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Neela Miller

Oral history interview conducted by Manissa Maharawal

January 16, 2014

Call number: 2011.019.079

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MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So we are recording now. Let me just prep the interview by saying this is Manissa McCleave Maharawal interviewing Neela Miller, my cousin on January --

NEELA MILLER: Sixteenth.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: January 16th. Thank you. Twenty thirteen.

NEELA MILLER: Fourteen. (laughs)

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Twenty fourteen. OK and January 16th, 2014 in Alameda, California, which is where she lives now. OK Neela, do you want to just tell me your full name and where and when you were born.

NEELA MILLER: I'm Neela Akash Miller. I was born in Brooklyn, New York [date redacted for privacy]

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: (laughs) OK. So do you want to describe for me your earliest childhood memory?

NEELA MILLER: The earliest childhood memory, and I'm not sure if it's totally fabricated (laughs) or not, but it actually involves you at what may have been 1:00like my second birthday party or something, and we were sitting on the floor of Ila Maasi's house and I had -- I had eaten cake and (inaudible)-- I was eating it with my fingers I guess, and I was licking at the cake off my fingers like I had thought it was very classy to do. (laughs) I thought it was a very classy thing to do, and I just -- I remember you were sitting next to me. It one of my earliest -- I don't, yeah -- I remember receiving a Glow Worm toy as well. (laughs) And that was, yeah.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: I wonder where you got the idea that it was classy to lick your fingers from.

NEELA MILLER: Yeah, because it's definitely not in a family that eats with their hands. Nobody licked their fingers ever. (laughs) That's not -- that's not 2:00something that is done. I think I saw it on a cartoon or something.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So we're at this family party. Where was it? Do you remember?

NEELA MILLER: It's at Ila Maasi's house.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Oh, it was Ila Maasi's house, so in Brooklyn.

NEELA MILLER: Yeah, we were in Brooklyn in the living room sitting on the floor. I remember the -- the couch, and we were like right by the doorway where the hallway is behind us. Yeah.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Do you have any other childhood memories you want to describe?

NEELA MILLER: Well, other early childhood memories include getting scars (laughs) and stuff like that. I have a -- one thing about my childhood that I know now that I have no memory of was speaking Hindi actually which, at some 3:00point, we found a recording of me speaking Hindi with Nani. I was like very small, so I was speaking, like, two-year-olds' Hindi but I was saying stuff that I didn't -- I couldn't recognize now as like what it was, but it was clear that it happened (laughs) because there was a recording of it and everyone knew it was me. So that was funny to discover later on. It was like when I was a teenager or something , we found all these old cassette tapes, and one of them had that on there.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: But you don't remember it?

NEELA MILLER: No, I don't remember speaking Hindi like that. I have no memory of being -- having that sort of fluidity with the language.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: How old do you think you were?

NEELA MILLER: Probably, again, around two years old maybe. One or two years old 4:00because I think by the time I was three or four we had moved to California for a couple years and then I lost whatever comfort level I had had with the language. So.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Why do you think that is?

NEELA MILLER: Why did I lose the comfort level? Because my mother was not motivated to keep me speaking the language, or maybe she didn't think about it and just thought that -- maybe she assumed that I would just keep -- retain that knowledge or something because it had never been an issue, or something. So.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: None of us really grew up knowing how to speak Hindi.


MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Why do you think that is? I have my own theories but.

NEELA MILLER: Well, and a pretty big part is not ha -- being forced to speak it 5:00in the home and also not, especially between you and I, we didn't grow up with two Indian parents who spoke the same language so. Oh, and we didn't hear it often enough, and I think that I had that like little period of being able to speak Hindi because I spent so much time at Nani's house with Nani and Ila Maasi both speaking Hindi and people speaking Hindi in the home. But yeah, otherwise, they would have had to put this effort into it that I think maybe it didn't occur to them to try more. In the midst of other stuff going on, it wasn't on the top of their list, which now maybe they would feel differently but it's hard to have that kind of foresight without seeing it happen before maybe?


