Naan yaar Naan yaar Naan yaar….(aka Who am I?)

This post is dedicated to all the souls who’ve lost their identities.  Who don’t know who they are or where they belong.

I am lost – on many levels.  Let’s start with my name.  My family calls me Latha.  My in-laws and husband’s family calls me Srilatha.  Several of my friends call me Sri.  My kids call me Satan, Damien (after the evil character in the Omen series – my daughter has this for me on her cell), maa (mostly by my son), amma, mom, dawg (this from my daughter when she really wants something and wants me to think she thinks I’m cool).

My husband calls me….nothing!  for some strange reason, he doesn’t call me by name (nor I him).  I don’t know what our problem is.  We’ve lived together for 20 years not calling each other by name.  I am not holding my breath it’ll happen anytime soon.   (yes I cannot get through an entry without bringing up something about you!)

It’s strange because before we were married, he used to call me by my initials (JS) and I by his name.

With the Americans, it’s a different story.   You’d think Srilatha is a fairly easy name.  Wrong.  I was called sri-laah-thaa or worse, Sri-lay-tha – by pretty much everyone here for so long that I started telling everyone to call me “Sri”.  Fair enough.   That seemed to fix the problem.

I had a client who always called me SriLanka – like the country. Didn’t blink, pause or hesitate.  Confidently called me that every time we spoke on the phone.  I never had the chance to correct her because a call from her always meant some fire had to be put out.  And I wasn’t going to be picky about how she said my name.   

If that sums up all the names I was called verbally, the written form of my name has seen even more mutilations.

 Frilatha (yeah right), Sriladhy (hey who’re you calling lady?), and the ever-popular Srilaytha to name a few. 

As if all this is not enough, I recently got an American Express card from Costco which was all fancy and everything.  But every time I use it, I get asked for my id.  Why? Because it has a picture of a white woman on it.  Yes.  A white woman.  So everywhere I go, I give the card – they look at it, do a double-take, look at me and ask to see an id.  It was amusing the first 2 times.  Now I tell them when I hand them the card  – “I know – that nice looking lady on the card is not me – and I’m not an identify thief, I didn’t steal her card.  It’s a mistake by Costco – here’s my driver’s license”.

But wait…this post is not just about my name.  although I could go on about it.  It’s also about my ‘cultural’ identity.   I don’t know if all NRIs feel this way – like they belong nowhere and everywhere at the same time. 

To my American friends, I am Indian.  How much ever I assimilate, I have too much Indian in me to be an American.  My kids,  yes.   They have no trace of an accent,  no tell-tale signs. 

To the desis on the other hand, I am too westernized – I am not one of them. 

And truthfully, I don’t know if I really fit in with the Indians back home anymore.  I, with the rest of the desi diaspora, am forever locked into that frozen state of desihood we were in whenever we left home to make this country our home.  My Indian values have not changed for the most part – but I’ve adopted some American values.  India as I knew her 20 years ago, doesn’t exist anymore.  India has moved on, whereas I have not. 

And then I have these moments when my brain plays tricks on me – and I’ve noticed other people going through this phenemenon too.   Once, I was sitting in a van with my friend Suneeta, outside an Indian restaurant, waiting for my husband to come back from the Indian store, and we were just people-watching.  We saw a number of Americans entering the restaurant and I said “ Look at all the foreigners going into that restaurant”.  It wasn’t until my friend started to crack up that I realized what I’d said.  For one brief moment, I was in India while in America.  It was the weirdest feeling!

A frequent conversation that I have with a friend is about where do we really fit in anymore.    Or do we fit in anywhere? Sometimes it makes me sad, but most days I think I’m okay with not knowing.  Or knowing I belong to a new breed – a curious mix of frozen-desi and 1st generation immigrant.   And then there are days I really crave the sights, the sounds and the bustle of Madras.  All it takes is the smell of jasmine, an old song, or an old movie.  Days when I really question our decision to live here and raise our children here.

I am curious to know what people back home feel.  Do folks who have relatives abroad feel differently from those who don’t?  I am also curious to know how NRIs who returned back home feel. 

To finish this post off, here’s an old song from the movie “Kudiyiruntha Kovil” that more or less aptly describes how I feel – I warned you that I’m a big fan of MGR.   And yes, the crazy MGR is the one I feel like most days.  I bet I can find a song for every emotion/topic in an old Tamil movie.

In spite of the over the top acting by MGR, I love this movie and all the songs.  This is also a favorite of my son, 16, born and brought up in the US.  He calls it the ‘twin thief’ movie.  His other all-time fav Indian movie is Sholay. My daughter’s being “kannathil muthamittal” and “Alai Paayuthe”.   They both love dosai, all the street/chaat food, idli, pongal, would kill for puliyotharai and thayir saadam and mango pickle.  I wonder if they’re confused as I am. Happy for the most part, but confused!

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