

My life cleaved away even further away from the community. I was marginalized, invisible, a fallen woman. I internalized the feeling. I rejected Indian values, Indian culture, Indian community. I was not in an area and a profession where I came across many Indians anyway.

Only years later would I realize that there were others like me, living on the fringes, unaccepted, alienated, alone.

And yet, a part of me longed to connect to my homeland and my people. So I began to take Kathak lessons from the famous dancer Chitresh Das. The classical rhythms reminded me of my childhood. I became passionate about cooking Indian food.

I decided to change the world. I went to work for the East West Center (EWC) in Hawaii on energy and rural development. I traveled to India and Thailand doing research on biogas and biomass energy systems. The report I wrote all those years ago surfaced recently on Google. I was amazed by its clarity; its voice full of love for my land.

At IIT Delhi, where I attended a conference, I met a South Indian young man I could have easily fallen in love with. And he with me too. My divorce was not yet final but there was nothing to prevent me from getting involved with someone else. But something stopped me. Perhaps I possessed an awareness now that I had not had, when, nearly a decade before, at another IIT campus, I had fallen in love with another man. I was all too knowing now of the constraints Indian men put upon themselves when it came to affairs of the heart, parents’ consent being foremost among them. After all, in a country whose mythology idolized King Rama, who had sent his pregnant wife into exile because his citizens had suspected her of being unchaste, what could I expect from a Hindu man? So, on my last night in Mumbai, I told the young man about my marriage. Perhaps it was a mistake to do so. But I could not betray him. Perhaps deep down I wanted to make sure that this time, when I fell in love, it would be reciprocated to the fullest extent.

He would call me months later, having arrived on the East Coast, but by then, I would have already chosen someone else.
Other men, American and Indian, fell in love with me during that trip as well, but nothing really felt right.

When I returned to Hawaii, I got a culture shock for the first time in my life. I inhabited the schizophrenic persona that many immigrants acquire. Isolated from family, I suppressed memories and longings for my culture. Instead, I began to explore new identities. I learned to dance the hula. I began jogging around Diamond Head. I hiked up the ridges of Oahu. I went dancing to the music of Abba with a younger Indian student, wondering if our futures were destined to be linked.

I was in that fragile psychological state when I met an extraordinary British man, worldly, experienced, charming, witty. We spent every moment together until he left four days later for New Zealand, where he lived. Instantly I knew that he was the one.

Only years later would I realize that if the dice would have rolled differently, I would never have experienced the isolated life of an exile. But I was young then; belonging to the Indian community and being able to go to India every year were not high priorities for me.

After many trips back and forth across the Pacific, I went to live in New Zealand for four years. I knew no Indians there. I was alone in a white culture, thousands of miles away from my home land. I would walk along Auckland’s waterfront at lunchtime, gazing at the ocean and wondering when I would see black people again. The diversity, the chaos, the vastness, the cacophony, endemic to both India and America, were totally absent Down Under.

When I returned to California in the late eighties, I found a place transformed. The ethnic era had arrived. Women had formed al liances. Indian writers were getting published. Indian music was becoming chic. Assimilation was out; identity politics was in. I had missed the boat. I felt alienated, belonging neither to the Indian community which I had shunned for its materialism, nor to my white American classmates whose lives had suddenly transformed once they had kids. My hippie, liberal, progressive classmates had overnight turned into over-protective, over-achieving parents of perfect children. Again, my children, my British husband and I, did not belong.

So I found a voice. In my writing. On a lark, I sent an op-ed piece to the Daily Review, which was then a part of the Alameda group of newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, the Valley Times, and other publications. I began to get letters and voicemails from Indians saying how thrilled they were to see an Indian presence in American newspapers. I began to air commentaries on KQED radio. I had found a perfect window of time, those fifteen minutes when a first generation Indian with some talent and some pizzazz could find fame.

Soon, the kids would overtake us, but back then, there were no Indian journalists in America. Yet the media longed for immigrant voices, particularly immigrant women’s voices. I had no formal journalistic background but I had the nerve to think I had something important to say. And the audience, Indians and Americans alike, agreed.

