Updated: May 15
By Chandra Persaud
The first time I felt different was in my fifth grade classroom, an overcrowded space housed in a four-storied brick building in Brooklyn. The girl who sat next to me–my best friend–saw a picture of Durga Maa in the back of my black and white composition book. Our English class was winding to an end. The room was filled with the excited murmur that rises when a bunch of eleven-year-olds spring back to life. I was part of this excitement too, buoyantly chatting with my friend. Entirely forgetting the grammar lesson we just had, we eased into speech patterns common to inner cities. Our teacher, Mrs. Maycher, walked over to check the day’s assignment in our notebooks. Then, I felt the walls closing in.
One night, a few weeks back, my older sister printed out Durga Maa’s image. It was my mother’s request and an act of affection. It was also one of necessity. I was a sensitive child, easily bothered by loud noises, stern voices, strong scents, new situations… I would have much rather preferred to stay home, snuggled on my mother’s lap watching the latest Bollywood film or follow my father around like a loyal puppy. I pleaded and cried nearly every morning for all of us to stay home, despite knowing that this was simply not feasible. Yet, my anxieties were real and my mother knew just what I needed: Durga Maa. The fierce warrior goddess. Slayer of the buffalo demon. A symbol of strength and protection for Hindus everywhere. As I watched the white edges fall away under the snip of my mother’s scissors, she told me, “Durga Maa will protect yuh and watch ova yuh and help yuh do good in school.”
A warmth flooded my body as I watched her tape the picture of the Goddess into my composition book. I felt as though I was given my very own shield. My chest swelled with comfort and hope. Things will be different now. I was sure of it.
But if Durga Maa was the lifeboat, that day in English class, I grew hot with shame for needing to be rescued. When Mrs. Maycher opened up my notebook, she happened to land right on Durga Maa’s picture before turning to the white, lined sheets that contained my completed assignment. I felt my heart quicken, an indication my body knew I was different from my classmates even if my mind didn’t believe it yet.
You must understand that I did my best to blend in with the Hispanic and Black students that mostly filled the seats in my fifth grade classroom. I didn’t necessarily hide the fact that I was Hindu, but I didn’t proclaim it either. I glossed over my cultural identity because I didn't know how to talk about that part of me. I couldn’t explain that I was Indian but from Guyana, a country in South America which boasts a Caribbean, not Latin, culture. I didn’t know how to explain that the voice of India’s Lata Mangeshkar was soothing as a lullaby and Anand Yankaran’s chutney tunes made me jump to my feet and curl my hands, yet I couldn’t translate the Hindi or Bhojpuri spoken by either. I didn’t want to admit that sanaying a homemade meal somehow made it taste more flavorful, your fingertips working to mix the food into small mounds that then reached your lips. I didn’t know how to explain that although English is the official language of Guyana, what really rolls off our tongues is a creole fused by the influences of African and Indian languages, an act of preservation by people dislocated from their motherlands. I didn’t know how to explain these truths then. It was all too complex to be understood by my eleven-year-old brain.
Unlike my first generation peers who proudly clothed themselves in their hyphenated identities, I didn’t emphasize the first part of mine. I was not Guyanese-American. I was simply American. My clothing and accessories matched my classmates. I stayed up-to-date with mainstream shows and music. I talked like them, imitated their mannerisms, gelled my hair like the girls in my class. Even when my fingertips smelled of curry from last night’s dinner or earrings shaped like a bunch of grapes hung from my ears, I was still American.
But Durga’s Maa image was too vivid, too bold to be ignored. Here was irrefutable proof that I was different from my peers, and that difference made me feel as though a horn just sprang from my head.
“Who is that in the back of your notebook?” my Puerto Rican-American best friend asked, her head tilted to one side, eyebrows pinched. Mrs. Maycher left our table and some students were stuffing books into their backpacks.
I lowered my voice so as not to attract attention. “Oh, it’s just a picture my mom put there,” I replied. I tried to sound cool but I heard my voice quivering.
“Let me see it,” she said. I froze. I never anticipated anyone in school seeing my Protector, but I didn’t see any way out of this. She was my best friend after all and she already saw the picture. I couldn't think of a good reason to not show her. So I did.
“Is that a person? Why does she have so many arms?” my friend asked curiously, but before I could answer, she already beckoned over two classmates standing nearby. In a classroom filled with mostly Spanish and African American students, I knew this moment was not going to get any better. I sat still, heart racing, hands poised at each end of my notebook yet unable to close it. I stared down at Durga Maa, taking in the weapons she wielded. My eyes zeroed in on her trishul and lotus, the epitome of the One who wears a soft, omniscient smile while sitting majestically atop a lion. Unlike the night Durga Maa’s image was taped into my book, a different kind of warmth pooled in my stomach, spreading to my face and arms. I no longer had my own secret shield. I was too exposed.
