Author Archives: avaninadkarni

A country of contrasts

by Avani Nadkarni

It’s almost like a rite of passage for any Indian-American born to immigrant parents: the trip back to the subcontinent.

I have gone “back” to India approximately every four years since I was four years old, taking the 24-hour journey from Seattle directly across the world to Mumbai. When I was younger, I used to love seeing my grandparents and cousins, but saw the trips as a great sacrifice: Using a hole in the ground as a toilet and weaving through free-roaming cows on the streets of Mumbai wasn’t exactly Disneyland.

Since then, it seems, India has become more Westernized and I have become more open-minded and somewhere in between, we have met in the middle.

It was when I went as a 16-year-old high school sophomore who had just taken a photography course that I began to see the unexpected beauty of India. The entire country became a study of contrasts to my teenage eye, something that continued when I returned in my twenties. From the little beggar girl with mangled hair and soot covering her wide-eyed face selling the whitest, most richly-fragrant jasmine garlands to the little boy with the ripped pants selling simple tour books to tourists against the backdrop of the breathtakingly extravagant Taj Mahal to the brightly colored, beautiful saris hanging to dry in some of the most dilapidated slums in the country, it seemed every beautiful thing in the country had a counterpart. Each traditionally Indian facet of the country has a just as Westernized version.

It seems each trip I take there proves my theory more and more. Domino’s Pizza and McDonald’s have cropped up, but the street vendors selling chaat get just as much traffic. Every college kid wearing Nike shoes strolls amidst an elderly woman wearing handmade sandals.

I suppose these stark contrasts are to be expected in the world’s largest democracy, a rising world power where 1.6 billion people who speak hundreds of languages are trying to live peacefully together in a space that is only slightly larger than Alaska, Texas, and California put together. The contrasts are part of the beauty and allure that has become nearly synonymous with Indian culture.

Sometimes I fear as the country becomes more more Westernized in an attempt to live up to its powerhouse expectations, this might change. The beauty and traditions of the country, while they won’t go away, may be stashed in the corner. I was contemplating this on my last trip to India, until something caught my eye.

The non English-speaking fruit vendor peddling pears and bananas seemed like any of the countless others on the street, but there was something about the lettering on the cardboard crate behind him. It read ‘Washington Apples.’

I had traveled halfway across the world to buy a deliciously juicy looking red apple from my home state from a man in a dhoti who’d never left the city. And that’s how I know that no matter how many fast food chains and American brand names pop up in the country, India will always be the perfect blend of contrasts.

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Posted by on September 14, 2009 in Culture, Family, Identity


Wedding — or Bollywood film?

by Avani Nadkarni.

I went to a wedding a couple weeks ago and was one of 650 guests.

When I tell this to the average American, I get at least a dropped jaw or speechlessness. When I tell the average Indian-American, I simply get an unsurprised nod.

Weddings are the lifeblood of Indian-American society. During the spring and summer season, many families will attend one nearly every weekend, sometimes two in one weekend. And they are week-long, Bollywood-scale events, from the grooms arriving on horses or horse-drawn carriages amidst a dancing crowd to the brides draped in ornate outfits—the products of a pre-wedding trip to India—and gold jewelry to the legions of well-dressed and jewelry-dripping guests. There are production-like dances at each event, the products of weeks of practice by friends and family of the couple, and of course, lots of late-night, joyful dancing at the reception.

For Americans, weddings are meant to be intimate events to celebrate the union of two people.
For Indians, weddings are spectacular, over-the-top parties to, yes, celebrate the union of two people, but it’s not all about the couple. It’s also about the joining of two extended families and it’s about putting on a never-before-seen show for the entire network of family and friends.
These weddings are a delight for the guests, who get to toss their own worries away for a while and sip cocktails in the middle of their own Bollywood film, each wedding trying to outdo all the ones that came before it.

For the stars of the show—the bride and groom—it is exhausting.

“I just want it to be over so I can be married,” one groom told me a week before his August nuptials.

While I enjoy being a guest at these lavish affairs—and hope to have a beautiful wedding myself one day—the realist in me can’t help but ask: Is it necessary? If a couple is in love and ready to get married, why the theatrics? Why not a simple wedding, with only close family and friends and a simple red sari? Why not save some of that hard-earned money on a down payment to a home or, at least, a lovely honeymoon?

In short, because it’s not in Indians’ blood.

