OF ROOTS AND ROUTES: A MOST INTERESTING JOURNEY
The India Observer is proud to introduce talented Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan in the inaugural article on DIASPORA, a column that features outstanding members from diverse ethnic backgrounds settled in the United States of America and making their community proud with their contributions.
California-based non-profit development consultant, professional voice talent, poet, translator, children’s author, and occasional model– Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan wears many hats. Her voice has been used in documentaries, educational and artistic initiatives, and audio books, and her writing has appeared in Indian and American publications including The Hindu, India Currents, and Skipping Stones. On her recent trip to India she graciously spared time to meet up with TIO’s Bureau Chief, Shirin Abbas, for this interview.
TIO: Tell us something about your childhood in India and growing up among your two siblings.
Shobha: My childhood was one transitioning between roots and routes. Born and brought up in (what was then) Bombay, I went on to join Loreto House in (what was then) Calcutta for middle and High School. I left India as a teenager on a full undergrad scholarship to upstate New York. So, in less than two decades of my life I was multiply rooted and the diasporic experience did not start for me in the United States. As Malayalis in Bombay and Calcutta, as diasporic Indians in America, the experience has conditioned me to the realization of my “otherness” even as I blended into another culture and forged an identity in it, uniquely my own. I think it went in our favor that my parents ensured we maintained our connection with our tharavad (ancestral home) as every year we visited Kerala and renewed our Malayali connections.
TIO: What special efforts did your parents take to maintain the connection to your roots? Is it important for diasporic communities to make that special effort to maintain their identity in a cosmopolitan space?
Shobha: My parents always told us when we were children that we needed to be fully engaged and present in every place that we inhabited, but that we needed to be mindful of our heritage wherever we were. Thus, while we were also global citizens and members of a larger world, we maintained our links with our tharavad. My father reminded us that it was important that we were as comfortable sitting at a table using a fork and knife as we were sitting on the floor and eating a typical Kerala meal on a plantain leaf. So we have been true to our hybrid entity and proud of it too. We never took our Indian heritage for granted and that has been instrumental in allowing us to keep our feet in both worlds and manage the transition easily. I’m sure we are not unique; I assume all diasporic families make an effort to do the same. Many of us are global citizens.
TIO: Does the love for words and gift of the gab run in the family? Your brother’s (Shashi Tharoor –Politician and Author) English leaves most Indians stumped—does yours too?
Shobha: Well, let me just put it this way: it is not done as a deliberate effort to obfuscate, but when you have an array of words to describe something good, why just use the word “nice” and damn with faint praise? The impetus is on us to use language as best we can. To employ good words and a nuanced vocabulary is important; the cadence and the sound and usage of words are extremely important as well. My siblings and I grew up reading books. I used to spend summers discovering books from other regions. There was a Russian phase with Nabakov, Pasternak, Dostoevsky, Chekov and more and one summer I remember reading Japanese fiction in translation, Yukio Mishima, discovering the beauty of haikus. . It was very interesting. In those days we traveled the world with books and our imagination. Books, good books, were our essential companions. You only draw from what you see around you and if you surround yourself with excellence, some of it is bound to seep into you, too.
TIO: What were your initial experiences of being a young mother in the US balancing work and family at a young age?
Shobha: I ended up moving to California once I got married and made the transition from being a full time student in the East Coast to life in the Silicon Valley. It was a conscious decision to be a stay-at-home mum when I became a mother. I only went back to work once my son was in kindergarten. I was an enthusiastic mother and loved and embraced all aspects of motherhood like I would have a career. So I can’t really say I had adjustment issues. I used to paint and write and read in my spare time.
TIO: How much of the diasporic narrative seeps into the stories that you write? Tell us about some of your works for children.
Shobha: There isn’t just one diaspora, you see. There are diasporic stories, diasporic leanings. It’s not a conscious effort but you see it a lot—especially in my latest book, Indi-Alphabet which invites children to travel to and discover India. You also find it in my poems in the Tulika publication, Dum Dum Dho, which includes rhymes and rhythms and voices from all over India. Then there is my book of poetry for children, (under contract for a 2019 release) where my focus is more on our shared global world and also on various poetic formats, like the sonnet, limerick, haiku, and so on.
TIO: Coming from an equal opportunities background, what do you feel when you hear stories of female foeticide and the vanishing females in places like Haryana and other states of India.
Shobha: I hail from a matrilineal society so I have seen a very different culture where women are not just equal to but often in positions of authority in relation to men. I think women today need to stand up—for themselves and their sisters—and be strong. Mothers (and fathers) need to raise their sons to feel this equality and see girls as their equals. It disturbs me to see and read the stories you refer to, but I think the perspective on women and gender issues is undergoing a positive change everywhere. The world today is more sensitized to the right of women and the plight of those who face such inequality and oppression.
TIO: “To have a second language is to have a second soul.” How much of that have you passed on to your children and how?
Shobha: Language in itself is a whole new culture. If you know more than one language you are aware of more than one culture and you are exposed to so much more of the heritage and culture of the place of that language. My children have fortunately had exposure to many languages and understand and speak English, Hindi, Malayalam and several modern European languages, with varying degrees of competency, of course.
TIO: In one of your interviews you have stated—“I never felt blatant racism or hostility for the first thirty odd years of my life in America, but in the present political climate I feel less sure of what those of us with our darker skins have in store.” Can you elaborate on the distressing changing climate?
Shobha: It is true that the America of today is much different from the America of the late 70s/early80s when I started living here. The current spate of sexual harassment cases, the hostility and violence and racism that immigrants are facing today—makes you uncomfortable and worried. A lot of the problem stems from our current President and his policies of disenfranchisement. Luckily California, where I live, is a progressive state so you hear less of the “Go home Paki” kind of rhetoric, at least in my extended community. There are louder voices now working toward inclusion. National organizations like South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) working for advocacy and activism are trying to bring attention to issues of immigrants. Today there is more interest in diversity than ever before. Personally I feel each period is a reaction to the period before. We are currently in a conservative and reactionary period and it is not just impacting America; you see it in Turkey, in Germany, all over the world, and in India, too. But I do have faith that internally, the spirit of oneness and goodness resides –we are not doomed. This is America. Hope is alive!
Author Bio: Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan’s published books include A Pie Surprise and Other Stories (Mango Books), Native American Folktales (Mango), and The Autobiography of a Tree (translation from Hindi, Mango) and has had her poems included in two children’s anthologies, Dum Dum Dho and Read Aloud Stories (Tulika). Her latest book Indi-Alphabet (Bharat Babies) is just out in the market and selling like hot cakes on Amazon (See Books section for review).
For more on her visit her website: http://www.shobhatharoorsrinivasan.com/
By Prof. Shirin Abbas
Edited by Adam Rizvi (Afzal)