Saturday, November 9, 2013

I am an Indian


You probably know that I was born in India, but I have spent more than half my life in the USA. The children I taught in a school, did not know that. They could tell that I was not white and I was not black, but never questioned me about from where I was.

In school, I introduced the country of my birth when we traveled around the world and made a trip to India. We went to India in an airplane---we arranged the chairs in rows and columns, had a pilot on the intercom and flight attendants telling us to fasten our seat belts, also gave us snacks. In those days, airlines offered passengers free snacks. I explained the concept of how long it took me to get there by discussing the number of meals and naps I took on the plane, all in one seat that was assigned to me before I took the flight.

The children wanted to know why I was called an Indian!

This story is about Indians from India.


I am an Indian

bhaiya = brother (Hindi)
heritage = things that are passed on from one generation to the next

It was early November, Suchi and Soori, the eight-year-old twins came home upset by what had happened in their class at school. 

Suchi complained, "Mom, you said we were Indians but Tommy said, I was telling a lie."

Soori inquired, "Mom, aren't we Indians, you said we were Indians, you told the truth, didn't you?"

Mom told them that they were Indians just like their didi, Sapna and Bhaiya, Sagar. And that even their parents and grand parents were Indians. 

Sixteen-year-old Sagar looked up from his book and met his younger sister, 12-year-old Sapna's eyes. He mouthed the words, "Skit?"

Sapna shook her head and pointed to a pile of books, mouthed, "Home work."

Sagar shrugged and called out, "Hey, Suchi-Soori, I can tell you something about our being Indians."

Suchi-Soori ran to Sagar and pulled two little chairs to sit by him. They munched on the snacks from the snack-plate in their laps. Sagar told them to hold their horses for a couple of minutes and he trotted off to his room. He carried back a huge globe on a stand and placed it between the twins. 

Sagar said, "Okay, guys, do you remember the names of the seven continents you memorized when you went to sleep every night?"

Suchi swallowed a bite, "Do you want us to recite them?"

Soori chimed in, "We can show you all the countries and those continents on the globe if you wish."

Sagar said, "That..."

Suchi interrupted, "We can even tell you all the capitals of those countries. Sapna didi made us learn those also."

Sagar said, "GUYS, LISTEN. I don't want to know the names of the countries or their capitals. Please be quiet and answer only when it's your turn."

The twins acted out zipping their mouths and kept quiet. They continued to eat their snack.

Sagar smiled, "Okay, then. Tell me, what exactly happened in school that made you so upset?"

Soori said, "Tommy said that we don't wear feathers in our hair and don't ride horses to school, so we can't be Indians. But mom says we are Indians."

Sagar said, "He's right, and mom is also right. Tommy was talking about the Native Americans, we used to call them Indians. Now we see them riding horses and wearing feathers only in movies and in some parades, maybe. Some of them live in special areas called Reservations."

Suchi and Soori spoke together, "But Tommy..."

Sagar raised his hand in a 'stop' gesture, "Let me tell you a funny incident that happened in mom's class. Once a Native American came to talk with the kids in her school. When mom told him she was also an Indian, he wanted to know the name of her tribe. She told him that she was the Indian that Columbus was looking for, instead, found him."

"Columbus was looking for Mom! Why?" 

Sagar didn't have a good answer, "Never mind about Columbus." He called out, " Sapna, can you help here?"

Sapna shrugged with a smile and said, "Nope, you opened a can of worms, you deal with them."

Sagar pursed his lips, pointed to the globe and said, "Well, Suchi-Soori, a long-long time ago all the continents were closer together, do you remember the Himalayas story? Perhaps due to earthquakes, the continents drifted apart, and so the people who lived on those continents, drifted apart too."

Suchi said, "I got it, Columbus was looking for mom when the continents fell apart."

Soori wondered, "Was it her fault that the continents fell apart or his?"

Sagar continued, "Uh, kiddos, the continents DRIFTED apart. Remember, Columbus was NOT looking for mom, he was looking for India. By some error, he ended up on the shores of North America. When he saw the Native Americans with their tanned skin, he thought he was in India and called them Indians." 

Soori said, "So, because of their color, he called them Indians?"

"That's right, we are darker than the whites, but often lighter than the African Americans."


Sapna jumped into the conversation from her chair, "Twins, you've taken enough of Bhaiya's time, I need his help with my homework. There's another story about people's color, we'll tell it to you at some other time." 

The next moment, Sagar was up on his feet, "Thanks, Sapna, I'd love to help you with your homework." With ten brisk steps, he reached Sapna and picked up one of her books.

Suchi and Soori dragged the Globe to Sagar and asked, "Why did you bring this out of your room?" 

"Oh, that was just to show you the continents and countries, nothing special."

"Oh, we know all the continents and countries." Smiling, the twins dragged the globe back closer to their chairs and started pointing at different  places. 

Mom came by and sat with them. She said, "Suchi-Soori, you know that we, your parents, came to the US from India for education and then stayed here for jobs, got married and then you came along. We still have relatives in India whom we call over the phone, and visit every few years."

"But why are we called Indians?"

"People who are from India, are called Indians."

"Then, we are Indians?"

Mom said, "You are Americans, born in the US and carry a US passport, but you are of an Indian descent."

"Do we have an Indian Heritage?"

"Nope, heritage is of valued things, buildings, from the previous generation."


"We are of an Indian descent, our parents and grand parents and many before them lived in India. Girls, except for the Native Americans, all the people in the US have migrated from different parts of the world. Some came over two hundred years ago, some may have come yesterday!" 

Sushi said, "But we did not migrate from anywhere, we were born right here."

Soori added, "Yep, we are Americans of Indian descent."

Suchi said to Soori, "That was a lot of history, but why is India called India?"

Soori shrugged.

Sapna joined them, "That word came from another word, the Indus Valley. It's a name given by the Western historians. And, the word, Indus comes from---"

Soori said, "Too much information, we got it, Indus valley people are Indians."

Sapna said, "Okay, but do you know why America is called America?"

"Uh---" The twins shrugged.

Sapna said, "It is named after an Italian navigator, Amerigo Vespucci. Seven years after Columbus landed, Amerigo realized that Columbus did not land in India but it was a new continent!"

Soori said, "That's cool. He finds a new land and gives it his own name."

Sagar said, "Not true. It was a German clergyman and a geographer who suggested the name America and people liked it."

Suchi said, "That's too much information. We're done here. Let's play."

The twins put their snack-plates in the sink and played with the globe a little longer. Later they dragged the globe back to their brother's room. When they returned to the kitchen, the older siblings had gone to another room to do their homework. The twins went to their mom and asked, "Why are we so tan, mom?"

The End

© 2013, Meera Desai Shah

1 comment:

  1. Nice story and timely also. Diya is supposed to dress up a paper doll to represent some aspect of her ancestry (mothers's side or father's side) for a social studies project. Ancestry is different from nationality and heritage.