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She was Indian before it was cool


It was supposed to be a moment of Nirvana, but all I could do was laugh.

The woman before me was chanting "Om" and then a jumble of words in Sanskrit (horribly mispronounced, I might add). The smell of sandalwood-infused incense filled the room. And pictures of the Hindu gods and goddesses, such as Ganesh and Lakshmi, adorned the room.

What, was I in temple again? Only the Hindu priest, or swami, was a skinny blond in Spandex instead of the balding, pot-bellied man with the bare chest and wraparound skirt that always looked like it was about to slip off.

The finale was when she clasped her hands in a prayer position and bowed to the floor. "Namaste," she said, explaining that this meant, "I salute the divine in you."

Hello?! To my parents and their other Indian friends, "namaste" was simply "hello" when they greeted one another at weekly get-togethers.

It was at my first yoga class several years ago that the reality dawned on me.

I was a trend. The new IT factor. Not just me, of course, but my family and culture and all things Indian that I had spent my childhood trying to avoid.

Yes, the years of airing out the curry smell in my house, of deflecting questions about what these multi-armed, elephant-headed gods I worshiped were all about and cringing when my mother wore a sari to parent-teacher conferences were out the door.

Now, Gwen Stefani was wearing a bindi, henna-inspired tattoos were all the rage, Bollywood flicks and inspired music were filtering into the mainstream, and people were quick to compliment my nose ring and Indian clothing, when I dared to wear it.

I wasn't sure how to feel -- flattered and proud that my ethnic heritage was finally incorporated into the Western world or aghast that it was perhaps a misunderstood and fleeting fad.

What a turnaround from my childhood. For most of my life, being the daughter of Indian immigrants, and the first generation of such a small minority, seemed like a liability.

There was the difficulty of pronouncing my name. (It's Sue-MUH-thee, not Timothy, Sympathy, Symmetry, Symphony or the countless other ways it's been twisted and spit out.)

There was the pre-school episode where I spent an hour trying to explain that my least favorite food was pappu, the lentil curry my mother made for dinner every night.

There was my difficult-to-explain Hindu religion and the temple I went to as a child. It was nothing more than a rented room in a community college where we set off the fire alarm every week. (Hindu rituals, called pujas, usually involve fire.)

There was the fact that I didn't celebrate Christmas, so I knew long before my classmates that there was no Santa, a fact that I boldly declared to my friends in the first grade, to their parents' horror.

And there was the race box that I had to check on every standardized test, where the teacher couldn't guide me in whether I had to tick off "Asian / Pacific Islander" or simply "other."

I usually chose "other."

The result was a child who chose competitive Scottish dancing as a hobby (I have shelves of trophies and medals to prove it) and dressed up as an Indian on Halloween.

Now, after more than two decades of shunning my background, here I am: the latest flavor of the day. My friends clamber to come over to try my mother's home-cooked Indian meals. People love to get me into conversations about where in India I am from and whether I've ever been there. (Andhra Pradesh, for the record. Ever heard of it?) And everyone wants to know what kind of wedding I had. (You hear the one about the swami and rabbi in the same room? That was my wedding. That, and four costume changes.)

Of course, in some ways, I'm sad that the secrets I grew up with are now for everyone to share, just another part of the mainstream media and pop culture filtering into every household in America.

My only solace is that I've got the real thing. As for the yoga, I still occasionally go. I just refuse to repeat after the instructor.

It seems slightly sacrilegious but more just silly, and so I suppress my giggles and open my eyes while I watch the instructor and others in my class as they sit in a lotus position, palms up, eyes tightly shut, trying ever so hard to mimic the words my swami spouted out, but rarely with success.


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