Creative Nonfiction: Writing About People Like Me by Rhea Dhanbhoora

My grandfather hated reading, so it’s odd that my relationship with him was the catalyst for so much of my writing. He did, however, love to tell stories. Like some 21st-century Persian troubadour, he’d lean back on his rocker, reminding me between tales how unique it was to be Parsi. I’d laugh because I lived in a gated community where there were so many people like me. It didn’t feel unique.

Outside these gates, in my Montessori school, there were still some people like me, but I was now beginning to understand we were a minority. I sometimes had to explain what a Parsi was. Not yet tired of doing this, I wrote an entire book. It was more pamphlet than book, more about the Zoroastrian faith than my ethno-religious minority. Instead of a tale of Persian refugees fleeing persecution, it was filled with hand-drawn, puerile portrayals of the prophet Zarathustra, spirits Angra Mainyu, Spenta Mainyu…It may have been one of the only things I’ve written that my grandfather read.

My foray into fiction began with a mystery-adventure pastiche. It wasn’t very good, but it took just an afternoon to fill an entire composition book. I wrote in between a typically heavy lunch and indulgent tea that my very Parsi family had enjoyed in a cream-colored bungalow fronted by small palm trees. Those bungalows, like much of the community, were already beginning to disappear, and I felt an urgent need to pull them into my stories. These archaic artifacts I could already see fitting into the world of literature: the objet d’art on the top floor: a wooden table hand-carved by my great-great-grandfather, now on its last legs in front of the tall window; the tiny metal chair he had used as a toddler; the musty smells, mosaic-tiled floors and cracked stained glass in this house from the 20s. I chose a mystery-adventure because I had been reading Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ series; just one of the many Blyton books that colonized my childhood reading list. Whether I was writing or reading, it was easy to switch the English settings of Blyton’s country homes to our bungalow, to see Burnett’s ‘The Secret Garden’ on the lawns between the buildings in my gated community, to imagine Montgomery’s Anne Shirley on the promenade by the sea in Bombay instead of Canada’s Prince Edward Island — I told myself that all children probably did this.

Around 4 pm on such days, my grandfather sometimes came to see what I was up to as the rest of the family steeped lemongrass, mint and flavorful black tea leaves to make a heady Parsi choi, cut up the mawa cake and put out the khari biscuits. He asked if the children in my story went to the agiary more often than I did and I said no, why would they know what a Parsi fire temple is? Characters in books weren’t supposed to be like me. “So there are no Parsis in it?” he asked, and I said no, it wasn’t a Parsi novel, it was a mystery-adventure novel.

Almost every Sunday of my childhood I’d sit cross-legged on the bed between my grandparents as they napped, writing nonsense poetry in a small blue notebook. Even when I grew up and moved from the bed to my grandmother’s sewing desk by the window, from poetry to stories, I didn’t want to write auto-fiction. So I spent years never writing honest fiction, avoiding the truth of the stories lurking in my subconscious because I did not want to be, nor did I think I had any real right to be, seen on the page.

I inhabited different countries as I expanded my reading list, and I loved when I found one I hadn’t yet spent enough time in. I often tried to draw my grandfather in, suggesting we sample the cuisines, memorize the foreign words.  “Let’s try dhansak instead. Nothing beats a good dhansak,” he would joke. It took moving 7,786 miles to realize he was right about the delicious lentil gravy, filled with succulent mutton.

As my reading list diversified from the Western canon, it began to resemble life around me, but it still wasn’t my life. As I grew older, the number of Parsis I was surrounded by outside the gated community grew smaller. It made sense not to see myself in the books I was reading — I did not really see much of myself in real-life. Most kids helped this minority position feel like a special thing. We often made jokes about our eccentric reputations, long noses, near-extinction… but a boy I did not know took me down a few pegs when he interrupted once to ask, “Where are you from though, were you even born here? You guys aren’t even proper Indians, right?” and I wasn’t sure how to explain that I was, but I also was not, because I knew that when he said Indian he was not talking about my nationality.

On the evening after this unsavory exchange, my grandfather told me an unbelievably funny story about a neighbor that was so full of such strange detail, it could have been lifted from one of the Russian novels I was now attempting to read. It was the first time I realized I had never read anything like that in a novel. I did not tell him about the boy. Instead, later that night, I tried to write a story about Parsis. It felt foreign, the fiction was forced. So I wrote about a boy obsessed with Freddie Mercury, quite possibly one of the most famous Parsis. But, much like the recent biopic, I whitewashed the heritage, and it became the first of many finished novels I deleted as soon as I was done.

