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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Why do I wear a bindi?

Hello everybody,

I am sorry to report that I have fallen behind on NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Very behind. I was getting along swimmingly until schoolwork caught up with me. Two exams in one week and I fell smack out of dreamworld and very firmly into this one. You might have heard that Buffalo is having some very heavy snow days, so I do have a chance to catch up now. The trouble is that I'm going to have to get back into the 'groove'. The 'mood'. You know, immerse myself back in the world of my novel until I can write in it convincingly again. I can't really catch up on NaNoWriMo anymore (seeing as I missed 12 days out of 30), but that was never really the point anyway. Now that I'm well on my way, I want to take it slow and just do my best. I don't intend to stop writing The Glass Slipper again, but I am going to go slower.

In the meanwhile, I interrupt this programming to bring you a cultural broadcast.

I wear a bindi - i.e. a little sticker-dot on my forehead that looks like this:
Disclaimer: This is not me. This is Deepika Padukone, a Bollywood actor.

Except that mine is usually even smaller, and I wear it with regular western clothes. And I'm nowhere near as good-looking, of course.

Since I grew up in a very cosmopolitan area in a large city, was educated in English-medium schools throughout my life, and belong to a relatively affluent urban class, this is a little unusual. Most of my friends don't wear a bindi unless there's a cultural or religious occasion they have to attend (sometimes not even then). So even in India, people asked me 'Why do you wear a bindi?' My answer was generally a simple 'I like wearing one' or 'I like how it looks on my face.' But since I've come to the US, the questions have increased  in frequency, and I try to give more sophisticated answers, because most of the time people here don't know what a bindi is or why (some) Indians wear it.

Do I know why we wear bindis? I know why I wear it. I have an idea of the religious/cultural significance, but that's really only partially the reason for me.

I didn't really grow up making sure I put a bindi on my face everyday. I did wear bindis, but it wasn't really something I felt a compulsion to do everyday or all the time. I started wearing bindis regularly in the 8th grade. As a confused, doubtful and angsty teenager, it was merely a desperate ploy to convince myself of a number of things: the world really is black-and-white; I am the same person I was two years ago; I believe wholeheartedly in religion and God; I love my country and its people; I understand and respect all the traditions I follow. It was a very personal thing - a display of pride in my culture and heritage, a pride and faith that I was trying to cultivate to replace the emptiness inside. I didn't really think that much about it; I was just trying to be religious in the best way I knew how, apart from praying. Everything was changing - I felt as if the ground was slipping away from under my feet - and my bindi was my foothold.

I have grown a lot - literally and figuratively - since then. As I have evolved, so has the meaning of my bindi, for me. In the past 5 or 6 years, putting on a bindi has become a habit for me. I don't really think about it anymore - I do it the same way I brush my teeth - automatically. But I do think about it, and sometimes I ask myself the question 'Why do I wear a bindi?'

There is of course the religious/cultural significance, which is why I originally began wearing it. 'Traditionally, the area between the eyebrows (where the bindi is placed) is said to be the sixth chakra, ajna, the seat of "concealed wisdom". The bindi is said to retain energy and strengthen concentration. The bindi also represents the third eye.' That explanation is a shameless cut-and-paste from Wikipedia. Do look up the rest of it, it's actually pretty interesting.

Then there is the significance it has taken on for me. As a student in the US, studying Economics and English, I sometimes feel torn between my passion and what is undoubtedly a good education, and the feeling that I'm moving further and further away from my Indian 'heritage.' Sometimes, when I'm reading Shakespeare, I feel ridiculous. Why on earth am I studying English literature when we have so much rich vernacular literature of our own that I should be exploring? Why am I not reading Kalidasa instead? Of course, even if I were to read Kalidasa, it would be in English, which would not be quite the same. Why don't I know Sanskrit? Why don't I know my 'mother tongue', Telugu, as well as I know English, for that matter? Is it not a rather sad thing that I'm far more comfortable with English?

I struggled a little before deciding that I wanted to major in English as well as Economics. Mostly because I wondered whether it was a pragmatic choice - but there was a tiny part of me that screamed 'traitor!' I eventually realized that it was foolish to deny my passion and love for language - even if it sometimes feels like the wrong language - just because I felt like I was becoming too 'Western'. What does that mean, anyway? And do the two (English/a 'western' education and my local heritage) have to be mutually exclusive?

My bindi is, for me, truth be told, a rather tenuous connection to home and all I associate with home. It is a way for me to feel rooted, and Indian. It is a proud declaration of who I am and how I am unique. I may be wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but I am not American. I like America, but I am not American. It is a way to assert the mish-mash of cultures, language and thought that make me who I am. I grew up on Austen and Rowling and Disney, but also on Carnatic music and Bharatnatyam and Bollywood. I am who I am, and I'm done being confused and ashamed. I'm allowed to love classical Indian music and dance and have an extensive knowledge of English literature at the same time. But of course, no one ever said I couldn't. I don't mind people seeing or even asking about my bindi, but I don't wear a bindi to prove something to other people. I wear it for me, for how comforting it feels to touch the dot on my forehead and be instantly reminded of home, and the colour and chaos that made me the colourful and chaotic person I am today. My bindi is a part of me now, and the pride that I was attempting to simulate all those years ago is very real today.