Where’d Your Culture Go?
Written by: Denera Pope-Ragoonanan
“Mom, where are your grandparents from?”
“You don’t have other work to do? I don’t know why you’re always so obsessed with that nonsense.”
I barely knew anything about my mother’s family. On my mother’s good days, she’d respond that her lineage was blessed by Lord Ram when her ancestors in Ayodhya, an ancient city in Uttar Pradesh, gave him a ride on their boat on the Ganges to save Sita. My mother was the youngest of her siblings. Her father died when she was a toddler. She lived in her father’s village and did not know much about her maternal side. Still, she’d tout a questionable story of a “Spanish (Latino)” ancestor to other Indian relatives, implying she was not the same as them; but somehow better. As I grew older, I had more questions about where she and her ancestors came from. My inquiries were met with defensiveness and anger—an anger I later understood that arose from not having answers. Her parents and grandparents had given her the same answer.
The only information known about my mother's elders was that two boys were kidnapped by the British and forced on the ship from India. My mother’s relatives, nonetheless, all agreed that their origins were from one specific region in India— Bihar. When I asked my father the same question, he responded that his maternal side had some South Indian roots, but strongly believed his family also came from Bihar.
Bihar-Uttar Pradesh are the origins of 86% of the indentured laborers brought to the Caribbean. Biharis and Uttar Pradeshis brought not only their arm strength to Trinidad, but a rich culture that is now the basis of Indo-Caribbean culture. Today, Bhojpuri is the backbone of the Trinidadian Hindustani that we hear when our parents want to jaare the talkary and chankay the daal, in our chutney songs Mor Tor or Gunga Gaana, or in the names of foods like bodhi, baigan, and karaili. Bihar, however, is one of India’s poorest states. Its culture, which Trinidadians hold in high regard, is relatively unknown to other states in the sub-continent unless it is the brunt of demeaning jokes in India.
As the firstborn in the United States, I had to define myself and my culture in a society that told me my mom’s belna was a rolling pin, our curries were smelly, and my family’s gods were pagan and satanic. My dad worried that I’d lose my Indian and Trinidadian identity with no family around to maintain the culture. He feared we’d lose his mother tongue, as he was never taught his mother’s tongue. My mother, contrarily, knew the mockery she faced with her Indian name and Trinidadian accent. She gave me the middle names “Ashley” and “Victoria” just in case “Ragoonanan” was too much to carry.
As a teenager, I was conflicted like most immigrants' children. Being the product of parents who also had complicated cultural identities with varying degrees of pride and shame in those identities intensified this conflict. They were never Indian nor Caribbean enough. I hated the burdens and complications of my culture. However, as I left home and ventured into the world, I realized how resilient but endangered my culture was. As an adult, I wanted to learn everything that I lost. I tried to find what I thought was our language, Bhojpuri, and learn about our cultures, even the lost traditions. I attempted to develop the lost pride in my Indo-Caribbean heritage that was heavily rooted in those Bihari-UP origins. Growing up in NYC provided a platform to begin learning about those that preceded me. It also allowed me to interact with other South Asians to learn more about our mutual history; everything that happened on the Indian subcontinent prior to the early 1900s. Many South Asians who questioned my South Asian-ness would also note that I had the round face of a “Bengali” or I looked like a “South Indian actress.” I’d use these interactions as an opportunity to explain my Bihari lineage and Trinidadian culture.
More recently, my cousin who had always been conflicted about their Indian roots and tended to appropriate Black culture while not fully acknowledging our community's anti-black racism, started describing our family as Black. I was confused and asked my father if there was a possibility that we were not Indian. He, with his strongly rooted anti-black sentiment, went on for days about our “Indianness.” I did not trust this answer for the obvious biases. When I asked his other sibling, she responded that we were, in fact, Black and not Indian, and spoke of it as a relief.
It had taken me years to understand my background. I had to overcome many inner conflicts and both my and my parent’s insecurities to accept what was left of my culture. Now I have more questions about my lineage. Those answers could taint my claim to the culture I knew. So I took the plunge and did a DNA ancestry test.
To my mother’s and probably to my aunt’s dismay, my DNA test came back 100% Indian. There was not even a percentage of a percentage in dispute. However, I found I was 0% Bihari and only 2% North Indian. Sixty-four percent of my DNA came from West Bengal and India’s Northeast such as Assam, which are currently underserved by the Indian government as their “Indianness” is always in question. The other 34% came from Tamil Nadu, southern India. My bloodline for both Bengali and South Indian genes also did not mix until the 1910s-1970s, the birth of my grandparents and my parents. While most people I explain this to respond, “Shock, you’re Indian,” I am surprised. This DNA test was to learn about the roots I did not know about such as potential Latino or Black ancestors. Instead, I realized the Indian in my Indo-Caribbean-American identity is more complicated than I initially thought.
As a side note, I realized I am actually more “Indian” than a lot of the Indians and South Asians who have gone out of their way to make my people continuously question their Indian ness, as my DNA is 100% from within the current borders of the Indian nation. However, more significantly, these results raised many more questions about my ancestors. Based on the results, five of my great grandparents were Bengali and three were South Indian. Neither region has shared languages or cultures with Bihar. Would this mean that my grandparents also lost their mother tongues to a completely different culture? Where did our Tamilian and Bengali languages go? Where did our culture go? How did the Bengalis meet? How did the Tamilians meet? How did my lineage stay so filtered despite crossing oceans, adopting Bihari culture, and losing their languages and cultures? How did those illiterate laborers understand each other and pass on a completely different language to their children? Why did they claim a different culture? Am I once again removed from a culture that should have been mine? What is my true culture?
My parents were not American. Their ancestors were not Trinidadian/Caribbean. Those ancestors were not Bihari. We are lost all in a span of 100 years.