How This South Asian Mother, Picture Book Author, and Activist Incorporates Her Culture in Her Home

published Mar 14, 2022
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Raakhee Mirchandani is a force of nature: She’s an award-winning writer and editor, and the author of several picture books, including Hair Twins, a celebration of Sikh identity inspired by her daughter and her husband’s shared hair rituals, and the forthcoming My Diwali Light, a holiday story that follows one girl’s family as they celebrate their traditions. She’s also a podcaster (full disclosure: I was a guest), a bookstore-lover, a runner, and an activist. 

Raakhee and I have known each other for eons, and we have very similar upbringings as Sindhi/South Asian women from New Jersey. Her 8-year-old daughter, Satya, is just as unstoppable as she is. Raakhee thinks about parenting as a Person of Color and the child of immigrants with nuance and tenderness. I caught up with Raakhee and asked her: How do you celebrate and honor the specificities of your cultural heritage at home?

On the meaning of cultural identity

“Cultural identity” is something that has morphed over the last 30 years. When I was younger, I identified as “American” because I felt that would be easier. As I grew up and became comfortable in my heritage and my ancestry, I became interested in investigating and evaluating what “Indian” meant for me and looked like. It was not until college that I was willing to do any self-discovery: Figuring out the parts of being “Indian” or “Hindu” or “South Asian” that mattered and why, and not blindly carrying forward all the aspects of those identities. They don’t all work for me.

On tidy “boxes” of identity

I’m an “Indian American woman” because much of my identity is first-generation, and also “Indian American in New Jersey,” because being from New Jersey is its own identity. It’s hard for me to fill it in a box, to come up with a neat, tidy couple of words. It’s complex, complicated, layered, and deep.

On her multicultural home

I create spaces where we live all the parts of our identity at the same time. Satya lives the nuances and the shades of who she is much more effortlessly than I did. She doesn’t think about turning things off to enter new spaces. I love to have people over in our apartment, because my home is reflective of who we are. There’s Indian art, Sikh art, and Hindu deities. I serve samosas with chutney and ketchup because that’s just how we eat. Celebrating holidays in a big way and inviting folks who don’t celebrate that holiday is imperative in creating a space where they can see us in our glory and they can be part of it.

On attending Sikh school and speaking Sindhi

Satya attends Khalsa school. She’s around hundreds of Sikh families every Sunday. She learns Punjabi. She learns Sikh history. She’s fluent in Sindhi and she speaks it to my parents, but she and I mix it up. When we’re out and want to have a joke with each other, we can flip between the languages. We have loli on Sunday or dal and rice when it’s really cold outside. Food allows me to tell stories about people who made them before or when I used to eat it as a child. 

On holidays and introspection 

I don’t know how religious I am, but rituals are important to me because they mark the passage of time. I like to do Kali aarti for Navratri because it marks the start of the Diwali season, which for me is the most joyous and delightful season of all. How religious is my Diwali celebration? Jury’s out. It depends who you ask. If you ask my dad, it’s not very religious at all. We’ve made Diwali what it needs to be for us.

It’s a time of reflection and renewal and gathering and family and sharing and giving. It reminds us to take a minute and step inside ourselves. This is how we frame Diwali in our home: “If Diwali is a festival of light, then what is the light that I am bringing? Why is it important that I bring light to situations, to people, to the world?” We clean our home before Diwali. But when you clean the outside, you have to clean the inside. I try to live in that space with Satya.

On the importance of cultural legacies

Our parents were really brave and the four of them built new lives. I don’t want them to ever think that where we come from and who we are is not good enough. So much of their legacy is in who we are and how we treat people. Our identity and our traditions make me happy, and I hope that they make Satya happy too. And if they don’t, I think that’s also important for her to know. It doesn’t make us that Indian. It just makes us ourselves. 

On her daughter’s pride in her heritage

She has a sense of pride in herself in being Sikh and in being Indian. I’d like to think that I have something to do with that. Last year, she did a presentation about baisakhi and her teacher asked me, “Do you want to Zoom in?” I had no idea! It was meaningful for me because she made it her own. Was it all culturally accurate? I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. It’s her lived experience. What is more accurate than that?

On choosing to rethink certain aspects of her culture

Satya loves to read Amar Chitra Katha [comics]; they’re mine from when I was a child. The language is some of the worst — toxic masculinity, classism, and everything that you would not want is in there. We talk about how the language has changed and has to change and it’s not changing fast enough and ideas have to change. It’s an opportunity to be real about the way things were, but also the way things are, and that our apartment and our progressive bubble is not the world. [Satya] has an important job in that, which is to identify it and call it out and not accept it. It’s important that we have the tough conversations with [our children] as much as why we do things, why we don’t do certain things. Their worlds are bigger; Satya’s world is bigger than mine was. 

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