Bittersweet Gujarat: Reena Patel

This is a guest post by REENA PATEL

I looked around the room and my gaze was met with the kohl lined eyes and stares of bewilderment and distrust. My heart pounded as I listened to three Muslim women describe their latest attempt to find their father and brother after they disappeared in the riots. They were speaking to Rahidbhai* from a local NGO who was accompanying me into the Ahmedabad relief colonies for the first time. Why was I so scared? Why was my heart pounding? The eldest woman of the home disrupted my thoughts, she asked me for my name. I looked around and looked at Rahidbhai, who looked back uneasily. “Mera naam Reena hai.” I said, almost choking on the words, knowing what the next question would be. “Aap ka surname kya hai?” The room grew thick with silence. “Patel.”

As far back as I could remember, I was taught to regard Muslims differently from the rest of the general population. My parents, both from Surat, Gujarat moved and met in the United States in their twenties. They both lived in England and spent time in Gujarat, and had families that were deeply involved in the Gujarati community. My brother and I were born in Long Beach California. I went to Gujarati school on Sundays, went to every function, picnic, and cultural show put on by the Leuva Patidar Samaj in Southern California. Many of my family members were apart of the organization. In fact, my great grandfather Vallabhai Patel was one of the first Patels to land upon the shores of the United States, now estimated at a population of over 140,000. We went to religious camps that were meant to teach us about Hindu ideology, handed out saffron prayer books and modeled how to become ideal Hindu men and women for our communities.

We were defined by what we were not, just as much as our Gujarati label told me where I ultimately belonged. My parents were quick to point out on most occasions, that I was not white, black or Hispanic. Above all, I was not American but Gujarati. Most of my life, Gujarat was an ominous presence brought to life in Sunday school and in adult conversations at social gatherings. I could point it out on a map, and as a child I knew five other Reena Patels. I was taught to be proud of being from Mahatma Gandhiji’s birthplace, take pride in cultural values of family, duty and community. For years, I performed Gujarati folk dances, learned to read and write the language and could recite many prayers and songs—after all, that was what being a ‘good Gujarati girl’ was about. Children in the community joked that our parents would never let us marry ‘BMWs’ (Black, Mexicans or Whites), and even beyond those forbidden groups we were especially never to marry Muslims. It never occurred to me once that people of different religions and ways of life also lived in Gujarat. That part was never mentioned.

Then September 11th happened. In my city of Mesa, Arizona a Sikh man was shot in a hate crime incident down the street from the business my family owned. My father hung a large American flag outside our home the next day. I was confused by his reaction and asked him why he was participating in the call for patriotism, after all he worked so hard to make sure we knew that we were Indian before we were American. “Americans can’t tell the difference between us and the Muslims; we have to let people know we support the United States.” My parents would also not let us go out alone for a few months after the attacks; stares and tension in public places confirmed their fears. And my brother grew upset when he learned he shared a name with one of the men who hijacked the plane, Sameer. Hate talk against Muslims was at an all time high in our home and in the Gujarati community, it seemed September 11th further reinforced and exacerbated the prejudice that was carried over by Gujarati Hindus to the United States.

In January 2002, Gujarat was hit with a severe earthquake. The Gujarati community in California mobilized to donate thousands for recovery. I was sixteen years old at the time and I too raised money at my high school to help with relief aid. The riots only a month after the earthquakes were never mentioned in our home or community. It was only six years later when I moved to India that I would find out the tragedies and devastation that was so carefully ignored back home.

Five years later, I found myself in Bombay, India struggling with my own self-identity of living as a minority for so many years only to realize the estrangement I feel living as an American in India. My knowledge of the Gujarat carnage was non-existent at best, and it was only until a professor pointed me in the direction of Godhra train burning that I became almost instantly obsessed with the situation, and seeking out answers as so many have done before me. An excerpt from my field notes on November 7th, 2008 describe my mental and emotional state during data collection in Ahmedabad:

There is a distinct smell here that permeates the environment. It always smells like something is burning. I could not put my finger on it the first few times I was here, however, now, it is clear to me that the odor which haunts me whenever I recall my time here is that which signifies destruction. Today, on the bus to Lal Darwaja I was attempting to motivate myself and increase my self-confidence by dictating the reasons why I was doing this research, why I was further invading the lives of these people who have already suffered so much. When I came initially into this land, it was more about me, and I hope through this process it has become about them. However, it takes time for this transition to occur, because one cannot but help to try to understand the complexities and negotiations that must occur with one’s own identity and presence in such a space. No one is left unaffected. I have not yet had the courage to begin documenting my experiences here on a personal level, it is too difficult to document what is happening externally, and at some point these things blur for me and I am not sure what I am left with as a researcher and as a human being at the end of the day. My very humanity is questioned when I enter the world of these young people, and it continues to be shaken by the accounts of violence they face daily in the colonies, in the restricted mobility, in their constant fear and disability, and in their inaudibility to the state responsible for this.

