The Indian Thing To Do

first_imgIndia is the land of my birth and my childhood. Although I have not visited the country in many years, I cannot seem to escape its grips on my psyche, on the very core of my inner being.It seems to me that even as a young child I inhabited two different worlds – India and America. India was the world I shared mostly with my parents. It centered round the local Indian temple in Queens, New York, where intricate religious rituals mingled with social gatherings and match-making. We participated in an endless litany of social events within Queens’ mostly Punjabi Indian community – birthdays, graduations, weddings, etc. Everyone was an Aunty and Uncle, and all the kids and their parents attended our birthdays.This world included frequent summer vacations in India during lazy, endless days of heat followed by torrential monsoons. Our relatives insisted we stay with them instead of hotels and often there were interfamily disputes among relatives protesting that we had stayed longer with another relative. We shared elaborate meals of vegetable curries, Punjabi paratha, lassi and halva. America was really everything else – my school, college, medical school, and friends. Occasionally, the two worlds intersected; my close school friends were also Indian. But mostly the two worlds seemed very distinct. And when they did intersect they often collided.India and America are two different ways of being. India is about being obedient – the good Indian girl, studious, respectful of elders, honoring family commitments and obligations. America is about being independent, free to think and decide for myself, focused on my own freedom and not my family’s opinion.All my life, I have struggled to reconcile these two worlds, as I am not two countries on a map, but one person. For most of my life, I feel I have followed the path suitable for a “good Indian girl,” respectful of elders, speaking Hindi and attending temple regularly.I attended the best schools and universities, graduated with honors and eventually became a physician. I often wore traditional Indian attire, such as salwar/kameez or sari, and even ended up in an arranged marriage. I tried to be a dutiful, Indian wife, learning to cook, keeping the house clean, respectful of my in-laws and deferential toward my husband.At some level I felt I was doing the proper thing, the right thing, and somehow it seemed it also was the “Indian” thing. From outside, things appeared just fine. At home I handled my household responsibilities, while at work I carried on my duties as a physician with equal ease.But inside my heart a volcano of confusion and conflicts was brewing.When I filed for divorce soon after the birth of my son, it was as if this volcano finally erupted. News spread like wildfire about my divorce, which is often the case in the Indian community. Perhaps this is true in any immigrant community. Certainly this was not the Indian thing to do!I found myself facing a deluge of questions, open-eyed wonder and outright criticism from many of my Indian relatives, friends and acquaintances. Why was I divorcing? What was wrong with me? Why were my parents not stopping me? Why did I not think about this before I had my son? Why did I even have my son if I was only going to file for divorce later? Why was I being so selfish and not thinking about him now? Surely he would suffer immensely, because now he would be from a broken home. I should have really tried harder to make the marriage work. And so forth.There are no easy answers for such questions. And even when I spoke up, it was difficult to convey my points to those who have not lived my experience. So other than confide in my parents and close relatives and friends, I chose to stay silent. As I allowed myself to face all the emotions that usually go with a divorce – fear, sadness, anger and even shame – I also felt in myself a huge sense of relief.For perhaps the first time in my life I listened to my own heart. Finally, the little Indian girl inside me was free to live her life in her own way, not that of her parents or her husband. I would not live in some prescribed “Indian” way, but by the promptings of my soul and my deepest inner wisdom. Finally, it was not about being American or Indian, but doing what felt right for me in my circumstances. I felt the conviction that at the end of the day, at the end of my life, I should have no regrets and harbor no feelings of blame.In a sea of lawyers, judges, courts, divorce agreements and custody arrangements, I was able to feel an inner resolve within me that remained unwavering and steady. However, even today, almost 4 1/2 years after my divorce, I remain very conscious of the stigma associated with divorce in the Indian community. When I speak to an American colleague, acquaintance or friend about my divorce, I feel no inhibition. I am usually greeted with a matter-of-fact acceptance. There is an unspoken acknowledgement that divorce too is part of our social landscape, much like weddings and funerals. But among many Indians, I still feel awkward. I usually don’t even mention it and let them assume that I am still married. For often it is their assumption that if I have a child, I must be married. When I do mention that I am divorced, there is usually an uncomfortable silence that belies a degree of shock coupled with palpable disapproval.My divorce has made me question what it really means to be Indian.Is it Indian to be married and somehow not Indian to be divorced? Is it Indian for a wife to be respectful and devoted to her husband and his family, but somehow completely wrong if she chooses to leave a marriage and file for divorce? Why is it highly prized to be a mother in India, but somehow less desirable if one is single after being divorced?Under Indian traditions, a woman is encouraged to marry and “settle down.” But, a divorcee is damaged goods, somehow less eligible or less worthy for remarriage. And if a divorced woman also has a child, an “issue,” in Indian parlance, should she completely abandon any desire for remarriage and finding happiness? Is it wrong for her to hope that a man can accept and love her along with her child?Such complex questions merit careful, sensitive and responsive considerations, not knee-jerk answers. But that involves wandering into domains of uncertainty and accepting of many shades of grey. I am not espousing divorce as a solution to disagreements that are part-and-parcel of any relationship. But, if after examining all options, a woman chooses to divorce, should not we, as a community, support her with acceptance, tolerance, and an open heart and open mind? Would that not better serve the person going through the divorce, and the child, if one is involved, instead of the judgment, criticism, shame and embarrassment?Is this not the Indian thing to do? Is it not the American thing to do? Really, is it not the human thing to do? Related Itemslast_img

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