My twenty-something year old cousin, Priya, aspires to be an “Instagram Influencer.” I feel old when I hear this. So old that, overnight, my bones seem to acquire a creakiness I never knew they possessed before.
I ask a former student, David, who my partner Laura and I love like he is our own son, to help me understand. “An influencer,” he explains in the gentle and clear tones of a millennial translating for his aging, hard-of-hearing grandmother, “is someone who wants to be paid by companies to advertise their products on their Instagram feed.”
“This is how millennials make money?” I wonder aloud. Creak, creak, my aging bones respond.
My sister, seven years older than me, but infinitely more technologically hip, informs me that Priya is already an Instagram “centurion,” with over 203,000 followers. She describes Priya’s posts in vivid detail: the ones where she is posing with her hand barely covering her breasts in front of a tropical waterfall, or a gaggle of brown-skinned, mustachioed men, or a pile of juicy Alphonse mangoes; the ones where she talks openly of tripping on LSD; the ones where she wanders the streets of Thailand or Indonesia or Bosnia barefoot using her beauty to beg for food and money from strangers.
“Her mom even created an Instagram account to follow her,” my sister tells me. “She likes and comments on all of the posts. Even the ones about tripping acid.”
My sister shares these details in an effort to liberate me: If Priya can post in these revealing ways, she posits, then I should be able to write without restraint. If she can publicly compose profanity-laced poetry, recruit people to join her Indian Psychedelic Society, discuss the dysfunctions in her parents’ relationship, and describe her hallucinogenic trips on a shamanic snuff called Hapeh (creaking bones creak even louder with this one), then surely it is acceptable for me to write my essays about growing up Indian in West Virginia, about navigating complex race, class and gender dynamics, about the relationships that have both nourished and starved me.
There’s an image that comes to my mind often: that of a little brown-skinned, black-haired child running around the house naked,with sweet, dimpled cheeks and a dimpled butt, screeching with joy. The adult chasing behind the child keeps repeating the phrase “Shame-shame” in tones that are simultaneously scolding and loving. Pronounced, with a thick Indian accent, as “shem-shem”, I think the meaning of the phrase has been encoded within me since birth: Hurry up and put some clothes on, the adult seems to be saying. Cover up. Put your body away.
I’m unsure of whether this image is a memory or a dream. Still, early, very early, maybe when I was the age of that screeching child, I learned to see my body as a source of shame. To quietly go to the closet in the basement and get the pads without telling anyone when I first discovered the black-red stains of menstruation in my underwear at age twelve. To throw the “Dear Abby” sex ed pamphlet, “What Every Teen Should Know”, that my parents left in my room when I turned fifteen, under the bed without reading it, or without asking them any questions about it. To avoid the mirror at all times except when brushing and flossing my teeth.
Now 40 years old, I am still unlearning that shame. I struggle to be intimate with my partner, to talk about what I need and want in ways that are specific and clear. I struggle to dress in ways that would accentuate any parts of my body. I loathe photographs of myself where the softness of my rounded belly and the thickness of my thighs are visible. The definition of shame I learned, it would seem, runs counter to the one that Priya possesses, if she possesses one at all.
To be clear: I have no interest in slut-shaming my cousin. She is beautiful in all the ways that Indians value: fair skin, waist-length straight hair, long limbs, and curves for days. The polar opposite of my dark-skinned, short-haired, stubby self. If she can make her self-described “digital nomad” lifestyle work for her, I’m happy for her. It is her parents’ response that confuses me. After all, her parents are the same people who lambasted me in emails sent to all members of our family for writing a senior thesis in which one essay detailed their troubled relationship and how it made me wonder about arranged marriage and gender dynamics in India. A senior thesis that was read by all of 23 people, at most, and not 203,000, but was problematic because it could be discovered if someone with tremendous tenacity Googled my name and happened to click through four pages of search results.
When the red-letter, all caps emails first came out in 2013 denouncing me and saying I was no longer welcome in India, I called my mother. Through tears, I parsed my feelings of being stunned by the toxicity directed at me and being horrified by the shame I had brought down upon my parents. She tried to explain their anger by saying, “They’re worried that your thesis could hurt their daughter’s marriage prospects.”
Now, much too late, I find the words to respond, “But her posting a picture of herself naked in a bathtub, covered only by flower petals strategically placed over her nipples and crotch, doesn’t have the same effect?”
And also: “She doesn’t seem to be that worried about her digital footprint negatively impacting her marriage prospects. So why are they?”
