I stepped out of the airport, inhaling the smell I had been craving for a decade: Hyderabad, India.

I soaked up the sounds of the rickshaws and cars in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. I drove by people bargaining over sweet mangoes dressed in shalwar kameez in all colors, T-shirts and jeans, or covered head to toe. I passed the old mosque and the Hindu temple, and stared up at the new railway being built to run through the city. I saw the old and the new of the place where I had spread my roots.

Hyderabad is a city in India where there’s approximately one Muslim family for every Hindu family. The streets are filled with people living peacefully in a place with a rich history involving both religions that overlap in Hyderabadi culture. Instead of saying the Hindu “namaste” or the Muslim greeting “asalamu alaykum,” Hyderabadis say “adaab” as a sign of respect for both.  

Hyderabad is special for me, as it is the place my Dadi, my paternal grandmother, still lives and where my maternal grandparents lived before moving to Pakistan. For the people who know the political history of India and Pakistan, that may seem like a striking combination. But it’s not as dramatic as a Bollywood movie; it’s simply a part of my family’s cultural background.

When I arrived at my Dadi’s house this summer, I felt at home walking along the green concrete walls, passing a sign on the door welcoming people in to pray and break their fasts at the end of each day during Ramadan. Watching my Dadi, a retired English professor, tend to these people who came to stop and rest reminded me of where I got some of my best traits; finding joy in the simplicity of family and serving others is a familial trait. I remembered my late grandfather, who started the tradition of letting the community gather in his home.

I found the same compassion in Dadi’s eyes that I see in my parents and in the people of Hyderabad, a community that feels close and small, even though it’s a large, densely populated city. The city’s inhabitants, most of whom have never met me, welcomed me as if I had always been there. People in the community act like they are my Dadi’s children themselves, as they bring over home-cooked meals and ask about her well-being. They see her as a resource and ask her for advice, whether it be about their family or even marriage. Though my father, four uncles and aunt are dispersed throughout America and England, they still live by the principle they learned in Hyderabad: caring for their mother and their community. They take turns going to visit her, so that she is always taken care of.

In my culture, the concept of family is central to the way people interact with one another, regardless of their relation, and the elderly are treated with great care and esteem by the community. In American culture, as anthropologist Jared Diamond discussed, the “cult of youth” and emphasis on individualism take precedence over the family structure. Though there’s value in youth and individualism, I have a difficult time grasping some of the attitudes toward family in American culture. Even after coming to the University, I still go back to my parents’ home every weekend, as do my brothers even though they are married with their own families. Often when I tell people this, they’re shocked at the idea, as many people only go home for the holidays even if they live nearby.

My Indian-Pakistani community still holds some of these principles as well. It’s respectful to greet elders as soon as you see them. If anyone we know is ill, everyone and their family goes to the hospital to see them and ensure they are getting the best care. That’s how the community functions as a large family and a support system that is always there when you need it most. Recreating that feeling even in America may be difficult, especially as considering that each succeeding generation has a weaker attachment to Hyderabad both in space and time, but having the support of my Hyderabadi cultural ideals is invaluable and worth the work it takes to recreate.

Rabab Jafri can be reached at rfjafri@umich.edu.

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