Painting Pictures: The Strength of the Melting Pot

painting picturesToday’s Painting Pictures post is by Pari Ali and I am so excited to share her words with you. Pari also wrote Hijab: The Universal Struggle for the Let’s Talk About Hijab series. Pari was born in India and is raising children in the Middle East. As you read you’ll learn about the history of a family and the history of two cities. See how cultures weave together to make beautiful tapestries, and how she and her children fit within that as Pari looks at the cultures that formed her family.

The Strength of a Melting Pot

I do not know when the story begins; perhaps it begins even before what I consider the beginning, the migration of my maternal ancestors from Iran to India, a couple of centuries ago, to settle in Hyderabad, then ruled by the fabulously rich Nizam. They were not the only ones; Hyderabad attracted the educated elite and ordinary people from all over the Muslim world. Persians, Afghans, Arabs, Turks came. They settled and intermarried, they also married into the Indian Dakhani (of the Deccan) families.

Cultures merged and mixed and so did languages. Though Persian was the language of the court, Dakhani—a dialect of Urdu spoken in the Deccan—containing words borrowed liberally from the local languages, grew richer as it absorbed words from all the languages spoken there.  The people adopted courtly and refined manners, bowing slightly and greeting each other with adaab instead of the salaam, the cuisines mingled adding Indian spices to the to the cuisines of the new settlers and at the end of the day Hyderabad had developed a unique identity; its food, language, dress, greetings, lifestyle, jewellery, architecture unique, not found anywhere else in India. It was a land of sweetness and grace and in this land my ancestors settled, perhaps never travelling back and over time the Persian language they spoke was replaced by the Dakhani Urdu spoken in the typical Hyderabadi accent. Despite the variety of cultures there was a respect among people and everyone found their own place in the framework of things. I do not know if the children of the earliest settlers considered themselves Third Culture Kids, but they certainly belonged to a distinct culture.

kutch embroidery

A few decades after my maternal ancestors moved to India, my paternal ancestors moved to Bombay from Kutch, which lies in Western India at the beginning of the Indian Peninsula. Bombay, with its beautiful natural harbour and seven islands joined by causeways to make one complete city that stretched from South to North. Bombay a bay so beautiful it was considered fit for a king, and was part of the dowry given to King Charles II on his marriage to Catherine of Braganza. It was because of its natural harbour that Bombay became the business capital of India, people came from all over the country in search of fame and fortune. Many achieved their goals and among them was my great, great grandfather who made both name and fortune. A new culture emerged here as well, while the rich educated Indians adopted the clothes, language and lifestyle of the British, the others who came from all over the country and spoke a number of languages and dialects developed a kind of pidgin Hindi. It is a dialect spoken only in Bombay (now Mumbai) and often ridiculed by Indians who speak pure Urdu or Hindi.

Like other communities the Kucchi community too settled here. They held on to their language and dress for one more generation, their food for a few more. Most of them did not go back home. The generations that followed had no links to Kutch; they studied in convent schools, spoke English with friends and at home, dressed in western clothes, watched as many English movies as they watched Hindi, holidayed on the hill stations the British had settled. They were as different from the Hyderabadis as the proverbial chalk from cheese. Hyderabad and Bombay, separated by just 700 kilometres might well have been the most easterly part of East and the most westerly part of the West. They were different not just in culture but also time, for one was almost frozen in time, moving slowly like the wheels of a rusty cycle rickshaw and the other was an unstoppable juggernaut moving  full steam ahead.

I am the child of this unlikely union, a Third Culture Child born with this strange legacy, two places so diverse they could never be reconciled, a legacy that made me search for my own identity and my heritage for a great part of my life. There were elements that attracted and enthralled me in my Hyderabadi heritage, yet my strong streak of independence resulting from being brought up in Bombay could never accept the old fashioned rules of Hyderabad. My sisters and I were not even allowed to talk to our male cousins for God’s sake! My father was pretty conservative but to us this was beyond ridiculous.

We were bold, independent, stubborn and outspoken, especially me. We fought for our rights and fought against what we considered to be totally stupid customs. I remember speaking at length to a cousin, a really nice guy, much much shorter than me. The next day a great uncle insisted that I should marry him. “Marry him or carry him?” I asked. Yes, quite rude I agree. That was me then, rude and headstrong. I grew tall early in life and was on the receiving end of proposals from doting mamas till I finally fell in love and got married. It was one of the great banes of my existence.

There were other things that rankled, through our childhood and youth we spoke mainly in English. We did speak Hindi but the Dakhani Urdu was such a mix that it was like a foreign language and sometimes we stared completely flummoxed when asked to fetch and carry or do simple tasks. What on earth were taabdaan, tashtari, rikabi, etc, etc. Our clothes were another factor that sent everyone into culture shock. It was the norm to wear jeans and tops in Bombay and that is what we wore on our visits to Hyderabad. So it was that even though we loved the city and went there often, and even lived there once for two years out of choice, it left us exasperated too.

It is quite ironic that I fell in love with and married a Hyderabadi, what is even stranger is that I settled down with him in a Middle-Eastern country. A lot of my life has been spent in resolving the resulting conflicts. For instance we used to go out quite often with my husband’s friends, the women and men walking in two separate groups. Not being able to be with my husband, who I had left home, family and favourite city to be with, used to upset me no end.

Once more the Third Culture heritage has passed on, this time to my children. They though, unlike me, have managed it much better. They are more level-headed and aware of who they are. There might be a slight conflict in identifying with the number of races they have descended from but there is little cultural conflict. They know what parts of their culture they want to accept and what they do not wish to be associated with. They move on ahead in life with confidence doing their own thing, embracing good things from all cultures they come across. They have a deep faith in God and all their actions are ruled by principles and morality, which I find very reassuring. I think they will do much better than I did.

There is just one thing I would like to add, that cultures are a good thing but they should not be rigid and they should not be intolerant and judgemental. If someone is doing something differently or making choices you would not make, it doesn’t make them evil or bad, unless of course what they are doing is going to be harmful in anyway.  It is important to give people the benefit of the doubt, to at least try to understand, to give acceptance and respect instead of censure. Moreover cultures over time have proved to be growth and change oriented, adaptable instead of inflexible. Protecting your culture, your way of life might seem to be the right thing to do but give other things a chance; who knows, it might be for the better.

Follow Pari’s blog: Weaving Tapestries