Friday, July 31, 2009

Culture-crossing: the story of an Irish-born Indian

Raj Singh (not his real name) is an Irish-born Indian, aged 22, who grew up in Limerick. Slight of stature, he has an engaging smile and speaks very rapidly and enthusiastically. He dresses like an artist and does not attempt to cover the slash marks on his forearms. As a second-generation immigrant, he was exposed to two cultures while growing up. A conflict of identity was part of the reason for his difficult adolescence.

I actually have two sets of parents. My biological Mum and Dad are both from Punjabi, in North India. It was an arranged marriage.* Their parents knew each other. But all my parents knew about each other before they met was that my mother had studied to be a chemistry teacher, and my father was a doctor. My father would have been in his late twenties, my mother in her early twenties.

My mother was living in Madras at the time, where she was studying. So, they met, and were married. But they weren’t compatible. By the time they realised this, my mother was pregnant, and she had to take a break from the home environment. So she came over to Ireland, where her bother and sister-in-law were living. Her brother and sister-in-law had recently eloped and got married. They come from different backgrounds. Her brother was very Hindu, and her sister-in-law was a Roman Catholic Anglo-Indian from the south of India. They were living in Sligo. My mother had me while she was staying with them.

Now, her sister-in-law, my aunt, had had a miscarriage, and had been praying a lot for a child. And when I was born, she became very attached to me. I was like, the first kid born into the house. They all sort of doted on me. Then my biological mother took me back to India. But I wasn’t doing so well over there. I wasn’t adapting well to the climate. I developed some health problems. So she sent me back over here to be looked after by my aunt. And I’ve been with them since, actually. I call them Mum and Dad. They have a child as well, who I call my sister, although she’d actually be, like, my first cousin. From my other parents in India, I have a brother in India as well. But I haven’t met him in years, like, you know?

Of course as a child, I found it very difficult to accept, you know, being a kid growing up here, while my actual parents and brother were in India. It affected me when I was a kid, like, but I’ve pretty much accepted it all now, you know? So I grew up with my aunt and uncle – I’ll call them Mum and Dad from now on – I grew up with them in Limerick, because that’s where they moved. I went to school at Árd Scoil Rís.

Jalaja, my stepmother (not her real name), was raised as an Anglo-Indian, with western values, you know. She grew up in a different culture, kind of like Ireland. They’d go to discos to meet guys. They’d go to church every Sunday. They’d drink. A lot of people would have become very anglicised during colonial times. They were descended from the Portuguese. Her maiden name is da Silva.

My stepfather, on the other hand, would have come from a Hindu family. They met, and it was a love match, but neither of the families would have agreed to it. It would have been frowned on, like. So my mother ran away from home – she was 21 – in the south of India, and my father came over to finish his degree in Queen’s University in Belfast. Then he wrote to her saying he’d got a job with Travnal laboratories in Castlebar, and she came over and they got married, first in a registry office and then in the church.

Both of the families disowned them because of this. So my mother began to write letters home to both the fathers. She wrote and she wrote and she wrote, over a period of a few months. And she finally got a letter back, from my father’s father. He said he was willing to talk. So they all met up and they were reconciled. They said, ‘you’ve chosen what you want to do. So let’s all move forward as a family.’

I’ve grown up Irish. But my parents are still Indian. They’ve got a couple of Indian friends around. It’d be lonely for them otherwise.

Did your biological mother leave your father?

No. She went back and lived with him, but they never had a happy marriage. It was a typical Indian marriage, where the wife is just a glorified servant, you know? Her job is to look after the house and her husband. It’s not so bad now. Thank God those ideas have changed over time, like, you know?

An arranged marriage is not quite the same now. It would be more like matching. Maybe in rural India it would still be like that, where they would marry before they’ve even met.

When I was growing up, I refused to have anything to do with India. I wanted to be as Irish as the Irish. But my family wouldn’t have that. They tried to bring me up with Indian values. But it wasn’t working.

What were Indian values?

