Our Stories Are Sacred, On Knowing Who We Are

A flying peacock at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Delhi, courtesy of the author

Our Stories Are Sacred, On Knowing Who We Are

by Anjoli Roy

     “Of course people ask me about India.” Chhaya Pishi makes a face reserved for stupid people. “Eating with my hands. Arranged marriage. Whatever. This is New York, though, thank God. Not some backward place without Indians.” She passes a long shelf of brittle pasta.
     Chandrani considers that at least her aunt knows what to say when people do ask. She’s usually guessing. Or trying to make things up so she didn’t sound so dumb. And white.
     When Chandrani’s third-grade teacher asked her which tribe she came from, she blurted out Cherokee. Her teacher looked relieved, like she’d finally dug out something sharp from her skin. She told Chandrani what strong people she came from. At dinner that night, when Chandrani told her father about it, he laughed and asked her to get the sandesh from the fridge.
     Before running down the aisle to catch up with Chhaya Pishi, Chandrani focuses on a packet of fava beans, forcing back down her throat the tears welling up in her eyes. She looks intently at her feet, pretends to work a wad of gum off her rubber sole.
     Chhaya Pishi reaches for a can of coconut milk, her bangles ringing as they slide up a brown forearm. “You can always tell people whatever you want,” she calls out. “These people,” she gestures to the neighborhood folks bustling around them, “they don’t know anything about us.”

Some time during the summer between seventh and eighth grades, I had a conversation with my aunty that inspired the bodega scene above, which ended up in my master’s thesis/novel-attempt titled “Without Being Told.” Like biracial Chandrani, I had been raised without a sense of what it meant that my father was Bengali. I grew up in California without extended family. My Bengali father had immigrated to the segregated south in 1950, went to white schools, converted to Christianity, and, despite his progressive view toward reproductive and women’s rights, became Republican. I grew up in a loving family going to white schools where mine was usually one of the few brown faces in our class photos.

I grew up drowning in the expectation that I be able to talk to my classmates and their parents about India, about Indian food, about Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, about yoga. That I be able to guffaw with the best of them at jokes about my chances of being married off during my first trip to India, when I was eleven.

I grew up drowning in the expectation that because I was in this brown body, I have answers that came with it. I was expected to feel that being asked these questions was a way of honoring me, my family, when what they made me feel was shame.

The thing was, I didn’t know the answers. Instead, I had questions. Lots of questions. Questions I didn’t feel I could ask. Shouldn’t I know the answers already? I was always thinking. I felt these questions, heavy and unasked, hook onto my shoulders. I felt us sinking like stones.

A wall in Delhi
A wall in Delhi, courtesy of author

But I don’t want to write about drowning. I want to write a letter. A love letter. Specifically, I want to write a love letter to our community here in Hawai‘i, a place I love without permission—that is, as someone not genealogically connected to these islands.

Dear community, I made it to 25 feeling that my family—beyond the stories that my father would slice off for us during bumper-to-bumper drives in the southern California foothills, amid long stretches of freeway and silence—were inaccessible. They were locked away behind decades, deadbolted in the Bengali I didn’t speak, shelved some place high that I, the youngest in my nuclear family, would never be able to reach.

I flailed for the buoys my aunty gave me during that middle-school summer when she told me to tell people whatever I wanted when they asked about India. In her mind, perhaps, this was the strong way to deal with folks who demanded we lay our India cards down. Fuck their yoga-karmic-Gandhi fantasy, she might have been telling my 13-year-old self.

But what if I didn’t know the answers to those questions, for me?

It wasn’t until I came to Hawai‘i, to graduate school at UH Mānoa, that I started to figure out what it means to pick locks, in digital and material archives. I started to learn how to climb high places, with site visits in switchback mountains and tape recorders at the feet of our elders. I started figuring out love that was big enough to hold our father’s hand as he exorcised from his body the Himalaya boarding school that held adventure and pain for him when he was a boy. I started to ask questions of my sisters, our parents, our cousins, and aunties, and uncles, and listened closely to the answers. I began learning how to hold tight to the loose ends of our fictions—that have been lying to us about who we are and what we are allowed to know—and pull.

