Our ancestors did not just pass down intergenerational trauma
What about intergenerational healing, love, care & medicine? How do we move beyond binary thinking?
I spent most of my life being embarrassed of my culture & ancestral roots. Growing up, I was terrified of kids at school finding out I came from a family with mixed, complicated, seemingly oppositional legacies. I wanted to fit in & conform to whatever was considered “cool” without realizing the politics behind it all. I was afraid of standing out as the “other” or looking even more divergent than the ways I couldn’t hide. I spent years attempting to erase the ways my culture showed up in my body, behaviors, clothing, speech, mannerisms, choices, morals etc. It truly is heartbreaking realizing that as a kid, I so desperately desired to fit into capitalist/ colonial norms which really just means I craved the ABSENCE of any culture at all.
This piece starts & ends with stories about me & my grandma. Sometimes, it’s easier to relay big concepts (complex legacies of our past) thru a microscopic lens (1 messy, loving, heavy & hopeful generational relationship). For paid subscribers- Some exclusive, scandalous pictures at the end just for you + reflections.
My maternal grandma (I call her ammi) often followed us as we migrated and bounced between countries seeking stability. My ammi tried to give me & my little sister the care we weren’t receiving otherwise. She would wake up at dawn to make me daal (lentils), chaawal ki roti (flatbread made with rice flour) and an assortment of my favorite curries. She would plan weeks ahead of time to prepare all the base spice blends, herb mixtures, pastes & aachars (pickles) by hand because she knew I loved to eat by sampling many small bites of a diversity of flavors rather than mono-focus on 1 or 2 things. She would sit on the floor with a small stool for hours with an okhli & musal (mortar & pestle) concocting magic from scratch or use a belan (cylinder to roll kneaded dough) on a stone slab to churn out countless rotis. Cooking was a sacred embodiment of our culture and it was her expression of love. Ammi trekked across many unfamiliar lands just so she could make these meals for us & hold us close.
There are many guilt-ridden memories buried deep in my subconscious. I adore my ammi. I was endlessly grateful for each morsel she would put in my mouth but I was often unable to embody this gratitude. I was afraid of how my culture would be perceived in a society where the total absence of culture was glorified. Our cultures were framed as “too much” & gawked at with ridicule. I was conditioned to think that the U.S., Europe & other colonial countries were beacons of freedom & liberty while my own mother-lands were backward & uncivilized.
There was so much love infused into each lunch tiffin my ammi packed for me. Each meal contained centuries of traditional knowledge passed down thru her as a form of community care. Despite all that… I was afraid to take my tiffin to school, open it & have the scent of vibrant spices permeate throughout the cafeteria or within the small confines of a classroom where I couldn’t escape the bullies.
My ammi had a really difficult and also joyful life in the most complex sense. She never had any formal schooling but taught me how to read & write Urdu. She was an artist but forcefully relegated to a lifetime of unacknowledged domestic & caregiving labor. She had 4 children by the age of 17. The systems of oppression she lived under & the cultures of oppression they created deprived her of any autonomy or free will to CHOOSE who she could be. She bore so much AND she grew, evolved, broke generational curses in her own way, took leaps of uncertainty into the unknown, built community, went to adult school in her 60s to learn basic English when she should’ve never had to learn her colonizer’s language… she did so much. My ammi is just one person but through her, I’m talking about millions & billions of beings that came before us that bore legacies of joy AND pain.
Who are our ancestors?
I don’t refer to “ancestors” in the strict biological, mainstream sense but in a much more expansive, liberating sense. Our ancestors are include the collectivist communities that came before us that laid the foundations for the world we traverse today. Our ancestors are not just maternal or paternal family trees. We were raised by a village & those who impacted us in any way during our lifetime were also raised by their own villages. Our ancestors are not just humans but the many living beings (flora, fauna, those in the microscopic universe), rocks, mountains, forests, rivers, ponds, & soils from the ecosystems that made us. There are lessons, stories, knowledge embodied across all of them.
I feel guilty for neglecting my ancestor’s gifts & for painting them with a colonial binary brush of good/ bad, positive/ negative. But now, on occasional nights, I sit on the ground, breathe into the pain, close my eyes to imagine the monsoon breeze from my childhood washing over me, clasp the handles of my belan & roll a roti. I’m working on it. One roti at a time. I’m finding my way thru the bog. I’m trying to reach back to my ancestors & my mother-lands who’ve been reaching & yearning for me for so long.
