Dear Chook-Chook (A Letter To My Daughter)
I know you wanted to have an ‘Australian’ dinner last night. You were tired at the end of a school week, and Year 1 must seem a lot harder than Prep. But I insisted that we eat ‘Indian’. We quarreled and I prevailed by arguing—perhaps unreasonably—that if you wanted an ‘Australian’ dinner, you could find yourself an ‘Australian’ Mummy.
The truth is that I love Indian food. Not because I think it is superior to other cuisines, but it is my one strong connection to the culture that once dominated my life. It is my one unbreakable connection to my mother, who through our itinerant life together, always ensured there was a fragrant, home-cooked meal of lentils, vegetables and Indian bread waiting for me at the end of the day.
In my own inept way, I want to pass that connection on to you.
Because I am not sure what else of your Indian ancestry I am really handing down to you.
Your dad and I don’t speak Hindi at home. We tried, but as a second generation Indian, your dad’s Hindi is scratchy. And after nearly a decade outside of India, I too find English rolling off my tongue more naturally than Hindi.
We wish we celebrated Diwali with more zeal as a family. But the zest of festivals truly arises from the collective energy of a community celebrating it. The exuberance of Diwali lies in neighbourhoods coming together to light up the houses, bursting firecrackers and exchanging sweets. As the only house lit up in candles, our house looks more forlorn than joyous to me on a Diwali night. I wonder if it feels the same way to you.
My wardrobe wouldn’t give you any more clues to my Indian culture either. Here I need to be honest. I never quite feel like myself in the intricate, fussy Indian saris and attire. I didn’t in India, and I don’t here in Melbourne. I may put them on out of a sense of obligation on Indian occasions but it is with immense relief that I pack them away in the furthest corners of my wardrobe soon after.
Our friends are an equal mix of Indians and non-Indians of all races. But the thing that binds them is that they identify more with a global cosmopolitanism than any particular culture, Indian or otherwise.
I know there is a part of you that wonders who you truly are.
As a three-year-old, you once suddenly said to your father: “Papa, you are brown.” And he gently took you to mirror and stood beside you as said, “Yes Chook-Chook, and so are you.” The answer seemed to satisfy you then. But there will be times when it won’t and you’ll wish you were whiter, lighter and eating ‘Australian’ for dinner (though I am not even sure what that means, and you wouldn’t either).
You’ll struggle through those challenges alone. Because as much as I love you, I know the search for our true authentic self is a journey we have to undertake on our own. My mother couldn’t really help me, and I know I will not be able to either.
But my mother ensured that no matter what the struggles of the day might have been, there was always the joy of a hot, freshly-cooked Indian meal at night. And it became my security blanket long after I left home. There were no miseries that couldn’t be washed away by a fresh home-cooked curry.
And in my own inept way, I want to pass on this gift to you.