Anuhea lanai
Anuhea lānai, courtesy of author

Last month during a radio show on KTUH with DJ Laura Ramírez, with the aim of raising awareness of West Papua’s struggle for independence and broadening the reach of the Wansolwara Voices for West Papua collection, we aired a recording of a gorgeous poem by Lee Kava & Prof. Tara Kabutaulaka that blends a Tongan kava chant with the kava origin story, which includes these powerful lines:

because once upon a time
we were the stories chopped and chewed
in the teeth of islands
and the tongue of the sea

because once upon a time
we were held together
by the tide and stars

because once upon a time
our connection to one another
was strained through blood
and land

today, we serve that memory
as kava

when i give you kava
i give you story
i give you blood
i give you memory

In praise of this poem, Prof. Jon Osorio said that the first step to decolonizing ourselves is by learning our histories, our stories. It’s by learning the stories of the communities where we live.

I left the radio station feeling so inspired by this deceivingly simple and radical instruction. This is the root of the inspiration I have felt in my time here in Hawaiʻi. What happens when we learn our stories? Our histories? (What happens when we ask?) How does that change the way we open ourselves and listen to the stories of the communities where we live and love? What happens when we, to use Lee and Tara’s wording, are given memory?

I discovered last summer how stories reveal the cords that have always been under our feet, holding us together. I was in India for a two-month research project to find my great grandfather, freedom-fighter and English-language journalist Kalinath Ray. One day my father, cousin, and I found ourselves in Kolkata at the workplace of my grandfather—a man I never met—and decided in an offhand way to visit the house where our family lived before they left India in 1950—a place my father hadn’t returned to in 64 years despite all his trips back to India since then. We discovered that night that, unintentionally, we had marked the 50th anniversary of my grandfather’s passing, that the family house we visited was the place my great-grandfather—the man whose story had called us to India on this trip to begin with—had drawn his last breaths, and a place where Gandhi had come to pay his respects. These were stories our family didn’t know—didn’t remember—until then. That night, cousins I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years, my father, aunties, uncles, our family back in the U.S.—we felt how this collective remembering is mending the net that holds us all together.

Dear community, I want to say thank you for pointing me in the direction of these stories, for helping me to continue to listen to them, for giving me the courage to ask. I am not sure if, outside of the Pacific, there would have been this same kind of support: the kind that helps you push past decades of silence and you-don’t-knows and I-can’t-believe-you-don’t-knows and you-don’t-get-to-knows and aren’t-you-embarrassed-to-study-your-own-peoples?! The kind that helps you move beyond those folks who tell you that learning your people’s stories is navel gazing, is pointless, is a waste of (capitalist?) time that seeks to wash us all as white as blank paper and a bad memory.

Thank you for telling me, in classrooms and bus stops and beaches and lānai and Koʻolau ridge hikes that look out to a cloudy Kāneʻohe, that it is okay that I did not know. That not knowing is not my fault. That not knowing is not our people’s fault. Thank you for showing me that asking and listening make the story stronger, and make us stronger too. Thank you for teaching me that asking and listening are decolonial acts.

Thank you for teaching me that these stories are what keep us from drowning, from being lost, from feeling that there has never been a net and that we are alone and know nothing and should be ashamed of ourselves.

The truth is, we have always been held.

I don’t want to write about drowning, in expectations or any of these other awful feelings. I want to write about swimming. About storytelling. About catching these stories, slippery and fresh with life in our shaking hands, and asking them what forms they want to take. About taking care of them, and making sure they are fed and as whole as they can be for the little strong ones coming after us, so we have something to give them when they ask—so we have something to give them anyway, so they don’t have to ask.

Our stories teach us how to feel the muscles in our aunties, our uncles, our cousins, our grandparents, our parents, our sisters. Our stories teach us how to receive other people’s stories. They teach us our place behind and with and amplifying the ones we love protecting sacred places, on mountains and sea floors. They teach us to love beyond national borders. They hold us accountable. They teach us to treasure and revere, rather than mine. They teach us to wake up, and act. They teach us to keep asking. They teach us to keep listening.

With love,

Kurseong with Dad and Donovan
Kurseong with Dad and Donovan, courtesy of author

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