When I returned to United States from India this past December, my friends asked me, “So! How was your India trip?” I felt like an actress who holds a press conference and says, “Oh! I had a whirlwind tour. I was all over the place, promoting my film!” My trip to India was a whirlwind tour all right, except, I was not sure what was I promoting. My love marriage!? Visiting people the very first time after you get married is an exciting time in India. Here in America, me and my husband, were all by ourselves. It did not make much of a difference to us or to anybody else, our getting married, as life continued without any change. No one called us to their homes to hear our mushy tale of love or to congratulate us. There were no post wedding ceremonies, no wedding gossip, and no people. It was so bland. It felt as if no one really bothered whether we married or not. I knew it wouldn’t have been the same, had we been in India.
In India, newly married couples often complain on the number of visits they have to make in the immediate month after marriage. Well, they don’t know how lucky they are, thought I. “You don’t know what I miss”, I might have said to a new bride from India. Perhaps she would have said, “I know what I miss, privacy!” So when in December, I had a long vacation, I decided to make my trip to India on my own, ditching my husband Kiran, who couldn’t make it. I didn’t care whether he was coming or not. I was itching to go home for the sake of the people, food, dresses, ceremonies. No matter how many years it has been since getting married, you are still treated like a newly married bride the very first time you visit family.
I knew, rather hoped, friends and family would be excited to see the post wedding me and treat me like a princess. Even though I was going back nearly after 2 years since getting married, I was all nervous anticipation as I began my 22 hour flight journey to destination Hyderabad! Day 1: It was 6 am Sunday morning. We were hovering over the Indian sky. I got the feel of Hyderabad as soon as the steward started serving “upma-dosa” for breakfast. Should I eat or not? I was sitting with two other guys, all three of us globally displaced Indians, returning home on the London-Hyderabad Airbus, for our annual India trips. Don’t know what went into my head when I asked my husband to order a gluten free vegan food for me. Perhaps I was being incorrigibly optimistic about the airline chefs. Gluten Free vegan food meant khous khous, mushrooms mixed with tomatoes, and fruits for desserts. I won’t even mention the portion size. Perhaps the chefs felt people who ate gluten free food had stomachs the sizes of peas. Having eaten this food for 22 hours, I was close to tears. I couldn’t resist the wafting smell of upma coming from my co-passengers’ wraps. “I will not eat anything now”, said my first co-passenger as I was contemplating. “I know delicious lip smacking idlis will be waiting for me at home. I want to keep my stomach empty. I will not fill it with this useless food” Oh God! What should I do? I fell into a predicament.
It is only 6 am now. By the time I get my luggage, go through immigration, meet dad, and go home, it might be 10 am or later. The last time around it took me nearly three hours to get out. Will mummy make me idlis? She dint the last time. Instead, she cooked lunch for me, which was a lil bit late, considering I landed on a Sankranthi day . Who the hell knows if today is not some ‘auspicious’ day in the Hindu calendar? “I agree. I too don’t want to eat this useless stuff”, said I to my co-passenger even while accepting my gluten free wrap from the steward and opening it. I squirmed. The same stupid mushroom stuff. Why couldn’t the chef simply give me the dosas, which are happily vegan and gluten free too ! “I don’t mind sharing my breakfast with you. Why don’t you take some of my upma?” said my second co-passenger. “Uh! oh! No, I am fine” I fidgeted, my face being in complete contrast to my words. How could I ‘share’ (grab) breakfast with two guys whom I have met just 8 hours ago, I am acting like I am food deprived. Yet! I couldn’t resist the upma-dosa’s scintillating smell. Take it, I told myself. We are all responsible, global Indians, returning home after a long journey. It is not even like they are trying to flirt with you or something. We have already spoken about our respective spouses, meaning we are all smugly married and happy in our own world. How does it matter if I share some of their food, I debated? It is not like we will remember each other after the flight lands. It was not like we shared any contact info. Who knows they might have remembered me as that upma stealer woman, they might even have saved my name under contacts as ‘upma stealer’. At last, I gave up my resistance. “Umm! Ok , thank you” I said fearing he might withdraw his offer. “Why don’t you share some of mine too? I am not eating this stuff anyway”, said my first co-passenger. I happily took a spoonful of upma from one and a half dosa from the other. A few minutes and we were all bingeing on the breakfast. Hyderabad welcomed me with smells of good food. I was home.
