Thursday, July 21, 2011


neem neem

green green

I n d i a

falls from the folds

of my mother's sari

like basmati.


follow terra cotta paths

like roads I drew on the back

of your palms

years ago, himalayan


maps past

rust locks, iron rot

jacaranda trees , neem

leaves, heel

to sand

heel to sand.

Never compromise

root constellations.


black they will call you

until you are engulfed

now stuffed like pheasants


the seed in your pocket

is for saving.

neem neem

green green

the seed in your pocket

is for saving.

A man once told me I was too passionate and so he built me into a walled garden like my mother and her mother and her mother till we never remembered the color blue. I dedicate this poem to my mom Suchitra Srinivasa.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Ga nv go

U li si a ge yu tsa, my granddaughter, the mountains that surround us today were carved by Su li, Great Buzzard in the sky” I watched the old man hold his granddaughter Jaya on his lap as he pointed to the sky. “But u du du, grandfather, where were we?” The man with ginger root palms chuckled. “We have always been here, A ge yu ts, just like A tsi lv, fire that burns within”. The little girl pressed her hand to her grandfather’s chest. Just like the fire that burns within.

Language is power. Language is the arbitrary vocal symbols we use to encode the experience of the world. It is one of the fundamental behaviors that makes us human. The way we communicate can bind us together or can set us apart. But how is it that something as valuable as human connection can separate us? It is through historical and geo-political contexts that can make one language powerful than another. The saga of colonialization was the manifestation of linguistic power politics. When I visited Cherokee Reservation, North Carolina for research, I became aware of the sheer power of words. Power of language, although historically steeped in the ethnocide of a people, now is a glimmer of hope. Emerging from the darkest periods of American history lay the ingenuity, hope, and fight for language revitalization. This is Ka no he lv s gi, the story of Jaya and my her family’s fight for language reclamation.

The story of Native American language is historically one of heart break. During the 1800’s Indian youth were forced to attend anglo boarding schools in order to “kill the Indian and make a man”. Jerry Wolfe, Jaya’s grandfather told me how when he was a five years old, he was forced from his family to live in a boarding school. “They did not let me speak Cherokee. They cut my hair. They made me wear White man’s clothes. When I spoke to my cousins in Cherokee, they made us wash our mouths with soap. To be Indian was considered A s ga ni, sin. We were constantly bombarded with images that read ‘Speak American’ or ‘Kill the Indian Make a Man’. They reminded us of the Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of our ancestors. They told us it was for the better. We were convinced that we were half animal until we spoke English with fluency and lived a ‘White lifestyle’. When I came home to my parents in my navy blue uniform, my mother and father would say: ‘where is my son? They brought back a white man. Where is my son?’ The Indian in me was dead. I spoke English. Unlike my father’s childhood, I did not hear my grandfather’s stories and wisdom. I was too White to understand the ancient ways. We stopped speaking Cherokee”. I could see pain behind his eyes. But it did not end there.

In the 1950’s, boarding schools shut down across the United States yet the mentality that Native meant ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, ‘heathen’, ‘dirty’, ‘drunken’, ‘uncivilized’, and ‘ignorant’ was still prevalent in American society. Native American students were taught in anglocentric public schools that enforced the stereotypes of indigenous people. By anglocentric, I mean that although the institution did not intentionally attempt to eradicate native culture, the education system lacked the understanding of the cultural discrepancies between Indian and prominent American culture and neglected the needs of native students. The majority of teachers on the reservation were White. Although a hierarchy was not stated, it was quite visible as to which ethnicity was perceived to have a more dominant, intellectual voice. Rose, Jaya’s mother recalled the constant bullying in schools: “I remember when a White teacher yelled at us one day after we played a practical joke on her: “you will all become drunks one day!” That’s when my brother dropped out of school”. The structural violence that the Cherokee people underwent hurt me and confused me. How did the people survive I thought as my heart grew heavy.

