I've been an active user of Facebook for about six years, and have jokingly referred to it from time to time as my home. I moan and bemoan the advent of Facebook ads that clutter my space, recommendations (that might very well be fake) from friends that I like Wal-Mart or purchase Tide, and the overwhelming amount of swearing and sexual innuendo that often fill my wall and home page. Despite these intrusions of corporate clutter into "my Facebook space," I continue to contribute actively to the exchange of news, information, and insight that constitutes Facebook because it is best way that I have discovered to date to stay in touch with friends and family members all over the world. After one has lived at 40 different addresses, it is difficult to call any one place decisively home.
The power of social media to connect and communicate surprised me once again this weekend as I flew into Chicago to celebrate my cousin Shikha's wedding. The official wedding takes place tomorrow; however, the past two days have been filled with food, festivities, rituals, singing and dancing performances, family connections, and generally a lot of fun. One highlight of the weekend was the sangeet, a celebration with song and dance, that took place last night. Shikha's parents -- my Aky Mamaj and Sushma Auntie (whom I should properly call Mamiji but never quite learned to for reasons that are a bit too complex to explain here) -- organized the sangeet as a sort of hybrid Indian and Indian American style celebration. It featured three rounds of snack foods -- north Indian, south Indian, and Indo Chinese -- and a formal program of dances, songs, a skit, and a round of qawwalis performed by longtime friends of Shikha's immediate family. I arrived at the event with my parents, my sisters, their husbands, and my two nieces. We were immediately surrounded by our extended family in the United States, and I, the documentarian at heart, immediately began taking pictures with my iPhone.
Since I had the capability to do so, I uploaded the pictures almost as soon as I shot them. I did this, primarily for the benefit of those in attendance but was somewhat aware that friends of mine (and of theirs) were noticing the photos and liking and commenting on them.
What I did not realize was that the photos also were beginning to attract attention on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, where the members of our extended India family who could not attend the wedding in person were just waking up. As a series of "likes" and "thank-yous" and "oh, all of you look so good," and "blessings" began to populate the comment spaces beneath the pictures, I became aware that the wedding festivities were being watched in a virtual sense by family members all over the world. This realization motivated me today to take even more pictures of the rituals associated with the bride's family: a welcoming of the bride's mother's parents and siblings and families; a bequeathing of gifts from mother's side to the father's side; a bathing ceremony for the bride known as tel; and a puja honoring the goddess like beauty and qualities of the bride-to-be. It also created a sense of connectivity in me that felt incredibly powerful.
I have written much about growing up as the eldest child of Indian immigrants in small-town America in the 1960s and 1970s. In doing so, I have spoken at times of knowing intellectually that I had a very large extended family that included ten siblings on my mother's side and seven on my father's side but not really experiencing emotionally or kinesthetically the life within this kind of a framework. I only met my paternal grandparents once before they passed away, and my maternal grandparents a handful of times before they, too, passed. While I have gotten to know all of my mother's siblings (some of whom also have passed) as well as my father's elder brother, I would not be able to recognize my father's sisters as my aunts without being introduced to them personally.
Other South Asians whom I met later in life have told me that I "missed" out, as have some of my relatives in the United States who emigrated after growing up in India and who have built regular return trips to visit family or pursue work into their daily lives. I do agree that I missed out, but I'm not sure I ever really lamented the loss. One cannot know what one did not receive if it was not available to begin with.
Still, as I grow older and as I wonder when (or if) my current life circumstances will allow me to visit India again, I find myself wanting to nurture closer connections with my global family. I am not really sure how to create those connections because, admittedly, I am coming to the table late in the game. For that reason, perhaps, I appreciate the utility and power of Facebook to help facilitate the path. Years ago, the Indian-born travel writer Pico Iyer wrote a piece entitled "Nowhere Man" where he described himself as feeling more at home in the airport transit lounge than any one place. Perhaps it is the space that social media creates that allows the "Nowhere Self" to have a place.