NEELA MILLER: Like they may -- maybe had never had any relatives who didn't 6:00speak Hindi because they didn't grow up in the same country or something along those lines.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: My father often says, when people ask him if we speak Hindi, "No, they never learned it" as if there is --

NEELA MILLER: Like it was your fault. (laughs) Yeah, yeah. And that's hard because then like I do feel a little bit like oh, I should have tried harder, but there is so little -- like I couldn't have taken it in school. I couldn't have like -- there wasn't -- there wasn't a time where oh, like a lot of kids, Japanese kids, go to Japanese school on the weekends, or Korean kids go to Korean school on the weekends, and like that just wasn't ever a thing that happened. And now I'm like yeah, maybe I would have hated it as a kid having to go, but I think I would have felt more grounded in the -- even in the culture as 7:00a whole besides the language skills, but to -- just to feel like oh, I know other people. Because we grew up very removed from Indian culture aside from our immediate family, and to have some other connection with Indian people, which my mom would try every once in a while. There was like a few other Indian kids at my school, and my mom would befriend them and we would go over but it's just not our style. (laughs) Like they would try but it's like oh, they eat too much meat or like oh, there's not really a connection other than being from the same country as a whole, which is not much to go on (laughs) as friendships go. Yeah.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: That's something I also wonder about, why we didn't 8:00grow up with like a large Indian community around us and like, we didn't live in places where there were a lot of Indians. Could have, we knew which neighborhoods they were.

NEELA MILLER: Yeah. Or it seems almost like a conscious choice that they chose not to live in places with a lot of Indians.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Why do you think that is? Do you have any idea?

NEELA MILLER: I think our family is quite reclusive actually (laughs) they're like, as a bunch, the -- they are. Even my mother who's maybe the most sociable, but it's like it's still not -- and that might be in part because of my father; but I think she doesn't -- having social interactions is like well? OK. Or liking people enough, something (laughs) like that. Liking people enough to want to spend time with them. I don't know. Just -- just a strange 9:00thing because I think all of us kids are very social, except for Rajiv. Rajiv got a bit of the anti-- (laughs) antisocial qualities.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah. Yeah, those are two things I think about. One is the language, and then the other is like why weren't there more Indians around growing up.

NEELA MILLER: Mm-hmm, because it's not like in New York City there was any lack of Indians.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: And when I think about those things, I often think that the fact that we came from mixed families had something to do with that.

NEELA MILLER: Like that they didn't feel comfortable being around people who were all Indian all the time because we were mixed?

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Mm-hmm, something like that, yeah. What do you think?

NEELA MILLER: Yeah. I mean, also it would be more alienating for my father or 10:00for your mother if they lived in places that were very Indian. But Ila Maasi, like why didn't she live somewhere that was all -- or yeah, Ila Maasi and Nani, why did they not? They just landed somewhere and stayed there (laughs) more or less. It's like -- how it seems. I also -- the thought occurred to me just now about a class thing because I also think that they had a certain feeling of being like they want their close friends to be of the same caste or something like the other people aren't nec -- like they're not -- they might be Indians, but they're not actually the same and, yeah.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah, I think that's true.


MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: I think, you know, I would be like, "Why didn't we 11:00grow up in like a Gujarati neighborhood" or something, you know, like there's such -- so many Gujaratis, right? When they were in Jackson Heights and now in Edison and stuff like that. And they're like, "Well, we're not really Gujarati."

NEELA MILLER: Right, even though they grew up in Gujarat but that's (laughs).

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah, which is interesting.


MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: I didn't understand that for a long time. What does that mean?

NEELA MILLER: Yeah, and when people ask you like oh, I say my mother is from India and they'll say oh, where in India? India? And I'll say, "Oh, Gujurat." And they're like, "Oh, Gujurati." OK, and I'm like (laughs), and I know that my mom doesn't identify that way. But I don't know. I'll say, "Oh, she's a Rajput." (laughs) "She's not Gujarati." (laughs)

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah, because that's what they would say.


NEELA MILLER: Would they actually say that in conversation though? It seems very snobby.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: I think they would; somehow there would be a way that they would express that they were Rajputs.

NEELA MILLER: Without being so blatant about it?


NEELA MILLER: Well, I guess if it would -- if it came up with other Indians, they would say their last name and, or something.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Mm-hmm. Something like that. But I -- I think -- yeah, I think you're right that there were class differences, that they came to the United States, they moved here, but they weren't like all those other immigrants.


MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: For some reason, who just came here to like, you know, open a business. You know, Banyias or something from Gujarat, and that they were different than them.