When arranged marriages were more common in India, and divorce even more rare than it is now, weddings were a celebration of not just two people, but two families uniting for life. Even now, in modern day America, Indian immigrants and their offspring see marriage as the joining of two separate families into one union. When that becomes clear, it is easier to see why the pomp and circumstance ensues.

So as more and more of my own close friends begin getting married, I will agreeably pile on the jewelry and watch them try to outdo each other, because I know that underneath the armor lie the recipes for a good marriage: A deep love, commitment, family ties and lots and lots of dancing. Who can argue with that?

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Posted by on August 31, 2009 in Social Life


The Slumdog Effect

by Avani Nadkarni.

I was driving home from work one day last week when I heard my favorite new song on the radio.

The usual half-asleep mode I get lulled into while driving the 55 minutes was shaken as I forgot about any cell phone driving rules, excitedly began calling all my closest friends, leaving shrieky messages.

“They’re playing Jay Sean on the radio!” I yelled into their voicemails. “On the mainstream radio!”

Jay Sean, a British pop singer of Indian descent, has been on my playlist for about five years, but only recently, after signing on with American rapper Li’l Wayne’s record, has he caught the notice of mainstream America.

Most Indians in America aren’t used to seeing or hearing someone so closely resembling themselves yet. It is still thrilling, exhilarating, even to those born here, when someone like you “makes it.”

A large group of my Indian-American friends and I crowded around a television set in my friend’s apartment to watch the 2009 Oscars, squealing when “Slumdog Millionaire” won nearly every award. We smiled like proud parents when songwriter A.R. Rahman performed his Oscar-winning song.

More and more lately, it’s become trendy to be South Asian. Or maybe it’s just that, as children of Indian descent born in America, we are feeling freer to pursue careers that naturally garner more of the spotlight.

We proudly watched Kal Penn as he gained two degrees at UCLA and co-starred in several films on Indian-Americans before shooting to fame as goofy Kumar in the “Harold and Kumar” movies and now, nabbed a spot in President Obama’s administration.

We happily watched Bobby Jindal, whose politics we all may not agree with, as he became the first non-white governor of Louisiana since Resconstruction and we watched his wife, Supriya, refuse to be a in-the-background First Lady while championing for math and science education reform.

As a former gymnast, I watched first Mohini Bhardwaj in 2004, then Raj Bhavsar in 2008, help the U.S. Gymnastics Team to silver and bronze medals, respectively.

It may take a while, but I think eventually, as Bollywood and Hollywood intertwine and more and more Indian-Americans are encouraged to dabble in entertainment, politics and sports, seeing a fellow Desi face may lose its luster.

But, for now at least, I’ll still shriek like a proud mother whenever someone that resembles me stars in a movie, wins an election or a medal. And I don’t think I’ll be alone.

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Posted by on August 12, 2009 in Social Life


An Indian Girl by Any Other Name

by Avani Nadkarni.

A person’s first name is a huge part of their identity. As a woman, it’s the one part of your identity that stays constant, whether you get married or not.

Parents think long and hard about what their child’s first name should be, because it’s the first gift they can give their baby. They brainstorm ideas, solicit advice, consult the countless baby name books and Web sites available.

In parts of India, a baby isn’t even named until an official “naming ceremony,” conducted several days after the baby’s birth. When Indian immigrants have children in the U.S., however, they must name their child before they leave the hospital.

My mother gave me my name—Avani—because she thought it was pretty. Plus, it doesn’t rhyme with anything. She’d learned her lesson from naming my older sister Arti, who got teased with Arti Farty endlessly throughout junior high.

When I was in elementary school, I desperately wanted a “normal” name, particularly Ashley. When I finally have a daughter, I’d think, I’m naming her Ashley. There were about four Ashleys in any given grade when I was in elementary schools. A lot of Jennifers and Jessicas, too. People could pronounce Ashley. They wouldn’t mess it up like they did my name, saying “A-vah-nee” if they saw it spelled out or mistaking it for “Ebony” if they heard it.

As I grew up, however, I began to realize the advantages of my name, which means “Mother Earth” in Sanskrit. For one thing, it’s a definite conversation starter.
“What a pretty name!” people exclaim. “Where is it from?”

As a newspaper reporter, it helps put people at ease from the get-go, as they make small talk about their experiences with India, or names, or anything related. By the time the name conversation is over, the person is at ease and ready to chat.

And now, in my mid-20s, I’ve learned to really embrace my name. And if I ever have a daughter, she won’t be called Ashley, although I still think it’s a beautiful name. She’ll have a strong name from the colorful land where her grandparents are from.


Posted by on August 3, 2009 in Social Life


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