Memory is an interesting thing. I only have a handful of proper memories of my dad. One involved fireworks, I think it was Diwali or July 4 or some such. I have this image of my dad holding a long cylindrical firework. The fuse is burning while he’s holding it, and I’m worried that it’s going to explode. Then all of a sudden, he throws it way way up in the air, to the kind of stratospheric height that only your father can throw it if you’re 4 years old.
So it goes way way up in the air and then explodes into color.
When you’re young and an immigrant, it takes a little while before you realize you’re doing everything as a qualified-American. Qualified as Indian-American. (and only later do you start worrying about what it means to be an authentic Indian-American, if such a thing even exists.)
Christmas was not a religious occasion, but a chance for us to be Americans. The story I’ve been told is that in their early years here, my mother Susheela wanted to celebrate Christmas, she bought my sister a cylinder of Lego and my dad a tie. It didn’t go over so well. My dad, the frugal Marwari bania that he was, scolded her for wasting money on such frivolous things. But I think, and maybe there’s a version of this story that goes like this, he questioned the necessity of celebrating Christmas. Maybe he was afraid that he was losing something if we started celebrating Christmas. “We’re Indians,” he says, “we don’t celebrate Christmas.” “Yes but,” my mother responds in my mind, “we’re Indians in America.”
By the time I came along, the Christmas question was settled, and it was a rare occasion for getting vast amounts of presents.
So there’s that tension between wanting to embrace America and fit in, to not be the funny kid at school, and wanting to preserve some kind of culture. For me it was to understand what I saw when I looked in the mirror, the right way to pronounce my name, and the meaning of all of that.
There were both Indian and American holidays that we celebrated as kids. There was Rakhi, Holi, Diwali, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas. Much better writers and thinkers have captured the experience of being Indian-American.
But I’ll tell you this, at that age everything falls on the spectrum of experience. There are no Indian holidays and American holidays, at least not until you get a little older and start wondering about what you see in the mirror. When you got older you learned about the significance of July 4th and the American experiment, and this history of immigration and genocide that this country was founded upon. Later you looked at your textbooks with a sense of awe and continuity, thinking about the first settlers of this country, the later settlers like my Dad and Mom. You think about democracy and equality and justice, and not having parents you imagine what and why and the exact texture of their experience, the reasons they decided to participate in the experiment. Could they have imagined?
But as a kid, they were just holidays. With fireworks. And at least once—maybe it was Diwali, maybe it was Independence Day—my dad tossed one way way up in the air as it exploded.