Let’s Take Sides: An Immigrant American’s Perspective

We came to this land with two suitcases each, a head full of dreams, with memories of another life, and blank pages of a life to be written. We didn’t have any specific reason to leave other than to have an adventure in our (still) youngish lives, travel some, and make some money. Benign, almost touristy, shallow reasons.

But once we had lived here for a few years, slowly, slowly, the reasons unveiled themselves in layers, and became apparent.

Firstly, the creature comforts. The conveniences. The things that were a given here, some of which were a daily struggle back where we came from – such as fine roads, free public libraries, the medical system – yes, even as broken as it is here, it’s still a hundred times better than where we come from.

As I traveled with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old back to my homeland for the first time, I fretted about being able to find milk for my babies in the middle of the night!

The kids started going to school. I watched Sesame Street and Barney with them, and immersed myself in the American culture. A cookie is a biscuit. What is Maths back home is Math here. The kids were in grades, not “standard” – as in 1st grade vs. 1st standard. Mr. Rogers was an angelic, friendly, inclusive “neighbor” who asked me every day if I would be his lovely neighbor. What was not to love! I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House On The Prairie series with my daughter, and absolutely loved it. It gave me a sense of the early settlers and their lives that no history book could have.

Of course, it wasn’t all roses. There were a few thorns – the moms in my daughter’s ballet class who didn’t want my daughter playing with their girls. One mom in particular comes to mind – she didn’t want my daughter hanging out with hers, apparently, because we lived in an apartment. I came to know of this through a mutual friend, who happened to be American, married to a Brit, and who loved our family and my food. Another mom commented, “It smells funny, like curry,” when I walked in to the moms’ waiting area in gymnastics class. It wasn’t me, because I smelled it too, and I made sure my clothes never smelled of cooking – it was another lady. But it was clearly directed at me simply because I looked the part.

I also found great friendships in a Math Bowl club at my daughter’s elementary school that one of the moms and I started, coached, and got 2nd place for the school. There were white kids, Asian kids, and black kids who were all my children’s friends. My kids played tennis. They played after school in the neighborhood. My son joined T-ball, and later, baseball.

I learned baseball with him, and found that it was not one bit like cricket, despite the popular misconception. I had been hearing the phrase for years, but finally understood what “heads up” meant, and its origin. I tried explaining the differences between baseball and cricket to my American coworkers, after I got the hang of it. My coworkers (not ‘colleagues,’ as one of them snickered in a friendly manner) were incredulous, and the discussions didn’t lead anywhere near an agreement or understanding of cricket, but were seriously hilarious, awesome bridge-building sessions, complete with white boarding.

“You score hundreds of runs? That’s crazy!” (“Yes.  You are out after 3 strikes? What fun is that?”).

“You play for 5 days? Who works?” (“Not anymore, sadly – it’s all one day matches. And we manage work/school and 5 days of cricket very well, thank you.”)

The teachers at the elementary school my children went to treated me with respect.  And a little bit of friendly and appropriate cultural curiosity led to several “Show and Tell” presentations for the 3rd graders. My daughter recently discovered an “Honorary Member” certificate of Mrs. Eden’s 3rd grade class, awarded to me, one of my treasured possessions from my children’s elementary school years. One of the teachers, Mrs. Brown, loved the chutney sandwiches I packed for my kids and some days, I would pack extra sandwiches for her. I like to think the curiosity at the lunch table didn’t embarrass my kids, though they always said no to rice because it was a bit tedious to eat. Fair enough; they wanted to talk more, and spend less time on eating.

My children enjoyed school, and flourished. This was the definitive signal that we had made the right decision by staying and becoming residents of this wonderful experiment called America.

There were more positive affirmations along the way. There was the coffee shop guy at the Chicago airport. We were in line, and right behind us, a white guy came along – he looked like a business traveler. The coffee shop guy tried to serve him ahead of us. The white guy gently, but firmly told him, “I think these guys were here before me.” In that instant, with that small act of fairness, in the fairly inconsequential life event of getting coffee at an airport, he became a hero to me. (Ironically, the coffee shop guy wasn’t white – I couldn’t place his region of origin, but he was definitely not white.)

And then 9/11 happened. For the first time, we felt people staring at us, as if unsure of what to think of us. Someone threw a bag of feces at our garage door. We felt shook up, and scared, in addition to the unbelievable sense of shock and sadness that 9/11 could and did happen here. My daughter mentioned the incident at school. And the next day, a Volvo came and parked in our driveway, and out walked Mrs. Patrick, with a plate of cookies. She was the mother of a classmate of my daughter’s. She said this to me: “Lata, I wanted people in this street to see that a white person is parked in your driveway, and has come to share some chocolate chip cookies with your family.” Or something to that effect. I was overwhelmed. The sheriff who lived down our street patrolled the streets to make sure whoever did it got the message that it wasn’t right, and that law enforcement was onto them. Protecting anyone who has been a victim to a crime, even if they’re immigrants, even if the perpetrator is an American.

