Memoir: Return to India

Shoba Narayan (MHC Foreign Fellow ’86-88) came to America to study all the subjects she never got to back home in India–theater with Jim Cavanaugh, music composition with Allan Bondi, and sculpture with Leonard DeLonga. Like many others before her, she fell under the spell of DeLonga’s unorthodox teaching methods, and took up sculpture full-time. Shoba then went on to pursue an MFA in sculpture, followed by a journalism degree from Columbia University. She writes about food, travel, fashion, art and culture for many publications, including Condenast Traveler (US edition), The National, Financial Times, Destinasian, Gourmet, Time and Silkroad,  among others.  She is the  author of  Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes (2003: Random House). which was a finalist for a James Beard Award.  Her latest book, Return to India, an excerpt of which appears below, was just published by Rupa Press and is available via Amazon.com.  Shoba currently lives with her husband and daughters in India.

Quatrina Hossain came to receive me at Bradley International Airport. I’ll never forget her. She herded the three international students who were arriving on different flights into the van that Mount Holyoke had sent. Q, as she introduced herself, was from Pakistan and chatted brightly about the college and life there during the forty-five minute drive to South Hadley. With me was Emilie Ngongijol from Cameroon, and again, it is funny how vividly I remember her. We stared outside at the fading sunlight and the unvarying green scenery bordering the highway. It was dark when we reached the college.

Q dropped me off at Dickinson House, which was to be my home for the next year. Harriet, a platinum blonde was the ‘head resident’ there and she received me with a matronly smile, wearing a pastel nightie with bright red flowers on it. I walked upstairs to my room—cold, spare, functional with a bed, study-table, chair, closet and a bathroom—dropped my bags and fell into an exhausted sleep.

I was similar to many of the international students at Mount Holyoke. We were a cacophonous group speaking different tongues, wearing ‘exotic’ clothes and eating unusual foods. But we were all driven and ambitious, hungry and eager to prove ourselves. We were willing to work harder than the average American because we didn’t have their ease of entitlement. We were strangers in a foreign land and asked only for one thing: that our visas be extended.

Mary Jacob, the dean of international students, was the most important person in my student life, for she held the key to the mysteries of visa extensions. Every three months, I went to see Dean Jacob, seeking reassurance and answers.

As a foreign student, not only had I to study and make good grades, not only had I to apply for and get financial aid to fund my education, but—more importantly—I had to get a visa in order to stay in the country. The Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS), was famously capricious and erratic with convoluted rules that changed constantly. So we did a dance, the INS and I.

Would it help extend my visa if I switched majors from psychology to art? Then I would switch.

Could I apply for graduate school without changing my visa status? Then I would apply.

Did ‘intent to return’ mean that I had to actually return to India? When would I have to return to prove that I intended to?

Although I didn’t realize it then, Mount Holyoke gave me the best years of my life. As a Foreign Fellow, I could take any course that interested me and so, quickly, I did. In my first term, I enrolled in Introduction to Theater, cross-country skiing, beginning music composition, philosophy, modern dance, and piano lessons. I washed dishes to make money and audited whichever course I fancied.

To be twenty, single and far away from home is a gift. You get to test the values you are raised with and try out others for size. You realize what childhood foods you can’t live without and learn to experiment with new foods. Freed from the embrace of doting family, certain aspects of your personality flower. Unfettered by parental cautions, you learn to take risks. You, in essence, find yourself.

One of the things I found out about myself was that I enjoyed, indeed welcomed, new and unusual experiences. Given a choice between having an Indian or Ethiopian meal for dinner, I discovered that I would always choose Ethiopian. There are those like me who fall headlong into the world, enamored by its novelty and there are others — like my parents—whose approach is more cautious. More prudent perhaps. Both ways have their merit. I tend to put anything new and unusual on a pedestal without analyzing if it is indeed better. The other approach is more objective but also more risk averse.

During my first year in America, I indulged in all the excitement of being a stranger in a foreign land. There were days when I would walk through the sun-dappled, maple-bordered paths of South Hadley, hugging myself in sheer delight and thrilled to be alive.

