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Fast Forward Firecracker Baby

Shilpa P. Denny shares her experiences growing up in a traditional East Indian family — and then falling in love with a white man.
Featured Image Shilpa P. Denny at Her Wedding in 1995

I hope when I die, I will be remembered fondly for my baking abilities, my sense of humor, and my pursuit of kindness, but not necessarily in that order. I know exactly who I am and how I hope to be remembered.

My birthday is April 22. I was born in India and my mom brought me to America on an airplane all by herself in 1972. I was 1 year old. She didn’t speak a lick of English but the folks at Lufthansa Airlines apparently were very nice and helped her as needed. She is a very strong woman, so perhaps she didn’t need anything from anyone. But I really don’t know, I was just a baby. This is what I was told. I truly do believe it though.

She had to fly so far to join my dad, who left India while my mom was still expecting me. She wanted to have me in India, surrounded by the only family she knew. Makes sense to me.

My parents had an arranged marriage. My dad, a Brahmin, married my mom, also a Brahmin. That is tradition. Makes sense, if you are Indian. The one and only reason they came to America was to give me and my younger brother a better life. All throughout my years of growing up, I often reflected on how truly good my life has been in this country. How fortunate I have been.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

FAST FORWARD 1989

I spent most of my young life through high school surrounded by so many wonderful Indian families. A large part of my social life consisted of these famous events that I like to call dinner parties. In a nutshell, it basically meant my Indian mom, or another Indian mom, would spend an entire weekend cleaning the house and preparing so much Indian food that it would seem to mimic a momentous celebration of sorts.

Let me explain further: It meant that you could have up to three generations of 100 percent Indian people (moms, dads, babies, toddlers, kids of all ages, and grandparents) in your home just to eat food and be very loud and have fun for hours on end! It also meant you could have around 50 people or more in your home on any given Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

These dinner parties rotated almost every weekend for years upon years. Indian people are very social, many are very loud (as am I), and the women are incredible cooks (except for me). My mom is the greatest Indian cook I know. It’s true. Ask any of her friends.

I also had a couple of great non-Indian friends from being in public schools that I cherish to this day. Before I fast forward again, I am reminded of a very vivid memory I have from when I was 12: I was in my bedroom and my dad came in, letting me know in a very matter-of-fact way that when I was ready to get married, to let him know and he’d start looking. An Indian doctor, engineer, or lawyer would be the most preferable options.

Uh oh. That was definitely going to be a problem. By then, I knew I liked Indian boys, but only as friends. I really preferred a male that was blonde and blue-eyed. Double uh oh.

Since I was never allowed to date, my life was conveniently uneventful in that regard. I graduated from high school in 1989 and went to a college far, far away, at least by car. My life was about to change.

FAST FORWARD 1995

a photograph of Shilpa P. and Mike Denny in Kauai Island in 2022
Shilpa P. Denny and her husband in 2022

I met my one and only future husband in college at the tender age of 18. I am now a mature 50- something and prefer not to churn up the painful details of my college life because I don’t hold grudges — but also to protect my entire Indian family and all of their relatives that still live in India from some very old dirty laundry.

Let’s just say that I kept my smart and very handsome white boyfriend a secret from my parents for a very long time. Once they found out, it was bad. Worse than I could have anticipated.

After the pain and suffering we all endured, and after dating and getting to know him for six years, we were allowed to get engaged in a proper Indian ceremony. Since my Indian parents and I may have died from embarrassment over a public display of affection, after the ring was placed on my finger, my fiancé and I shook hands, which was hysterical and endearing at the same time. There would be time for kisses later on.

Shortly after the engagement, the wedding came. We had a beautiful and festive Indian wedding (my choice since after all, I am an Indian girl). It was truly the happiest day of my life.

Throughout the years of moments that made up our lives, the one big thing that always kept me going through the very darkest of days was knowing that when my white husband and I had our own children, skin color would never be a concern for us. It was so freeing and felt so good to have this knowledge.

FAST FORWARD 2002

My one and only daughter was born, and she is truly cherished.

FAST FORWARD 2004

My son was born, and he is truly cherished.

FAST FORWARD 2007

My third child, a boy, was born on July 4, 2007. My firecracker baby. He is also truly cherished and has the most exciting birthday in the whole family.

FAST FORWARD 2011

a photo of Shilpa P. Denny and her Firecracker Baby, Simon Denny, as a Toddler
Shilpa P. Denny and her “firecracker baby” as a toddler

July 4, 2011, was to be another special birthday for my firecracker baby. He was officially 4 years old. We were visiting my mother-in-law and her husband in their hometown. We also celebrated her birthday, since it falls on July 3. We had plans to go to a big park and see fireworks that evening. It was a lovely, pleasant night.

I remember we had found a good spot to lay out our blanket to see the fireworks. We hadn’t even been sitting a few minutes when a woman on a blanket near us wanted us to move our blanket away from hers. She alluded that we were too close to her spot, and she and her family had been there for hours.

I tried moving the blanket a little, not thinking anything of it or that we were even close at all. I then heard her say that if I didn’t move further away, she’d bite off my toes. At first, I thought she was joking, as strange as that sounds. My husband then heard her tell me I smelled because I was Indian. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

I had truly never experienced even the teeniest tiniest bit of racism in my life up to that point. As the years went on, I was actually thankful that it hadn’t happened to me until then, since I was older and had some sense of the world around me. She was only one person, and she apparently hated me. No one else did.

After the initial incident, the retaliation began. My very beautiful and classy mother-in-law looked at her and said something about how much money her son made, how great our life was, and how educated we both were. My middle child told her she was poopy, something only a young child would say to protect his mom. All I could muster to say at that point was that I felt sorry for her two young girls, who also witnessed the whole debacle. She then said something to me about how she had her two girls in a private Christian school and I shouldn’t worry about them.

The woman’s husband didn’t say much, and he actually looked a bit embarrassed. My husband was probably the only one who had any good sense during those moments, and we all decided it was best to move. I know he had some other choice things to say, but honestly, the only thing I really remember was that he was always someone I could count on. He was our protector. I think we all tried to make the best of it after that, especially for my firecracker baby.

As the fireworks ended and we drove home mostly in silence, the saddest part for me was that my three young, innocent, and kind-hearted mixed-race children had to witness the anger of a complete stranger against their own mother. My daughter, who is now 20, is the only one old enough to have even a small memory of it. I still remember that after we came home and put the kids to bed, my husband held me gently as tears silently streamed down my face.

Shilpa P. Denny is a wife, mother of three, and cat mama who enjoys baking, gardening, and time with girlfriends.

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