Two boys walked over. They looked at the image of Durga Maa splayed on my desk. “What the hell is that? Yooo, do you worship the devil?” one of them mockingly shrieked. They snickered and slapped their hands boyishly over each other. My best friend’s eyebrows shot up, panic dancing in her eyes.
“It’s a Hindu Goddess. My mom is Hindu, but I’m not. I’m Christian,” I blurted out. The words hung in the air thick and heavy like wet clothes on a line. In that moment I did more than just lie. I was stuffing parts of me into tight spaces. I was denying that the smell of agarbatti washed over me like honey as my grandmother chanted her Sunday morning prayers. The burning incense accompanied by the stirring chime of a handbell to mark the end of her offerings. I was denying the bhajans I knew by heart, my mouth easily taking shape to produce Hindi devotional songs whose meanings I knew only loosely based on my grandmother’s understanding of them. I was denying the religion that comforted my ancestors as they sailed from India to Guyana as slaves on British ships carrying both promise and decay. The religion that comforted me too, but which I was openly rejecting in front of eyes that did not look like mine.
My claim to Christianity was an attempt to remain despite the dust storm that was rolling my way, rumbling with my classmates’ judgments and assumptions. I could see no further than the wall of bodies enclosing my desk, yet I knew my otherness was on full display for all to see. In a whirl, my classroom transformed from safegrounds to dangerous territory. Their eyes grazed against my face like jagged debris. I gripped the sides of my notebook as though anticipating to be uprooted and swallowed whole without warning. The silence mounted. “I’m gonna stay away from you,” one of the boys finally said as he and his friend slowly backed away, covering their mouths but not stifling their laughter.
I closed my notebook quickly. Warmth blanketing my face.
“So, you’re not Hindu, right? You don’t pray to that?” my friend asked, her chin lifting ever so slightly to indicate Durga Maa.
The concern painted on her face was palpable. While I was desperate for refuge, I realized right then that I had become a terrifying storm. Another wrong move and I could disrupt balance and order in my fifth grade classroom for good. My best friend needed assurance that my otherness would not get in the way, that it would remain confined to an eight-inch black and white space. I needed someone to lean against the schoolyard fence with, to share lip gloss with, to pair off with at lunch. I knew what happened to those on the lowest rungs of fifth-grade hierarchy. So I replied, “I promise you. I’m not,” and just like that, I took Durga Maa–the One more powerful than any of Hinduism’s male divinities, Liberator of the oppressed, Source of my protection and fortitude–and hid Her away.
A few days later in our English class, my friend handed me a small box wrapped in layers of red tissue paper, corners sealed with tape. “A late birthday gift,” she said, a smile pursed on her lips. I held the box silently. “Open it!” she exclaimed impatiently. I looked at her, matched her smile, and tore open the gift. I knew immediately it was a piece of jewelry. My anticipation grew. My best friend and I were always hunting for stylish earrings, necklaces, and rings to accessorize our outfits. Most of our jewelry was cheap, hanging off a rotating rack near shelves of nail polish in a beauty store a few blocks away from our school. I lifted the top of the white, rectangular box and found a gold necklace inside. Dangling right at its center was a thin cross pendant. I moved the box around slowly in my hand, watching it gleam under the fluorescent light.
“Do you like it?” my friend asked, eyeing my face. “It’s real gold too. I convinced my mom to buy it for you. I have the same one,” she said, lifting up the identical cross that rested on her chest. It resembled the ones many of my classmates wore, an anchor of similarity in a sea of shades of brown. “Now we can match,” she said with a satisfied smile. “Here, let me put it on you.”
I dutifully handed over the box and lifted my hair. The necklace felt cold around my neck and when my best friend’s fingers fastened the latch, goosebumps traveled down my arms. Now, I was anchored too.
“Take out your notebooks,” Mrs. Maycher’s voice boomed from the front of the room. I reached in my backpack and pulled out a new black and white composition book. The old one resting on my bed. A part of me left safely behind closed doors. I lifted the notebook’s cover and heard the spine break. Halfway through the lesson, the taste of rust coated my tongue.
Chandra Persaud is a New York State licensed speech-language pathologist. In her spare time, Chandra enjoys writing on topics such as love, grief, identity, and self-actualization. She was born in Guyana, traces her roots to India, immigrated to the United States with her family as a child, and fully embraces her multicultural identity. She writes from Brooklyn, NY.
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