Dialogue  April - June, 2004 , Volume 5  No. 4



Are You ‘Confused’?


Agastya Kohli



I was first introduced to the term ABCD when I moved to Chicago. “American Born Confused Desi” – how appropriate I thought. For those of you who’re not familiar with the term, it is used across the US to describe Indian Americans – kids born and brought up in the US. First of course, I thought the term was unique to our college campus, but as I chatted with numerous strangers across the country over IRC (this was the early ‘90s you know!), I realized every one knew ABCD.

 The British equivalent of the term I’m told is “Coconut” – brown on the outside, white on the inside. Obviously, there is a negative connotation associated with these terms…and so I knew better than to not use the word coconut to describe a person in front of Ameesh – my cousin, who was indeed, born and brought up in England. But I didn’t even realize when the term ABCD slipped out during a discussion a bunch of us were having, and Ameesh, who was not familiar with the acronym asked me what it meant.

“So what would I be? EBCD?” he asked.

“Well…or BBCD, if you prefer British instead of English …” I thought I was joking, and he’d be able to take it lightly too.

But when one feels that the essence of who they are is being attacked – their upbringing, values, orientation, schooling system…there are very few in the world that can take it lightly right away. I’m sure he was a little offended, but in a more analytical tone, he asked me “Why confused? Why does the C stand for Confused?” The rest of us, who were mostly FoB’s (Fresh off the Boat – term used for new immigrants, also derogatory in nature) tried to come up with an explanation for why we thought ANCD’s were confused.

What is it? What defines a true Indian? Its not languages, because a number of ABCDs speak their mother tongues just as well as English. Its not religion either – they’ve been going to temples with their parents every week, more regularly than I’ve ever been. Cricket? That seemed to be one of the factors. ABCD’s generally didn’t know the game or the names of Indian players. But that can hardly be the definition of being a true Indian.

I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I came up with a litmus test. If you didn’t know what “Mandir and Mandal” meant, you weren’t a real Desi. Like I said, this was the early 90s, and the Ayodhya Ram Mandir movement and Mandal Commission – and the student movement against it – had dominated the political news in India for the last few years. Any one who didn’t know about these matters would’ve been unable to participate in a discussion with a bunch of Indians.

So, that’s it. Current Affairs. That’s what makes an Indian, Indian? If you read the newspaper, you’re truly an Indian. That can’t be right either.

As I continued to think about this, I came up with a few more things. Lets take the example of Divali – arguably the largest festival in India. My memories of Divali are all about candles, tons of sweets, rangolies, strong stench of sulfur fumes from the fireworks in the air, and a continuous rumble of fire crackers that went on till late at night. Most of my ABCD friends talked only about the cultural show put on by Indian Association of Northern Illinois and Network of Indian Physicians in Chicago and so on. Their concept of Divali celebration was nothing more than a bunch of dances performed in an auditorium by some kids, with the latest Hindi movie songs playing in the background. Most of them had Christmas trees at home during Christmas, but had never put up lights for Divali. They celebrated Christmas more ‘properly’ than they ever celebrated any Indian festival. These guys are totally confused I thought, they don’t even know what a real Divali is.

It’s been a number of years since. I now have a 4-year-old nephew in Delhi, who’s been going to a pre-nursery playschool called “Play Station” down the road for about a year. First, the name Play Station made me chuckle every time I heard it. But gradually I got over it.

Kids start learning words – even saying them out just after they’re a year old. Obviously, they learn words that are spoken around them first. So even before they get to a pre-nursery school, they’re talking as fluently as you and me.

The tradition at our houses has always been of speaking Hindi. So my nephew knew “laal” for red, “neela” for blue and “baingani” for purple. When he came back from Play Station, he said “sun” instead of “sooraj” and “yellow” instead of “peela”.

My father wasn’t very pleased with this transformation. When he asked why Nachiketa was using Englsih words all of a sudden, Nachiketa innocently told him that’s what he was taught in school – the sun is yellow. They did reach a compromise – Nachiketa was in school, he could say yellow, but at home, he should continue to say “peela”.

Nachiketa was sitting on my bed, playing with his toys, and he decided to count how many little cars he had. “One, two, three, four and five!” he was so proud! And I said, that’s right – you’ve got five cars… only I said it in Hindi, and used “paanch” instead of five. He looked at me with a confused look on his face, and said, “No, five!”

All of a sudden, I thought, oh my god! This kid will grow up in this house where every one insists on speaking Hindi, but he will also grow up in this society that will expect him to learn English. Will he even be able to keep the words separate? Will he know that five and paanch is the same thing? Will he be able to learn any Indian languages properly at all? Are we confusing him by teaching him one thing at home, while the “system” is teaching him something different in school?

