Niraj | Dr. Mehta | Raj | Rajinho
By Niraj Mehta
By Niraj Mehta
Pause. Quick contemplation. Goofy smile. Another contemplation.
Amidst the array of possible responses, the questions about career and identity were always amusingly difficult to answer for me. We can call it dramatic. A bit delusional. Maybe childish. But it is this very sort of existential restlessness that has ironically brought some clarity.
So with that…allow me to introduce myself.
As a radiation oncologist…
Chronologically speaking, it went something like 4 years of college/university, 4 years of medical school, 5 years of residency, and then presto…radiation oncology.
Ok, maybe not that straightforward. But at age 31, I became finally board-certified.
Aside from taking more tests than I care to remember (which ironically serve as the only real logical guide), the steps (no pun intended for you medical tweebs) in between were rarely that well-defined. Mentors and fortuitous events along the way led me down the road of oncology as if it were destiny.
Apart from the technical and academic draw to the field (which I will purposefully refrain from talking about), I spent my time learning from patients who put this little thing called life into perspective, inspiring me to do what it is that I want to do without fear. I mean seriously. All this talk about “building a career,” but no mention of following your inner voice or living the truly authentic life. For how long could we let the traditional image of an illness define us?
Through conversations in English, Spanish and Portuguese with patients and traveling frequently to Central and South America and the Caribbean for medical conferences, talks, and grassroots cancer-related awareness, I continue to access new cultural and linguistic tricks. Of course, I found time to find the best music, dance, and art in all of these places.
But it’s sometimes a bit of an interesting situation. The idea of having some sort of artistic expertise seemingly unrelated from medicine can be a mixed bag. The confusion, disbelief, and perhaps the slight bit of condescending reception. Who knows why? Either way, that was still my hallucination.
Truthfully, I think this overly broad source of interest help to relate to the vast diversity of patients I have encountered, culturally, emotionally, and socially. I guess that’s how I define love. When the word “tolerance” gives way to include all of these things as a part of me.
As a dancer and choreographer…
My first experiences on stage were performing Bollywood dances at our annual Indian New Year Diwali shows in front of family friends. What a rush it was! On stage, at least. That was where I felt normal. That has still not changed to date. Off stage, of course, I still had all these songs running through my head. Maybe a little isolating I mean growing up as the Indian kid, even with my own family friends of similar heritage per se.
It turned out that these seemingly trivial, although undeniably enjoyable performances were the very foundation of my entire performance career to date. No real formal training. Just a couple of slightly embarrassing but rather nifty victories as Mr. India California 1999 and Mr. Troy High School 2000 as I bounced around to Bollywood songs, old school hip hop, and of course the Carlton dance as the closer. Since then, I helped to pioneer Hindi Film Dance (HFD) college competitions in the United States, led our own college dance team to several victories, and then later judged those same competitions that have grown exponentially. Working with such entertainers as A.R. Rahman, I also got the chance to be the lead choreographer in college, danced competitively in Bhangra, Garba-Raas, and hip-hop for several years.
And then I kept going…
Throughout medical school, I danced with various professional companies such as Azucar Picante Entertainment, Bollywood Step, Karmagraphy, MTLA dancers (Pop! A Michael Jackson Tribute), doing global fusions incorporating salsa, bachata, samba, hip-hop, R&B and jazz with an emphasis on Bollywood elements.
I choreographed the dance sequences for and acted in a short film, Bollywood Invasion, in 2012 and later performed in Bollydoll, the musical, representing Krishna.
Currently, I am working on coordinating Bollywood bachata/samba fusions, using Bollywood, Latin, and Brasilian tunes as the genres of choice. Still, I’m learning. It doesn’t stop. The Bollywood dancer turns Latin fusion with hip-hop, Brasilian, and contemporary components, even with a little bit of Country two-stepping. What tag can we possibly ascribe to that?
As an identity…
Here comes the fun part. What started out as a rather frustrating and frankly upsetting confusion ultimately became one of my greater personal strengths.
Let’s state the facts. I am by definition an American, born in Los Angeles, carrying a United States passport. Both of my parents, as far as I know, are from India, although some jokingly question that when they look at me. I went to school wholeheartedly considering myself and considered by others as “Indian” even though I was born here. I think I definitely had a little accent too, thanks to my uncanny obsession of Bollywood. Among my own Indian family friends, I was considered a FOB (fresh off the boat), or too Indian if you will if that makes any sense. With curly afro-like hair, I felt shamefully vulnerable in a sense. And when I visited India, I was more like an ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) as the continues, with Desi representing any individual of Indian descent.
That was only the beginning.
Overcoming the unilateral image was the challenge. Either you are this or that. You tend to slip into a category. Nerd or jock. Artist or doctor. Indian or American or Latin or …..
Fast-forward to today.
I speak Spanish and Brasilian Portuguese quite fluently and know more about Dominican bachata and all types of Brasilian music than what is considered to be anywhere near normal. I have traveled throughout Central and South America and live in arguably the most international and vibrant city in the United States. Oh yeah. And by the way. I have the inner cowboy in me because I am a known hardcore country music fan. We won’t go there. At least just yet.
So you tell me? What culture do I belong to?
Could I call myself an American-born Indian Brasileiro Latino?
Sure I can.
Perhaps an objective ethnically ambiguous appearance combined with encompassing the energy of various cultures adds to this identity conundrum or so I’m told. “I could have sworn you were black, mixed, Puerto-Rican, Dominican, Brasilian…” And we could probably talk about my name itself of which various versions have existed. Phonetically speaking, there have been a wide range from Knee-raaah (Spanish) to Nee-ruhj (Indian) to Nye-ruh (don’t know) to Knee-Raahj (Anglo-Saxon) to Raj (shorter and easier; works well in entertainment world) to Rajinho (pronounced Ha-zhee-nyoo, Brasilian Portuguese).
So what’s my conclusion? I could sum up this ever-so-mysterious identity by saying something in Portuguese, courtesy of the Tribalistas…
Wait for it…As you graciously access google translate in less than a second…
Eu sou de ninguem. Eu sou de tudo mundo. E todo mundo me quer bem.