Indian values would be you don’t go out, you don’t hang around with your friends, and you don’t have a girlfriend until you’re much older. Very strict moral values. Very careful about what you’d watch on TV. You know very controlling, even about the way you dress. And a very, very strong emphasis on achievement and education. I would have to be at the high end of everything. That would be most important. And actually when I was a kid, I was very gifted in terms of intelligence. I was beyond my years until the age of 14. But it was all pressure from home. In India it’s all about competition, it’s all about excelling.

What happened when you were 14?

Well, I stopped seeing the point! I thought what am I doing this for, like? What do I want to achieve anyway?

My stepfather had a high profile job. He was working with a company called Modus Media International, a software outsourcing company. He had a very good position with them, and we always had the best of everything, materially, at home. But he was never there. He was always away, travelling to America, Singapore, Australia. He would only come home every two weeks. We’d go on four holidays a year, to wherever he had offices. But there was an emptiness always there. There was some part of me that was never happy, like. I began to veer off in a different direction. I began to stop seeing the point of these very square ideals. By the age of 14 or 15, my eyes were getting opened to another way of life, like you know.

What were you absorbing about the Irish way of life at this point?

Just the general open-mindedness, and the freedom of it.

How were you treated at school?

Nobody looked at me strangely because I was a foreigner, although there was only a handful of foreigner families in Limerick back then. It’s not like it is now. But you know, it was different. Even though I have an Irish accent and all, I wasn’t into the same things as them, you know what I mean? I never used to go out, I used to just study.

But then I started messing in class, and hanging around. Actually the thing that made me change was music. I can’t remember when it was exactly. I think it was listening to The Doors. Something in my mind opened to a whole other world. The freedom, the recklessness of it. Especially the ‘sixties culture. I said to myself, ‘I’ve got this life here. But I could go off and have this whole other life.’ So that was that.

One of the things that got me through school was my love of literature, and back then my dream was to become a poet. And I began to write. I began to romanticise the lives of poets from the past. I also began to mess around too with alcohol and drugs, stuff like that. That was the beginning of a new era in my life. It was great at the time. Things were difficult at home; I was very suppressed and stifled with the situation at home. I did my Leaving Cert. when I was 17. And when we were filling out forms to go to college, my father actually filled out the forms for me, and wouldn’t let me choose what I wanted to do. He wanted me to do computers. I thought, sod that, I’m going to run away from home. And I did. I’d been saving up for ages. And on the day of my last Leaving Cert. exam, I never went home. My family went upstairs to find the letter that I wasn’t coming home.

I left to do a degree in theology and English in Mary I. It’s part of the University of Limerick, but it’s located in the city centre. That was a new venture. I was 17 then. But I dropped out of college after a while, and spent most of the time hanging round cafés and writing poetry, and taking drugs and drinking. And that was my life. But I felt stifled with the city as well, and thought there was something more I should be doing. So in June 2000 I hopped on a plane bound for India. I went over with very little money. First, I went to visit my biological family. I spent a few months studying Hindu scripture. I grew my hair long, beard, wore beads, bright colours, no shoes. I was travelling, bathing in the river Ganges; I was in bliss there.

Did you see your family in India much over the years?

I met them when I was 12, but refused to accept them into my life. But when I went over it was good. I had a great time. I’m still much closer to my stepmother than my biological mother though.

Did you notice a big difference there between you and Indian boys your own age?

Of course, yes. If I’d grown up in India, I would have seen a very much smaller world. Maybe I would have been a lot more content, you know, because I wouldn’t have seen a lot of things that distract me and cause me to want and desire more all the time. But at the same time, I don’t regret having come over here, like. It was a twist of fate, really.

My stepparents found it very hard to adjust to Ireland. My mother couldn’t go out, and my father was always working. It’s not in the Indian culture to go out. So they would have found it very lonely, like. In India you’d have family visiting you all the time. My stepmother grew up speaking English, but she always felt Indian. She was stuck between two cultures as well, like. It’s only now in the last few years that she’s adapted. She’s working away at Eason’s, and socialising quite a bit. More Indian families have moved over, so there’s a bit of an Indian community too.

