Discovering Myself Through Borderlands – Sarhadein aur Seema

In the book Borderlands – La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa defined a borderland as “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition” (25). In her “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” essay in the book Reading Culture, Anzaldua makes special use of the term “borderland” to refer to those places “where two or more cultures edge each other, where people of different races occupy the same territory, where under, lower, middle, and upper classes touch, where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy” (162).

This is my interpretation of those borderlands in my life. In a reflection of Anzaldúa’s works, I try to occasionally move between languages, particularly with the quotes.

[Hovering over the linked text will bring up the definition; however, this is only applicable to words and small phrases, not longer sentences or quotes. There is a full index on page 2 with the English translations.]


What creates borders? Uncertainties, nafrat1, distances? For me, it was the questions.

“What’s your favourite show?” Laced with excitement and hope for a new friendship, it quickly paved the way for others like it. “Who’s your favourite singer?” “Which movies do you like best?” Like angry bees determined to sting you, questions like these came at me with every new face I saw. With the questions came the inevitable realization that I couldn’t answer a single one. My love for Indian culture had long since dominated my likes and I had no knowledge of the things they asked me about. Never before had I questioned or doubted my love for Indian culture. Not until my first day at school in Canada that is. I seemed to have nothing in common with the twenty kids around me and like a giant, neon yellow arrow above my head, my silence singled me out, forcing up barriers that took me years to break down.

Ek baat honton tak hai jo aayi nahin
Bas aankhon say hai jhaankti
Tumse kabhi, mujhse kabhi
Kuch lafz hain woh maangti
Jinko pehanke honton tak aa jaaye woh
Aawaaz ki baahon mein baahein daalke ithlaye woh
Lekin jo yeh ik baat hai
Ahsas hi ahsas hai
Khushboo si hai jaise hawa mein tairti
Khushboo jo be-aawaaz hai
Jiska pata tumko bhi hai
Jiski khabar mujhko bhi hai
Duniya se bhi chupta nahin
Yeh jaane kaisa raaz hai
— Javed Akhtar, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara2

I was 6 months old when I crossed over my first international sarhad, from Bombay to Saudi Arabia. Within 3 years, I went from Saudi to Abu Dhabi to Dubai, where I ended up staying for 5 years. Those initial years, considered the most important to a child’s development, took place in a whirlwind of three cultures from three main groups of people. The nationals3, the desi4 middle-class, and the Expats.

Arabic, Hindi, English.

My day began with the azanfrom the mosque across my apartment building, at which point I would get ready to go to my English speaking school, being introduced to Arabic, which would become a second language course for older students. Once I got home, there was a half Hindi, half English atmosphere within my family.

All of that made sense. And then, on a pleasantly warm February night, we left Dubai, only to arrive to a startlingly cold February morning in Canada.

Winter in Mississauga, Canada
Winter in Mississauga, Canada

Challa ki labhda phire
Yaaron main ghar keda
Lokan toh puchda phire
Challa hansda phire
Challa ronda phire
Challa gali gali rulda phire
Challe tu sab da
Challe tera koi nai
Challa gali gali rulda phire
Challa ki labda phire
–“Challa”, Gulzar, Jab Tak Jai Jaan6

Dubai, U.A.E is primarily composed of South Asian immigrants, half of whom are Indian: living in Dubai is almost the same as living in India. Moving to Canada after growing up in the Middle East was a splash in the face by waves that stopped for no one. I was instantly thrown into the sea with no life jacket or any knowledge on how to swim. The most I could do was try to stay above the surface until a coast guard came. My coast guard came in the form of another move. Only this time, it wasn’t 7000 miles to Canada, but 11 miles to Mississauga. It seemed that in that short distance, not only had I moved cities, but I had also moved to other side of the window. After months of being on the outside, looking, but never participating, I finally found myself able to climb through the newly made cracks, if only partly. I was slowly fitting in. I was also blending in though.

Khud se dil dar sa gaya hai,
Andar kuch mar sa gaya hai,
Dil se dil ghabra raha hai,
Khud se bikhar sa gaya hai.