Mount Holyoke introduced me to feminism and since it was located in Massachusetts, I became a Democrat. I liked New Englanders and adopted their liberal values. In later years, I have wondered what would have happened if I had come straight from India to Georgia or South Carolina instead of New England. Would I have become Republican simply because I was in the South and those were the issues I was introduced to? How much of our values are shaped by our environment? It is a question that I grapple with to this day.

I audited an American History class and listened to a tape of the Declaration of Independence. It was a stirring document that surprised me with its polished elegance. It was so well thought out, so ahead of its time in its definition of a civilized society.

Occasionally, one of the rich doctors from nearby Springfield would invite all of us Indian students to his home for dinner. Dr. Chari was from Madras and lived in a palatial mansion. His wife supervised a staff who cooked us sumptuous Indian food. I left their home dazzled by their wealth and generosity, but convinced that I wouldn’t trade places with them for anything. They had a beautiful home and enriching professions, but I … I had my freedom.

The International Students Association (ISA) at Mount Holyoke was a vocal if chaotic body of students from about thirty-five different countries. At orientation, ISA’s student leaders went over many topics including, where to buy winter clothes, how to open a bank account and what certain slang meant. This was the late eighties, when we still typed out applications by typewriter. Word processors were just making an appearance and slang didn’t move across continents with the speed that it does now. It was a long time ago, before the ‘gr8 2 c u’ messaging era.

I re-learned the English language at the ISA, far removed from what the nuns had honed into my vocabulary at my fastidious convent school.“Make up,” we were told, didn’t just mean cosmetics. Rather, it meant a) an apology after a fight, and b) finishing an assignment after it was past due. “Bummer,” on the other hand, meant that something undesirable had happened. On the first day, the president of the ISA handed out a piece of paper with some pithy, useful dictums:

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  • When an American says “Sorry?” it means that s/he hasn’t quite understood you. So repeat what you said. Don’t complicate the misunderstanding by saying “It’s okay, you are pardoned.”
  • At the checkout counter: “Paper or plastic?” means you should say whether you want your groceries packed in paper bags or plastic ones.
  • “For here or to go?” asks whether you are eating the food in the store or are taking it out with you.
  • “Toilets” are called Restrooms.
  • All US currency looks alike, so be careful when you hand over cash.
  • “Pass out,” means to fall unconscious, not graduate from college.
  • “Rubber” is not an eraser, but rather a tropical plant and occasionally, as in “when the rubber hits the road”, means a tire.
  • Keep your eyes open wide and your wits on the ready!

Zahid called six months into my program. As soon as he said ‘Hello’, I knew who it was. After a few perfunctory courtesies, Zahid invited me to a student dance at Amherst College that Saturday. Some of his friends from Harvard were driving down and he wanted to find out if I would go with him. I was speechless for a moment, before stuttering my acceptance.

I spent the morning of the dance applying henna on my hair, wax on my legs, and a cucumber mask on my face. I plucked my eyebrows, scrubbed my elbows, shaped and painted my nails. I deliberated long and hard before choosing a long A-line skirt and a sequined blouse that I had picked up in Bombay.

Zahid was a terrific dancer and whirled me about the room till I broke out in helpless giggles. We were the only Indian students in the room and although Zahid eyed the scantily dressed American girls who walked by, he never left my side. He was like Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I thought.

Soon, Zahid became part of our standard weekend routine. He had taken to driving down on weekends to Amherst, where he stayed with our friends Vicky and Midnight. The boys would either drop me back on Saturday night, or I would bunk down with one of the Indian girls who lived in Amherst. We would do grocery shopping, the laundry, cook the Indian dishes that we missed so much and complain that they never tasted as good as they did back home. In the evening, we went to parties or the free concerts at UMass auditorium. On Sundays, we went out for huge all-you-can-eat breakfasts of pancakes and waffles, and spent the afternoon hanging out in the boys’ comforting, spice-scented apartment that turned out to be ‘home’ for many of the Indian students at Amherst. Young men and women wandered in all day and stayed for hours; chatting, eating, discussing cricket, doing homework, or just napping. Hunkering down together seemed to hold homesickness at bay. A group of us became fast friends.