Collectivist cultures are life-sustaining & capitalist ‘culture’ is really just the absence of real culture
Culture is created by inter-dependent, grounded, communities. This capitalist, individualistic society is designed to actively hinder any collaborative creation of communal traditions that enable safety, contentment or growth. As a kid, I wanted to forsake & escape from my own culture because it was defined by countless flamboyant, bold, loud, expressive, vibrant, intense, passionate, vivid, creative, diverse land-based traditions. These life-sustaining practices were co-created by our ancestors to give us many reasons to LIVE fully, freely & joyfully. On the other hand, capitalism created a crisis of meaning, loneliness & despair. Compared to our collectivist cultures, capitalist/ colonial “cultures” are lifeless, bland, sterile, white-washed, sanitized, numbing, rigid, boring, monotonous, plain, stiff. When you politically contextualize it all, it is clear that there is nothing but the power dynamics of oppression that have embellished and hyped up this robotic, individualistic, dissociated way of life to be perceived as desirable. We spend majority of our day forced to do made up things rather than participate in regenerative cultural practices.
“So what do you do?”
There’s a reason many people reduce their entire personality to their job or career. In the absence of vibrant communal rituals grounded in our ecosystem, people seek meaning & purpose in work culture- the hustle & grind culture is all that is left. There are smatterings of other traditions but most are reduced to performative, opportunistic socializing (“networking”), superficial displays to garner social capital, or consumerist holidays. Capitalism tries to socialize us to think that the only way we can feel something is by consuming/ buying something.
Delving beyond legacies of pain
Capitalism deprives us of community, severs us from the land & in doing so it deprives us of culture itself. There are centuries of power imbalances that have marginalized some of us more than others but ultimately, capitalism thrives in the absence of community & culture. The state tries to convince us that we are alone so we can be easier to manipulate & control. If we realized our ancestors have existed and created traditions outside the confines of capitalism/ colonialism, we wouldn’t solely turn to these oppressive systems to seek “solutions” despite them being the source of our suffering & distress. So we are led to believe that the only thing the past has offered us is pain.
“History repeats itself” is often meant to be a progressive warning- be afraid, terrified, horrified of the past; learn from it; create anew. Undoubtedly the past holds lessons for us as we build systems of community care. However, we also know there have been many intergenerational tools that our ancestors have created with love, care, compassion & a zeal for life. 1000s of years worth of generational healing, joy & medicine. My ammi immersed herself in our ancestral gastronomic legacies and this was how she co-created meaning in life. Our ancestors passed down so much more just trauma & cycles of violence. We are so much more than our pain.
Beyond binary thinking & hyper-focusing on trauma
Oppressive systems are built on binaries- good/ evil, positive/ negative, right/ wrong, superior/ inferior, us/ them. Binary thinking has led us to hyper-focus on our generational pain in a society with systems that thrive on our misery, loneliness & hopelessness. We’ve focused on cleansing ourselves from the past, breaking generational curses, transcending intergenerational trauma. While this is all crucial, what about honoring legacies of intergenerational healing, joy, creativity, art, creative expression, indescribably complex rituals, collectivist cultural traditions, & beyond?
It’s difficult to rebuild a healthy relationship with our roots when our wounds are is raw. Our generational curses have left a bad taste in our mouth. Historical & ongoing colonial genocide, enslavement, erasure, displacement & exploitation make it difficult for us to see past the hurt. We’ve been Pavlov’s dog-ged, aka socially conditioned, to associate our ancestral legacies with oppression & modernity with progress or freedom. This may have prevented us from identifying some answers to our pain that have come before us.
What about those of us that don’t know our histories? What about white people?
I don’t have total clarity around my ancestral lineages. I doubt many of us do. I don’t fully know where my fathers tribal community was originally from in East Africa and I cannot begin to even track that information due to colonial erasure. But I start somewhere- with the lands that birthed me, the lands (& communities on them) that fostered me as a migrant, the few pieces I can trace, the many elders who are eager to guide & beyond. I’m practicing embodying more fluid, non-binary, community-rooted ways of being— I think this practice is called “living” or “being alive”?
I challenge people who are white too- to not just think about whiteness thru the lens of privilege & oppression. I also want you to reflect, dig, dissect, dream, think about your ancestral roots outside the confines of capitalism/ colonialism & understand the loss of collectivist traditions that was integral to the establishment of systems of domination & exploitation. Culture is not restricted to a single social construct— think of queer cultures, working class cultures, rural cultures, land-based cultures, coastal cultures, mountain cultures, forest cultures. Race is after all a colonial construct created FOR oppression & using it as a sole guiding compass is reductive. Celtic, Jewish, Slavic, Romani, Czech, & countless other cultures that may be framed as or have subsets categorized as “white” have many collectivist, expansive, joyful traditions AND resilient legacies of resistance against colonialism & fascism.