NEELA MILLER: Yeah. Yeah, that's probably actually a lot of it because I know that -- my mom now actually hangs out with her school friends. This is something that started happening, and I'm not sure what the evolution is. Like 13:00how come this is suddenly possible? But she has a bunch of school friends that -- they meet up in -- somewhere in New Jersey, and there's enough of them around that like these are people she grew up going to school with and are somehow all in New Jersey now. (laughs) Or at least a large enough number, and there's like pictures, eight or nine of them together. It's pretty impressive. But she goes to that and feels some connection to them and interested, even after so many years. It's --

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Yeah. Yeah, I think the combination of a lot of things. I think also the speaking in Hindi thing when I really talk to my father about it, he says, "Well, your mom didn't know any Hindi. So I didn't you know, want to like be talking this language she didn't know to you."


NEELA MILLER: Yeah and -- but I -- because I had this, like I had started speaking Hindi, I feel now like, well, she could have just spoken to me. Like I had the beginnings of it already, like the language is in my mind, is in my mouth (laughs) and -- but it was just like not continued for some reason.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Have you talked to your mother about that?

NEELA MILLER: No. I don't want to put a guilt trip on her (laughs) seriously. That's all it would do at this point. Like I don't think -- I think that she probably regrets that in some degree and, yeah.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: It's certainly something me and my father like argue about because he has a sort of like, "No, they never learned any Hindi" when 15:00people ask him. And then I say, "He never taught me any Hindi."

NEELA MILLER: Yeah. (laughs) Yeah.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So like there's this big opportunity to learn it and I just like covered my ears or something.

NEELA MILLER: Blew it off, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I would feel similarly. But I do feel actually that way when they -- when I do say something and my mom has a habit of just laughing in my face when I say something (laughs) and it's like help me instead maybe? Like.


NEELA MILLER: And that goes into the whole thing of being not Indian and not -- but still Indian and like the fuzzy line of like where -- at what times is it important for me to be Indian and what times is it like they're going to laugh at me because I'm not Indian and (laughs) like. And it's interesting to deal with -- like I have had very little contact with the American white side of my 16:00family because my father's family is in Indiana, and how little that like identifying with that side has always been like well yeah, like I -- I am white also, or whatever that is. I'm Midwestern. (laughs) I don't know how to identify that but -- and that is also in part -- and my dad has gone into that because he got into genealogy and, while I was growing up, and looking at where his family really came from because like Nathan, my husband, has like -- he grew up -- nobody asked them -- asked him where his family is from, like do you identify as any ethnic background or anything. It -- just like everybody was 17:00white; and if you weren't white, you were black and that was it like (laughs) so. There's some Asian kid who, wherever he was from and, yeah. So it just -- like it always seemed important to me to always rec -- also recognize that side that that had some like equal importance in who I am that like because the Indian thing was so like -- it was so important to my mom in certain aspects and like being surrounded with that side of our family was like -- that -- that was what I identified as, and it felt always like oh, it's an afterthought that my dad was even there a lot of the time. (laughs) Like in a physical way as much as in a like -- a whatever and heritage aspect. But yeah, as -- interesting 18:00searching for the definition of how that -- how those different sides would play out in who I am and in traditions, especially now, making my own like family home, family traditions, like how much do I celebrate Indian holidays? How do I celebrate them like? It was alwa -- it was never something that was taught to me, how to like make those things happen, but how to just like participate, just like I'm here and somebody tells me what I'm like -- OK, now you put the powder on their forehead, not that finger! (laughs) Other finger, other finger! 19:00(laughs) And they were so sporadic about celebrating those things, too, that it was like OK. Definitely takes effort to keep those things alive in the culture. That's so different. Nobody I knew celebrated Rakhi or Diwali or anything, even though I knew other Indian kids in school, but I didn't -- we didn't talk about that stuff I guess.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So were other Indian kids in your school?

NEELA MILLER: Very few, very few. I didn't really ha -- like, we didn't hang. (laughs) And I would tell my mom about other kids, other like Patels. Other Pate -- (laughs) or whatever. You know. There was al -- I would tell her I heard the names of the other Indian kids in my school, and then she would give me a back story, like what their family was about (laughs) or whatever. Or what 20:00Patels are like. (overlapping dialogue; inaudible)

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Did you feel lumped in with them in school though (inaudible)?