‘Be careful, little one,’ Midnight told me, as we waved goodbye to Zahid one Sunday afternoon. ‘He is a player, that one.’

I rolled my eyes.

I first heard of Leonard DeLonga just before my second term. Milagros Cruz, a senior from Puerto Rico who was studying law, told me that he was the ‘best teacher on campus’. DeLonga, as everyone called him, taught sculpture. I wanted to take his class. So I called the sculpture studio and a mellow voice identified itself as ‘DeLonga’. I explained that I was interested in his course but that I had never learned art before and didn’t think I was very artistic. Moreover, the only course that fit my schedule was the Advanced Sculpture course. ‘That’s okay,’ said DeLonga. ‘Enroll in whichever course fits your schedule.’

So it came to be that I, a novice at art, became an advanced sculpture student.

Pretty soon, I began spending every waking hour at the studio, welding metal sculptures that filled up my allotted space. I painted too, making a series of self-portraits that I called ‘Navarasa’. But mostly, I welded—sculptures big and small, figurative and abstract. DeLonga came into the studio once at midnight and saw me there. His kindly face crinkled into a smile as he went into his messy office. When he came out at 3:00 a.m., he found me welding.

‘Let’s talk,’ he said. So we did.

DeLonga told me that it was obvious that I was passionate about sculpture. Wasn’t I going to do anything about it?

‘But I don’t know what to do,’ I replied. ‘My Foreign Fellowship ends next term. My visa will run out.’

He offered to write to the then president of Mount Holyoke, Liz Kennan, requesting that I be a ‘Special Student’ who would simply study sculpture and build up a portfolio of art work that could help me get into graduate art school. The college would subsidize my education and I would look for funding from churches and the Indian community for the $3,500 that would pay for my room and board for a year. DeLonga himself would pay $500 towards my education.

To say that I was stunned was an understatement. A church in nearby Springfield, Massachusetts, gave me $1000; the Indian community in the area donated $1500; and I decided to wash dishes to earn the rest. I still remember how a Dr. Vidya Desai came and told me that the local Indian community would fund my room-and-board, and the elation I felt at how it was working out. I sent DeLonga some flowers to celebrate and he called to scold me for spending $25 of money I didn’t have to send him flowers. ‘Save every penny for your education,’ he said. Soon, it was done. I was a Special Student at Mount Holyoke, studying only sculpture and getting a portfolio of art ready so that I could apply to graduate schools.

One evening, Zahid pulled out a wine bottle from the recesses of his backpack.

‘Muslims don’t drink,’ said Vicky.

‘Well, this one does. Starting now,’ said Zahid.

‘Attaboy,’ said Midnight. ‘Soon you’ll be joining me in a daily scotch.’

‘I don’t know if I’ll go that far,’ said Zahid. ‘Only Indians drink scotch.’ He curled his lips.

‘Pseudo,’ muttered Vicky.

‘Snob,’ said Midnight.

Zahid pulled out several books on wine and spread them on the floor. There were chapters on how to order wine in a French restaurant, how to impress a boss with a gift of wine, and the difference between French and Italian wines.

‘You are copping out,’ said Vicky. ‘You are like one of those FOBs who desperately want to be white.’ We disparagingly called fellow Indians, like us, who were newcomers to America, Fresh-off-the-Boats (FOBs).

Zahid pursed his lips but said nothing.

The ‘Americanization of Zahid’ continued unabated. He began taking golf lessons every Sunday, leaving us just Saturday to spend together. But even on Saturdays, he had a list of projects he wanted to accomplish like visit cigar shops, go to a vintage car dealer or get measured for a suit that he couldn’t afford and wouldn’t buy at a bespoke tailor shop. Sometimes, we accompanied Zahid to Brooks Brothers to help him select business shirts and ties. He wanted to be stylish yet conservatively dressed, which meant that the pink shirts I picked out were rejected. Zahid only chose shirts in shades of blue and when I called them unimaginative; he said that I didn’t understand his milieu.