But it was difficult for them, for years. They didn’t know how to raise us, with Indian values, or the values here, you know what I’m saying? My biological parents wanted me to have a Hindu upbringing, but my stepfamily is Catholic, so I was brought up with neither of the two!

The last few years, I’ve been searching for God, through many different faiths. Through living with a Catholic community, through living in India. A lot of other new age stuff.

Tell me about living with a Catholic community.

Well there’s this Italian community called the Community Cenacolo.** It was founded 22 years ago and they help people who’ve lost the meaning of life. You go there to work for free, and you get a roof over your head and food. I was there working on a farm, like, you know. And travelling a bit with them, like, in Italy. It’s a place where you go away to have a think about things, you know? You lead a very isolated, very detached life there. They don’t have a radio, no television, no newspapers, no girls, nothing. Just ten lads, living in a house. They have the Blessed Sacrament in the house as well, like. It’s a consecrated house. You wake up every morning and do adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. They have mass. You work very hard out in the fields. You fast regularly. Stuff like that. It’s basically a place to go away and think about things.

You wake at 6 every morning. If you’re working with the animals, you wake at 5 to milk the cow. Then you pray the rosary in the chapel. You have reading from the scripture, something like that. Somebody would read and you’d share in that. Sometimes you’d have group discussions about how you’ve been feeling over the last week. You eat breakfast from 7 to 7.30, then you go to work through the day, to 7 in the evening without sitting down, except to stop briefly at 12 for lunch. You don’t sit down at all during the workday, and it’s a lot of physical labour. There’s so much to be done, because it’s more or less self-contained. They have 14 acres of land around this bungalow.

How did you hear about it?

Well, I was in hospital. I’d suffered a loss in my life, you know? (A friend of his, from rehab, had died) and I had a nervous breakdown as a result. I met a woman there who’d been to Mejorgory, and she told me about this awakening that she’d had there, like. She told me about this community that she’d heard of, and something inside me just felt right about it. She gave me a contact number for a girl who used to be in one of their houses. So I got in contact with her. And I stayed for a couple of months, and then I left again. I couldn’t come to terms with it.

I went back at the end of 2003. And I stayed for 20 months. I found myself at the sink one day, crying. Sometimes the lads would do that. No one bothered you or gave you a hard time for it.

I’ve been out of it for two weeks, and I’ve come back to Galway. I used to live here – I was here for about two years.

My plan now is to get a place to live, set up a studio and paint. I used to paint. I had a couple of exhibitions around Ireland. I’ve started writing again. I used to sell poetry in the street. And I do readings as well. Of course I’ve been doing none of that for two years, so I’ve come back to Galway to start over again. I just want to live life. I’ve no long-term goals. I don’t have mad ambition. The only thing I want is peace of mind. I want to be creative. I want to be in a relationship. I’ve met this girl. She’s from Spain. We get on really well. She’s not like other girls I’ve been out with, more down to earth. We’ve spent an awful lot of time just talking about life. We kissed last night for the first time. It was beautiful, you know?

Before I would have had a lot of ambitions, and lived quite a reckless life in a lot of ways, maybe as a result of being young, but also from having been suppressed for so long in a lot of ways.

I’ve calmed down now, in a lot of ways. I don’t drink or do drugs any more. I’ve seen two sides of life now. And what I want now is to do simple things. I want to listen to jazz. I want to go for coffee in a café. I want to go down to the pier and sit in the sun. I want to paint. I want to play music. Very simple. Very short term. But I think I can be content with these things.

What part does India play in your life now?

I’m Indian. I still very much respect the culture, the values, beliefs, faith. I will go back there again.

It’s been a few years since I was there, and I don’t really hang around Indians, but I know if I were to travel over there right now, I’d fit in straight away, like. India’s my environment, you know.

I’ve noticed these scars all down the length of your arms. Were those cuts self-inflicted?

Yes. I led a very extreme life. I looked very different back then, had a lot of piercings. I hung around with crazy people. It seemed acceptable, what I was doing back then. Now I have to live with it. In the beginning, I used to do it when I was sad or in difficulties. Then it became a habit. I’d do it all the time, when I was with friends. It was the thing to do. It’s painful, but it’s a buzz in itself. A high. I hung out with girls who were into it as well. Sometimes you’d be so out of it, you wouldn’t realise what you were doing. But it’s been a couple of years, like. I’m not into all that any more.

