It was quite a shock to my parents when I informed them that I would be leaving my beloved New York, where I was pursuing parallel careers as researcher and Odissi dancer, to move to Odisha to get married. Many of my mother’s friends asked how could she even consider letting me, her American-born and raised daughter, settle in Odisha. However, my mother, knowing my obstinate personality (I was the kid who always took the plunge) — gave me the space to make that decision on my own.
In hindsight, my rationale for making the shift was actually naïve and rather simplistic, and to an extent perfectly in sync with my tendency to dive into a situation based on my instinct without over-thinking the details. Having traveled to Odisha many times for my dance training, I believed the I could make this transition seamlessly and return to my ‘roots,’ so to speak. It would be a practical decision for me to shift there, rather than for my fiancé to close down his business and move to the USA.
My India was a highly-romanticized version that I had carried in my head and heart over the course of several decades. One that had been cultivated during my extensive travels to the ‘motherland’ for my dance training. The India I knew and had come to idealize was a beautiful and idyllic narrative, one impervious to any flaws, almost as though I had an inner mechanism that could magically filter out anything that did not agree with this idea of my dream country.
Perhaps something characteristic to those born of the diaspora — a yearning for a country left behind, one that we long to feel a connection to. My India was a dancer’s India; it was my entry point, way of life and umbilical cord to this country. There hadn’t been a single visit to the motherland that did not involve dance in some way or other. But for me — it was the perfect India, tradition, culture, history, and a sense of belonging. It made complete sense for me at the time to want to ‘return’ to India, the irony of which was that I wasn’t really ‘returning’ anywhere, just a fantasy of a sense of belonging.
The initial transition into my new life as a married woman in India was a process of redefining myself — a complete paradigm shift in ways that I never could have imagined, nor was I prepared for. Yes, there was the expected transition from being single to being married and part of a new family. However within these roles were others I was unaware of — ones that I had very little ownership and say in at the time. The new roles I was expected to inhabit were very clearly gender-specific, intrinsically understood, upheld by even the most progressive of individuals in society. Roles that I was not exempt from, even being born and raised outside of India.
For someone like me, who had never been conditioned to fit into any particular societal role, especially with regards to gender, this came as quite a shock — I was someone used to being her own woman, managing parallel careers, with very little investment in home and home life for that matter (home was really a place where I would sleep, shower and have a meal from time to time). The transition into this new role(s) was one that I was neither really prepared nor one that I was particularly very good at by Indian standards.
For starters, I had never viewed house work as something explicitly a woman’s work, nor had I ever ‘managed’ a household, or household help for that matter. The simplest of transactions took much longer than expected. Then there were the inevitable communication issues, partly because of language, but also the subtle nuances — the hierarchies, cushioning of awkward discussions, embedded into a communication style that was more inferred than expressed. There was also the issue being trusting, open, vulnerable and empathetic so very much misunderstood by almost everyone — my naivety would inevitably get the best of me, and my empathy became a liability — more often than not, I would get frustrated or despair because of others taking advantage of or devaluing my openness. That was when the perfect ideal began to crack and I was exposed to a very different reality.
And at this point, I acknowledge that the transition was on all sides, as expectations are always there and as much as I was adapting, it was also others adapting to my idiosyncrasies. Even with the best of intentions, the inevitable ‘insensitive’ comment would trigger bouts of frustration. But I was more taken aback by how the expectations from outside of the household far exceeded, (and were far more stringent) those from within it. From managing the house, to whose feet I touched and how, what I wore, how I addressed my husband — these became issues for ‘public’ consumption, discussion and a free pass for judgment possibly.
For a sensitive person like myself, it was very difficult to digest. I thought perhaps I may not have fit the common idea of ‘American’ and it may have been completely out of their frame of reference to see this girl who ‘looked’ Indian, belonged to an Odia family, but was actually an American in terms of wiring and who was not very conversant with defined gendered roles within a household. Moreover, it did not seem to be of any value to engage and educate anyone when the ideas, values and judgements were so deeply entrenched into a particular way of life. Over the years, I have learned to keep this in mine so as not to internalize any comments or meanness.
I would call this my chapter one of the transition — the first stage of which was to begin to let go of an idealized image of the ‘motherland;’ to do my best to see and accept whatever inherent inconsistencies, but with compassion. That said, it was also a time to reflect, to balance between understanding of and empathy for others, whilst extending the same for myself — my vision, values, upbringing and life purpose. Consequently, to determine my own limits — there was only so much I could adapt to without losing my identity and sense of self.
It did not make sense to change completely in order to fit in because at 35, I had my life and purpose. That was the most difficult part, which at first required a lot of re-imagining the hyphen and re-negotiating values, including my own. I understood that problem was not necessarily with me, but rather a kind of dissonance, a mismatch in expectations because of the massive cultural differences, and also to some extent because of society’s implied expectation that the ‘onus’ to adapt was only on me. I realized that it would serve no purpose (not to mention completely depressing) to change to adapt to society and lose my identity and sense of self/purpose. The real journey was to find that balance.
Sonali Mishra is an Odissi dancer, researcher and writer, currently based in Odisha. She holds a BA in English from the University of Michigan’s College of Literature Science and the Arts, and an MS in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III School of Public Policy and Management. Sonali pursued parallel careers in New York as a researcher in the nonprofit sector as well as an Odissi dancer. As an artist, she has traveled throughout the U.S., Europe, India, and Canada to teach and perform. She is the 2018 recipient of the Aarya Award for Women Achievers in the field of Art and Culture by the Parichay Foundation, and the 2020 recipient of the Devi Award. In 2011, she relocated to Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India, where she continues to train, perform, and conduct her research. Sonali has written for attenDance, Narthanam, and ArtsJournal. She founded the online magazine, Global Rasika [www.globalrasika.com] in 2014. Sonali loves reading, writing, art, travel and coffee. She can be reached at email@example.com