Khoyi si chandani bhi ho gayi hai badgumaan,
Ab to ye zindagi bhi lagti hai ek baddua,
Zehreelay zakhmon ki ye jo kharaashein hain,
Koi to aake dekh le,
Khud se taraashe hai.
–“Khud Se”, Manoj Tapadia, Madras Cafe7

I started living a double life; by day, I knew all about the latest TV shows and movies, by night I watched Indian serials and singing competitions. This carried on for a few years. However, it was harder with the increase in workload as I grew older. Eventually, I got to a point where I only really cared for my evening adventures, and not so slowly, my desperation to learn the ways of Western culture faded into the murky background, at which point I fully immersed myself in everything Indian once again. Fitting in was fine, was great even, but I wasn’t too happy with myself. I had scorned others who changed themselves to be with others, but hadn’t I been doing the same thing? Change isn’t a bad thing, unless it’s for others. If you’re not happy with yourself, no one else can ever be comfortable with you. It took me many years to realize this, but when I did, the difference was like night and day. Comfort in one’s cultural identity is a crucial factor to self-confidence.

My likes and dislikes have long been influenced by a plethora of sources but I grew out of the fear of being judged for them. Unfortunately, that was only one seema– the easiest perhaps, to overcome. Language was always a harder one. I’d learned English from the beginning, so on the surface, few ever realize the internal conflict I have to battle through over the smallest of things: Jo bhi main kehna chahoon, barbaad karein alfaaz mere”8 (Irshad Kamil, Rockstar). Not everything translates. Trying to do so often results in the usually unanswerable question of- “Is this Hindi ya Urdu? There are, as expected, believers at each end of the spectrum- they’re both practically the same; or, they’re completely different. However, for the average person, especially those who are exposed to the Indian film and music industry, some words are noticeably in Hindi or Urdu while others seem to be native to both. Most importantly though, there is no specific distinction. It’s only about what sounds right and what comes naturally. Whether I’m expressing myself in English, ya main Hindi ya Urdu main baat kar rahi hoon, kya farak parta hai?9 Why does it matter? I firmly believe there’s a time and place for every language- both in the written and spoken forms, but before we establish those, it’s more important to create a sense of acceptance for every culture, and therefore, for language. The two are intricately intertwined, so how can we allow and advocate the freedom of culture without permitting the same liberty to language?

Yeh jo des hai tera swades hai tera
Tujhse zindagi hai yeh kah rahi
Sab to pa liya ab hai kya kami
Yun to saare sukh hai barse
Par door tu hai apne ghar se
Haan laut chal tu ab deewane
Jahaan koi to tujhe apna maane
–“Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera”, Javed Akhtar, Swades10

Going to any new place, it’s common to expect some adversity towards you, especially if you’re “different” from the people there.

Lekin kyun? Why?

Are we that afraid of differences? Kya hum woh seema kabhi paar nahi kar sakte?11 Are those so-called borders truly that vast? Somehow, sarhadein par kar ke bhi, woh seema kabhi gayi nahin12. There is often notion among many, even the so-called “outsiders” that everyone should just go back to their swades, their home. But are we that different from each other? It’s not hard to see that Yahan bhi vahi sham hai vahi savera… aisa hi des hai mera jaisa des hai tera”13 (“Aisa Des Hai Mera,” Javed Akthar, Veer-Zaara); the lands are not that different- right? When I first began writing this, I was quite firm in this belief. I realize now though, that there are differences: on the surface definitely, and perhaps at a much deeper level. The question just becomes how we deal with those differences.

Moving to Canada had been a life-changing experience for me. I was forced to acknowledge the biases people hold towards those who are different, and learn to be comfortable not only with their opinions, but also with myself. In the month leading up to my most recent move- to Boston- I didn’t think too much about the way people would see me here. Surely, a city such as Boston would be just a diverse as Mississauga. Sadly, despite the drastic change I felt in moving to Canada, I realize from my two months in Boston that I was thoroughly spoiled. For all its differences, Mississauga had a very large desi population, while Boston, for all its virtues, is severely lacking in one. One of the most irritating comments I’ve received, not once or twice, but several times here in Boston, is: “You’re from Canada, so shouldn’t you know/like these things?” I still don’t understand that. Where you live doesn’t necessarily have to influence your preferences, and is it that unreasonable to think that it doesn’t, at least for me? I am Indian, even if I live in Canada, and that means that in many ways, I was raised as an Indian, with the same values, beliefs, and tastes that my parents grew up with.  While Cambridge, and perhaps some other surrounding areas have some desi or South Asian areas, overall, I feel much more distanced from the things that remind of home and my culture.

Photo by Evie Hansford for Emerson College’s Atlas Magazine.

Khil khil ke laal hua mehndi ka rang aise
Gori hatheliyon pe khilte ho phool jaise
Yeh rang dhoop ka hai, yeh rang chhaon ka hai
Mehndi ka rang nahin, maa ki duaaon ka hai
Is mehndi ka rang hai sachcha, baaki saare jhoote
Haathon se ab mehndi ka yeh rang kabhi na chhoote
–“Bhumbro”, Rahat Indori, Mission Kashmir14

Just a little under a year ago, for what may be last time, Heena’s homemade mixture of mehndi oozed out of the tightly bound, silver paper cone in narrow swirls that zigzagged across my hand and brought a sad smile to my face. Her hair, as she leaned forward in that creaky chair, tickled my forearms, making my fingers quiver with laughter. As I watched with fascination, the intricate design unfurled on my hand, as different from previous visits as the snowflakes that were sure to dust the asphalt in a few weeks time.  Still, they held a similarity in their patterns in a way that was unique to Heena.

As I waited for my mom to pick me up, the passing time took with it the excitement and contentment the morning had brought me. The wind was particularly vicious and in a few short minutes, my fingertips felt as though they had been playing with ice. Each gust of air seemed to attack me, and snatched the drying paste from my hands, preventing the color from darkening in some places before it could even settle in.

After keeping the hardened paste on for nearly 14 hours, I finally rinsed off what remained of the mehndi in the morning. What I saw left me frowning with resignation. The color, though dark, was unevenly distributed as it came to abrupt stops where the wind had done its damage. The color was darker than usual, its true; nearly soot brown in the lower palms, yet there were cracks in the design that shouldn’t have been there. It was around that moment I realized that my life would soon be changing. I would be leaving for college to somewhere far and there was no guarantee of whether I’d even be able to get mehndi done in the coming years.

For me, getting mehndi done a few days before Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, is a tradition that has been upheld in my family for as long as I can remember. From the look of the design on my hands to the homely fragrance it emanates, I love everything about getting mehndi done each year for Diwali.

This year has brought with it many firsts- my first time away from home for so long, my first time in Boston, my first year in college, but more importantly, it brought my first Diwali alone.

When my parents took off from Boston back in August to return home, I didn’t feel the same pang of homesickness that so many others did. They were so close to me, and I reveled in the independence being away at college brought me. Even in these past two months, I never really felt the overwhelming desire to just go home. Until Diwali. For the first time, all I wanted to do was be at home, with my parents, with my brother, with my cousins. For those few days of the festival, it felt like the mehndi on my hands was my only connection to them, one that would soon fade away, like everything else.

Priest performing the nightly
Priest performing the nightly “Agni Puja” (worship to fire) by the Ganges river in Varansi, India

In the past few weeks I’ve found myself hanging on to, and missing, the things that remind me of my culture, of my home, much more strongly than I would have ever thought I would want to.

The strong fragrance of agarbati as it rises in grey curls at the temple and the heady smell of mehndi as it’s applied freshly on my palms, bringing back memories of Diwalis past. The soothing tones of a bansuri playing a raga to lull me to sleep, and the ferocious clanging of the kartals and finger cymbals to celebrate and worship the many deities. The smell of garam masala and laal mirch wafting through the air, and the chanchan of payal15 as I walk down the streets and down the halls, brightening my every step with colour. These are the smells and sounds of my culture that I miss so dearly, the sounds and smells that are so internalized to my being, something I never truly realized until came here, deprived of most of them.

Photo on 11-3-13 at 9.26 PM #2.jpg
Diwali, 2013. Henna by Heather. 

The colour of my mehndi this time was much darker than last year. Even on the back of my hands, where I’ve never been able to get the colour to come out nicely, the lovely reddish-brown brings a smile to may face as I write this. I’ve even been speaking and thinking more and more in Hindi since I’ve been here. It seems contradictory to the way I feel- so removed from it all, but it’s just like when I was younger, and decided to give up that double life. Except, instead of embracing Indian television shows or movies more, I’m delving deeper into the culture that I’ve loved and known for so long adopting it in a way I didn’t even think to be possible.

The people we are in relationships with
are always a mirror, reflecting our own
beliefs, and simultaneously we are
mirrors, reflecting their beliefs.
–Shakti Gawain

Maine yeh bhi socha hai aksar
tu bhi main bhi sabhi hain sheeshe
khud hi ko hum sabhi mein dekhein
nahi hoon main hoon main to phir bhi
sahi galat tumhara main
mujhe paana paana hai khudko
–“Jo Bhi Main”, Irshad Kamil, Rockstar16

We are each other. Our differences, be it appearance, language or culture, are trivial in the face of life. We all live, love and learn, and ultimately, die. Sarhadein will always exist- we are too far-gone, physically and mentally, to create one large country, but seemaein need not. It is our differences that make us unique, but in the end we are all still human. The question shouldn’t be about what makes us similar, or what makes us different. The most important question to ask, or really, the only important question to ask, is: “How do we accept each other for who we are?”

If only everyone else could remember that.



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