Over the last three weeks, I have been energized by the stories of my fellow #HigherEdDesi colleagues sharing how they came to find the student affairs profession and what their journeys have taught them. I’ve been able to see a little bit of myself in each of them – a solidarity, if you will. My mother was an educator and for as long as I can remember, pedagogy has been a huge part of my life, and the pedagogies of solidarity (yes! It takes a village!) have been instrumental in guiding me become who I am.
I was born in Mumbai, India into a middle-class family of very modest means. I spoke English at home, Bombay Hindi (a version of Hindustani) in the streets, and played hooky with Marathi every chance I could. I grew up with the flavours of Indaad, Vindaloo, and Sorpotel – the trifecta of cultural influences of Mangalorean, East Indian, and Goan Catholicism (going back at least eight generations on one side of the family). The arts were a huge part of my life. I went to Jesuit-run schools and did well enough to get into good colleges. I got involved with youth summer camps, parish-wide arts competitions, often ending up coordinating some of these programs and taking up leadership roles in others. I loved people. I loved seeing the collective succeed. I loved watching individuals find their place in the collective. This is what gave me life. It is what particularly sustained me (along with the arts) when I lost my forever teacher and role model – my mum – to cancer six days after my seventeenth birthday.
Then I lost my way. A lot.
You see, for my particular story, understanding what it really meant to be Desi was never clear. I was part of the Desi tapestry but lost amidst the main colour or the ornate brocade. My socio-cultural milieu – language, religion, class, was never Desi mainstream. Through my childhood years, the colonial routinely clashed with the “post”colonial, and I seemed to occupy a complex in-between space. India began to open up its economy in the 1990s while I a young teen. As a result, the latent quest for whiteness – a festering consequence of colonialism and seeded in everyone and everything, was now rendered more visible (and acceptable). With whiteness dangled the possibility of becoming along with the reality that we would never fully be. My seeming in-between-ness opened some doors and slam shut others. At the time, I didn’t know why. I had neither the vocabulary nor the wherewithal to understand how colonialism orders, establishes ideals, and divides communities of colour. In and through my ignorance and ethno racial ambiguity, I was living the dream, wasn’t I? Banking on the capital accumulated through consistent academic performance, I left for the United States when I was 20 with “further studies” being my ticket to “a better life!” (A problematic message consistently fed to us every which way!).
Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Arriving in Boston, I knew no one. I had no community. My supervisor, Jane Stachowiak, sensed this. Since there weren’t others at school that looked like me, she did the next best thing. She introduced me to formidable strong people of colour. Solidarity became a lifeline as I, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, began to wrestle with racism in all its forms (Colonial markers on a brown body make the colonizer pretty irate!). Then it happened. The isolation hit closer to “home.” I began to collide repeatedly with fixed notions of “authenticity” constructed and communicated in opposition to my own experience. This came from within. “You’re not Indian!” “You’re not Indian, enough!” Desi – and everything it stood for – felt more alien than ever before. Suddenly, no one looked like ME! Just because my narrative missed the Desi diaspora manual, didn’t mean it did not count! Or did it?
I’ve had my dance with whiteness and white identity. When I found my sense of belonging (to everything I had known) threatened by fear of exclusion, I turned to whiteness for comfort and refuge. For a while, my in-between-ness allowed this shameless method to work. The exotification felt like validation. But in these spaces, validation is not only temporal, it is isolating. There is no community to truly understand your experience: what each achievement means and why it means so much or why each failure hurts more; hurts differently. In facing a growing loneliness and a brewing contempt for the body I inhabited, I turned to people. It was where I would find joy in the work. Jane would introduce me to the Association of College Unions International (ACUI) and this organization would become my first student affairs professional home. Student affairs became a mode of survival. I had once thrived with events and programs that involved youth and young adults and I desperately wanted to find that joy again. I enrolled in a student affairs program hoping it would allow me to figure out who I was, what kind of Indian I was, if I ever had the right to call myself Desi. At the end of it, I only survived. The program never really provided me with the space to answer the other questions (An entirely different blog entry!!!). I was too busy dancing with whiteness and using it to stay afloat. And then, I came out and danced some more.
Student affairs does not readily teach you is how to give yourself space. It is tough to do and the lesson is often learned the hard way. In 2007, I met Raja Bhattar at the University of Vermont. He was winding up his HESA program and I had just moved there for work. Raja is a gift. He is the first Desi I met who is unapologetic for all of who he is, holding all of his identities (even the seemingly oppositional ones) as a beautiful whole. He taught me the importance of giving myself permission to just ‘be’. This emotional solidarity I experienced rekindled a small flame to answer the questions that I had left behind in Boston. Now, let me be clear. This was messy. The thing with colonialism and whiteness is that the work is never done. It rages against resistance. It took me a better part of five years to get myself to unpack my life and put it back together. And I’m still going.
I went back to graduate school – doing the same program that Raja had pursued. This time, I did it for me. Not to survive but to thrive. I found solidarity in my colleagues of colour, the QPOC community, and the Social Justice Training Institute (#25, FTW!). Through these solidarities, I was able to return to the questions: Who am I? What kind of Indian am I? Do I have a right to call myself Desi? The answers, I realize now, are moot. But in their processing, I discovered what I need. I can no longer take solidarity for granted. It is moving and evolving. It is expanding and contracting; always responsive to where I am and where the other is in their moment. I seek it as much within my communities as I do without. I also have to be prepared that there are some who may not be ready to be in solidarity with me and that is okay! There is much complexity to the transnational Desi experience especially in spaces of whiteness. As I now move through a PhD program in Critical Studies, I am constantly working my relationship with the self, countering my complicity in “liberali[zing] the skin”, and recognizing how I am part of a “polycultural” moment that “embrace[s] the skin and all of its contradictions” (See Vijay Prashad’s book, Everybody was Kung-Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity). And it has become my life’s work to facilitate spaces where multiple truths of polycultural/ transnational/diasporic identities may be shared and celebrated.
Walking into a solidarity #HigherEdDesi space at NASPA represented a jugalbandi of culture and identities that for 16 years has been unimaginable for me. It felt like a dream. “If you’re happy in a dream, does that count?” asks Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things. Yes, yes it does. And it counts even more when it’s not. I am a complex mess of a #HigherEdDesi – an unapologetic sum of my wholes. I need to be neither the main colour nor the ornate brocade. I am a deep, beautiful, rich hue. I am Desi. I am a #HigherEdDesi. And I’m proud of it.
This post is part of our #HigherEdDesi series, which aims to share the stories of what it means to identify as “Desi” and working in higher ed. We hope to provide a context of how we came into Higher Education and what that journey looked like for each one of us. For more information, please see Juhi Bhatt’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series!