NEELA MILLER: Not at all.


NEELA MILLER: I think because I -- I was half, and I don't know -- you know, I don't think that kids growing up, people didn't really ask me like the -- what are you, air quotes (laughs) question, or where are you from because they knew I was from New Jersey or New York or (laughs) wherever, and like they didn't think I was a foreigner or something. But yeah, I -- yeah, I didn't ever feel -- I don't think there was enough Indians to be lumped together actually. There was 21:00just a few, and I don't think any, even the other Indians that I knew there, they didn't like hang out together unlike -- we had a huge Korean population. They all hung out together somehow but so different. It's funny because now, when I -- I'm more aware of seeing groups of Indians and, maybe it's just growing up in this country also. Like, you're like whatever, I can hang out with other Indians or I could not. Doesn't matter. (laughs) I don't see that tendency as much with like Ameri -- Indian Americans, where they like hang in gangs of other Indian Americans. At least in my experience. There is a little like interest but not like, you know?



NEELA MILLER: Not like I see groups of Korean Americans or groups of (inaudible) just Japanese Americans or…

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: I think the Korean thing in your career school, like all those kids all went to the same church and they went to the same Sunday school --


MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: -- and the same Korean school.

NEELA MILLER: Yeah, that's true. But the funny thing is, is that when we were little, it wasn't the case. When we were little, we all hung out together and then, as we got older and like specifically transitioning to high school, all of a sudden, all the Korean kids hung out together and it was like -- a lot of my best friends had been Korean girls who suddenly were just interested in hanging out with the other Korean people. It was just a -- one of those like -- I guess in high school, you have new cliques and new (laughs) groups of people, and that 23:00was one of the groups was the Korean kids.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So what was growing up in suburban New Jersey like?

NEELA MILLER: As a mixed person?


NEELA MILLER: Or any -- anything.


NEELA MILLER: (overlapping dialogue; inaudible) Actually, you know, there is this thing that -- I was always jealous of you growing up in the city because I -- and my mom was a help in that also because she loves the city and she loves going out and do -- like she loves culture and stuff happening, and so she always encouraged me to go to the city and wanted us to be connected to what was happening. And I just always felt like you guys had all these opportunities to like be involved in culture and see cool stuff that I had no connection to. And 24:00also, I felt this degree of acceptance that I could -- I felt like there was -- you fit in more where you were because there was more maybe mixed kids or whatever. I thought people were more open-minded. And in New Jersey I grew up -- there was, yeah, a lot of Korean kids; but for the most part, people were Italian and Irish, that kind of thing. And so like I just always felt a little different and, I mean -- and my friends were all different. I hung out with white girls, Asian girls, (inaudible) whoever, not too many boys. (laughs) But yeah, when -- going to Shire Village Camp was a big transition for me because all those kids, most of them, grew up in the city and I felt like a different 25:00kind of acceptance and like boys liked me, and boys didn't like me in New Jersey. Like that just -- it was -- I don't really -- like looking back now, I'm like I don't know why, what -- maybe I was who knows? (laughs) Whatever. I was a little bit of a weirdo, but that's -- kids are. (laughs) And -- and so that was a thing for me, feeling -- I felt that there was somewhere else where I would be more accepted and the -- there was something -- like I was a little out of place. But I've never felt like oh, like these are my (laughs), like this is my culture, and that is part of being mixed is that there is no place where they're -- people are like yes, everybody here is pretty much like you. Like 26:00same background or whatever. There doesn't exist. And yeah. So. Yeah, that was part of growing up and getting into -- and -- and that's why I decided to go to school in Brooklyn, at least partly, or to go to art school because I thought well, everybody is different in art school. (laughs) That's what draws people there. So, at least in part. So.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: So how was going to art school in Brooklyn? Did it fulfill those expectations?

NEELA MILLER: Yeah, except everybody is also crazy. So. (laughs) So yeah. There is a lot of other drama that go -- I definitely felt a different kind of acceptance there in that the people were just all on their own trip in their 27:00heads, and there was definitely like -- I was not the weirdest person there by a long shot so. (laughs) Or the biggest character. Like, I was among the people who were like most unique in the yearbook or something like that. I forget what -- we voted on stuff like that and --

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Your high school yearbook?

