“I don’t feel Tamil enough”: In search of culture

Are our children growing up without the many cultural traditions we enjoyed as children? And is that a problem?

At first glance, it was not a difficult task as far as school assignments go. For a module on culture in her English class, my 16-year-old had to take in an artifact that stood for a group with which she strongly identified. It could be an item of clothing, a dish, a book, a website or anything else that represented this cultural group.

Many of her classmates seemed to find it easy to zero in on something. A girl with a Mexican mother and American father brought in a plate of tacos and apple pie, quintessential food symbols of her parents’ home countries. Another displayed a clock with different time zones to show how often she’d had moved around in her life so far. She really identified with that nomadic lifestyle. But as my daughter grappled with her choices, she came to a sinking realisation: “I don’t feel Tamilian enough,” she complained, shooting me an accusing look.

family in prague (1)Selfie time: Sangita Srinivasa with her husband and kids

This was interesting, given that both my husband and I are Tamilians. We had not grown up entirely in the South but we were definitely in touch with that part of our identities. We were Tamilian enough to recognise that tiffin can be a huge meal but never a real one (no rice, duh!). To know that resistance to lengthy homams is usually futile. To effortlessly eat runny rasam rice using our fingers (and some more). To accept heavy silks, flower garlands and hot summer ceremonies as a wedding rite of passage. To know how to hand-tap and head-nod to MS Subbalakshmi’s ‘Suprabhatham’. 

But our three kids were born in another country and, now having lugged them back to the motherland, it seemed that those cultural ties that bind were slackening and, although it had never bothered us so far, I wondered now if we were doing them a disservice.

There was a lot of room for second-guessing our particular brand of free-form parenting. Should we have helped them become really fluent in Tamil? Should we have transformed, as a family, into rabid Rajni fans? Should we have postponed our agnosticism by a few years and kept them in touch with various religious traditions and holidays? Yes, we celebrated ‘Deebavali’ (as we Tamilians like to call it) but the Krishna Jayanthis and Karthigais of the calendar passed us by without so much as a token lit lamp from our end.

After talking to another friend about this, I realised that I was not the only one agonising about a lack of cultural immersion for our kids. Having grown up in a certain way, many parents (possibly more moms) of teen and tween age children such as myself wonder if we are diluting what our parents gave us; maybe our kids are not exposed to the same richness of traditions involving food, festivals and more that we enjoyed. Never mind if those traditions were not always easy, necessary or straightforward. With our own childhoods coloured by the healthy pink of nostalgia, we worry that we are raising a lost generation – culturally adrift and doomed to social media addiction and binge watching TV shows.

But I am not sure that this worry is really warranted. I think we may be confusing two things here. On the one hand, what we term as culture actually has to do with rootedness and with learning more about the generations that came before us. I think we can still enable that for our kids through conversations and time spent with grandparents. In the seven years since we moved back to India, the kids have seen more of their grandparents than they could ever have hoped for in the US. The bonds that have developed as a result are stronger and have grown on their own terms, having nothing to do with us or our personal equations with our parents. That, to me, is special, and I hope that the effects of these ties will remain with them for the rest of their lives. For now, this interaction – and some of the stories from the past that have come out of it – is priceless and has given the kids a greater sense for their roots. Minus the fire, smoke and other trappings of religious celebrations, it has still been a cultural transmission of sorts.

fam in berlin (1)

But ultimately, I think, it is their own set of life experiences, interests and values that will shape their sense of identity. Whether it involves dance, writing, a sport, a social cause or a transatlantic move, all of this goes into creating the skin that a young individual eventually becomes comfortable in. 

My daughter had this aha moment when she realised that, as a committed vegan, she connected most with the animal lovers of the world. Her cultural artifact was a quote about animal rights that she found online and that was attributed (possibly wrongly) to the author Alice Walker. She used the rest of her presentation to explain why it mattered to her and why she felt a strong sense of belonging in this community of soy-loving and leather-shunning activists.

She got an A on her presentation. And I felt a little less guilty about not setting up an elaborate golu display at home for Navratri this year.