An eight year old girl resists dressing up in the special Indian dress her mother has bought her on Multicultural Day. Thirty years later as a grown woman who is devoted to her Hindi faith, she reflects on why.
So I’m eight and its’ multicultural day at my small country Australian primary school and I’m up in arms at my mum’s enthusiasm at dressing me as a gorgeous little Indian girl for my school’s first ever multicultural day parade. Now my school is really small,maybe 300 kids, and the notices and the flyers that talk about the day and the celebrations have been going home in our school bags for weeks. This is because it’s 1985 and ain 1985 multiculturalism is huge and even though we’re kids we understand that. You know the parents are excited and the teachers are excited and there’s this fervour around the day that feels really unique. You know, we’ve got the Easter Bonnet Parade and it’s super fun, but the Easter Bonnet Parade happens every year. But this Multicultural Day, this is something new. So alongside the flyers and the notices there’s a lot of talk in the classroom and all of this talk centres around the day’s meaning.
So, what is Multicultural Day about? Well it’s about different people, obviously. People, you know, who are different to us and it’s about us celebrating these people and the places from where they come. And how we’re going to do this is by clothing and flags to represent differences and it’s accelerated and enlivened by the fact that the teachers are allocating for us students which national dress we get to wear. Now the reason for this is that my classroom like most of the school is filled with hopeful little white faces. Given that multiculturalism is about diversity and that being white in 1985 really just means being Australian, then it makes sense that the teachers would get a hand in to widen the cultural circle just, you know, to really capture the spirit of the day. So it’s in the spirit of the day that the teachers will tell us what dress we get to wear, what flag we get to hold and who we can pretend to be. Now those decisions are made and we all start planning our costumes like crazy. So my best friend Samantha scored Holland and she comes as the little Dutch girl with the clogs and the skirt and the black apron over a white Peter Pan shirt collar and she’s carrying a bunch of tulips. And then tall, skinny Rebecca comes from Scotland and she’s got the black beret and the red skivvy. Remember skivvies? And red tights and these polished black shoes and this cute little tartan skirt. And then chubby, blond Aaron gets Greece and he comes in this kind of Tom Sawyeresque shipwreck costume which is totally random but then he carries a plate of Greek salad which is absolutely on message. For the Indigenous Australians they choose as bunch of blond-haired surf grommets, chiefly because they don’t mind parading around with their shirts off. They wear sheepskin rugs around their board shorts and carry sticks as spears and smear their faces and chests with mud and dirt. Now my other friend, Kayvaleh, she wins the battle to join me over in team India.
Now my white-skinned, red-haired Australian mother is totally over the moon about this day and what she’s super excited bout is creating an Indian costume for me to walk the parade. This totally makes sense because not only is mum glamorous and beautiful and into makeup and jewellry ‘and costume but she’s a fashion designer. And not only is she a fashion designer, but she’s married to my dad who is also a fashion designer. And not only is he a fashion designer but he’s 100% Indian. So mum and dad met in New Delhi in the 70s. Mum is of Welsh and English stock and dad’s Kashmiri. They were both fashion designers at the time and and were just the archetype of the cross-cultural glamorous couple. Mum was lithe and tall and had this penchant for see-through clothing and she always went bra-less. She had these great red lips and paisley scarves around her head. And dad was striking. He’s very thin with this bouyant black Afro and if he wasn’t in traditional Kurta pyjamas he was rocking some kickass two piece velvet suit. So this is my parents. You know they smoked hash. They knew the Jaggers. India was in. Hippy was it and they were at world, acid-dropping epicentre.
You know, exoticism clung to them like incense. By 1985 they had all tuned down a little bit but still our house on top of the hill in Torquay on the southwest coast of Victoria, existed as a nation unto itself. Dad being Indian was this really loud and argumentative talker and all of my friends were terrified to come over and stay because they always felt like he was angry. Our house smelt like spices, we ate really strong-tasting food. We ate with our hands off plates, off mats on the floor, and when mum would make aloo and sal and subzis my brothers and I would fight over the marrow bone because then we’d get to dig it out with these specially designed sticks. And all our friends would just totally gross out. Pink Floyd blared out from the stereo. There were these loud and frequent phone calls to India. Every wall was hung with these beautiful intricate of tapestries of collages of Hindu deities. Gods and gurus were part of our everyday conversation. And when my umi, my Kashmiri grandmother, would come to stay for months on end, all this Indianess would ratchet up another notch.