I also vividly recall the compassion, hospitality and curiosity that greeted me each time I entered any of the colonies or ghettos. I became a familiar face to many and doors were always open to me for a glass of water or a respite from the Gujarat heat. I spent days wandering the colonies with the youth I interviewed and also eventually ventured alone, speaking to individuals and organizations regarding the aftermath of 2002.

I tried to speak to my family about my research. The initial reaction was fury and disappointment. Why would I spend my time learning about ‘these people’? As I became more vocal regarding Modi, so did the opposing voice of my family. After all, I was told, he was good for Gujarat and the Patels. Enough money can wipe the blood of even the most heinous murderer. Then there was silence. At most, I was harried with concerns for safety, and provided looks of puzzled hesitation. My responses to any concerns of safety: during my 51 days of data collection in Muslim relief colonies, the only man who actively harassed me was a male in a Hindu neighborhood.

When I look back at these experiences, I do not blame my parents or my community for the cascading effects of prejudice and fearful thinking that accompanied their dreams and passports to the USA from Gujarat. They are good people, and do not wish harm on others—so from where do perceived threats arise? I know these are attitudes and behaviors that are ignited generationally through our silence, and although I do not agree or justify such intolerance I also realize we need a radical shift in the Gujarati Diaspora for change to happen. The politics of hate can only be fueled by further ignorance and bigotry that aims to further divide the Gujarati community and weaken any hope of a equitable future. My experiences in India taught me above all else, to be critical of the information we are given, to know truth for your self and refuse complacency in the face of injustice. We must create spaces in the community to dialogue regarding the issue of ongoing segregation and isolation from people who are different than us; however, before doing that we must look in the mirror and question what it means to be in this Gujarat Diaspora.

6 thoughts on “Bittersweet Gujarat: Reena Patel”

  1. It was great to read something like this. Do circulate to a lot of people in Gujarat. I am sure once this silence is broken people will address the past. When two years after the riots I had gone to a Gujarat , I had found a very shocking attitude of trying to justify those events. If I am not wrong the civil society in Gujarat has also failed in its task. There needs to be a regrouping of these groups to challenge this discourse. Such articles will go a long way in addressing the prejudices that have been built up both in the country and in the diaspora.

  2. Very well written and thanks Reena for writing this. It’s tough for children brought up outside to be able to discern the accuracy of what they are being taught about their identity. My children, in their late teens now, were born and brought up in the US. We were very conscious of the fact that Indian parents, tend to push an identity that is very narrow, static, focused on just a few aspects (mostly the wrong ones) of being Indian and the net result is an ABCD. So we tried our best to refrain from it, although we always made it clear to our children that we, their parents were Indian.
    But we wanted them to know India- the country as it is now with several centuries existing side by side, a country with a rich past with both beauty and darkness that made it what it was, a country on the move, inhabited by many many different kinds of people. The existence of such diversity itself is clear proof that we were a welcoming people, none of the American melting pot, where dead white male views prevail over all others , for us – although that is changing.Yet there were all sorts of divisions in our society including the most horrifying of them all – caste.
    So we shifted our work to India for two years and our children accompanied us. They learnt a lot and now consistently challenge the stereotype of India that prevails amongst Americans of both Indian and non-Indian origin. In fact, they challenge any stereotyping of any community that they see. The most important take-away for them, was the complexity of identities Indians have and the fact that like all societies it has some good aspects and some not so good. To be fair, they’ve always had to mediate the concept of singular identity since they have one Hindu parent and one Muslim parent of the same ethnicity.
    The point that I am trying to make, Reena, is that the Indian diaspora in the US unfortunately has more parents presenting a misleading picture of India- including ignoring its divisions – than the ones who try to portray India’s diversity. This result of this is not benign- it is both detrimental to the next generation brought up here and harmful in the way they seek to use their money and clout to promote hate back home. Others from outside, never mind how well – meaning they maybe cannot change this. The only way this can be changed is if you all – the children of the diaspora stand up to the previous generation who have misled you. Draw on the syncretic culture of India, the incredibly powerful ideas promoted and used by Mahatma Gandhi on the vision of India that is to be found in its Constitution. The narrow identity that is pushed by the previous generation diminishes the humanity and potential of the generation that is being brought up to believe in it. Draw upon the best of India’s democratic principals and more importantly America’s democratic principals. The biggest lie that is propounded by these elders, is that your identity is simply ethnic Indian as opposed to being American of a particular immigrant origin. Challenge them. Establish your own Sunday schools. Take back your America and take back the India that was bequeathed to you all by those who imagined India at its birth.
    And may you succeed.