As for the lines, the luggage, the immigration, it took a total of 1 hour. I was wrong. Hyderabad was developing at a faster rate than I had anticipated. I was home by 8 am. What more, mom chose not to come to the airport. Instead, she stayed home to invite me with lip smacking fresh idlis. I had no choice but to devour the idlis on a full stomach. My day 1 started with a bit of an overeaten stomach. Day 2, 3, and 4: These three days are blurred, reason, I did nothing. All the running around I did in America beforee the trip had left me exhausted, jet lagged, and tired. From digging the best deals to planning the gifts, buying them for friends and relatives, and completing the work load to keep the boss happy, the days from Thanksgiving in November to the first week of December, had been no sleep days. I crashed as soon as I had my first meal at home. On top of that, I had also promised my boss that I would ‘work from India’ the first two days because I could not get leave.
In between crashing and ‘working from home’, I pretty much stayed home for days 2, 3, and 4. Day 5-Friday: I did not want to stay home. I wanted to start my new bride journey as soon as possible. Given the circumstances, let me at least meet one uncle’s family if not all three, thought I. I shall gp to Karimnagar nearest to Hyderabad. My aunt explained to me how a simple bus journey would bring me to Karimnagar from where she would pick me. I always had wanted to travel all by myself to my uncle’s places, but my over parents had never allowed me. It was different now. “I am a big girl, married and responsible, I can and I want to”, I said. “I do not want to be accompanied by you” I told them.
Day 6: Saturday- Rejecting their pleas not to travel alone, I boarded the bus to Karimnagar. I had never seen my dad so scared in life. He was scared because the bus was empty, scared, because there were no other female passengers. He boarded the bus without a ticket and refused to get down. What more, within a few minutes he turned me into a scared cat as well. In the heat of the moment, I called my aunt and asked, “Aunty, is it ok to put my bag on the top of this bus? It has got an expensive hard drive, camera and stuff like that, you know!” My aunt was sitting in her office when I called came and she couldn’t stop laughing. Anyway, the bus filled up to its brim in 10 minutes, especially, with a lot of female passengers. My dad was happy, he got down. I reached Karimnagar.
Day 7: Sunday-Karimnagar. It was as if Paris Hilton was visiting an Arkansas farm, like a rich Amrish Puri visiting India for a pure Ganga, (Pardes, in case you missed it) like Shahrukh ¬¬in Swades! The jungle like atmosphere, the pure air, the untamed wilderness, ah! it felt so refreshing after the hustle bustle I am so used to in my urban life. “I don’t like exposing my legs” announced my 10 year old niece. “I like to cover them up” she said, as she wore her ‘leggings’. Ah! here was a pre-teen who liked to wear more clothes than necessary, what a revelation! Kids innocence in this day and age-the simple life, it hit me. Gave me a new perspective. Never again will I complain about my job and an American middle class life. It’s so much better when you keep it simple. People are so happy with so little. I felt enthusiastically fresh, refreshingly refreshed, simpler than the simple, I felt like a butterfly. After living in pristine bathrooms and controlled temperatures for 8 years, it was not easy getting adjusted to Indian toilets and no bolt bathrooms in freezing Indian December climate. I was one big laughing ¬stock. Imagine! Traveling from a colder America to a tropical India and looking like a cartoon, with socks, sweater, cotton in ears, and a running nose, saying, “It’s so cold here!” every few minutes. And NRI inanities “Oh! But I have room heaters at my home. I am sooo not used to walking on the no carpet concrete with no house slippers in a cold house! Every faucet, in America has a cold water/ hot water alternative you know! I have heaters in my car and in my office. I never get exposed to the cold climate as such!” While my aunt and uncle gave me a new perspective on married life. A typical Indian family has offices and schools to attend to, clean water to fill at 4 am in the morning, dishes to clean, clothes to wash, get the kids ready for school, have breakfast, and get the entire family out before 8 am sharp. I gave them something too. My 10 year old niece has picked up my American ”Ya!” for an answer. So it’s a “Ya! I am done with my homework” and “Ya! I am going out to play”, a “Ya!” for every question that needs a British “Yes!” for an answer. A quick transition from Queen’s English you see!
