A Letter to My Mother, Who I Love Very Much and Who I Hope Doesn’t Read This

By: Elizabeth Joseph

When I needed a white sheet for Toga day at school, my father immediately gave me his own white cloth. The weave was loose and rough, with a smooth strip of gold running down one side, so large I thought it was a sari.

“This is a mundu,” he said. “We use it for traditional, formal occasions.” The first thing I said was, “I can’t wear it. I don’t want to stain it.”

The first thing I thought was; if I have a son, he will never wear this cloth.

Mama, you always assume I’m going to have a child. In fact, I’m sure it’s expected, to some degree. I’m aware you want me to make my own choices. But I am aware this may not be a choice I completely make for myself.

Here is the problem with uprooting yourself, Mama: the culture you were surrounded in was left behind, and you can’t blame me when I see things differently.

Scientifically speaking, the older I grow, the smaller my chance gets of ever learning Malayalam, our native tongue. As my ears grow attuned to the intricacies of English, they fall more and more deaf to the Indian languages you know so well. And I know that you say Malayalam isn’t important in the scheme of things. But the last words my grandfather spoke to me were in Malayalam, and I will never get to understand what he tried to say to me six years ago.

When  If I have children, they will bear an anglicized name like Elizabeth Joseph, the nuances of an Indian­Catholic name lost in the reverberating effect of having a white­sounding moniker. If they ever go to India, it will be through a homogenized process with no tangible connection to the people. They will only speak the language of a colonizer’s tongue. Their hopes of understanding the Indian culture that I have received rests entirely on you, and I don’t even know if you’ll be around then to share it.

Mama, I’m afraid to have children because, when the time comes, they will have to fight to hold on to a culture that will not belong to them, not in the way it belongs to you. How long will it take for our future family line to forget their past altogether? Ancestry.com doesn’t cover immigrant families.

I am afraid because the stories I see around me don’t reflect the experience of being stuck in two worlds that overlap but never truly touch. I didn’t grow up in the society that shaped you into a blade of pragmatism. I do not have the drive for competition that all of the other Indian kids around me seem to possess so innately. And I know that there are others like me, the second generation immigrants who are also confused of their place. But being surrounded by the Indian kids whose parents took to American opportunity like a fish to water is not easy. Not that you didn’t take to the opportunities here, Mama. But you have to admit that you aren’t like most of the other Indian parents, who placed their children in activities from day one. I am not naturally talented at math. My chances of being a doctor or engineer are slimmer than yours or my father’s. The only discipline I have been consistent in is English. And what kind of Indian only speaks English?

I know that you may not understand, but sometimes, the hyphen between Indian­American is a breaking point rather than a bridge.

And ma, if I have a child, what’s the chance they’ll fit into one of my kurtas or churidars? What’s the probability they’ll like to eat fish or Vattyappam? American beaches are different from the Keralite coastline. Where will they find freshly ground sugarcane juice besides the Mysore Zoo?

Mama, when I told you that I will need to go back to India when I’m fully grown, you said a guided tour would be enough. But a family tree is not a fairy tale. I cannot close a book and outgrow the roots that are still planted a continent away. I can’t just forget the food that tastes better in India than in the U.S., the way the architecture stands colorful and bold, the rain that rushes down the outside stairs and rooftops during monsoon season. The entire world is different: the celebrations, the academics, the funerals. Where will I find a partner willing to say the same?

Mama, I know I have years to decide. But I don’t want to have children who do not know the losses you and my father left behind. I trace my identity through the hairline your mother gave me, the curls from Pa, the plentiful locks you passed on, the zha gene and the absurdly skinny wrists. But I cannot preserve what you have left when all of it seems to be locked in my DNA.

You both are teaching me to pass down our culture through food and clothing. I can tell my children the stories you have told me. Maybe I will inherit the same wistful tone my father has when he shares his memories. I can try to play YouTube videos in Malayalam to make up for the dearth of my mother tongue, the residual taste of English lingering instead. But mama, until I can make a home from the bones you left behind, I do not want to have children.