It’s Not a Costume, It’s a Custom
Roman: “Mamma. I’m half-Indian, right?”
Me: “That’s right, buddy.”
Roman: “Well, when will I be whole-Indian?”
Like so many aspects of parenting, sometime the simplest questions are also the most complex.
I am transported back to staring at tiny curls littering the tiled floor. My heart felt heavy, and I tried desperately to suppress tears that were threatening to pour down my face at any minute if I so much as blinked. It’s just hair, I reminded myself. It grows back. I could almost hear the eye-rolls I had seen every time someone had said these words to me when I would lament about this looming day. But it wasn’t about that. It was about my fear of him losing something that was his, some sort of identity with every snip. It was about feeling pressure to conform to a custom that a big part of me wanted to do and an equally large part of me didn’t.
In the Hindu culture, there is a traditional ceremony called a Mudan that involves shaving your baby’s head around his/her first birthday as a way to purify and cleanse the soul. My husband had it done to him, and I always thought that it was one of the traditions I would like to honor when we had kids. Of course, that all changed when I gave birth to my son who sported the most glorious mane of dark curly hair that I had ever seen. It became the first thing that people would comment on when they saw him and strangers would constantly stop us on the street and ask if they could touch it.
One day when we were out and about, over the course of twenty minutes, two ladies stopped us after doing a double take and said, “Wow, your kid has amazing hair!” A teenage boy skidded to a halt on his skateboard and said, “Woah, dude. Dope hair brah.” Then, no joke, a police car slammed on its breaks in the middle of the street and the officer shouted, “That kid has epic hair!” giving us a thumbs up out of his open window as he drove away. I felt like I was in some sort of twilight zone hair musical.
Those magical locks almost had a life of their own, and I became a little too attached to them. As he got older, his curls only grew to be more luscious and the thought of shaving them gave me a near panic attack. Peach fuzz I could possibly part with, but I was not prepared for the curls. We made a compromise and said that instead of fully shaving his head, we would give him his first haircut around his first birthday, which seemed to satisfy all parties involved. I mean, what are a few curls in the name of a purified soul? A dear friend of ours agreed to do the deed because I was too nervous that if we took him anywhere in public, I would hurl myself in heaving sobs at whoever was cutting it.
I then couldn’t help but wonder, is an ancient tradition something you can compromise on? If you only do it ‘half-way’ are you somehow diluting the richness that is steeped in thousands of years of sacred practice? Can you honor a tradition while blending in some of your own beliefs? How do I keep my kids connected to roots that spread so far and so deep?
Once on my way to a Diwali celebration, an ancient Hindu festival that spiritually signifies the victory of light over darkness, I realized that I had forgotten to buy flowers to give as an offering to the deities, something that is customary to bring along with fruit or even milk. I always enjoy seeing the juxtaposition of ancient statues at the temple surrounded by gallons of plastic milk jugs from the local supermarket. I quickly parked my car and ran into the store in search of the perfect bouquet. My bangles clinked together like reindeer bells as I ran to the register, flowers in hand, and I was suddenly aware of everyone staring at me sideways. I would meet their glance as they would quickly look away, and I realized how out of place I must have seemed. Here I was, this tall white girl, all dressed up in a full-on sari and jewelry, complete with a bindi in the middle of my forehead. At this point in my relationship, this had become a fairly standard practice for me, but here by myself in the grocery store, without my Indian husband by my side to give me some sort of context, I was strange. This made me think about our future kids, who at this time were just figments of our imagination. It occurred to me if they end up taking after my lighter skin, they are going to have to constantly justify (if they are feeling bold) or ignore (if they are feeling fed up) questions and looks as to why they are dressing the way they do.
After the Diwali festivities, my husband and I stopped to grab a late-night snack in the University District since it was on our way home and we knew something was bound to be open. While waiting for our food outside, some drunken frat-boys stumbled across the street and shouted, “I like your costume!” I know they didn’t mean any harm, especially since Diwali falls around Halloween, and I am sure they legitimately thought I was wearing a costume, but feeling like I had to set them straight I shouted, “IT’S NOT A COSTUME, IT’S A CUSTOM!” I know they probably didn’t hear me, let alone register what I meant, but armed with the image of my future children, I suddenly felt defensive of a tradition that didn’t even technically belong to me.
Regardless of our backgrounds, families are cultures in and of themselves, each with their own traditions, dynamics and eccentricities. It’s important to understand the history of where traditions come from, but in today’s global society, I don’t think it’s a cop-out to only do what you are comfortable with any more than I think if you force yourself to do something only because it’s ‘what’s done’ it remains authentic.
The “good” news is that I didn’t have to worry about the Mundan with my daughter as shortly after her second birthday, I came downstairs to her big brother with a pair of his scissors in one hand and a fistful of chestnut curls the other. He said her hair looked “too big” and he was trying to help her out. I didn’t even have time to feel nostalgic as we were already late to the first ceremony of my brother-in-law’s beautiful, weeklong Hindu/Russian/Jewish wedding celebrations and the only tears I shed were for the fact that her hair would now be uneven in all of the photos. And so goes the plight of the second child.
I still don’t have the answers, but as I navigate this world of raising mixed-race children, I have to believe that we can honor our heritage while forging a new path and redefine what it means to be half, whole, and everything in between.
Marissa B. Niranjan is convinced that the deepest connections occur when we open our whole minds and full hearts. I want to dedicate this post to my fabulous cousin Sharon whose light left us too soon. She loved those around her so well and connected us all with her open mind, big heart, and contagious laugh. She was without a doubt one of my most avid supporters on Kindred, and these articles will not be the same without her genuine comments and fresh perspective. I love you Sharon.
Nice! Love the picture!
Awesome article, bella nipota ❤
Sharon’s service went very well and her fabulous family honored her in a glorious manner!
Most insightful narrative of a very complex cross-culture issue done with deep understanding, sensitivity, and respect for tradition. Thanks for sharing.
Hi Prem! I just came across this comment and wanted to say thank you so much for reading and for offering feedback. Raising these little ones brings up so much, and I am grateful we can all collectively navigate through it. By the way, your little guy is beyond adorable! Fatherhood suits you well! Much love to you and your family! 🙂