Day 8: Back to Hyderabad on the bus. As we were all about to step out of the house, someone switched on the TV for early morning news. All hell broke loose. ‘The separate Telangana movement has declared a bandh today. Buses will not be allowed to ply from Karimnagar’, said the news reader. Within a few minutes my panic stricken parents called from Hyderabad. “Do not travel today. Stay there as long as possible. It’s ok. Who knows what may happen?” Cool as a cucumber my aunt said, “Why don’t you come along with me to my school. I will send you home during lunch by which time the movement will slow down” she said. Now that sounded like a plan. So I went with my aunt to the government (zilla parishad) school in a village in Karimnagar. Before I entered the campus, my aunt advised me to cover up enough so that I was not exposing even half an inch of my skin. Oh! Oh! This could influence kids!! If my uncle’s town was Arkansas, this was Louisiana. The kids were writing their annual exams by squatting in the hot sun outside the classrooms. There was only one lizard infested toilet which was reserved for teachers. Don’t ask me what the students did for their needs. One high school girl was being accorded disciplinary action because she was found sitting in a classroom all alone with a fellow boy student. Ah! Indian teenagers, if only you knew what American teenagers get away with. I realized how our Indian public system was as feeble as a candle light. Imagine, offices being closed in America because of a movement. Imagine a headline in CNN, ‘The gay movement protestors pledged not to allow cars to ply on the interstate today unless their needs were heard’. Ever heard of that? Anyway, the protest movement lasted for 2 hours. I was home by 3 o’clock ready to pack my bags for my next trip. I was at Vanasthalipuram, to my in-laws home by Monday night.
Day 9: Tuesday-Himayatnagar, Hyderabad. I made an early morning trip from Vanasthalipuram to Himayatnagar for ‘The Great Cousin Reunion’. So here I was, in my husband’s family. Surrounded by his aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, cousins’ kids, kid’s toys, and friends. Each of his aunt, uncle, cousin, and grandparent had a Kiran tale to tell. Tales, which I had already heard, tales told before our wedding, during our wedding, after our wedding, tales repeated by my husband, by my brother-in-law, by my mother-in-law, tales which refused to die down. After asserting (in vain) “I have heard that one”, a number of times, I resigned. I was all ears, I heard, acknowledged, and laughed. My end of the conversations were mostly single lines-”No I don’t want to drink coffee or tea, No! I don’t want to drink milk or horlicks. Oh no! I don’t want a brunch now. I had breakfast only 30 minutes ago. No! No! I don’t want to eat pickle or chutney”. We played, laughed, and ate together.
Everything was going well until the moment the question of motherhood popped. So what now? Should I donate my egg to my husband’s sperm out of mere parental pressure? Should I say goodbye to my independence just because every cousin of his is laying eggs-I mean producing children. In India life is determined with only 2 sets of questions-it all starts with, is it a girl or a boy, then, when you are 16 you are asked- MPC or BiPC, then, engineering or medicine, then, are you getting a job or flying to the US, then, are you getting arranged married or love married, and then, are you reproducing within a month or within a year, and then, a girl or a boy and so life continues. Aiswarya Rai Bacchan se Mallika Kiran tak-the pressure is the same, the question is the same – When are you going to start a family?’ …. to be continued. Read Hyderabad Blues – II, The Big Fat Indian Homecoming