With the earnestness of the star student that he was, Zahid began digesting large chunks of American trivia. He bought a book about the history of American baseball, read it cover to cover in a day and asked us to quiz him about the various teams and their achievements. ‘The first Major League All-Star Game was played on July 6th, 1933 at Comiskey Park in Chicago,’ Zahid recited. ‘The first All-Star grand slam was hit in the same park exactly 50 years later on July 6th, 1983 when Fred Lynn came to bat in the third inning against Atlee Hammaker.’

Zahid’s speech too became different. Periodically, he referred to his Dictionary of American Slang and practiced. On some Sundays, when we went grocery shopping together, he would rattle off entire paragraphs.

“He is just being a Monday morning quarterback. I told him to get out of my face but he told me to hang loose and then hang tough. He is just a klutz who makes megabucks. I thought the deal was in the bag but it seems like everyone is jerking us around.”

Late at night, we would hear him memorizing obscure facts about wine. “Eighty-five percent of the wines Germany produces are white … Grapes in Germany include Reisling 23 percent, Muller Thurgau 21 percent and Silvaner 7 percent. A Tavel is made primarily from the Grenache grape, although nine grape varieties can be used in the blend.”

What irked me the most, however, was the fact that he had taken to calling himself Zaid.

‘Zahid is such a nice name. Why are you changing yourself just to fit in?’ I asked.

“I am not doing this just to fit in. I love it all,” Zahid replied. “Really I do. Opera and jazz are so sensual, so sublime. When the libretto converts into a concerto, the resulting operatic variations are divine. And when Billie Holiday sings her Summertime, it is almost as much a classic as listening to Louis Armstrong singing, What a Wonderful World. Of course, there is nothing to surpass walking on a winter night, eating chestnuts and listening to Ray Charles.”

Zahid finished his speech and laughed at my wide-open eyes and dropped jaw. “I know,’ he said. ‘It’s all a bit much, isn’t it? But it’s no different from you dropping names like Jackson Pollock and Christo.”

“I am an art student. Of course I would know Pollock and Christo.”

“But you had little interest in art before you came to America. Remember, you wanted to study psychology.”

It was true. I had come into America planning to pursue a master’s degree in psychology. Instead, here I was, a full-fledged art major intending to do a Master’s in sculpture. That, to me, was the power of America’s opportunities. That I, a girl with no background in art, who came from a country where modern art was just decades old, could paint oils on canvas, weld abstract steel sculptures and speak with authority about Kandinsky and Louise Nevelson. However, the one thing I hadn’t bargained for while reveling in my newfound knowledge and love of art was that my closest friends would think it contrived and fake; that I would appear as plastic as the new Zahid.

Though the transformed Zahid still retained some endearing Indian traits like slipping into Hindi when he was with close friends, he had, however, added so many layers of American mannerisms, habits and interests that he had morphed into something unique. He wasn’t like any of the Indians I knew back home, but he wasn’t entirely American either. He didn’t fit the image of a Zahid but he wasn’t fully a Zaid either. He was simply an Indian who was distancing himself from India.

‘Indian food gives me heartburn,’ he would say when we went out with his American colleagues.

Later when we were alone, we would all tease him.

“Come on, Zahid. How can a guy who has been eating rice and dal for twenty-five years suddenly get heartburn from Indian food?”

“Hey, just because I grew up in India doesn’t mean that I have to eat chicken tikka masala for the rest of my life.”

“Yes, but you don’t have to forsake it forever. After all, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

“This one has,” said Zahid. “This one has discovered stripes. And stars.”

After a while, I stopped arguing. Zahid would never agree with me. He didn’t see my point of view at all. Perhaps it was more about me than him. I viewed all acquired American interests as traitorous pretensions—except in my own case—while Zahid saw them as assimilating into a new country.

The trials of applying for a summer job were compounded by my permanently uncertain visa status. Firms would not hire me without a work permit but I needed a job in order to qualify for one. So I sought advice, plotted and planned ways of getting one. Apply for a work permit in Mexico, said some friends, because the INS was more lenient across the border. Go to Canada, said others. Marrying a US citizen in order to become legal seemed a bit much, but it had already been done. Some friends of mine were so rattled by the real world, the job market, and their dealings with the INS that they embarked on an educational path that neither sought nor saw an end—they went from graduate students to Ph.D. candidates to post-doctoral scholars to lab assistants to researchers, and remained researchers forever. Or at least until their visa ran out.