The word for shame in Gujarati is sharam, derived from Urdu. It has three meanings in Urdu: 1) (n.) The parts which modesty requires to be covered; the private parts. 2) (n.) To be ashamed; to feel shame. 3) (v. t.) To cover with reproach or ignominy; to dishonor; to disgrace.
I thought I understood the definitions of sharam fully, having broken them far too many times:
- The parts which modesty requires to be covered: Visiting India in childhood, my clothing choices brought only mockery from my grandmother. She called me “jamadar” (police officer), because the shorts I wore reminded her of the khaki uniform worn by traffic cops in Vadodara. I knew that the way to not bring sharam onto my family was to dress in traditional Indian clothing–long pants, a long tunic, and a scarf that would cover my non-existent breasts. But I refused to comply, until the first time I was groped by an unseen man on a crowded bus in Ahmedabad. Only then did sharam overtake me. Only then did the jamadar shorts get retired.
- To be ashamed; to feel shame: On a visit to Edinburgh with my parents during the Fringe Festival in the late 90s, I convinced them to attend a performance by a Cuban dance troupe. The two-line description in the program failed to mention that the troupe would be nude for the entire performance. My parents stiffly sat through the two-hour show, their bodies communicating the depth of their displeasure. They did not speak to me for hours afterwards. To this day, we’ve never discussed the discomfort brought on by being in the presence of naked bodies.
- To dishonor; to disgrace: Even when it came to my family’s harsh reaction to my writing, I understood that I broke the rules. I shared stories that weren’t mine to share, and I hadn’t asked for permission to do so. In some ways, it didn’t matter whether my audience was one of 20 people or 20,000: I put words on paper describing acts of sharam that everyone knew about, but everyone wanted to forget.
It is this third definition of sharam where my family’s response to Priya’s choices confounds. Is it not considered sharam when the only person you are exposing is yourself? Or is the issue of shame somehow connected to ones’ proximity to a community: insiders don’t feel it, only outsiders do? Perhaps Priya talks of her parents’ dysfunction freely on her Instagram without censure because the story is seen as hers to tell. I, on the other hand, am a perpetual outsider: when I used to visit India, my cousins made fun of my hackneyed Gujarati, painstakingly learned in lessons taught in our basement by my mom when I was a child. It wasn’t enough that I spoke their language despite living in a state where only a handful of other people spoke it. Instead, they focused on my awkwardness, my moments of disconnection. What kind of fool outsider needs a towel to wipe themselves dry after using the pit toilet? Why was my immune system so weak as to require them to boil my drinking water? My mere existence, my failure to seamlessly fit it, seemed a source of shame. Once, an uncle even had the gall to ask me, “Why do you even keep coming here, Neema? Your grandparents are dead. You have no strong ties. There is no reason for you to be here.”
Perhaps my writing just provided the ultimate justification for an ex-communication years in the making.
In my darkest moments of self-flagellation, I try to remind myself that I am not the first Avashia to be shunned by the family. My great-grandfather set the precedent. His transgression: Going to London to study law at the Inner Temple in 1917. He chose his career over his family, leaving his wife alone to raise five children. Although he returned to India afterwards, he never truly came home. Our holier-than-thou Brahmin-adjacent caste expelled him because they suspected him of drinking alcohol and eating meat in the sinful West. Our family rejected him for embracing personal ambition instead of family responsibility, and he died alone, the first bringer of shame. A cautionary tale for the generations that followed: Fealty to family at all costs, even if it means suffocating your own passions.
I keep my great-grandfather’s passport in a frame in the hallway of my apartment. A reminder that I am not the first to bring shame. A reminder that there are, in fact, other ways to live besides in fear of shame.
So many times in my life, I have been asked the question, Sharam nathi aavthi? Shame hasn’t overtaken you? So many times I’ve wanted to answer, but why? Why are we so fixated on shame?
My parents and I have an uneasy, unspoken truce when it comes to my writing: I don’t really tell them what I’m working on, and they don’t really ask. My father’s one request every time he hears that I’ve published something, is “Please, just change the names of people.” Never mind that we made a home for ourselves in one of the smallest states in America, where two, not six, degrees of separation exist between each resident. He wants to be able to hide behind the ambiguity that name changes allow–maybe the person is exactly who the reader thinks they are, maybe they aren’t. Even though I strive to write about the people of my hometown and childhood with compassion, to tell stories that are about how people learn to love each other with, rather than in spite of, our complexities, his focus is solely on anonymity.
