Personal Voices: The Girl with the Red Dot

"You look like a Christian girl," my grandmother would sometimes say if she happened to see me leave for school. Like other girls in my class, I wore my blue uniform with its three round, white, plastic buttons and a shield-shaped badge to school. My hair would be tightly braided into two stiff stalks tied up with white ribbons with a satin trim. Some of my friends who went to other schools would occasionally wear a bindi or bangles, while I displayed a curiously blank forehead and arms at all times because I went to a convent school. My mother chose to send me to an all-girls school run by gentle nuns in this then sleepy suburb of Bombay. She hoped that I would turn into a polite and polished young woman, much like an admired childhood friend of hers.

I don't know if my convent school education turned me into the person my mother had envisioned, but I certainly knew that I stood out among my peers, the good little Hindu girls in the Bombay of the 70s. First, I had a good command of the English language; second, I turned into an outspoken tomboy, much to the consternation of my mother. While my brothers recited Sanskrit shlokas (prayers) at assembly, I knew the Lord's Prayer by heart. On a daily basis, I did not miss wearing the bindi. In fact, it was one less item to keep track off in the hectic morning routine. While I secretly rejoiced at the knowledge that my bare forehead caused grief to my grandmother -- with whom I had a tumultuous relationship -- I secretly harbored the feminine wish to sport jewelry or flowers in my hair.
By calling me "Christian", my grandmother was not being disrespectful towards Christians, but merely commenting about my lack of conformity to the traditional ways of dressing. In a country where you don't generally see racial differences, my appearance and choice of accessories were my identity. As a traditional woman and a widow herself, my grandmother acutely missed the trappings and the attendant respect granted to married woman in Indian society; the prominent bindi, the twinkling string of black and gold beads around her neck, the glass bangles that clinked musically as she completed her household chores.

I was free of the rigid dress code once I graduated from school but the college years are just a blurred memory. The days passed in a haze of classes, labs and exams, weighed down by the stress of doing well, a burden familiar to children of all middle class families whose only inheritance is a good education. The thought of how much my clothes, bindis and bangles contributed to my identity did not seem important enough to register in my overloaded teenage brain.

Fate brought me a husband who lived in America and that is how I found myself in graduate school one day; a newly-wed with colorful glass bangles, an embroidered cotton salwar kameez and Nike sneakers. There were several other Indians in the department and it did not strike me as odd that I was the only one who showed up for the 8 a.m. classes mostly in jeans, sometimes in a kurta but always with a bindi. I sensed that I stood out but I was comfortable with my appearance and so was everyone who saw me. With all the other Indian faces on campus, I was easy to identify as the "girl with the red dot." I got the usual questions about the significance of the dot. More often, I was asked about the material that it was made of, whether it was a tattoo or some permanent marking. Most questions were asked in good faith, with genuine curiosity just as I asked my African-American colleagues about the procedure used for straightening their curly hair.

Given my fiery relationship with my grandmother, and my rebellious nature, I wonder what made me define my identity in such an obvious manner so far away from home. Was it because I had left behind everything and everyone that was familiar and chose to cling to tradition as a way of connecting with the past? Was it in deference to my grandmother who passed away the same month that I boarded my plane to the US? Was it to please my new husband with my Indianness?

Identity is an elusive concept, neither static nor dynamic. The dictionary defines it as "exact likeness in nature or qualities." A large part of our identity is inherited, whether it is language or lineage that stays with us in our body, in our manners, in our attitudes. It is this sameness that makes us feel that we belong, whether it is with our family (you look just like your mother) or the larger community (your accent is so distinct). This is why Indians make friends selectively with other Indians, celebrate Indian festivals and give Indian names to their children. Is identity a static object then, rooted in the past, in the familiar, in a sense of belonging to a group?

But don't we also grow through life trying to develop a separate identity, something that defines us uniquely? No wonder then that identity is also defined as "the condition of being oneself (or itself) and not another." As children grow up and away from the parents, each step, each milestone is an effort to forge a separate personality, a distinct self. For immigrants who move to a country that is very different from their place of origin, trying to fit in by dressing like the locals, by picking up nuances of speech, of gestures is another attempt at blending in with the majority, to demonstrate a willingness to change. Is identity dynamic then? Like water, you take the shape of the container.

These points of view still do not address my original question of what made me decide to dress the way I did. Perhaps I wanted to look different, to make a bold, visual statement "Here, I am Indian, make what you will out of it." I stood apart in America by doing precisely what makes me merge with the millions in India. The fact that I am offered the freedom to do so, to dress as I please, is something that I took for granted. My choice of clothes was less of an indication of my cultural identity but more of an expression of my individual personality. It was my innate rebellious core that made me pick this path. Identity need not always be in the context of community. It is, after all, an assertion of individual choice over societal norms and expectations. Perhaps, identity is more like Jell-O than water; it can take any shape but maintains an inherent strength.

As one who has lived in America, my identity may irrevocably be linked to my Indianness but my metaphors can certainly be American!

Essays by Ranjani Nellore have appeared on Pacific News Service and India Currents.

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