Change With The Times

“Hair unclasped and cascading down their backs,” my aunt said to me. “But who am I to pass judgement?” My mother’s 78-year-old sister was talking about a recent betrothal at which most of the young south Indian girls had not worn their hair bunched up inside barrettes or braided or coiffed up in any way. 

I told my aunt that the times had changed. She chuckled and waved the stubby fingers of her right hand and continued to talk about the mores of the present day. My breath caught in my throat. Once again, after eleven years, my mother had waddled into the room from the land of the dead. She was looking askance at the trend of the times, pulling a face at girls who did not apply coconut oil in their hair anymore and, instead, used this vile fragrant syrup called “shampoo” which left their hair unprotected and all “paraparaaa” while seducing them with voluminous promises of fragrance and body.

“But who am I to say anything about today’s girls?” my aunt wondered, laughing, even as her deceased sister dissolved into the walls. Then she went on to tell me how, in the sixties, my grandmother had lamented to her husband that three of her married daughters had begun draping themselves in six-yard saris. 

“Why won’t they wear nine yards as per Brahmin custom?” my grandmother had asked. To that, her husband, a man who often fed scores of the poor in his outhouse (while flinging colorful epithets into the air when people of a certain community walked down his road) had only one thing to say: “You must change with the times for this is the modern way.”

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A Xerox At The Park

Through the course of a five-mile walk at Ortega Park with a friend, I was baffled by the demographics of the park. An all-Indian birthday party was in progress inside the gazebo at the center. A few minutes down, close to our walking path, eight boys kicked a ball on the green: Seven Mowglis in seven t-shirts and seven shorts and seven shoes and one ball.

On a bench, an old man and woman sat in glum resignation to the soundless life of the American suburbia. As we trekked past, we nodded absently, all four of us—as all immigrants do in their adopted country—in silent acknowledgment of the truth that we were all xeroxed faces hailing from a land that produced high technology, high-calorie samosas and high SAT and GRE scores.

For a few cruel seconds, I felt like a migrant hoping to banish all the other migrating beasts to another savannah 10,000 light-years away.

I felt like the zebra at the head of the herd. No two ever had the same set of stripes. Yet they blended into the distant landscape, becoming one in the daze of heat and dust. I sensed the zebra’s frisson of discomfort: If and when the lion came, how would it tell one rear from the other? And, heavens, would there be enough grass for all? Plenty of Bermuda grass? Enough red grass? What about legume?

Further down the trail, I passed one more of my ilk. Right away, I sensed the mild panic leaking at the pores of the Cupertino species: Would there be enough fresh coriander and fenugreek at the farmer’s market the following Friday?

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The Line Of Immigrants

There’s something life-affirming about entering an immigrant space. That’s why, whenever I return from a long trip, I crave a stop at a local farmer’s market to shake off my jetlag and my dullness.

This morning at the Cupertino market, a pear-shaped Indian-American was covertly biting into a jujube to test its value-proposition. Two south Indian women, both shaped like a butternut squash, kvetched about finding no kenaf (gongura) leaves at the stalls.

A circuit of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Korean-Americans had grown roots by a stall selling vine-ripened tomatoes, flat beans, green peppers, winter melon, bitter gourd, okra, and broccoli flower.

“Where’d you get that lemon grass?” I asked of a reedy Chinese-American surveying okras. “There!” the woman snapped back, pointing to a nearby table. I was about to turn towards the lemon grass in slight irritation when I saw a smile grow in her eyes and she and I recognized, simultaneously, our common Asian heritage in which a smile must steep, even if only for two minutes, before it can be delivered.

Together the two of us began colluding for attention from the stall vendor. But the array of rooted customers in front of him crackled in irritation: “Hey, wait, the line begins here!” Bags in hand, I trudged to the end of the line and awaited my turn, chafing at the rudeness of immigrant-Americans on the matter of lines. In the countries we came from there were no vertical lines, only horizontal.

Before I headed home, I stopped to buy grapes. “I want the sweetest,” I said to the vendor. He pointed to the big, purplish black things in a basket. “But these have seeds,” he said. I popped one in my mouth and bit in. The skin was thick. Grape syrup sloshed over my tongue. Sweet. Sweeter-than-honey sweet. Then I hit seed, that stuff of life.

“That’s perfectly fine, I’ll spit the seed,” I said to the young man, handing him two dollars for a pound of the blackest grapes most redolent of all immigrants, old and new.

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Who Was I?

A weekend could upend my idea of who I was. It could rock the premise on which I had built my social, professional and literary life as an Indian-American in California.

On Friday evening, someone dismissed, categorically, the quality and approach of an Indian-American magazine I respected and had worked for over the decades. “Why couldn’t the magazine hire better writers?” she asked.

On Saturday afternoon, some people in my writing group offered breathtaking analyses for a story penned by a talented member. I came unhinged. Should I appreciate the story? Or marvel at the succinct and lyrical analyses by fellow writers who had mastered both writing and analysis? How could I improve at both?

Later that evening, at a birthday party, a young Sikh gentleman sang Hindi melodies from the 50s through the 70s. For years, the tunes had pierced my ears and drenched my soul. I went to bed that night wondering if I should distance myself from such music. It weighed me down. It was another reminder that my parents had departed. It was proof that my father, the late but always punctual Daddykins, who read me and made three Xerox copies of every story I had ever published, had really, completely departed.

Early on Sunday, I was in Dublin for a prayer at the new home of a cousin’s son. The young man and his wife were just starting out in life. Their road was not yet locatable on GPS. I thought about my first home in San Jose’s Evergreen area. Our home had been built on new land cleared for starter homes. Now, after four moves and 32 years, I had dropped roots in an old neighborhood of heritage oaks, stately firs and meandering trails. We had raised two children into thinking, mature adults. Yet, in a matter of forty-eight hours, I felt lost, unanchored, somehow.

On Sunday evening, I rose to sing India’s national anthem in unison with 18000 others in this welcoming valley of dreams. Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, was on his first official trip to the Silicon Valley. He was on a mission to enlist CEOs to realize his dream, Digital India, for connecting all the people of India.

Between the rising and falling strains of the anthem, I believe I heard another sound. The soundless swish of Kleenex on cheeks. The sound of sadness that all immigrants must hear in their hearts on some days. The ring of American careening. Of silent hyphens clattering to the floor.

Was I American? Was I Indian?

Who was I?

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Cart It Back

At India Cash and Carry on De Anza Boulevard this afternoon, I thought Diwali had arrived. The line bled into the vegetable aisle. I waited for about 15 minutes to reach the counter.

When I walked towards the parking lot with the groceries in my cart, I noticed people loading their bags into their vehicles; after they did that, they simply let their cart stand wherever it was. So some carts languished near Vanity Beauty Salon ten doors away where women will pamper themselves for hours, feet in warm water and head under steamers. A few carts lolled around outside Saratoga Plumbing Supply, an upscale store where salesmen look high and mightily from behind their Toto low flushes. Others rolled around by a massage place called Happy Feet.

As always, I remembered my father, the late, principled old Daddykins. “Put back the cart where it belongs,” he would say to me if I failed to push the cart back into its home outside a store. “You’ll wait ten minutes at the counter but you don’t have half a minute of discipline to put something back where it belongs?” On every visit to a grocery store, Daddykins religiously returned the cart to its home. It was the principle of the thing, to be considerate and unselfish towards the store as well as the next customer.