“Hari Like Hardee’s” School Days
“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly
than to live an imitation of somebody else’s life with perfection.”
– Bhagavad Gita
Reading my writings from my younger school days, it is quickly apparent what my interests were. My love for mystery, ancient cultures, and science fiction filled the pages of stories I wrote. Drawing from television and kids’ books, I created characters, who I referred to in the first person, that solved crimes, battled mummies and zombies, and traveled through Ancient Greece or the historical Nile River Valley. But between the lines, one could read the themes of shame and pride.
First, my characters were almost universally, although sometimes not explicitly, White. When I described my character as a “typical, American kid,” I only partially drew from my experiences as a middle-class, suburbanite. The rest of it drew from what I wanted to be typical about myself: Not a religious minority, not a linguistic minority, and most definitely not a racial minority. My characters were White. They went to church on Sunday morning. They had steak, meatloaf, or casseroles for dinner, even if I did not know exactly what any of those dishes were. They never had to explain to people how to pronounce their name (“Hari. You know, pronounced like the Hardee’s I live behind.”)
Being different as a kid is tough. You feel like you are missing out on some deeper, richer American experience. I began to imagine myself as what I considered typical. And typical also meant “straight.” So quite a few of the main characters that I wrote in these stories were not just White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Americans; they were also female. If you were already imagining yourself as some “ideal” version of yourself, why not find one in which your young, budding romantic curiosity is not something you need to be quiet about? Therefore, my main characters, Rachel, Sarah, or Jennifer, had crushes and romances that they could be open and vocal about. The targets of their affections were not-so-vaguely reminiscent of boys that I knew at that age, although I was careful never to use their actual names, in case these stories slipped into the wrong hands.
Shame has such an incredibly stifling power, especially in childhood. It is quite easy to forget the lessons we teach without moving our lips. Even in our American culture that insists that it promotes diversity, plurality, and individuality, there are things we say between the lines that children hear perfectly clearly. What does it mean to be normal? What does it mean to be different? What does it mean to be yourself? What does it mean to fit in? I must have internalized in that time that it was not preferable to be different or to stand out. I felt at that time that being White, Christian, and heterosexual, were preferable to what I was.
Pride celebrations rectify some of the damage done by this conditioning we experience as children. They normalize all expressions of love, expressions of self, and expressions of identity. Pride is for those who grew up as kids fantasizing about being someone else. Pride celebrations help us become adults who can freely be ourselves. Pride is for those kids who grew up fantasizing about being someone they thought they could never become. Pride celebrations help us become adults who can truly embrace that part of ourselves and be that version of ourselves completely.
“Seeking Solace,” Pre-Teen Years
Lord Ram gave Hanuman a quizzical look and said, “What are you,
a monkey or a man?” Hanuman bowed his head reverently,
folded his hands, and said, “When I do not know who I am, I serve
you and when I do know who I am, You and I are One.”
Being a teenager is inherently difficult. If puberty, acne, and transitioning from childhood to adulthood were not difficult enough, being a scrawny, Hindu kid in Central Pennsylvania with thick glasses did not help matters. I did not deal with bullying in school, and in that sense, I am fortunate in a way that so many other LGBTQ youth are not. I quickly found communities and social groups during those years that welcomed me and made me feel safe.
However, like everyone, I had my own personal struggles that I dealt with. My mother passed away a few months before my 10th birthday, leaving a hole in my life and my family that seemed permanent. In the wake of her passing, I latched on to things that had mattered to her as a way of staying connected to her. My mourning for her made me try to become her, I made her own views and beliefs my own. Her Indian-ness, her love for her family, her faith, and her culture were ingrained in me at a young age. Without her, I longed to fill the space she left with those very elements.
It is often said that culture and religion do not exist in a vacuum. Many 20th century anthropologists argued that culture and religion required the presence of a community. They argued that religion and culture were formed and existed through the interpersonal relationships that exist within communities. My relationship, however, with some of the members of the local Indian and Hindu community growing up could be described as, at best, tenuous.
I remember my sister sending me an email once that she had been invited over to tea at a local community member’s house, with several others. The topic of discussion was how I had been the “sole kid from the community” to have failed to meet the requirements of the Johns Hopkins Talent Search program. (A bit of my ego and residual indignation requires me to clarify that the program had required a student to rank in the 97th percentile on both the English and mathematics sections of a standardized exam we had taken that year. I had met the mathematics criteria but missed the English section by only a few percentiles.)
Although my sisters’ email was meant to assuage my feelings of inferiority, it had the reverse effect: I was mortified that that conversation had even occurred and stopped closely interacting with most of the members of the local Indian and Hindu community during that time, especially because I did not know who specifically had been in attendance. Around that same time, my family drew even further away as my father built business and personal ties with other families in our town. Counter-intuitively, however, these events did not make me pull away from my identity as a Hindu. I would have to disagree with those 20th-century anthropologists. It was during those years, when I had few, if any close relationships with local Hindus, that my faith became central to my identity.
A younger child might have created an imaginary friend. Instead, I let my imagination start seeing my life as part of a divine play. In the various harikathas I heard during that time, a term that shared a root with my own name, I witnessed so many characters that overcame adversity, confronted social stigmas, and rebelled against society. These characters were revered for living their faith in their daily actions, even if they were belittled or condemned by those around them. My heroes were characters like Kannappan, the hunter who lived on the edges of society but became a devotee of Lord Shiva, almost sacrificing his own sight due to his devotion. There was Thirunaalaipovar, who faced being ostracized from society, but ultimately became one with the divine. There was Andaal, who rebuffed all offers of marriage, instead devoting her life to religious sainthood.
The gossip and the difficulties that I experienced during that time were mitigated if I stepped out from their experiences and saw them as tales of faith overcoming tribulations. When faith supports you in such a way, the pain seems attenuated, and your experiences feel spiritual and magical. It was no Narnia, but the Central Pennsylvanian cornfields around my home were my Vrindavan. My mostly female group of friends was my group of magnificent and beautiful gopis. I was able to redirect the feelings of loss and rejection into a powerful faith, rooted in the memory of my mother. I allowed myself to become one with that faith. I was a character in my own harikatha. In many ways, Hinduism became the soothing balm that I applied to the shame, regret, and sadness I felt about other aspects of my life.
Hari Venkatachalam is a Hindu-American activist focused on the areas of public health, social justice, environmental change, and LGBT rights. He works as an epidemiologist and data manager for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Based in Tampa, Florida, Venkatachalam is a member of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus.