Used with permission from the author.
May 10, 2008
A TAPESTRY OF BROWNS AND GREENS
--The tapestry of life’s story is woven with the threads of life’s ties, ever joining and breaking.
Rabindranath Tagore, Fireflies
When I look closely at a hanging tapestry, I observe that the pathways of individual threads wend through warp and woof, each one unconnected to the other. Yet if I stand back and look at the whole tapestry, its intricate and beautiful patterns emerge. In a roomful of such carpets, I observe that those with the most compelling patterns are composed of individual threads that have the highest intensity and most contrasting of colors. When I reflect on the tapestry of my own half-century of life, I see that the threads that have provided the greatest amount of influence on how I understand nature and my place in it are those that came from the vividly mixed ethnic background of my Indian/Hindu and Brooklyn/Jewish parents, threads that set me somewhat apart from the mainstream culture of white middle class America in which I was raised. Being myself composed of different colored threads has allowed me to see the complexity of nature, and to communicate them to a wide range of audiences.
It was near midnight at 10105 Dickens Avenue in October of 1966. The sleeping bags of my sixthgrade girlfriends lay like spokes around the central coffee table. Martha Bunn, my best friend since we were seven years old, asked me: Nalini, what does it feel like to look so different from everyone else? I remember opening my eyes wide in the dark room at her question. I had no answer. Until then, I had not realized that I looked different from my white friends in the sleeping bags next to mine. But at that moment, I realized that my mixed heritage apparently did set me apart from others in my suburban
Maryland neighborhood -- at least from their perspective. My father was a Hindu who emigrated from
India in 1946 for his doctorate in pharmacology. My mother was raised as an Orthodox Jew by parents who had fled the pogroms of Russia in 1916, and who spoke Yiddish in their home in Brooklyn, New
York. My parents met in graduate school, married, and moved to Bethesda, Maryland where my father spent his career doing cancer research at the National Institute of Health.
The five Nadkarni kids were varying shades of brown. I was the third child, and was the darkest of the five, the most Indian in my facial features and body look. In contrast to other immigrant Indian families in the area, who seemed to assimilate into western culture as quickly as possible, my parents made our home a “Little India”. They gave us all Indian names, which had meanings in Sanskrit: Saroj, lotus flower; Susheela, well-behaved; Nalini, water lily; Vinay, gentleness; Mohan, charmer. Even our dog and cats had Indian names: Tipu, Manya, Nisha. At dinnertime, we sat on the kitchen floor and ate
May 10, 2008
Indian food with our fingers, my mom circling the six of us, doling out curry and vegetable bhaji. We slept on mattresses on the floor, just as my father had done in Thane, the small village of his birth.
Christmas morning brought neither a crèche nor presents from Santa, as it did for all of our school friends. Rather, the family gathered around our fireplace, bereft of Christmas regalia, while my parents read excerpts from writings of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. Each month, we received a letter from my father’s bhataji, or family priest, with a dozen Indian stamps pasted in the corner of the oddsized envelopes. Even unopened, these were redolent of sandalwood paste and prasad, the sweet powder he would distribute to each of us at the small alter of Ganesha, the god of good fortune and remover of obstacles. The little ivory carving of our family deity resided on a bookshelf in the kitchen pantry, where we gathered if a family member were sick, or traveling, to giver prayers for