Bottom-line: All living beings are collectivist and thrive thru inter & intra species collaboration within communities/ ecosystems— these collaborations create culture! Oppression may have really f**ked us up but we have existed beyond it, despite it, alongside it. Aren’t we all trying to today? Isn’t that what me writing this piece for you is? Isn’t that what we’re doing every time we intentionally show up in relationships not defined by oppressive norms? Isn’t that what we’re doing when we create something beautiful? We are so ethereally complex. Don’t you think so?
Ending with another v wholesome story about one of the best nights of my life!!
In 2020, when I was in the thick of working thru the pandemic, exhausted from never having a break after I graduated & simultaneously navigating major life changes- my grandma came to stay with me in my tiny apartment. I was so apologetic about how little I could provide for her. She said she’d never been more comfortable & she genuinely was. We went down to “little India” (immigrant pocket of the city) to stock up on all the basic South Indian, Desi ingredients we could find & there she was, up again at dawn every day, kneading away, churning & blending her love into each meal she made.
One night, sitting with ammi, I took a leap of faith, confided in her & shared some raw, unfiltered, authentic parts of myself I had kept guarded because of my conservative upbringing. I had recently filed filed for divorce to exit my abusive relationship. I had cut contact with my biological mother (my ammi’s daughter) and had a more complex problems to navigate with my father & sister. I felt removed from & resentful of all my cultural roots- they felt triggering by their mere association with some people who had hurt me. I was already humbled by the space my ammi had created for me to stay up many nights venting to her including the most graphic, painful details about the things I went thru. She took on a lot. At this point, she was also more aware of my life choices that went against the traditional beliefs, dogmas or doctrines we were raised within.
This one night I felt like I could open up even more.
I sat her down and talked to her about drugs, alcohol, harm reduction and my general open-minded approach to the coping mechanisms we use to survive crushing oppression. I confided in her about the slew of prescription medications over the decade that had ravaged my body- from pain meds to psychotropics designed to numb me, further enable my dissociation & get me back to work rather than heal. I had sky high cholesterol levels (despite intergenerational risk factors, it was an anomaly for someone my age to have the lipid profiles that I had) and my kidney/ liver function had tanked. Despite being trained within modern medical systems & seeing select merits like vaccines or antibiotics (which were not discovered because of capitalism but DESPITE it), I knew my body was wrecked by medicine’s “diagnose & drug” model that profited off of sickness.
I shared with my Ammi that re-shifting my focus to community building had been my biggest source of healing annnnnd… among many things, I talked to her openly about weed being an effective therapeutic coping tool that helped my body wane from the dependence on many toxic medications.
We discussed the political context behind the criminalization of drugs, laws only being a tool to control the poor and protect/ benefit the rich, compared the war on drugs to the war on terror and the war on migrants (all of which we were at the intersection of) and even chatted about capitalism as being the primary overarching form of legalized slavery for the working class (with prison labor & the prison industrial complex as one form that falls under that umbrella). SHE GOT IT. She listened, asked insightful questions & I was genuinely shocked. I was blown away not because my ammi is an unkind, closed-minded person but because I assumed her traditional roots & by extension my culturally rooted upbringing would prevent her from empathizing with me. I was wrong as I have been many times before & continue to be today in the most beautiful, hope-igniting way.
Ammi said “I’m hurt because you have to face all these battles but I’m so proud of you”. & then I did the thing I NEVER IMAGINED I would do— I asked if she wanted to try smoking with me. She shyly smiled, laughed nervously, hesitated & then exclaimed:
“!چلو! ٹھیک ہے” (okay! let’s go!)
“اگر ہمارے بچے ہمیں نئی چیزیں نہیں سکھائیں گے تو کون کرے گا؟” (If our children don’t teach us something new then who will?!)
We stayed up the rest of the night swimming in nostalgia, sharing fond & painful memories of our past lives, laughing together over masala chai, crying & eating 4 bags of toxic Doritos. Ammi also shared parts of herself & gave her perspective on norms, carceral values, problems in our family in an honest & unprecedentedly vulnerable way. We dismantled a massive barrier between us that night & we were closer from that day onwards.