“Do you know how much this dosa costs in terms of Indian rupee? Rs. 504.81 to be exact at today’s rate!” the boastful male voice wafts across the Indian cafeteria in the U.S. I steal a glance at the members of the table from where the voice emanated. It is more or less a mirror image of our own table. A typical Indian family one often comes across in the West. A senior couple like me and my husband — a stiff sari-clad woman and her morose-looking husband, a younger couple, perhaps their daughter and son-in-law (the brag!) or the other likely pair, the son and daughter-in-law and a restless three-year old kid on a high chair.
My focus again shifts to the older couple and I get the picture. They are probably here to fulfil their part in an unwritten pact with their sambandhis back home. Their routine is like the compulsive ritual of migratory birds every year. After their mandatory stay in their son or daughter’s home for six months — visa rules do not permit more than that — they leave and make way for their child’s in-laws to take over the next six months. The idea is to help out with domestic chores and handle other nitty-gritty without a break to enable their progeny to pursue the American dream smoothly.
In the process, they brave all the sniggers and veiled comments from friends and relatives for being treated like glorified cooks, maids, and errand boys. Some of these parents do agree, in their lighter moments, that it is like preparing oneself for a ‘karmic’ backlash for not appreciating enough the cheap human labour handed to us on a platter in India. But others dismiss any such notion with a face-saving one-liner, “For us, it is nothing but a labour of love.”
Ironically, the joint family system, fast disintegrating in our part of the world, seems to have been successfully adopted by the more tradition-bound NRIs even if it is by default. It is a win-win situation for everyone concerned in this arrangement.
Thanks to the shared experiences of these frequent travellers to the West in our midst, even first-timers like us who landed in the U.S. were aware that it could be an exercise in unlearning all our essentially ‘Indian’ middle class practices if we wanted our trip to be meaningful.
As an example, a basic rule that forbids us from spilling water on the bathroom floor as the structure is made of wood can haunt us with a feeling of being ‘incomplete’ and ‘unclean’ all day long. That is because of our involuntary habits of washing ourselves clean and bathing leisurely bang in the middle of the bathroom. Pretty soon we realise that we must overcome our splashy ways for our own good.
While we totter around fumbling with the unfamiliar taps (faucets, please!), comes the next warning. Clothes should not be hung out to dry in the balcony, lest the maintenance supervisor of the premises will come knocking on the door. He will question us on our sense of aesthetics and possibly impose a hefty fine for the lack of it. But if the washing machine does the drying one hundred per cent, won’t the fabric quality suffer? Such a query, however, gets washed away as we are forced to fall in line.
It is only after taking charge of the kitchen do I realise that there is a far more serious condition to contend with here. Cooking at high temperatures, especially deep-frying is a firm ‘no-no’. Even a tiny open flame from a lamp lit in the puja shelf can set off the fire alarm in no time. In such a situation, the fireman here not only responds faster than God, he also goes one step further. He ticks us off for our ‘sins’ of negligence.
The message is clear and pointed — all is well as long as we listen to the voice of America!
The days drag on. The monotony of routine is thankfully broken by many a family outing to malls, temples and tourist spots. Here, one must give it to the NRIs for their honest attempt at recreating the Indian scene wherever they are, especially during festivals. But what the elders miss is the real Indian scene, the company of their friends and relatives, the easy mobility and access to goods, among other things. It can be embarrassing to depend on the younger lot to fetch things as inane as toothpaste or a bar of soap from the supermarket miles away — things that can easily be picked up from a nearby corner store back home. Just when we settle down cosily and begin loving the place, the date of our journey back to India is suddenly upon us. As expected, the return trip now seems like undergoing a course in regression therapy. A tiresome comeback to chaos, confusion, noise and pollution — the contrast all the more striking after the trip abroad.
Once inside the home, however, it is haven unplugged! And the day after our arrival … My husband has promptly left for the nearby temple. The domestic help is in the kitchen doing the dishes. Her assistant is dusting away months of accumulated dirt and grime from the furniture. The ‘ironman’ has come and left with a bagful of clothes to be ironed. Fresh milk, vegetables and provisions have all been delivered on our doorstep without any fuss. As for me, I relax my jet-lagged body against the sofa-cushions with my legs propped up on the centre table, feeling absolutely pampered. Well, the vacation has actually started, right now!
(The writer’s email: email@example.com)