As the school year comes to an end, a lot of us will be heading off to our various summer destinations. Many of us will be staying in Durham to take classes, starting that exciting summer internship or heading abroad to participate in a culturally immersive DukeEngage program. I remember last summer: I would stalk my friends on Facebook—a key way to procrastinate studying for my own draining summer class—and see all of their pictures from abroad. The friends I stalked the most were those spending some portion of their summer in India. Inevitably, a picture would pop up of them adorned with Henna, spotted with a bindi on their foreheads or wrapped in a sari.
It was exciting to see my friends exploring my culture and getting a taste of what I grew up with. It was the same excitement I felt when I would share my Indian clothes with my friends at home and whisk them off to events like Holi or Diwali. Or the excitement I had while wrapping 20 of my sister’s bridesmaids up in hot pink saris for her wedding. Indian or not, each one of those ladies looked amazing in their saris, and, for that evening, they were an integral part of the Indian celebration.
It wasn’t until a conversation with two of my friends that I realized that my ability to wear a sari didn’t make me any more “cultured” than my friends on DukeEngage or my sister’s bridesmaids. My friends said that they loved being brought up celebrating Hindu traditions, eating the food and learning the language because it added so much to their childhoods. They even agreed that it would be something that they want to raise their kids with. But, when it came down to the idea of actually passing down what their parents taught them, whether it be the prayers or the traditions, they hesitated. In their eyes, doing the prayers or celebrating traditions without actually knowing or appreciating the significance would just seem superficial.
I tried to push back, saying that our parents tried to instill the meaning behind our traditions in us as well, that continuing these traditions would feel natural to us in time. I eat the food, know the language and wear the clothes…doesn’t that mean I get it? That I get the point? I mean, I wear saris to Indian weddings all the time—it’s one of my favorite things to do. But to be honest, I couldn’t even inform you about the cultural significance of the sari if you asked.
I most likely wouldn’t have been able to tell you about one of the first mentions of the sari in the 5,000 year-old Sanskrit text of the Mahabharata. How Draupadi, the queen of the territory Indraprashta, was kidnapped by a rival king and almost disrobed in his court. But, through the strength of her prayer, she was blessed with an endless sari. As the king attempted to unravel her from the traditional six yard piece of cloth, he was dismayed to find that no matter how much he unraveled her sari, she remained clothed.
I’ve worn a sari countless times to weddings and other cultural events, but I never could have told you that its first mentions were in the Mahabharata or why it’s one of the longest enduring female garments in the world. That bit of background only cost me a Google search and a few clicks. I’ve heard of the Mahabharata from my family time and time again for the past 20 years, but I never took the 20 minutes to actually learn anything about it. I am Indian by birth, but I’ve only taken a few superficial steps to understanding the Indian culture.
At home, it was really easy for me to preserve the “Indian in me” because it was as if my parents were doing it for me. They took me to the temple, they knew when Diwali was, they took me to India, they taught me to speak Hindi and they are the reason I can even begin to identify as an Indian-American. However, when I got to Duke, I had the chance to do exactly as I wished. I could continue on the path of learning more about my culture and my roots like I had for the first 18 years of my life, or I could choose to blend into the mainstream and live without it. Although participating in cultural shows like Awaaz, visiting the Hindu Temple in Cary or playing Holi on Clock-Tower quad can help me stay connected to my culture, I now realize it’s also important for me to understand the significance of these events. There are ways for me to learn about my culture at Duke, however. Whether it be through classes like Indian Civilizations or Hindi helping me complete my Asian and Middle Eastern Studies major or simple conversations with my close friends, I know that I can give myself the chance to discover more about my roots and, in turn, more about me.
Nandita Singh is a Trinity sophomore. Her column runs every other Tuesday.