I got back to Seattle in early November, and all around me I could see preparations for the holidays had started. Jewelers were advertising once again and DVD’s were being released before the shopping season really picked up. It didn’t take too long for me to remember the dilemma I went through last year at this time – should I put up Christmas lights and decorate my house or not?

All the neighbors will. But I don’t celebrate Christmas. Why should I put up lights? Heck, I didn’t decorate my house for Divali – why should I decorate it for Christmas? Wouldn’t it be wrong? But then, I don’t want to be the only house in the neighborhood that’s all dark. And as a Hindu, I believe there is only one god, so what’s the harm in celebrating the birth of Jesus? That doesn’t deny the significance of Krishna.

But its not just Divali and Christmas … what about August 15th? What did I do to celebrate India’s Independence Day? I surely went and watched the fireworks on July 4th. Is that unpatriotic? Or is it OK to celebrate the American Independence Day because after all, they kicked out the English too? I’m confused – I didn’t go vegetarian during navratri, should I eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day?

The biggest question that I seem to be unable to answer is who’s confused? Are the ABCD’s still the confused ones? After all, they know what they do for Divali, and they know how they celebrate Christmas. They’ve probably never read any Indian literature, but they speak Gujarati with their parents, and English everywhere else.

On the other hand, isn’t the entire Indian urban society confused about who they are, and what they want to do with their culture and heritage? The tremendous pressure of westernization is overwhelming on a 5000-year-old civilization. People from Hawaii proudly say, “Aloha is both hello, and good bye!” So is namaste. But why do we invent words like “su-prabhat” and shubh-raatri”? There are no English words for shikanjvi and jal-jeera. Must we create an Indian equivalent for everything Western? Our kids learn how to say “Good Morning” at ‘Play Station’ before we teach them to say “jai ram ji ki” … and who names a school after a video game system any way?

Or is it a whole generation of Indians (including me) who’ve been in the US for so long now that instead of the benefit of “best of both worlds”, we are beginning to forget where we come from. Aren’t these the people who are really confused? We want to hang on to what makes us Indian, but we must adapt to our new lives and societies that we live in. We get irritated when our mothers want to put a matrimonial ad in the newspaper for us, but we can’t get ourselves to ask a pretty girl out on a date. We make fun of our traditions and rituals, but the first place we go with our BMW’s is the temple to get pooja done.

In addition to ABCD and FoB, I was introduced to yet another term when I first came to Chicago. DCBA – Desi chalaa banane Amareekee (Desi trying to become American). Soon after I heard a different interpretation of that acronym, one that I am personally becoming more and more acquainted with every day – Desi Confused by America. I’m finding out that even those of us who are conscious about our changed circumstances can’t help but get caught in between the forces of east and west.

Being in two boats at the same time is a tricky situation. Both ABCD’s and DCBA’s have to deal with this dichotomy. One was born in the US, but her parents insist that she must learn Indian cultures and values, and the other left India to come to an alien world, where he finds himself uprooted, and disoriented. Each tries to strike a balance between the two as well as they can.

What Nachiketa is going through is only slightly different from the ‘displaced’ ones. The educated, urban Indian society has chosen to put itself in the same dichotomy. We give so much emphasis to learning English and adopting Western life-style and ideology, that we’re beginning to loose knowledge we’ve possessed for millennia. By removing Sanskrit from our every day lives, we’ve lost Ayurveda. A number of modern Indian languages are now under threat as well, and with it their literature and philosophy. Kids forget more about Shakespeare than they’ll ever know about Kalidas. Some may know that Chaanakya wrote Artha Shastra, but how many really know how it’s different from Adam Smith’s economic theories?

No wonder I couldn’t come up with a convincing list of items that makes a desi a true Indian. It seems to me that our society has decided to not maintain any qualities that differentiate it uniquely. We don’t teach the truly Indian stuff to people who grow up in India – how can we expect any one else to know what means to be Indian?

How many people growing up in Delhi know about daal baati that’s so popular in Rajasthan? How many people in Mumbai can even name a few districts in Chattisgarh? In a country of 16 languages and 3000 dialects, how many people know more than 3 languages? Have we Indians – as a global society – chosen not to learn about ourselves? Have we chosen to do just the same every one else does? Is hardly anything that differentiates an urban citizen of India from an Indian born and brought up in Chicago? Then who is really confused?


 Dialogue A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati

Astha Bharati