During my first summer, I worked as a counselor for a gifted high school program in international studies. I spent six weeks watching high school kids figure out how small acts could change the world. Some talked about donating time to a soup kitchen; others about building homes in developing countries; others about working on fund-raising campaigns at their church or community. It was my first exposure to the spirit of volunteerism that pervades America. In a fit of borrowed inspiration, I sent a $25 check to Amnesty International, a tenth of my weekly stipend.

A year had gone by and I was ready for my second year as a Special Student at the Sculpture department of Mount Holyoke. My living arrangements remained the same.

Northampton had several ethnic restaurants and occasionally when we had a few extra bucks, we would all go out to dinner. I had saved some money from my internship in the summer and could finally contribute when we ate out. Vicky always wanted to eat at Indian Palace, the sole Indian restaurant in town; Midnight preferred American fast foods —burgers, pizza, tacos, fried chicken, he didn’t care what it was as long as the take out came with a tall beer. Zahid and I on the other hand, were interested in trying out Mexican, Italian and even Ethiopian.

“I am ambitious,” Zahid said matter-of-factly. “And unfortunately, India is no place for ambitious young Muslim men. If I went back home, I’d have to take over my father’s tiny air compressor business.”

Zahid wanted to enter Wall Street and make a lot of money. He wanted to write policy papers about Reaganomics and submit it to journals. Zahid was a strong advocate of what he called free trade and supply-side economics. He told me that he had written to the White House seeking an internship.

Vicky, Midnight and I too were changing in our own way, and at a warp-speed that disconcerted each of us—we were so different from the selves we had been a year ago when we first arrived in America. I, for instance, had completely switched from being a sober, serious psychology major into becoming an art student with every stereotype it entailed. My friends were purple-haired artists who smoked weed, loved Tom Waits and painted nude self-portraits. I developed crushes on men with names like Thoralf and Rathbourne, who came from nearby Hampshire College to learn sculpture from DeLonga, who was known throughout the Pioneer Valley, where the five colleges were situated, as Mount Holyoke’s superstar professor. They spent evenings with us in the art studio, tripped on weed and Acid, and drove motorbikes into the woods at midnight for fun.

I spent day and night at the sculpture studio at Mount Holyoke and quickly learned the artistic vocabulary and sensibility. I was busy taking slide photographs and putting together application packages to seven different graduate schools. In the evenings, I partied with my art buddies. We would go out to bars in Northampton, or shopping at the thrift stores in the area. Mostly, we got together in the studio, cranked up the music and painted—or in my case, sculpted.

Midnight’s transformation occurred in a completely different fashion. One day, he casually said that he wanted me to meet his fiancé. Would I have coffee with her?

“You have a fiancé? How? When?” I asked stupidly.

Her name was Nina Patel and she was the daughter of the gas station owner in nearby Springfield, where Midnight worked (illegally) once a week. Nina’s father owned a string of liquor stores, motels and gas stations throughout the country and was enormously wealthy. She was, Midnight hesitated, a US citizen.

“You mean, an ABCD?” I asked. American Born Confused Desi is what we FOBs called Indian kids raised in the US.

“We call them ABCDs. They call us FOBs,” Midnight replied mildly. “After all, we are all Indians.”

Not true. That was the problem, wasn’t it? Midnight was being facetious and he knew it. The ABCDs didn’t consider themselves Indians; they thought they were American.

This divide between the ABCDs and the FOBs exists to this day. When I was a student in college, we ‘original’ FOBs laughed at the ABCDs, who seemed irrationally exuberant all the time. Today, I hear the other side through ABCD relatives who are now in college. They laugh at the FOBs too. I guess it all evens out.

Nina Patel chewed gum and smoked constantly. Her eyes darted. She talked fast about cars, gas and liquor. She was pretty enough in a wild gaudy sort of way with henna-streaked combed-out hair, tight clothes over a curvaceous body, and bright red lipstick. She looked like Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny.