Jerry took my hand in his: “I want to make sure they know our history is larger than the Trail of Tears and the forced displacement of our people. If 12,000 years of Cherokee history spanned over 24 hours, the Trail of Tears would last only five minutes. We live on.” In 2004, New Kituwah Academy opened in hopes of keeping Cherokee alive. The school is the first language revitalization program in in North Carolina. New Kituwah predominantly teaches children from the age of 2 to 6 with the synthesis of the elders’ wisdom and cutting edge technology. Children learn about their heritage through apple products that are inscribed in Cherokee. New Kituwah also hosts adult classes so that parents can speak Cherokee to their children. After school programs such as basket weaving, storytelling, and mentorships at the Cherokee Museum enable teens to learn and work in an academic setting for language revitalization. Jerry Woolfe has assisted students on presentations at the Smithsonian and has had students help him record the stories of elders who remember boarding schools. These efforts are recognized by the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in North Carolina. Students have the opportunity to intern for the tribal office. Language preservation is not an attempt for natives to return to pre-colonial ways, but to be mindful of history and identity flux from a native perspective. Immersion schools are determined to integrate native youth into American society with hopes that their students will be proud of their identity as American Indians while performing to their best of their ability in non-native United States. Jerry told me how proud he was of his students: “I am so thrilled to work with my students every day. When these little kids speak Cherokee to me, I am so happy. When I was their age, I thought Cherokee would die. But here I see Jaya speaking Cherokee. It makes me weep. They are our future. The children learn the true story of our history. For years, my daughter was taught that the Trail of Tears was our only history. But we are a people who have been thriving for millennia. I am here to be Grandfather. I am here to be A li s de lv di or support”. Jaya called to us in Cherokee: U lv, sister! Come see the buzzard!” She pulled me along the path as we giggled.

“You know, they say Cherokees were the known as a-dv-ne-li-s-gi, Great Orators? Great Orators …When my White school master years ago told me to kill the Indian in me, I did. I lost myself. Where to go? Then the Spirit told me: go back, go back to Cherokee and you will find yourself again. I did. I thank, U-ne-qua, The Great Grandfather for taking me back home. Taking us all back home. This is our fight. And soon, our students will fight with us and we will come together and prosper again. They will be our ambassadors outside the reservation. They will integrate: be proud of who they are and when asked speak about their identity as they prosper in the anglo world”.

Jaya, Jerry, and I saw the great bird spread its wings and flew over us. Over the mountains.

To Hi do- like a top, I am in in the center of my world.

I watched Jaya and her U du du walk away hand in hand. Jerry called back to me “We will be back. We always come back”.

I looked to the mountains. The mountains swallowed sky.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

To St. Mary's Convent School


we sat in blue jumpers,

nylon stockings

to the thigh,

and Bata shoes

newly shined:

we smelled

like slate.

Do you love me?

She asked everyday

fingers fingers


arms straight

bent, folded

like amma’s starched saris.

I love you, I love you

like my thumbs!

Lips thick

with disappointment

What does that mean?

Oh jaan, without thumbs

how will I weave ribbons

in your braids

or even tie

jasmine garlands

around your ankles?

Lips stretched,

hasna. Yes

your are my thumbs

gently sucking hers,


to Asha Bhosle tunes

braids undone

sweat dotting brows, she

tasted like

sweet flat bread.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Li tal Shah- We have Arrived.

When I was young and sweet, I thought the world would never shock me. Every night, under the covers, I would run my finger against Encyclopedia Britanicas. I read of scorpions and Voodoo rituals. The stuff of children’s nightmares excited me, making me read on. I grew to like this world: the magic, the new, the ancient. But then I fell in love. It was a true academic romance that would consume me and make me step out of my realm of pages. But then it turned to a panic. Culture shock: the wake from my slumber. I would not see the same again.

Like most love stories, this one begins with a glance. When I was eleven, my fingers found the words YA BASTA scrolled on the spine of a small book. My saga of enamoration began. I fell in love with a place named Chiapas Mexico where indigenous people who were tucked behind mountains began to lose everything they once had: land, language, and life. Why? Because of NAFTA, a free-trade agreement that economically welded governments together, burning out those who had no authority in industrial society. Mayan Indians were forced off of their ancestral land so that the Mexican government could farm on the stolen grounds. The Mexican army began an ethnocide against indigenous people who lived in Southern Mexico for millennia. Whole villages were on the brink of collapse. But strength was found. A movement deep in the womb of the Lacandon jungle swept over the Mexican state the size of South Carolina. An army of indigenous Mayan Indians formed the ZAPATISTA ARMY and took arms to protect their culture. My heart could not take it any longer. Pages suffocated me; I had to see it for myself.

