This essay is the preface to Shreya Ramachandran’s poetry book, Revival: From Awakening to Disillusionment.
There is a story behind this book, and each poem. It was four years in the making. Some may call it a coming of age, I call it my revival. Even though it hurts sometimes, I never wish to go back to that naivety.
It was the summer of 2020 — COVID-19. Like a lot of people, I sincerely thought that the world was ending. I knew that God was doing something. God was initiating an upheaval, of sorts. For our world and for me.
I prayed that summer. I was studying the book of Ezra. I saw the revival that happened in ancient Israel. I saw them rebuild from what was broken. I felt that God was putting the word “revival” in my heart to pray for. What I perceived was that God was going to bring a revival at Moody Bible Institute, the city of Chicago, and the country, all because of COVID-19. I felt that we were lucky enough to return after being dispersed, so God was going to awaken our spirits.
Little did I know that the revival started with me. In the fall of 2020, I came back to Chicago, and everything changed.
There was a girl who moved into the dorm across from me on my floor. We quickly became friends as our personalities clicked, and we shared a sense of humor. I came to find out that she had lived in Andhra Pradesh for two months on a missions trip earlier that year. Unlike many of the people I meet that have gone on India to missions trips, there were several things different about this girl. First, she went to South India. This forced her to discern the cultural distinctness of the South. She knew that butter chicken and naan were North Indian foods and that they do not speak Hindi everywhere. Second, she was there for two whole months. I spent two months in Nigeria last summer, and although this is not that long in the grand scheme of things, it’s long enough for the different waves of culture shock to settle in. You become acquainted with the culture. And that was the third thing, she seemed well acquainted, for an outsider. She didn’t pester me with questions about India, she had already been. She did not view me as a project or a source of information, but she saw me as a friend. A friend she invited to drink chai with because she was already making it.
This girl truly appreciated the beauty of my culture. I had never met a white person who could do this and not make me cringe. She was never awkward about it, but everything we did was so natural. It made me feel like I could be myself again. She gave me something I had never had in my entire life, a safe space to be Indian. This began a whole new journey for me, because up until this point, I had never admitted how much I hated being Indian.
Growing up in this country, I was never truly comfortable in my skin. Everywhere I looked, I saw white people. Being the only Brown person in a room is something you grow numb to, until you forget that you are Brown and you just become “Shreya.” That is how all the white people around me saw me. As one of them, but a different shade. I had assimilated to the point where nobody, even myself, did not see me as Indian. This did not happen overnight, but it was initiated from the beginning. A mixture of colonial history, American idealism, and racialization, I embraced whiteness as whiteness embraced me.
But enough was enough.
When I began to embrace my identity, opportunities arose. A whole community of Brown and Black people came around me. Eventually, I had Indian friends again. I had fully embraced myself.
Flash forward to the summer of 2022. I was in Nigeria doing my internship, but in my downtime I would see all the latest things happening in the brown community of social media. I was hyped up for this new movie coming out called Brahmastra, and it was all over my “explore page” on Instagram. Are there any Ranbir Kapoor and Aliya Bhatt fans? There was one song from the movie that was making all the top charts, and I was obsessed with it. “Kesariya.”
I began to wonder what the lyrics meant. I recognized a few words in Hindi here and there, but I am not fluent. I looked it up on Google. The main chorus goes: “the color of your love is saffron.” Saffron? That sounded so familiar to me, and I knew it was very Indian. I grew up hearing that as a significant color. So I looked it up on Google: “What color is saffron?”
I was amazed. It was the same yellow-orange color I had been drawn to for a while now. Ever since I started embracing my Indian culture, I have been incorporating this color into my life in all the small ways. I thought to myself, “My car is this color, my favorite lehenga I wore to junior-senior banquet, my favorite sweatshirt…” I pulled up my Instagram feed, and for the last year, that same color was in almost every one of my posts. My entire feed was turning saffron.
This color was embracing me in its rays of sunshine. Now I have joy in my life. I had this lingering feeling that it was not a coincidence that this color had come to symbolize my journey. It was not a coincidence that Indians are some of the only people that use saffron to describe a color. I knew it had a deeper meaning in Indian culture, and I was determined to find out. So, I Googled it. “What does the color saffron symbolize in Indian culture?”
What I found was an article on the significance of saffron in Hinduism. For me, this is deeply intrinsic to my being, since I grew up Hindu. Color holds memory, and for me, saffron is Indian. And I was right; saffron is one of the colors on the Indian flag, symbolizing the selflessness and courage of the nation. It is the color that Hindu monks wear to express purity. It is the color of the spice itself, used in so many Indian dishes. It is the color of mangos, marigolds, and turmeric, all very Indian things.
A quote from the article caught my attention:
In nature, sunset and sunrise signify the eternity of saffron in the form of re-birth. And, fire is perceived to cleanse, thus the saffron color of fire signifies the cleansing of the body and re-birth at funerals. Hence, the world has come to know the real meaning of life through saffronization.
This is when it clicked. It all made sense. The revival I had prayed for in 2020 had come to fruition. The ironic thing was, I had already started this book project and named the title, Revival, forgetting about my prayer in 2020. I did not have a specific reason to choose that name other than it just felt right. For the cover, I envisioned myself wearing my saffron-colored dress, not even knowing it was called saffron.
So this is the story of saffron in my life, and how my revival had come to fruition. In this book, you will follow along somewhat chronologically on this journey. It begins with my awakening, followed by navigating my racial identity, and then reckoning with the disillusionment. These are poems of mourning and crying out. They are those I wrote in silence as I wrestled, sifting the lies from the truth. In the middle, you will find poems about relationships, since I did not wrestle alone. I loved and lost many on this journey. Some because of it, some in spite of it.
I conclude with my “magnum opus”, a spoken word piece called “Pressure Cooker”. This piece was both a culmination and a catalyst. It culminated in the events that occurred from the fall of 2020 until the spring of 2021, giving me a platform to vocalize my pain. At the same time, those that heard it performed at Chai Live that semester became my closest friends today. So many reached out to me and told me I gave them the words to express their pain. That is my hope with this book. That it would be the words for every Brown person out there. Everyone who has been awakened. Everyone who has been disillusioned. I hope you feel deeply and even cry a little, not for me, but for yourself. Mourn with me what has been lost, but know that my story is not over, and it is now filled with abundant joy. Because it is better to be awake than asleep.
Saffron, for me, has come to be associated with God. I got to share this story at the South Asian InterVarsity Redefined Conference in 2023. The theme verse was Revelation 1.8:
“I am the Alpha and the Omega—the beginning and the end.”
Our God is the Eternal Saffron. God is our beginning and end. God is the burning fire, the sunrise and sunset.
“From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised!”