Remnants and Roots

Remnants of the past were gathered in the musty, dark, room, draped under cotton sheets with block printed patterns and faded from the sun. I visit this room once a year when I make the 20-hour journey to India to visit my extended family and reconnect with my heritage. This room, the basement in my grandma’s house, always seems to play a pivotal role in the ‘reconnection’ part of my trips.  

Many of my friends know very well where they come from. They see their grandparents every weekend or month or holiday and know all their cousins, aunts, and uncles well. Some of them even complain that their grandparents are coming over— to me, such grievances are a foreign concept, because I only see mine once a year, for two weeks or less. These kids also seem to have a firm grasp of their roots. Their origin. Home. Being so far from family has played a significant role in how I’ve turned out so far as a 15-year-old girl. I’ve always had a connection to India, don’t get me wrong. I know, just by looking at myself, oh. I’m Indian. It’s almost obvious: brown skin, black hair, brown eyes. I know that my parents lived in India and the majority of my extended family lives there as well. But that, precisely, is the issue. What exactly does it mean to be Indian? It’s not just skin-deep. Brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes aren’t it— that’s common to thousands of ethnicities. Living in India isn’t it either. If that was it, I wouldn't answer “New York City” when people ask where I’m from. Seeing family and people in generations behind you on a regular basis seems to help ground you. It gives you a sense of where you’re from— after all, if a tree’s roots are right underneath the tree itself, they’re much more effective than if the roots of a tree were 7,854 miles away from the tree.

My sense of belonging, home, place— it wobbles, like a tree whose roots are 7,854 miles away. I have my parents here, who speak Hindi at home. My parents make a tremendous effort to grow roots for us so our trees don’t tip over, including going to the Hindu temple (obviously Hinduism doesn’t define India, but it’s essential in my parent’s version of India and culture) and celebrating all the Hindu holidays at home, as well as having tons of Indian and desi friends, so we have as much cultural exposure as possible. These efforts have kept my tree from toppling, and just keep me at a wobble. Nothing can make up for being somewhere where almost everyone is so fundamentally different than you in terms of both looks and heritage, and the culture is so different than the culture presented to you at home.

For this reason, remnants of my family’s past, both here in my New York apartment and in my grandparent’s house, are incredibly important in reducing the steady wobble of my identity tree to the occasional shake. My grandma’s basement, which I again visited this summer, helps transport my roots from India to New York, back to me. Seeing my mom’s old books, with their yellowing, brittle pages, and my grandfather’s hundreds upon hundreds of books seems to orient me. It gives me a sense of oh, this is where I come from. I discovered, after exploring the books, that I get my love of reading from my mother and grandfather— we even share a love for Agatha Christie books. While my grandfather was alive until I was 13, my time with him was limited to my two weeks in Jaipur. We couldn’t really ever get to know each other on the level that my friends who see their grandparents often do. Looking at all of his old books unraveled another layer of him— sharing the same taste in books brings about a more familial sense to our relationship. That may seem rudimentary, sharing a taste in books, but to me, it’s everything.

The reason I call the books, old posters, hanging naked light bulb, and faded cotton print fabrics ‘remnants’ is that they’re buried and hidden behind things of the present. It’s almost a treasure hunt in finding these things. There’s a bike, shiny and new, modern camera equipment, and even more things of today and not then hiding these things. One by one, these things, survivors of reorganization and purging of items, become like ceramic pots from ancient Assyria; we have to excavate them, hunt for them, put them together, and figure out what they are. The basement is like an excavation site. You have to hunt for the remnants of the past, and when you find them, they’re priceless.

My mother hunted around her house and my father’s house, and using all the photos she found, put together photo albums of her childhood and my father's childhood, and their early life together. Like the basement, this is a priceless vault of treasure. When I was younger and people brought their grandparents into school for Grandparents Day, I used to sit and look through the albums, trying to find similarities between my face and my relatives’ faces like the ones I saw in the mannerisms and appearances of my friends at school and their grandparents. I looked to those books to learn about my mother’s and my father’s childhood and I always used to ask myself, what would my life be like if I lived in India? If my parents had moved back? If my parents never came here? What would I be if I was normal? To me, normal meant being blonde and pale-skinned, lacking thick glasses, having pretty long hair, and above all, visiting family on weekends. Looking back, it’s actually quite sad that this was my perception of normal. As we all know by now (or should know), normal means absolutely nothing. No one is normal or abnormal, but I was taught to think that my identity tree’s steady wobble meant I was different. Again, this priceless collection of photos stabilized my metaphorical tree, and I believe it has helped shape me into who I am today.

Roots and remnants are two very important yet fundamentally different things. The remnants of my family’s past have shown me that it’s not just my mom who has a ‘mandir’ at home and in my mind, normalized all of my Indian and Hindu traditions. My roots, my family—photos and documentation of them helped ease my feeling of having no origin. No place which I could call home. Even though I wasn’t born in America, I moved here at a very young age from Japan, where my father was working, so people don’t consider me a stereotypical immigrant given that I’ve lived here almost my whole life. Instead, they’ve often told me that my voice and perspective don’t belong in the immigrant community. I agree on a certain level. I’m not simply someone who grew up in a different country and then moved here. But where does that leave me? I’m still a girl torn between two countries. I’m still Isha Chirimar, born in Japan, from India, but living in New York City. It’s not as simple as, “Hi, I’m Isha and I’m American.” “Hi, I’m Isha, and I’m Indian.” I’m simply not one or the other. If I say I’m American, people always look at me funny and say no, I mean where are you really from? And if I say Indian, I don’t sound Indian enough, and people ask where’s your bindi and bangles? Your English is so good! But I don’t hear an accent? Are your parents marrying you off? You’re going to be a doctor, right? Frankly, this is extremely tiring in both the assumption of stereotypes which I try to avoid and how people simply don’t believe I’m American. If someone has a firm grasp on their identity, they should let others be free to create their own identity.

As of now, I have not quite developed a solution to this problem which satisfies me and represents what I feel my identity as an Indian girl living in New York City and satisfies other people. I hope that one day I’ll have an answer to this question of ‘who I am and where I’m from’—but for now, I look to my roots and the remnants of my past.

By Isha Chirimar

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