As high school passed on, I suppressed my desire to visit the home that I thought I always had but never saw. I was not ready yet. I took a two year independent study with a Spanish professor on the History and Culture of Mexico to look deeper into the frames set by books. I read and read about the mountain people of Chiapas: I consumed tribal government theory, read ethnographies about the intricacies in gender relations, and fervently flipped through Tzotsil and Tsetal dictionaries. I wanted to learn the language so that I could immerse with a rebel family that I already perceived would embrace me for my very love of Chiapas. I was especially in love with the indigenous Mayan women. They looked so strong and steady in the pictures of books. I could not wait to live with them, side by side.

The wait was over. My final year of high school, I was able to apply for a senior project, an opportunity to finish my high school education early and take up an academic pursuit out of the classroom. I applied for a multisite Participation Observation to study what it meant to be a Post-Colonial Woman. I studied my mother’s village in India, Madrid Spain, and Chiapas Mexico between January and June. Finally it was time for me to leave my books behind and go.

Like a new bride, I arrived in Chiapas. I was so eager to walk the hills and talk of PEACE AND REVOLUTION. But first, I had to brush up on my language skills. I took Spanish lessons in the tourist town of San Cristobal de Las Casas. I was staying with an ethnically indigenous family who were well established in San Cris (the father was an actor, the mother was an NGO worker). After my lessons, I felt I was ready to travel up the mountains to live on top of the world with the soldiers. In 2001, the Revolution was over because of a treaty between the Mexican government and indigenous communities, yet people consider themselves soldiers because the lack of medical resources and other promises that were never made by the government. I was to live with my host family in San Cris’ extended family in Chenalo, an indigenous municipality up in the mountains of Chiapas. The night before the trip, I was rosy with excitement.

The next morning we arrived by truck at the bottom of the mountain. But because the roads were bad, we had to walk with my suitcase up the hill. I had read about those journey so I was ready. I wore soccer cleats and hiked up, in line with the women who were barefoot and strapped their babies to their backs. Li tal Sha! we called in tsotzil, which meant: I have arrived! I met the family: The matriarch (a grandmother who spoke no Spanish and was so small that I could carry her), women, and children. The women were just as I imagined: strong, dignified, but kind. They looked so beautiful in their Mayan huipil blouses and wool skirts. I brought gifts of chocolates, medicine, sodas, and a soccer ball. The children and I played soccer and then ‘Zapatista War’ in environmental paradise. I kept on telling the children: this is the most green I have ever seen. They giggled and said: what else would the world look like? I smiled.

I was then introduced to the woman I was to live with. Patty was 19 and had a smooth face and kind eyes. As she helped me set out my things, a little boy ran and hid behind her skirt. I got on my knees and looked behind her. A dirty face peered at me, then grabbed more of his mother’s woolen skirt. “Ponkee, say hi to your sister!” A three year old boy jumped into my arms. I tickled him until he laughed. As I helped Patty tuck Ponkee into bed, we talked. I asked her about the army and the movement and how government relations are. She said that its resting. But then she said: “what is a movement when we need things”. I asked her to go on. She pulled a folded photograph from her pocket and handed it to me. “This is his father”. I looked at the photo, then at sleeping Ponkee. I asked her where he was. She began to cry. She cried and cried, I did not know what to do. She told me he was Cozumel. I was confused. I had visited Cozumel when I was 12. It was tourist island known for its white sand beaches and luxurious hotels. Why was a Mayan in Cozumel, an island in Northern Mexico? She told me although she was proud of being Mayan, living on the land was not enough. She wanted Ponkee to have an education, but school cost money. She wanted to have another means of fuel for cooking so that she did not have to leave Ponkee unattended for hours while she walked down the mountain with other women to look for wood. Pokee’s father, who never met his son, worked in a Cozumel restaurant as a dish washer. “We need money” she said. I watched her fall asleep and she weeped. I could not sleep.

I felt sick to my stomach. The paradise landscapes and Zapatista slogans of anti-Free Trade were not their whole lives. Wasn’t the desire for money so against the principles of Zapatista nature? Wasn’t Ponkee’s father abandoning his culture by supporting a capitalist corporation of hotels? I fell so in love with the pictures of forests and hand looms that I did not realize that culture was fluid and that image was not forever. I was ashamed of myself for romanticizing my indigenous host family. If culture is the sets of learned behavior used to adapt to the transforming world, then how could I expect for this mode of mountain living to stay intact! I could not sleep. I walked outside the hut and cried. I began to notice things: the lack of a bathroom, no hot water to bathe in, no medicines. How was I to live here? I looked above me. I had never seen so many stars. The sight calmed me. I then looked ahead of me and saw little lights dotting the hills. Wooden huts of the Mayans lit with electricity. This is the most beautiful place on Earth. Just just because of the mountains, but because of my new family. Patty opened her home to me, and that is the biggest beauty of all. I went back to bed, Patty by my side.

I wanted to know learn more about the changing Mayan identity as an Indigenous and 21st Century people. The complex question that came to mind was: why did the Maya change their ways if they had been living the same way for centuries and do the changes result in a change of identity for the community? I asked Patty and Lucia (another woman in the family) why indigenous communities were changing. Why do people want electricity and other things? They told me that when they were young, before the revolution, the Maya were a horticultural society who relied on rainfall to grow food. Corn was sacred and every part of it was used. Men and women worked side by side in fields and strict gender roles were maintained in order for mountain life to continue in harmony. But when the government threatened the livelihood of the community, “NAFTA” Patty said “had opened us up to the world”. Many NGOs had come to the mountains and taught girls about their rights. Patty had worked with anthropologists before (including my Spanish professor in high school) but she said that these women were different. They had maps and pictures of women working at desks and not cooking and cleaning. During the Revolution, electricity came to Patty’s village. She remembered when they had bought a radio in 1996 to listen to the Zapatista Rebel Radio. But they also heard other radio stations not only from Mexico but around the world thanks to the altitude of the mountains. Patty heard of Coca-Cola on a radio station in Spain and wanted to drink it. Soon after, Coke replaced posh, an indigenous alcohol from corn used in Mayan rituals to please Corn spirits. After the Revolution, Patty and her family expected medicines and schools that were promised from the government. But none of the promises came true. Regardless, Patty was growing up and when she was 15 she married. She loved her husband very much, but she was concerned about him. She recalled how at night he would tell her about possibilities for jobs in the North. He would get money and send it to her for medicines and Coca-Cola and slippers for her bare feet (a Maya tradition). Patty became pregnant and did not want her husband to leave, but she knew it was for the best. “Ponkee only knows his father from the photograph, but feels that his father is looking over him because of the monthly money sent” Patty said.

I asked her if she thought the Mayan culture would disappear from the technological and monetary changes. “It is complicated” she said. She is very happy about the money and medicine her husband sends her. But she is worried that one day someone will take her land, or worse, a Mayan will sell his land and abandon his tradition. “We are proud to be Mayans” she told me. She said her people have constantly been changing for millennia even though they look like they have lived the same way: indigenous clothing patterns and colors change generation after generation, the religion changed from Mayan religion to Christianity, and now Mayan women sell their weavings to tourist shops, their traditions still preserved even through the exchange of Capitalism. “See? We are still Mayans! And we will always be Mayans!”

The next morning we rose while the Chiapanecan moon gleamed a bit longer. At 4 am, Yaya the grandmother flicked the switch for the mechanical corn grinder instead of mashing dried corn by hand. Human adaption. I smiled.

(Ponkee and Patty)

I realized that by romanticizing a culture, I would not have been able to look into the complexities of it. By speaking to Patty and living with her, all of my preconceived, romantic ideas of Mayan life were slowly unraveled. Our conversation, a dialectic, I was able to learn about her culture, about myself, and she learned about mine. My culture shock due to the romanticizing of Mayan culture was eased by the genealogy of the Mayan persona. Mayan culture is fluid as much as mine. This is why the Mayan people have one of the oldest histories in the Western Hemisphere. In the midst of my tumbles, I was able to glimpse humanity. When Patty and I talked about our childhoods and our family, we giggled like girls and exchanged glances like old friends. At times we felt each other’s pain. Regardless of our geographic locations, we were able to develop a friendship in a language that was not our mother tongue. Hola. Como te llamas? What is your name? Globalization did not mean the end of human cultures. It was the meeting of one to another. Patty, my corn husk sister, resides in my vagabond heart. Li tal Shah- We have arrived. And we are doing it together.