NEELA MILLER: Yeah, my high school yearbook. I was -- anyway, one of those. And college was not -- no. (laughs) Nothing.


NEELA MILLER: Yeah, pretty quickly. (laughs) Pretty quickly.

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: It's funny that you said that about art school because I felt -- I think I felt very accepted at Woodward Park. It was like people were very accepting of everyone, and it was a pretty diverse school. And 28:00then when I went to Poly Prep for three years, it was kind of -- you were -- it was very Italian, very like -- people were like very -- had like more money than my family had. And so, there was like a lot of status stuff going on and I didn't fit in. It was a, you know, a prep school and so I think the combination of it being like a lot less diverse and also a lot richer than Woodward Park meant that I all of a sudden didn't fit it anymore. And it was really probably the worst years of like -- I mean, I think like seventh and eighth and ninth grade are pretty terrible years for a lot of people (laughs) probably, but I think those were the worst years I had, where I really felt like I didn't fit in at all, and was made fun of a lot, like -- I was like pretty bullied, and people would make fun of me for being Indian.



MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Like I remember in art class, it was like -- I sat down and -- at like a table and there was like -- there was only like one table left or chair left and I sat down there. And like the popular kids were there? And they just had to sit there, and like this like one popular kid was like, "Something smells bad!" And like everyone laughed and I like didn't get it. And they're, "Smells like Indian food here all of a sudden."


MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: (laughs) As if I someone --

NEELA MILLER: Yeah. (laughs)

MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: Like I smell bad like Indian food all the time?


MANISSA MCCLEAVE MAHARAWAL: And I like that like really stands out to me as like, yeah, I was like very like made fun of. And the other -- and I was also made fun of -- the popular girls used to always make fun of my shoes because they weren't fancy enough, because there was like a dress code and my family at that point still didn't have very much money and, in the switch from Woodward Park to Poly Prep, like the tuition went up and so money was even more scarce.

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0:00 - Introduction and early childhood

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7:58 - Adolescent friendships and Indian heritage

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31:53 - Vegetarianism and summer camp

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38:14 - Attending college in Brooklyn

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52:11 - Father's background, parents' meeting and relationship

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68:25 - Buddhist convictions

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76:44 - Interfaith marriage with husband Nathan

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84:11 - Celebration of Indian holidays and culture

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103:39 - Maintaining connection to Indian heritage

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109:33 - Cultural identity and conclusion

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Neela Miller

Neela is from Norwood, New Jersey. She is 31 years old and currently lives in Alameda CA. Her father is white and her mother is Indian, she has one younger brother, Rajiv. Neela is married to Nathan, who is also white. They are starting a wood-working business together. Neela went to Pratt in Brooklyn for college and lived in Brooklyn for a year after that, she moved to CA after that and lived at Odiayian, a Tibetian buddhist center for 5 years before leaving

In this interview Neela describes speaking Hindi as a child but then losing these skills as she gets older because her family didn't speak hindi to her at home. She describes Brooklyn as "home" she also describes growing up in the suburbs in New Jersey and her mother trying to become friends with other Indian families but not really connecting with them. She describes convincing her friends in elementary school to become vegetarian and food and vegetarianism being important to her and her family. She describes going to art school and finally fitting in more because it was in NY and everyone was an artist. She describes moving to northern California, because NY was "inhospitable" to being an artist and make ends meet and because NY feels like home it also feels "weighted." She describes her father and mother meeting over a ad placed in the newspaper and this being embarrassing for them, also her father tracking his side of the family to the Mayflower era to perhaps prove that his side of the family has "culture" too.

She describes becoming a Tibetan Buddhist and figuring out to mix it with a hatha yoga practice, and her buddhism being offensive to the family. She describes trying to figure out how to have a wedding that accommodated all her beliefs and her husband's beliefs and what she thinks about having children and passing on her Indian cultural heritage to her children and how she worries about how to do this and how her husband is "resistant" to Indian culture sometimes. Much of the interview is me and her talking about our family together.


Miller, Neela, Oral history interview conducted by Manissa Maharawal, January 16, 2014, Crossing Borders, Bridging Generations oral history collection, 2011.019.079; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Miller, Neela


  • East Indian Americans
  • Education
  • Hinduism
  • Interfaith families
  • Racially mixed families
  • Racially mixed people


  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Norwood (N.J.)


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