On a lark I sent a short story to India Currents. Arvind Kumar, the editor then, hand-wrote me a note saying, “Sarita, you have wonderful talent.” He recommended me for the first ever anthology of fiction and poetry by South Asians, titled Living in America. I had never heard of South Asia but apparently now I belonged to it. The anthology included Chitra Divakaruni, Minal Hajratwala, and others. At a gathering in celebration of our book, I finally ran into Arvind Kumar. “So you are Sarita,” he exclaimed. He urged me to send him the columns I was writing for the Tribune. I obliged, but not enthusiastically. My sights were set higher then; I wanted to write for NPR, for Salon, for the New York Times.

Little did I realize that my articles would find me a way into the community I had long lost. Unbeknownst to me, I had nurtured a secret fan base. Housewives, divorcees, young women, began to write me their life stories. Their letters were full of adoration, love, and solidarity. “We admire your courage to confront the thorny issues in our culture,” they wrote. Even as I received hate mail from some Indian men who felt threatened by my critique of our society, the women urged me to soldier on, for their sakes.

They could not voice their angst, but I could.

Nineteen ninety-eight was a seminal year. I gave readings from the anthology around the Bay Area. I appeared at the Asian Art Museum’s fiftieth anniversary exhibit and celebration in honor of India’s Independence. I received an award from the Pacific News Service (PNS) for the best commentary in ethnic media. I did not even know I was in the running.

At the gala, I received my award from Belva Davis. In my speech, when I confessed to having been labeled a phatkal (a derogatory term in Marathi meaning an outspoken woman) since childhood, a female local TV anchor who shared the stage with me said, “Don’t stop speaking your mind.”

Sandy Close invited me to write columns for PNS. Was I really a columnist? I wondered. I had only taken one class in nonfiction, in Auckland New Zealand, and that too on magazine writing. So when, on the morning after India’s nuclear test, Sandy called me to ask me for an op-ed piece, I was stunned. Could I really deliver? Was I a real journalist? I wrote the essay from the perspective of a physicist and recipient of an Indian Atomic Energy Commission fellowship, a fact Sandy did not even know about, in two hours.

The column made into innumerable mainstream publications, including Salon. I aired an audio version of the piece on NPR’s All Things Considered.

I had become a real writer. What was ironic was that in a way, it had all been possible because of the very Indian community that I had felt so marginalized by. It occurred to me then that there were two Indian communities. One was frozen in time, preserving India of its memory even as the real India moved on, ever resilient, diverse, and welcoming of change. The other was made of people who wanted to change the caste, gender, and economic hierarchies of our culture and society. I had found a nerve in the latter. I was essential to this other India. I could not abandon what I had started. So I kept writing. I felt an obligation to a people, a community, a movement. I saw myself mirrored in this new community. As I changed, the community changed too.

Half way through the new decade of the new millennium, another big transformation took place. The second generation usurped us. Suddenly, we had Indian American journalists on the News Hour and on CNN. We had an Indian Pulitzer Prize winner. The kids had broken out of their parents’ mold of showing off video cameras and Ivy League educations to volunteering in South America and joining social reform movements of their native country they scarcely knew.

Would it have happened without people like me, who paved the way? Perhaps not. Even as I wistfully hand the baton to the younger generation, I feel both vindicated and envious. Vindicated because many of my attitudes and opinions have been adopted by the children of my friends. Envious because I have become the old guard.

If the Indian-American community today is more egalitarian and socially enlightened and less materialistic, it is due in no small measure to people like me who set the stage.

Twenty, thirty years from now, as another generation takes the helm, we will look back and reminisce about that golden era when Americans first stopped asking us about sacred cows, snake charmers, and untouchables, and began to ask us our opinions about American society, culture, and politics.

And I will feel vindicated and proud that I witnessed the hour when, in the words of Nehru, “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

But at this solemn moment, when Indians at home and abroad are doing so very well, we must not forget that, as Nehru said, “our work has just begun. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity… Are we brave enough… ….accept the challenge of the future? Freedom and power bring responsibility… The service of India means, the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity. The ambition of the greatest man of our generation has been to wipe every tear from every eye … as long as there are tears and suffering … our work will not be over.”

I, for one, no longer worry about who welcomes me in their homes, but who will join me in speaking up against the evils that still persist in our society.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit

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