By Supriya Kelkar
One of my earliest memories from my childhood is watching my mom get ready for parties. I would watch her drape her sari, taking care to straighten out the creases with her hand, making sure every pleat was identical to the last, putting on her mother’s gold bangles, and painting her tikli—the Marathi word for a bindi—on from a tube of black or red with a small applicator attached to the bottle cap.
I can still remember the inky, earthy smell of the liquid. I can still remember marveling at how perfectly round her bindis could look.
As I got older, on my much-anticipated trips to India that would happen only every couple of years since the price for tickets for a family of four was so expensive, I would sift through packet upon packet of bindis with adhesive backings in stores. I would collect bindis in the shape of big circles, diamonds, paisleys, and of course, the traditional Marathi crescent-shaped ones. After all, my bindis were home. My bindis were me.
Back in Michigan with my prized collection of bindis that still smelled like the sandalwood incense burning in the stores back in India, I wouldn’t get ready for parties with as much care as my mother did. But I did spend forever trying to find the perfect bindi color and shape to go with whatever vibrant salwar kurta or chaniya choli I was wearing. I would shuffle through packets of different shapes of bindis, and scan the mirror on my door, covered in bindis worn earlier, ready for another wear, next to adhesive silhouettes of bindis I had already worn, and worn out, that were no longer there, until I came to a decision.
Like Bindu, in my new picture book, Bindu’s Bindis (art by Parvati Pillai), I adored my bindis. I loved wearing them in the house, at the temple, at concerts where Bollywood stars danced on stage to my favorite songs, and to parties with dozens and dozens of family friends packed into homes full of the smells of jeera rice peppered with peas, steaming flatbread rounds of poli, lentils with mustard seeds dancing on top, and vegetables sizzling with masala, full of the sounds of loud whoops of laughter, and full of love. My bindis were home. My bindis were me.
But I grew up in a town that didn’t value diversity. As much as I loved my bindis, I never wore them outside of cultural spaces. I was asked regularly in school where my dot was, why I wasn’t wearing it. I was bullied and othered so much about bindis, I was afraid to wear them in public.
If we had to stop at the grocery store on the way back from a cultural event, I’d make sure my winter coat covered up my salwar kurta or chaniya choli. And I’d take my bindi off my forehead, squeezing it in my palm as we went through the store, concealing it, like it was something to be ashamed of, to make sure no one would see it. To make sure no one would make fun of me for it.
It took me years to get over the fear of wearing a bindi in public, in non-cultural spaces. And that realization was the inspiration behind Bindu’s Bindis, a book that will inspire children of all backgrounds to be proud of who they are. It is a book I wish I had when I was a kid. It is a book that serves as a reminder that my bindis are my culture, my religion, my traditions, my family, my home. My bindis are me. And like Bindu, I’m proud to wear them, for the whole world to see.
Born and raised in the Midwest, Supriya Kelkar learned Hindi as a child by watching three Hindi movies a week. Supriya is a screenwriter who has worked on the writing teams for several Hindi films and one Hollywood feature. Her books include The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh (Sterling, 2019), American as Paneer Pie,The Sandalwood Pyre, and Ahimsa. Residence: Northville, MI