When she was a young child, my mother, who is Belgian, developed a profound fascination with India and all things Indian. She recalls the exact moment, in second grade, when she took out a book from the library about the vast and populous country. Upon reading, she fell completely and utterly in love with all that she discovered about the nation, its people, history and traditions. This was no mere oriental fantasy, although she did dye her Barbie’s hair black using ink from her cartridge pen and wrapped her in a make-shift handkerchief sari. So began a life-long love of India, inspiring her to study Indian culture at university in Belgium. To the surprise of no one, it was here that she met and married an Indian man and went on to have a few Belgian-Indian babies – my siblings and me. After graduating from university, my mom ran a little shop in Ghent selling Indian art and furniture that she imported. She named it Begum, a name that I adored because it was such a simple word yet rich with meaning. Begum, across South Asia, refers to a female of high ranking, a royal, or aristocrat. The name was a nod to the Begums of Bhopal, the four women who reigned over the Princely State of Bhopal, now part of Madhya Pradesh, where my father was born and raised. I always loved hearing stories of my mom’s shop because, even though it was so hard to imagine my parents running a business, it sounded so romantic, magical even.
We eventually moved to the United States, and I must admit that in stark contrast to my mom, my interest in my Indian heritage was minimal. I suspect now that this was due to a misunderstanding on my part about how the world works. My theory was, I am Indian, therefore I don’t need to learn, read, or hear about it because I should intrinsically know the politics, history, and culture, without seeking it out, because it is in my blood, and runs through my veins. I had the feeling of India, the smells, colours and sounds, already in me, having spent months of my childhood visiting family in Bhopal. This feeling I had for India, left me with a sense that I knew all that I needed to know, which ultimately meant I grew up not actually having learned anything about this aspect of my lineage aside from a very vivid image of what Shah Rukh Khan’s abs look like.