“Midnight’s cool,” said Nina. “Here, have a Twinkie. It’s on me.”

The cash register clinked as she added up a sale.

“Mondays are always busy, ya know … umm … coz’ people who shack up all through the weekend get off their asses and like, get to work. And since my dad is always like, hungover on Mondays, I have to umm … mind the store.” This is my imitation of her speech. I am sure my American-born cousins will see it as a pathetic version of how Americans talk.

One evening, I confronted Midnight, as he stood outside the apartment, smoking.

“Do your parents know?”

“No,” he replied sheepishly.

I digested this information in silence. I knew why Midnight hadn’t told his parents about Nina just as anyone who had met his ultra-conservative parents would. Midnight’s temple going, mantra-chanting, astrology-believing mother would faint or have a fit. His doctor father would probably disown him. How was Midnight going to take over his father’s cancer hospital with a cigarette-smoking wife?

“This is quite sudden, isn’t it?” I asked.

“It’s been going on for months,” said Midnight with another sheepish smile. “Nina is the reason I was away throughout last week.”

“Why did you want me to meet her?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” shrugged Midnight. “To introduce her to our people; our culture, I guess. She’s only 17 …”

“Midnight, you are ten years older.”

“Exactly. I think we should get married and start a family …”

“What’s the rush?” I asked.

Midnight paused. I had a feeling he was not telling me something. “I am not getting any younger,” he said finally. “My parents are ten years apart and see what a nice marriage they have. My grandparents had fifteen years between them.”

“That was then. This is now.”

We stared at each other. Midnight seemed puzzled at the distress in my face.

“Why are you so upset?” he asked. “I thought you’d like her.”

“I do,” I said reflexively. “This has nothing to do with Nina. It’s just that I know your parents. I know how they’ll react. And your mother will probably blame me for not ‘protecting’ you.”

“Talk to them, no?” he pleaded. “Talk to my mother.”

“Listen, I’d rather not get involved.”

I was upset; more upset than I let on. In Midnight, I saw a weird cross between an archetypal Brahmin man like my grandfather—who believed that he was open and liberal when in fact, he was chauvinistic and patronizing—and the practical Gujarati business baron that he seemed to be on the path to become. It was, to use the cliché, a clash of personas; and—to my possessive mind that saw a dear friend slipping away—it wasn’t pretty.

Midnight and Nina printed out engagement invitations. Their gilt-edged Ganesh covers taunted me every time I walked by. Somebody would tell Midnight’s mother. She would call me up in tears and ask me why I hadn’t reported the whole thing to her before it was too late. It would be like a Hindi movie. Why had that idiot gotten embroiled with an under-age Gujarati girl?

Halfway through the summer, Midnight announced that he was getting married. My worst suspicion came true. Nina was already one month pregnant, he confided to us. The sooner they got married, the less embarrassing it would be for everyone.

Nina’s parents chose the biggest, glitziest community hall in Springfield and converted it into a cross between Elvis’ Graceland and an Indian palace. There were ornate gilt trellises, Moghul arches, rose and jasmine garlands imported from Florida, thousands of lanterns blinking with candles, rangoli designs on the floor and colorful zari brocaded saris fluttering throughout the hall like embossed curtains. Entering the wedding hall was like entering a movie set. Incenses shrouded the floor. One puny priest sat on the dais, chanting Sanskrit mantras in a stentorian voice. Two men stood on a giant ladder, systematically removing all the smoke detectors from the room. Young Indian girls flitted about dressed in sequined lehengas, ornamental bindis, and flashed kohl-lined eyes at the formally dressed boys. Women carried silver trays piled with almonds, foil-lined sweets and fruits to the dais.

“It is beautiful,” I told Nina’s brother, Anand, who was dressed all in black. “But it doesn’t have the noise and chaos of an Indian wedding.”

“Thank God for that. It doesn’t have the urine-smell, the heat and dust and stale food either.”

“Oh come on,” I protested but he was off.ABCD, I fumed.

Midnight’s parents were conspicuous by their absence. One of his uncles did all the religious rites from the bridegroom’s side.

