Maya Jain | February 9, 2018
My father recently arrived home from India with a tired smile on his face and a slim package tucked under his arm. “Here,” he said, offering me the grey-brown envelope as he walked through the door. “I brought these back from Delhi.”
My curiosity piqued, I grabbed the package and emptied its contents onto the kitchen counter. Inside was a bright yellow binder full of photos of our extended family spanning the last century, most of them prints I had never seen before. Wide-eyed, I pored over the shots of my elder cousins as squirming young children, grainy depictions of sari-clad relatives arranged carefully in chairs, and even a nearly unbelievable still of my grandfather in the same frame as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
I was glued to the pages. I am a diaspora child, a half-Indian born and raised in the U.S. thanks to the life that my father built on sweat and sacrifice — living thousands of miles from his home country not the least of those sacrifices. As I’ve grown, I’ve striven to acquire a taste for the ancestral culture that I so desperately long to know yet can never fully belong to. Even with visits to family in New Delhi every few years (followed, of course, by ambitious campaigns to watch Bollywood music videos without subtitles and stints of wearing salwar kameez to Mass), my tongue still stumbles over non-native Hindi syllables and goes numb from masala too hot for my weak American taste buds. I savor whatever bits of my Indian heritage I can, and these photos were sating my deep hunger to touch my roots.
My gaze settled on a black-and-white portrait of my grandmother, Shakuntala Mithal, bejeweled and breathtaking on her wedding day at just 19 years old. Her adornments gleamed in the camera flash, but her eyes flamed even brighter. It was her look — the one she would flash at people from underneath her thick arched eyebrows with characteristic defiant fire. She would fix it on someone for a few seconds, studying them intently, sizing them up and figuring out their stance, their ambitions, their everything — and learning in the process how to get them to see things her way. It was the look of a woman who had shirked convention time and again, be it by refusing to get her nose pierced as a girl of 13 or by lying down across thresholds of British textile shops to boycott the cloth and protest colonial rule (pinching the heels of anyone who dared to step over her, of course). It was the look of a woman who had said, “Fine, I’ll marry, but only if he’s brilliant,” a decree that had brought her to the very day the photo was taken as she wed a surgeon and professor who fit the bill.