Growing up a brown girl in Astoria, Queens I never really felt like I fit in anywhere; on one hand I had my strict Bengali parents who forced their religion on me and demanded top grades in school and on the other I faced the peer pressure to assimilate with American culture and let go of the good girl image I put on at home. Though I couldn't change the color of my skin I still tried in vain to be as white as the kids I'd see on TV or in magazines because I thought that that's what it took to be liked by the other girls and boys in my class. It didn't help that I went to a Catholic school where there were only a handful of minorities and everyone turned a blind eye to any racist bullying. I was taunted for being different, for not being allowed to accept communion at church, or attend a birthday party or even a sleepover at a friend's house. It felt like the word fun didn't exist in my parents' vocabulary and home was like a dungeon I was trapped in.
As I got older, kids became even meaner and I can recall all the laughing and finger pointing when this asshole in my class sprayed me with Lysol because he said I smelled like curry. I resented being born into the family I had and wished I could be adopted by the Brady's or Keaton's who seemed to have it all together. I often thought about leaving home but then gave up when I realized there was no where else for me to go. So I poured myself into my studying and read books as an escape from the brutal realities of domestic abuse, incest, and other traumas I put up with.
In the process of detaching myself from these soul ripping experiences, I lost something of myself. I didn't know who I was anymore; I didn't feel Bengali nor did I really consider myself American. I envied all the South East Asian kids who sang and danced at local school performances because they had such pride in their culture. At the time there weren't any Indian actors or role models in the mainstream public eye and the few I knew of were in Bollywood films that I'd only really watch with my parents when I'd go home. I enjoyed seeing all the colorfully adorned outfits that the beautifully seductive women wore as they would rhythmically move their feet to an upbeat tune and dance around a tree or something.
It seemed that no one outside of my family really could relate to these Indian cinemas or the joy they brought until finally, at long last, "Slumdog Millionaire" came along in 2008. I remember seeing it in the theater with my boyfriend and can still feel the excitement of being able to share this experience with an entire audience. Never had I seen so many people embrace an Indian film so eagerly and I was in awe of how that story captivated us all. In the end when "Jai Ho" came on you could feel the electric energy in the room as people were cheering and dancing along with Jamal and Latika and I knew then that I had found that missing piece to my identity. I latched on to that song and made it my mantra to let victory prevail even when times are tough and life's got you feeling down.
I learned to accept myself and let go of the shame I felt for being inadequate my entire life; it was almost as if a veil had been lifted and I was able to see things clearly for the first time. "Jai Ho" was there for me when I needed to break free of the mold others were trying to put me in and be the real me; it helped me to find my voice that had been stifled for so long. Every once in a while I still get silly and dance around the room when I hear this song because it serves as a reminder of how it freed my soul. For that I will be forever grateful.