When in 2002, my grandmother bought Rohinton Mistry’s latest book, I read parts of it out loud, my grandfather listening attentively because he could tell the characters were Parsi. “There should be more books like that,” he said, but I was not convinced anyone but Parsis would want to read them. “We’re very interesting!” he insisted, telling me stories that did not convince me, but did make me feel more connected to the community. He recounted tales of the refugee ships a small group of Persians fled persecution in, of being permitted asylum only after promising to dissolve, ‘like sugar in milk’ — which at the time, is what I wanted to do so I could be like everyone else, but was so bad at it that I stuck out even more when I tried.

I tried to pretend I did not like Rohinton Mistry’s novels even though his sentences were sublime, because everyone expected him to be my favorite since we shared this community. I tried to pick favorite authors from far-flung destinations out of India, Asia even, just so I wouldn’t be connected to them.

Even as I pushed myself away from writing or reading about us, I thought about people like me, sparsely sprinkled through other books I read, often as a footnote, an interesting spectacle, the butt of a joke. Every few decades there would be one, maybe two authors who wrote about Parsis who could really own these stories and it made me wonder about the sort of stories I could write in my own voice, and how much of my identity belonged in fiction. I still did not put any of it in my work, though, because I did not yet want to be seen on the page.

In my early 20s, a few days after my grandfather’s terminal diagnosis, someone at work said Parsis were either ‘Indian Parsis’ or ‘British Parsis,’ both terms erasing any possibility of selfdom, presuming instead that our identity lay with one host or the other, past or present. It made me realize I was in a tug-of-war—trying to find, through lost stories and ancient traditions merged in with those of different hosts over several centuries, what a Parsi really was. Who I was. I couldn’t see myself on the page, or put myself on it, until I figured some of this out. It also made me think about displaced communities in continuous diaspora, and if that’s what my granddad wanted me to write about when he said write about us.

In a futile attempt to do this before he passed, I started to write about a girl in ancient Persia, trying to piece together ancestral tales from fragments salvaged in a war-torn, fading Empire. I finished it too late, and it became the second novel I deleted after I finish writing it. I was tempted to write about the wonderful blend of influences in the food, the bastardized form of Gujarati that became such a specifically Parsi dialect, the small vanishing community I grew up in. But I didn’t, because I also still wanted desperately to escape the assumption that because I was Parsi, that was all I would write about.

On one of our last evenings together, my grandfather told me to one day write a book about our family. “More interesting than you think,” he said. I did not intend to write about myself, but after years researching Persian, Zoroastrian and Parsi Zoroastrian history, and finally finding my own place in it, how much of my identity could I inject into fiction? I slowly allowed slivers of it to inhabit the worlds of my work, to use the sights, smells, sounds, the soft inflections of a diaspora so small it could often feel, even to me, almost mythical on the page. I did not keep any of it. I was writing for myself, for my granddad, even though he no longer had the energy to listen. “If you write about the stuff she does, you’ll probably be able to publish it,” one of my friends said around that time, right after we had both read Jhumpa Lahiri. Well-meaning authors and publishers at literary festivals suggested too, that my work should be “more Indian,” and I knew what they meant even though in my mind it already was. After the cancer stole my grandfather, I did not think I would ever again write anything except what I was required to at my job.

Years later I rediscovered a stack of illegible scribbles and rudimentary drawings among the things my grandfather saved from my childhood. Attempting to recreate the memories of those rocking chair recitals allowed me now to parse not just personal but also communal identity, to mine it for fiction rather than stifle it. To describe the Persian lace curtains and the smells of fresh lilies on a Navroze table instead of trying to push my characters into more familiarly fictive settings. It was losing the person who reminded me that our identity mattered even as I was trying and failing to be just like everyone else, that made me realize how important it was to allow myself to write about people like me.

This did not make it easier for me to describe what I was writing, or why. At home, I had to explain I was not writing a love letter to the eccentric Parsi stereotype: the sort of character closer to caricature usually scattered through fiction, a boisterous old man with an obsession for vintage cars and cheeky one-liners. Not because the stereotype didn’t exist, but because there was so much more to being Parsi than that. Because the fictional cosmos I preferred to create was pre-apocalyptic, even without my near-extinct identity thrown into the mix. And also because I was subconsciously trying to escape being placed in a “minority box.” To people outside the city I grew up in, I had to explain what a Parsi was first, and for both, I didn’t really know how to explain anything, because I was still getting used to feeling as though people like me were worthy enough of explanation.  Of course, to my grandfather, I would simply have said I was finally writing about people like us, scars and all.

