Intercultural Conversations are Necessary to Celebrate Indian Identities

Steam rises from the openings in the lid placed atop a uniquely shaped pan. Six shallow cavities are spread evenly across the surface of the pan to cook the batter into perfect half spheres, making gundpangla, a Karnatik breakfast dish. 

Saturday mornings, when perfectly browned and crisp gundpangla were served paired with a flavorful coconut chutney, were some of my happiest. I easily polished off ten to fifteen as my mother emptied several rounds of these addictive dumplings onto the tray on the breakfast table. Bhimsen Joshi’s cassette played in the background, entrancing us in a lyric-less melody, evoking emotion purely through the rise and fall of his notes. It would occasionally be interrupted by my mother animatedly shouting in Kannada due to a poor phone connection on a line with extended family in India. 

Almost everything about these Saturday mornings and most days growing up were filled with immersive experiences into Karnatik culture thanks to my mother. The food, music, language, and way of life I was exposed to were direct nods to our roots in Karnataka, a state in southern India. Despite this rich education about where I came from, I spent most of my life hiding my colorful South Indian heritage. A lack of representation in both Indian and Western media about what it truly means to be South Indian and the scarcity of conversations around the numerous subcultures within India usually meant even my most cultured Indian friends had no idea what Karnataka was, much less what its culture entailed.

I’ve been lucky enough to have grown up in a diverse environment when my family moved to the U.S. in 2004. I was surrounded by South Asian people all through high school and college –  I took for granted how easy it was to own the fact that I was Indian-American. There were people I could share my culture with and others who were open-minded about learning so I never felt the need to hide my Indian-ness. But I did hide my South Indian-ness, particularly my traditional Karnatik upbringing because it was the lesser known side of India. The India portrayed in both Indian and Western media is usually North India and when Central and South Indian culture are represented, a mockery is made of them and the full extent of its richness and breadth is not truly captured.

Unflattering stereotypes in Bollywood about South Indians being uptight, having unrealistic, ridiculous accents, eating bland food, and shining a negative light on our studiousness kept me from ever talking about where I was from to avoid being associated with these ‘uncool’ labels. Instead, I was always first in line to talk about Hindi movies, recommend the best joint for chole puri or spicy paneer tikka and naan, or flaunt a salwar suit. Although distinctly Indian, none of these displays of cultural enthusiasm were a tribute to my own background. They were just the popular side of India, and therefore much easier to talk about. 

Seeing someone, whether Indian or otherwise, show a glint of recognition when I talked about North Indian culture because they’d seen it in a movie or tv show felt like a victory. I didn’t feel comfortable explaining that my life was so different than what was shown on those screens to avoid any negative interpretations of what being South Indian meant and also because the topic never came up. Even though I grew up with plenty of Desi friends who hailed from different parts of India, there was never any curiosity about the depth and breadth of each others’ cultures, so we filtered our Indian identity to what was shown online and moved on.

I wish I’d openly talked more about holidays in my Karnatik household, marked with holgi, a sweet bread with hints of coconut, turmeric, and aromatic cardamom or kadubu, a stuffed dumpling of sorts. Or dinner parties ending in watching compilations of Gangavathi Pranesh’s stand-up, a comedian who primarily performs in Kannada. Or summers spent with countless hours in my grandmother’s closet, asking her about sari styles and watching her don those 9 yards of fabric in a traditional Karnatik kachhe drape for the temple. There was clearly no shortage of exposure to my Karnatik heritage growing up and I should’ve worn it like a badge of honor. 

It’s taken me a long time to overcome the negative messages I internalized about South India from the media and raise these intercultural conversations within my South Asian circle. I’m constantly amazed at how diverse India is and how it’s not uncommon to grow up learning upwards of four languages in large cities given the volume of individuals with unique backgrounds crossing paths on a daily basis. Why then do we avoid being curious about each other’s unique subcultures and celebrating the beauty of so much diversity? While it’s satisfying to find common ground with someone talking about India in a way that’s accessible, I owe it to my colorful upbringing to shine a light on Karnataka and all its gems. And in the same vein, learn about other cultures in India to normalize that being Indian is not one-dimensional.  Our overarching Indian identity — the values we hold close and the history we’re a product of – remains common and unchanged, but the one-of-a-kind threads we join to weave the tapestry of the country is what makes it so great. It would be a disservice not to boast every aspect of your Indian-ness and lift up others who are doing the same.

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