Now at eight, I’m totally comfortable with this. And more than comfortable, I absolutely love it. My dad has this beautiful arrogance about Kashmiri Brahmin culture. It’s ancient. It’s sophisticated, its special and it complex. And he passed that grace of self-belief onto me and my two brothers. I’m his daughter and I’m Indian. I’m Indian in my ordinary tracksuit pants, I am Indian in my skin and I’m Indian right down to my bones. So when my mum is getting so excited about designing this Indian costume for me, I feel myself feeling really confused. And I know it’s her enthusiasm that’s the cause of all my angst because there’s nothing else about the day that bothers me. You know I don’t mind that other kids get their nationalities assigned and I have mine presumed because I’m Indian. How else am I going to dress? You know I don’t even mind that Multicultural Day is about difference because it’s clear to me that I’m different. I have my home life to illustrate that and even if I didn’t know, I’m really in love with this thing. Of this thing of me being in my Aussie life, in my Aussie school with my Aussie friends, and just knowing that whole time that I hold inside myself the place where I feel that I belong. I guess what I mind is that when she talks about this costume, it’s not that I feel like a doll but that I feel like a mannequin.
You know, in Torquay, I wear tracksuit pants and surf-shop Tshirts and when I’m home in New Delhi I wear much the same. You know, although if family occasion calls for it, I can be convinced to throw on a cotton salwar kameez. So when she talks about this costume, this silver and fuschia lehenga, which is that beautiful, long flowing Indian skirt, and a matching fuschia choli and then a silver and navy dupatta. I just find myself having this sort of out-of-body experience. I mean, that clothing is totally foreign to me, it’s foreign to my taste, it’s foreign to my experience and it’s foreign to who I am. Who I am is Indian and that outfit has no relation to me. What I felt on the stand at the time is the relation it has to her. So my mum wasn’t born Indian, but if she had her time again she would have been. The Ganju’s and the Gamkhwar’s, dad’s relatives on both sides, they both came from very old and very distinguished Kashmiri families. And mum, my Australian mum, was the first non-Hindu, Kashmiri Brahmin accepted through marriage to become a Ganju. And not only that but she was the first non-Indian. But you would never have known it, obvious physical differences aside, she was made for India. She was my umi’s favourite daughter-in-law, she cooked Kashmiri better than dad, there were no real cultural adjustments. I mean, there must have been, but I couldn’t see them from where I stood. All I could see was how she easily connected with India and with the Indian family. And where she found that was in this spiritual connection to beauty and to fabric and to light and to softness.
I wore that costume to the Multicultural Day Parade and I felt so uncomfortable. It was so strange, I felt highly self-conscious and I felt I was attracting attention to myself under false pretences. And this was because I wasn’t wearing a costume, like I wasn’t pretending. I wasn’t a benign cultural cliche I was wearing the idea of my mother’s love for me. That was how she saw me, gold and glittery and exotic. You know, I have too much of my dad’s beautiful arrogance and it was this freely, pure and simple and beautiful interpretation but I just wasn’t comfortable with it. You know, even at eight, I had too much complexity, I have too much self-belief to be satisfied with her softness. It wasn’t how I wanted her to love me. Being eight, what I didn’t understand at the time, was what it would have meant to her if I hadn’t let her.
Difference isn’t about flags. Difference is about people. Difference is about family. Learning to accept the difference of the people closest to me has been the hardest cultural adjustment I have ever had to make. I’ve learned a lot of myself in that process and because of that I can understand at forty what I couldn’t at eight, and that is, that just because I’m not like her that I don’t love like her. It can’t be automatically assumed that she has to be like me and that nuance, understanding that nuance, has been so important, not because it stops the other from experiencing my prejudice, but because it stops me from having to feel it. I love you mum.