Before my arrival on my residence hall, I had never felt particularly connected to my ancestral background. My family had been a part of the loose-leaf Indian diaspora and I grew up listening to the music, eating and preparing the food, living and participating in the customs and rituals but never truly identifying any of this as mine.
My arrival on Hall, however, placed the mark of ownership on Indian culture squarely on my shoulders as friends and acquaintances from other islands and areas in the world quickly indexed me in their minds as their quick reference encyclopaedia for all things Indian.
“You were cultured into this, yes?” asked a St. Lucian, admiring my first attempts at a mehndi stain on my palms.
I thought about the question, acknowledging that while it was the first time I had personally tried to apply the artwork myself or have it on my person at all, I had, in fact, been cultured into mehndi. I did, after all, spend my early life around those who routinely practised the artwork, design and application as well as told the stories associated with the patterns and stain intensity.
As I stumbled through an explanation to the best of my ability of the meanings of those intricate patterns I decided to stain on my palms, I was, for perhaps the first time, acutely aware of the culture that was at the same time separating me and drawing me closer to my friends of different backgrounds. I related, to the best of my knowledge, the folk wisdom of the intensity of the mehndi stain reflecting that of your husband’s love and the symbolic meanings of fertility and beauty ascribed to the floral buds decorating my body, never before having imagined that I would one day be the one to teach this to someone else. My children, maybe someday, but I had somehow assumed that in the cosmopolitan melting pot that is Trinidad and Tobago, there would always be someone around more qualified than me for the purposes of such explanations and contextualizations. After all, I didn’t even identify as Hindu and far preferred the title of “Trinbagonian” to that of “Indian”.
I considered myself more West Indian than East Indian, and according to my parents, my speech, dress and musical preferences showed it.
It was at this point of self-discovery that my inner Indian kicked into overdrive. As more members of my Hall requested I reproduce some similar artwork on their own body, frequently asking if it would “work on black people”, I found myself being urged more and more to share what (little) I knew.
I was a Caribbean girl caught in an avalanche of cultural diffusion. This was the result:
A cultural mix, featuring India!
Photo credit: Keyon Mitchell
Photo Credit: Keyon Mitchell
Many of the young women pictured above had never donned traditional Indian wear before or had much familiarity with the food, clothing or customs of my normalized lifestyle.
One by one, the elements came together until clothing were sourced for all who desired it, and the sweets and savouries were prepared almost entirely on Hall by those with a vested interest in learning these aspects of the culture.
It was later, on reflection, that I found the conclusion that my identity didn’t embrace the title “Indian” because I was born with it. Rather, my West Indian soul stretched to accommodate my East Indian body and all the questions it would be asked by persons who expect me to know the answers simply because I should. And they’re right. I should know. I should share. I should be.
My identity is chosen but it should never have chosen to ignore or take for granted the curry leaf too ingrained in my tastebuds for me to realise there are others who have never heard of it or the bindi, now an ornamental splash of colour for someone who has seen it all their life, but with a rich history and ceremonial significance.
It took me a trip to the U.S. to find my Trini accent last year, and it took me a move out of my house to find my family heritage this year.
Peace, love and happy self-discovery,
P.S.: In case you were curious about the Importance of Mehndi in Indian Culture.