“I haven’t told my folks that I am getting married,” said Midnight. “They’ll freak out.”

“So what are you going to do? Show up at their doorstep in dramatic Hindi movie style with wife and kids in tow?” I asked.

“Yeah, probably,” said Midnight and laughed, but his eyes were worried. “And now that Nina is an American citizen, I don’t have to worry about my visa and green card,” he added more to form.

At the appointed auspicious hour, Midnight tied the yellow thread around Nina’s neck, making her his wife. If it’s any comfort to Midnight’s parents, at least the wedding ceremony was South Indian, I thought. We all stood on tiptoe and threw rose petals on the newlyweds. The priests’ stentorian chants reverberated through the room. Piped shehnai music rose to a crescendo. For a moment, the din reminded me of India, bringing tears to my eyes.

Midnight was married.

That night, at the reception, Nina’s parents hired an Indian band, which played all the popular Bollywood and other songs. We danced the garba, the samba, and to plain old rock-and-roll till we were breathless. Midnight and Nina walked around, collecting congratulations and good wishes, looked flushed and excited; happy, but tired.

Midnight told us that they would stay with Nina’s parents, at least in the beginning. He wouldn’t need his room at the apartment anymore, he said with a wink, nor his car or his moth-eaten couch. Now that he was liquor-baron Patel’s son-in-law, he could afford to buy new furniture. Zahid instantly offered to buy Midnight’s car.

“Hard to imagine that we won’t see you every day,” said Zahid.

“Hey, hey, you can’t get rid of me that easily,” said Midnight. “Don’t worry. I’ll show up at your door with a passel of kids in tow.”

“Do that,” said Zahid seriously. “We would absolutely love that.”

Midnight shuffled his feet.

I glanced at Zahid. The graciousness of his words sounded so odd in a situation like this. When Indians got emotional, we teased and insulted each other to cover up our sadness. What was Zahid doing, gushing and spouting sentimental platitudes like a firang? Couldn’t he see that it was making Midnight uncomfortable?

Nina’s parents came with an army of relatives who fluttered their handkerchiefs and shed tears as they hugged Midnight and Nina. As it always happens in Indian weddings, there was food–more food than we could possibly eat, along with drinks and coffee.

Late that night, very late, Zahid, Vicky and I staggered out into the muggy summer night. Midnight was married. We could hardly believe it.

Zahid got into his newly acquired car and drove us home.

During my second year in America, I indulged in all the excitement of being a stranger in a foreign land. I wrote long letters home about the milk and cookies that were laid out every night at our dorm rooms — a Mount Holyoke tradition; the blooming tulips that made up in form and colour what they lacked in fragrance; the automated dishwashers that processed dozens of plates and cups at a time; the sculpture studio where I handled instruments that spit fire and melted metal into shapes according to free will and artistic imagination; the classes I took and the people I met.

I made many American friends, travelled to their homes and picked up trivia and traditions. In this, I differed from other foreign students. Many immigrants, who came to America as students, ended up hanging out with each other either by choice or circumstance. Some who studied at large state universities with hundreds of thousands of students sought refuge among their own kind. Others chose to socialize exclusively with their own countrymen because they found Americans intimidating or boring, or both.

Some, like me, went the opposite route. During my first two years at Mount Holyoke, I had little interest in anything Indian. It wasn’t that I disliked India. Rather, I was on an urgent mission to embrace America. I experimented with miso soup and Mexican enchilladas, pad Thai, peanut butter and jelly. As long as it wasn’t Indian, I would try it. I asked Ursula, a friend from Bavaria, to explain the meaning of German operas. I explored Northampton’s gay bookstores, played Frisbee with a Swede, and learned a few Swahili songs from Emilie, who lived in my dorm.

But I couldn’t escape my family altogether.

One April evening, I received a phone call in my dorm. It was my grandfather, speaking in the rapid 190 words-per-minute speed that he reserved for expensive transatlantic calls.

“How are you, child? Are you well? Doing well in your studies? Your grandmother sends her blessings,” my grandfather’s voice boomed over the phone even though I could hear him perfectly clearly.