    1. Yes, but just chanting “diversity” and “tolerance” isn’t enough, There has to be strong values, and an equally strong sense of rooted-ness and belonging to a particular culture and environment. This is what is generally missing in the ethnic Indian community in North America. Parents have to establish strong values, rather than just ‘think for yourself” or everything is diversity.

  3. The Die is cast

    With only 41 seats of Lok Sabha remaining to be voted upon tomorrow , the die is cast
    Outcome of those 41 seats is unlikely to make much of a difference to who will form the next Government at the Centre
    If BJP falls short of 272 seats , ” Aya Ram , Gaya Ram ” horse-trading will settle the issue
    But what will send a loud and clear message across India is ,
    ” Who wins in Varanasi ? ”
    It is no more a question of Congress vs BJP
    Or , a question of David vs Goliath
    It is no more a question of choosing between , lesser of the two evils
    Even if AAP has made a few honest mistakes and occasionally , compromised on lofty principles , for the first time , people of Varanasi have a choice
    To choose between the least of the THREE EVILS !
    There are no ABSOLUTE standards by which to judge political parties
    There are only RELATIVE standards – and , even these keep shifting
    If you think , some of the AAP members – and even , some of its leaders – are susceptible to making immoral compromises , you are entitled to your opinion – which is your right
    And Arvind Kejriwal would be the first person to defend your right
    Let us ask ourselves ,

    ” Who is the Least Corrupt of the three ?
    Who do I deserve ?
    Who is likely to resign if he cannot fulfill his poll-promises ? ”

    BJP came into power in Gujarat on 26 Dec 2012 , by promising :
    ” If voted to power , we will construct 50 lakh houses for the poor in next 5 years ”
    In the 500 days since BJP came to power , Gujarat Government should have built , and distributed , 13,69,863 homes
    To find the truth , file a RTI application – without expecting any answer !
    Of course , by 20th May , expect NaMo to resign as Gujarat CM
    Not for having failed to fulfill his promise to people of Gujarat
    But , to fulfill his poll-promise to people of India , that , if voted to power , BJP will construct 100 Mega-Cities in next 5 years
    That is one Chandigarh or Gandhi-Nagar , every 18 days !
    Hopefully , P C Sorkar ( jr ) will help out with a Mirage !

    * hemen parekh ( 11 May 2014 / Mumbai )

  4. The only justification for the 2002 riot given is the train burning. However, there are reports and commentaries that suggest that the train burning was a conspiracy to creat communal riot in order to hide the then Gujrat goverment’s failure in dealing with the aftermath of earthquake that took place months ago (Refer: Siddharth Varadarajan / Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy. Penguin. 2003). It was the need of the hour to bring such truth to the people, but the civil society failed, badly.
    Well, we always teach our students and children “You reap what you sow”, but we ourselves do not follow. If we teach our followers (Let’s say any right wing group) to hate someone who is different from you, then how can we expect love from them. What happened in Gujrat during 2002 riot can not be an overnight action, it must have a history of teaching to spread hatred. Just imagine that what will happen if they don’t have the object to whom they can hate, where they would release their hatred? Many might be aware of the domestic violence, dispute among brothers & relatives and so on. Some times smaller disputes result in murdering each other. I still remember a news of ten-fifteen years ago when one younger brother beheaded his elder brother just because of some smaller issues, despite his little niece’ earnest and humble request of not killing her father. What are these? These are the reverberation of learning ‘hate’.
    I am unable to understand that how can we create a prosperous, happy India, an example to the world by teaching to hate some one who happen to believe in a different ideology.
    If we want a model India the first step should be on the basis of love and compassion. Let’s teach our students, children and followers to love every living being regardrless of cast, creed, colour or religion.

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