My mother tries to be supportive of the idea of my writing, even takes memoir classes at the local university and shares her essays with me, but does not understand my need to publish. She wants it to be enough for me to put the words on paper and share them with her and my sister. She struggles to come to terms with my need to share them with the wider world.
I want my parents to be proud of my words. I want them to like and comment and follow, the way that Priya’s mother is her cheerleader on Instagram. I want for them, and me, to be free of the weight of sharam, which seems to drive every interaction we have about my writing. I want these things, and yet I live with the knowledge that this is improbable.
Long ago, when I was an undergraduate and first grappling with the stories I wanted to tell, and the ramifications of putting truth on the page, my professor Jane Bernstein told me, “Write with a clearer heart, Neema.”
And I did. I took her at her word, told the stories that I needed to tell in order to make meaning of my queer, brown, American identity relative to the very conservative, gendered expectations of my Indian family. I wrote a book of essays that my dad proudly printed and bound and passed out to members of our family. None of whom, it would seem, including my father, ever bothered to read it until it showed up in a curious cousin’s Google search one day.
In the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, the action really heats up when Lord Rama’s wife Sita is kidnapped by the King of Lanka, Ravana. Much of the epic tells the story of the battle to rescue Sita, which, ultimately, Rama succeeds in doing. Still, even after Sita is safely back in the kingdom of Ayodhya, Rama’s subjects struggle to accept her. What might have happened to Sita when she was in Ravana’s palace? Was she defiled?
Sita’s own recounting of her time in captivity proves irrelevant, even after she undergoes the agni pariksha, sitting in flames to demonstrate her purity. The community rejects her, and she enters exile once again. She gives birth to two sons, raises them in an ashram alone, and then returns them to Rama when they are ready to assume their princely responsibilities. She then begs the goddess Bhumi, Mother Earth, to take her out of a world that has treated her so unfairly. Bhumi cracks open her flesh to welcome Sita into her lap, then closes over her, leaving the people of Ayodhya alone with their judgement, and their shame.
I’ve known this story since I was a small child, and first read it in the pages of my Hindu mythology comic books. But where my child-self focused on the valiance and morality of Rama, it is Sita’s story, the story of her shaming, that I keep returning to in adulthood.
What are the sources of shame for my family? What are the sources of shame for me? And what do I do when the Venn diagram of those two has less and less shared space in the middle?
We share the shame of my body, it is true. But I do not share their shame when it comes to my words.
Recently, an essay of mine was published online that tells the story of why I no longer go to India. Why the combination of my extended family’s reaction to my writing, and their explicit homophobia, have left me with zero desire to return to a place that once used to fill me with such joy. My sister discovered it online before I even realized it had been published. She called me to talk about it. First, to say that it was beautiful, and that she loved it, and then, when asked about how freely I should share it, to tell me to proceed with an abundance of caution.
“I don’t think this is one Mommy needs to see,” she told me. And though she didn’t intend for it to have this effect, my cheeks grew hot with sharam. I had gone too far with my words, and now I needed to cover them up.
“Eventually she is going to see them. Wouldn’t it be better for me to just show them to her now?” I pushed. I am unlearning.
Still, she held firm. “If she finds them on her own, so be it. I don’t think you need to put them in her face.”
I posted the link to the essay on Twitter, a space none of my family yet inhabits. I emailed the link to a list of close friends. One responded, “All your writing about family is so genuine and complicated. I wish you could Facebook it and get it out there more, but I guess that’s not going to happen, at least for the moment.”
When is the moment when the cloud of sharam lifts, I wonder? Is it when all of the people whose esteem matters most are no longer alive to feel it? Or is it when the weight of the story I need to tell grows heavier than the weight of my family’s judgement? This feels like an impossible math problem that I am constantly trying to solve, and never getting right.
Still, my mind returns to the sweet, brown child that I was. To the sweet, brown child who my niece is. To the sweet, brown child that I hope to give birth to in my fortieth year. I see that naked child, fresh out of our cast iron bathtub, running on the honey-colored pine floors of our apartment, with me chasing behind her. My great-grandfather looks down at us from the aging pages of his passport, intense and unsmiling. My mind flashes to Priya, posing unabashedly beneath the waterfall, free of the weight of shame. I scoop the child up momentarily, kiss her, tell her that she is my heart, then set her down and let her run, her laughter the only sound echoing through the house.