“I am fine, Thatha,” I yelled back reflexively.

“Okay, listen carefully. One of my friends is visiting Boston for some fellowship. Your grandmother has sent mango pickles with him and asked him to deliver it to you. We have also sent some Marie biscuits, carrot halwa, rice papadams, and all your favorite snacks. Swamy—that’s my friend—has promised to bring it all to you. How far is Boston from where you are? Can he take the bus?”

“Thatha,” I interjected. “Boston is two hours from where I am. It is too far for this man to come and deliver mango pickles and biscuits. I am fine … I have enough to eat. No problem. Please don’t trouble him.”

“No trouble at all. I conducted his sister’s wedding. The least he can do is deliver some sweets for my granddaughter. You listen to me. I am going to give you a phone number. Note it down and contact him.”

“Thatha,” I protested. “I am busy applying to graduate schools. I don’t have time.”

My grandfather cut to the chase, “Have you got admission anywhere?”

“Well, Memphis State has given me admission but I haven’t heard about financial aid yet,” I replied.

“Memphis? That’s where Shankar’s uncle lives.” My grandfather sounded relieved. “Very nice man, Shankar. He was your father’s junior in college, remember? Shankar and Gita. They used to always bring chocolates for you and your brother. Go to Memphis. I will ask Shankar to make all arrangements for you.”

“No need to trouble them, Thatha …” I began, remembering the jovial couple who used to visit us in Madras.

“Okay, my child, this call is getting too costly,” my grandfather cut me off. “God bless you, take care of your health—drink milk every day and don’t forget to take an oil bath on Sundays. Concentrate on your studies. Write for all details.”

He hung up.

A fortnight later, a wrinkled package appeared. Inside were stale biscuits, rancid halwa, broken papadams, and sour pickles. I wrote to my grandmother saying how much I had enjoyed all the food items she sent.

“Such things are called a ‘care packet’ in America,” I wrote. “My friends were amazed that you sent it all the way from India.”

I had entered America with a suitcase and a dream. When I left Mount Holyoke two years later, I was appalled to find that my possessions had multiplied and filled twenty cardboard boxes! In late May, Midnight and Vicky pulled up in front of my dorm to help me pack and ship my stuff to Memphis. It was a cool spring day. Single-engine planes flew in the sky, their drone forever linking spring with planes in my memory. My friends, Ellen and Marge had spent all day with me, helping me fold my sweater and overcoats; towels and bed linen; toiletries and photos of my family; socks that had long lost their elasticity, into cardboard boxes that we had picked up from the garbage bins outside local grocery stores. At 4.00 p.m., I was fully packed. Midnight and Vicky loaded everything into Midnight’s truck and we drove to the local DHL office to ship them to Memphis.

Once my stuff was shipped, the men drove me to the local Greyhound bus station for the long bus ride to Memphis.

Vicky had received a full scholarship to Stanford’s doctoral program and was moving to California. Midnight and his family—including their newborn son, Rohan, were going to live in the Bay Area, where he hoped to set up a chain of restaurants. As for Zahid, he had got a job with Merrill Lynch and was moving to New York City.

My Turkish-American friend, Ellen Kasterlak, once told me something during a long car ride from her home in Boston back to Mount Holyoke. “The minute you meet people, you get on a path towards separation,” she said. “Till you meet, you are on a path to togetherness. After that, it is like billiards balls when hit by a cue. You roll away from each other.”

I hadn’t paid much heed to her comment, when she said it on the highway, driving at 60 miles an hour on a weed-induced high. But it struck home when I got on the Greyhound and waved goodbye to Vicky and Midnight. Although none of us realized it then, we would hardly see each other in the ensuing years and eventually, fall out of touch. Vicky would find the love of his life in a fellow scientist and go on to make brave new discoveries. Midnight would amass millions and still manage to remain the sweet, irreverent fellow that he was. We would stay in touch through friends and acquaintances, but our time of daily closeness was over.

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This entry was posted in Books by MHC Authors, Creative Nonfiction, Featured Work and tagged , , , , , by Sandi Sonnenfeld. Bookmark the permalink.

About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and the world’s most perfect cat.

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