I’ve also got loads of tattoos! I’m actually getting two of them removed by laser at the moment at this cosmetic surgery place in Dublin. This one (pointing) means ‘void’ in Sanskrit. I can’t tell you what that one says! It’s an Asian, Middle Eastern language. It’s from a cult. But that’ll be gone soon. That one is an esoteric symbol. A negative one. But it’s cost €3000 so far. Imagine how much it’s going to cost to get rid of them all. I’ve got one in the centre of my forehead. It’s an inverted cross. I got involved with all that when I was 19. But at the moment, I’m getting it removed. It’s taken ten treatments so far. Because it’s quite difficult living with tattoos, especially looking for work and that.

You were in hospital with a nervous breakdown?

I just couldn’t cope. I was actually in there a couple of times. The first time was when I’d left Galway after my friend passed away. I was at home, just lying there and my mother couldn’t do anything with me. So she contacted the doctor. And he sent me off to this place in Ennis. I was there for a bit. I was taking medication for depression. I don’t do that any more either. The second time, I’d just lost the ability to function, through depression.

Do you think depression is common among young guys these days?

It is, yeah. Ireland has a very high suicide rate among the young. And everyone is looking at the culture for the reason. There’s been a great increase in the drink and drug culture over the last 10 or 15 years, and a strong decrease in any faith or spirituality. But really, the doctors, the pills, they didn’t work for me, like. I had to turn to faith and it’s there that I found the answer, and I found peace. With myself, you know what I’m saying.

How are things with your family now?

The last few years have been very difficult with my family, but we’re reconciled now. My sister is at university. She is three years younger than me. She also felt repressed by our upbringing, but saw what happened to me, though, and went the other way.

If you were to compare the Irish with the Indians, what would you notice in particular?

I think the Irish are a really proud race, in a negative way. Look at their attitudes to the English. You can still feel it. You have the ceol agus craic. But it loses its value along the way, with these negative underlying attitudes waiting for a drink to bring them out.

People in India are a lot more down to earth. So are the Europeans. I really like them. From what I’ve seen, Irish people have lost all their values. They’re such a fast culture now at the moment. A lot of people are looking for something and not finding it. But you can’t blame them, really, can you. I think that’s what people have to do, lose their way a bit, then come back to earth.


Traditionally, dating or socialising between the sexes was not allowed in India (or, for that matter, in Pakistan) so the arranged marriage was the only form of marriage in society. Marriage between maternal cousins and sometimes, maternal nephews was also common, and still occurs today. This was known as rightful marriage alliance in some communities, and possibly originated to ensure that family wealth remained within the family.

As it was common for boys and girls to marry in their early teens, it was considered appropriate for their parents to make the choice. The parents typically considered educational and economic background as well as caste in making their selection.

Arranged marriages are quite common even today, although the criteria have slightly changed. The rigid caste system is somewhat diluted and marriages outside the sub-caste are considered; so are marriages outside one's own language or province.
Although age, caste and dowry still come into consideration, couples nowadays demand and get more of a say in the matchmaking decision, while love matches are becoming increasingly common.


** The Irish community, Cenacolo, based in Aughtaboy, Co Mayo, is a charitable organisation, which relies totally on voluntary donations. One of its main objectives is to help young people overcome addictions.

The Knock Cenacolo community house, which is situated on a 30-acre farm, can accommodate 16 people. The purpose is to teach the importance of accepting responsibility for one’s own behaviour. Pride in accomplishment and strength of character is encouraged through hard work, discipline and counselling.
There are no drugs, alcohol, cigarettes or television. The average time spent there is three years, and the success rate for those who complete the programme is high. Young people who have fallen into addiction, and find themselves desperate and homeless, learn to find peace and a sense of meaning in their lives.

Sources: Carlow National article
India’s Arranged Marriages, written by Vikas Kamat (website)

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