Five years after my grandfather’s death I finally quit my job to attempt to write what many people told me no one would read. My stories were suddenly filled with the soothing scent of sandalwood that lingered on my clothing after I’d been to the fire temple. Characters watched priests pass lilies over the silver censers, the vessels that held the holy fires, that I did not see in New York, they heard the rhythmic incantations that rang in my ears at funerals, walked up to the Tower where we laid my grandfather to rest.

Of course, this meant I also had to find a way to explain Parsi Zoroastrians, why we usually live in gated communities, what sky burials are and why we put our dead in a Tower and let vultures feed on their flesh. I was reticent to push too far into explanations, definitions, backstory… how much of the cultures I learned about in literature had been laid out in footnotes? How much more did I owe readers in stories so unfamiliar to them?

In America, there was a new challenge. Here there was often only one type of Indian and it was not me. Sometimes there was not even this Indian box, just one box for every brown person, all of us the ‘other,’ struggling to procure parts of all the space we knew existed but was not freely given, to tell our own, unique stories.

I had moved from eccentric minority to nonexistent, but at first, I was happy to be rid of the attention. The most common question, “So Parsi is a different type of Hindu then?”  was one I sometimes tried to answer. But my grandfather’s stories kept jabbing at my subconscious. Aspects of the community I was now so far from started to slip into my stories even amidst the underlying fear of being no more than another token of this ethno-religious identity I endeavored to write both into and around.

Often, I was expected to tell stories about more recognizable Indian experiences that did not belong to me. I was not telling the right immigrant story, because it was not one as yet recognized. I was lucky because I was so used to not being part of any majority that I did not have to deal with feeling any more out of place than usual. But it was harder to find spaces to connect with the identity I had only recently learned to love. In New York, there were no agiaries to sit silently in, or Parsi-inhabited gated communities to visit. It became more important to hold onto, nurture, and give my identity representation. I did of course, have to explain that a specific Parsi mise en scène notwithstanding, my fiction was just that. Because I was from a marginalized community, it was assumed to be thinly veiled non-fiction. I was also met with uncomfortable silence whenever I mentioned it would be nice to see more stories about people like me on bookshelves. “But you have Rohinton Mistry,” some would offer, as if that was good enough.

Still, now acquiescent of writing into identity, I could rewrite the story about the boy obsessed with Freddie Mercury without any whitewashing. I was slowly realizing it was important for my identity to inform my work; in no small part because so little of it informed my reading. It helped that no one was telling me to be more or less of anything — even though it was because they didn’t really know the people who inhabited my work. I spent more time thinking about my grandfather sitting in his rocking chair, telling me stories as he dipped a biscuit into a cup of strong, milky tea flavored with lemongrass and mint; his favorite Parsi choi. And of the first story I wrote when I moved, containing a grandiose version of his rocking chair, which would soon became a motif linking several other stories that included people like me.

Through them, I did not name all my characters Farokh and Barjor or write about funny old Parsi men in their prayer hats, wagging their fingers at children and waxing beloved vehicles in their sudrahs, but I also did not not write about them. I wondered whether I would continue to write about people like me. But, for the first time, I also thought of another possibility: perhaps someday before we had succumbed to declining numbers, there would be more than just ‘one’ Parsi narrative, some space carved out on bookshelves for people like me to point to, a few more stories to see ourselves in.

I wondered also, if my grandfather, who hated reading, would have read a book like the one about Parsis I finally found myself writing.

Rhea Dhanbhoora worked for close to a decade as an editor and writer in print and digital content for a variety of clients, before quitting her job and moving to New York to get her master’s degree, and finally writing the stories everyone told her no one would ever read. Her work has appeared in publications such as sPARKLE & bLINK, The Hindu, Quint, The Apeiron Review, Awakened Voices, and Five on the Fifth. She’s currently working on a collection about women based in the underrepresented Parsi Zoroastrian diaspora.

2 responses to “Creative Nonfiction: Writing About People Like Me by Rhea Dhanbhoora

  1. Pingback: Capsule Collective Interview with Rhea Dhanbhoora·

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