Illustrated by Paheli/OutWrite
This article was originally published in our Winter 2023 print issue “Culture.”
It started with a Facebook message between two bubbly freshmen-to-be: two California-born Indian girls bonding over Bollywood and books. One message led to another, and we decided to submit a roommate request form to live together in the dorms. It was our first time living away from the home-cooked food of our Indian families. Our shared heritage was what gave us a pocket of familiarity within unfamiliarity.
Although it was our similarities that brought us together, the more we got to know each other, the more apparent our differences became. I admired the ease and confidence coating her words as she conversed with her parents on the phone in fluent Hindi, while mine was choppy and broken. She seamlessly fit in with the other Indian students in college while I left their parties to hide in the library — a misdemeanor for which she gave me the silent treatment for a week. Our friendship quickly transitioned from tentative pleasantries into comfortable teasing usually reserved for family members. She forced me into the only kurtis I owned to drag me to parties, and disrupted my studies and sleep by blasting “Balam Pichkari.” But my annoyance was a small price to pay for what she brought to my first-year college experience — color, music, heritage, and sisterhood. We spent our weekends scouting out local Indian restaurants and temples, shopping for spices as we attempted to cook palak paneer in the dorm kitchen commons, and we spent our nights hoarding snacks in our flimsy bunk beds discussing our boy crushes — hers real and mine made up.
She came to visit me almost ten years later, in her final year of medical school as I’m in my final year of grad school, excitedly gushing about graduation and summer wedding plans — one of the boy crushes, an Indian student at our college that I knew of only from stories, over the years had become a boyfriend, a fiancé, and a husband-to-be.
She stayed with me for over a week, and we fell back into the comfortable rhythm of living together. During the day, I went to school and work while she worked from home, and during the evenings, we feasted on Indian food, mango popsicles, and wine bottles, chatting away about life as if we had never lived in separate cities. Her ears were open as she beckoned forth my story: “How did you know? When did you know?” She marveled as my revelations spilled out, shocked that she’d been blind to my budding feelings, not for the boy I’d pretended to like, but for our mutual friend, a girl.
As we reminisced about our college days with a trip to campus and to Little India, indulging in chaat, paan, beauty treatments, and window-shopping for jewelry, and while we drove back home listening to Bollywood remixes for the wedding, I couldn’t stop mourning an alternate universe: one where I, too, had pursued an Indian boy and had a five-day wedding lined up after graduation, fulfilling the image of the family I’d dreamt of as a little girl.
I moved on to imagining another alternate universe where I hadn’t been so scared to admit to myself that I’d had feelings for another woman or to my first college friend and connection to my heritage. A universe where I truly believed that being myself wouldn’t shatter the illusion that I was a good student, a good daughter, and a good Indian girl. A universe where I’d never restricted myself to that illusion in the first place — where I’d taken advantage of college to explore my sexuality rather than hiding behind books and academic validation.
But the universe I remain tethered to is here, where I’m experiencing new feelings ten years too late and unlearning the constructed timelines, expectations, and comparisons. I’m torn between a slight resentment for the unfairness of it all — how heteronormativity seems so linear and easy, pure and idealistic, so unlike my experience of queerness — chaotic, messy, and at odds with my culture. At the same time, I acknowledge that the life of a “good Indian daughter” is not for me, even if it is for my friend. We are alike in many ways — our culture, background, values, and perspectives. At the same time, we are as different as night and day. I was never meant to access what she has, and that doesn’t have to feel like a tragedy. Perhaps my purpose in life is to show others that there is something beyond that vision — not worse, not better, but just different.
It means more to me than she’ll ever know that she never flinched at my story. Even though I feel different, my experiences are different, and my life will inevitably be different, she never treated me any differently than she always had: as a roommate, as a friend, and as a sister.
Author: Paheli (She/Her)
Artist: Paheli (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Emma Blakely (They/She/He), Min Kim (They/Them)