Up until the completion of my high school, I had lived in the comfort and protection of my family home, in my hometown. I did travel a lot with my family, both in India and overseas, but again it was always with them. After high school, I decided to pursue my further studies in New Zealand. My family, encouraging as always, let me fly out of their nest.
On a pleasant summer day, I landed in New Zealand, with my luggage, my dreams and my family’s blessings to start a new chapter in my life. This was going to be my home for the next 4 years, at least! This place, where I knew not a soul (which was one of the main reasons to go there). A young woman from the University received me at the airport and drove me to the Hall of Residence where I was to stay. I had been in touch with her for the past couple of weeks, discussing flight details, my accommodation details, etc. I was nervous, not about the culture shock, but the fact that I was actually alone there. Having lived with a very mixed group of friends and family friends in India, from Bengalis to Marathis, Hindus, Catholics, etc. made me ready to adjust in a different culture and equipped me with respect for and understanding of different cultures, cuisine, festivals and lifestyles.
We arrived at the Hall of Residence to find that it was past dinner time so there was no food for me. The caretaker kindly arranged for some fruit. But I was in a bit of a shock, as I was so used to being looked after everywhere I went. That was my first pang of home sickness. Then I was shown to my room. I met some of the other students. After a round of introductions, we called it a night. What surprised me was how people just asked my name, which country I am from and may be what course I have enrolled in. Nobody wanted to know what my parents did, what religion I follow. Even my surname, with its religious, caste context was lost on them. Hmmm, this was new.
The next couple of days were spent in various orientation programmes. I started making friends during all these activities. I felt refreshed, light but did not understand the reason for it. I mean, of course it was a big change for me but something inside me was feeling liberated. Over the next few weeks, I had a very cosmopolitan circle of friends, both boys and girls, from various countries, pursuing varies streams of study. It did not matter what their parents did or what their financial status was. Of course, religion and caste were irrelevant. We knew each other as we were, for what we were. I made a conscious effort not to remain stuck with Indian students. I mean I had a group of Indians who I would meet from time to time for our dose of rajma chawal, gulabjamun, Bollywood movies and festivities along with big doses of nostalgic talk of our life in India.
Over time, it dawned that people had a lot of pre conceived ideas about Asians and Indians. But owing to my non-Indian first name (my parents liked the name so didn’t bother that it wasn’t Indian), my supposedly Spanish/ Mexican looks and my non-Indian accent, owing to initial school years in UK, nobody actually thought I was Indian. So, they could not really place me and hence, never judged me. This brought a whole new perspective to my personality. I learnt to be more confident, outspoken and uninhibited.
Over time, my work was showcased in local shows and galleries and I started getting noticed. Being the only Indian student at the Fashion School got me some media attention. My identity, my own individual identity, stripped of all the family, social, financial baggage was beginning to emerge. I was becoming ‘the Indian girl at fashion school’. Although my work was always very Indian in its concept, the final translation was contemporary, which became my strength and point of visibility. This reflected in my personality as well, a mix of Indian values and Western outlook.
A year later, I started flatting with my friends which brought its own new experiences. I learnt managing a house (here I missed the Ramu Kakas and Shanta Bais from home), cooking all sorts of food and realized I was a great cook which led to me catering for lot of friends’ parties and even running Indian cooking lessons at the University! I discovered I hated clubbing but enjoyed dinner with friends at home. I liked walking through the campus lawns at night, I started liking Jazz music. I leant to shoulder domestic responsibilities. I had never done all this in India. My self-discipline and time management, owing to a decade of training in Odissi dance, helped me maintain a balance between work and home. Of course, I never forgot my roots. I was still addicted to my Hindi film music, Sufi music, cooking and binging on Indian food and started performing Odissi at cultural events.
I was beginning to discover myself, the real me, my likes, dislikes, personality, things that made me happy or sad. It was like meeting another person. It was relieving to have my own identity, to have people know me for who I was, to know for myself who I was. I learnt to appreciate myself. After 20 years of my life, I met myself! This got me thinking why did it take me so long to find out who I am as a person? The answer I believe lies in our social structure. From the time we are born, we get labelled with a gender, religion, caste, sub caste, financial status, later educational qualification and so on…keep getting added. This becomes our identity and determines how we are treated by everyone. I don’t think it’s wrong but these factors cannot be the sole yardstick to assess a person. It is important to move out of these shadows to be able to blossom into an individual.
Anahita Suri, Assistant Professor, School of Fashion Design, Unitedworld Institute of Design (UID)
Disclaimer: The opinions / views expressed in this article are solely of the author in his / her individual capacity. They do not purport to reflect the opinions and/or views of the College and/or University or its members.