It is this sense of fairness, of doing the right thing, of being there for the underdog that I loved love about this country, and the people of this country.

We chose to become citizens of this wonderful country and proudly vote in every election. Because we care about this country. The country of immigrants. Of opportunity.

And along the way, as I learned more of the history of this country, I happened to watch “Mississippi Burning” one weekend on cable. I had been through a number of Black History months, and several MLK days and kind of thought I understood racism and segregation as it had happened here. But this movie made it real. Maybe the visual impact? The water fountains marked “colored” and “white” sent a shiver down my spine. The unease lasted for a few days. It was like discovering someone you love and idealize has an ugly side that you never imagined in a million years they were capable of having. It rocks your core and shakes your foundation and makes you question everything. I made sure my children watched the movie with me.

I got over the shock eventually, but understood the pain of racism, the hardcore hatred, and the black perspective to some extent. I breathed a sigh of relief that this was in the past, and said a small prayer of gratitude that my beloved America is not like that anymore.

Ha! But of late, the other shadowy face of this country is making itself known more and more. The joy we felt at the inauguration of the first black president dulled a bit with the sorrow that was Trayvon Martin–the plain, puerile, vitriolic hatred based on skin color. Race. Religion. I have seen it making not just the first-generation immigrants like us, but ones who have been in this country for several generations, uncomfortable, sad, and outraged. I saw shades of “Mississippi Burning” during the election campaign in 2016 and realized that those feelings had not disappeared post segregation. They had simply gone underground and were breaking through again in a climate that promised nourishment and revival.

But, I still believe in this country, and believe that the America we have come to love, cherish, be a part of, and fight for is not lost, and will emerge successfully out of this brief eclipse.

But for that to happen, there needs to be moral outrage on the part of everyone. This is not the time to be uninvolved or stay neutral.

In the words of Eli Weisel, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

Let’s take sides. It’s really that simple.

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Read this on Huffington Post

 

 

Strings That Tug At Your Heart

Once upon a time, there was a little boy who was the most active, mischievous, and funny little boy in all the world. He loved to play, have fun, and laugh all the time.

The little boy’s mom was crazy about music. She hoped her kids, a little girl, and the boy, would grow to love music just as she did, growing up with music as she herself had. “Vividha Bharathi” in the mornings for Hindi and Tamil songs from movies, Ceylon Radio while doing homework, and haunting Carnatic instrumental at night that her parents/grandparents liked to play right before bedtime. She imbibed most of the classical songs she knows not from lessons, but through listening without even knowing she was listening. Music was, is, the constant in her life through the good times, and the bad, especially the bad. Music gave voice to her emotions when she couldn’t.

Therefore, she had this (annoying to the kids) habit of always playing music – Indian film, Indian classical, western popular, jazz, … – in the car, at home, and everywhere.

The boy, who didn’t look like he was paying any attention to the different kinds of music, would surprise her every once in a while by singing a Tamil movie song, pitch perfect. He was not yet 5. The girl, who was learning to play the piano, composed a little endearing piece that she named “Contrary Motions” on the piano when she was 7 years old. Mom was thrilled to bits.

When the boy was 5, mom decided he was ready to start music lessons and chose violin.  And thus started 5 years of fighting before every class. The boy would come home from school, having finished what little homework he had at school, drop the backpack, have a snack and run out to play with his neighborhood friends until it was dark. Mom dragged him to his violin lessons once a week, kicking and screaming, away from his playmates. But once he got there, he was okay. His teacher could tell he was good, but didn’t really enjoy the lessons especially in the warmer months when he longed to be outside, and the winter months when he loved to play in the snow.

His first violin recital was plucking just 3 notes, (G-D-G) with a little foot stomping after the 3rd note. He looked adorable in his white shirt, hair all combed back, and a pint sized violin – the smallest there was. His little heart was stressed before the performance, but ace it he did, especially with the foot stomping after the 3rd note, bringing the house down. Afterwards, he came running to mom, and fell asleep on her shoulder immediately, not even touching the cookies his teacher had made.

His violin lessons continued until he was ten, when he entered middle school and he could choose an instrument of his choice, offered through the school band. He chose the trumpet, mostly as an act of rebellion, but excelled at it too.  He was first chair in the high school band, and was a member of the city’s youth symphony orchestra. Mom was just happy he was still playing music.

Dad especially loved it when, some nights, he sat at the top of the stairs, after lights out, and played soulful music on his trumpet.

Over the years, even though the music lessons stopped, mom and son continued to bond over music– the Beatles, the theme music from the West Wing, Godfather, to name a few. They once sang to an entire album of The Beatles on a late night drive home from Indy to Muncie.

Fast forward 13 years. The boy is now working, after his undergrad, and living away from home. One day, he calls mom and dad and says he has a surprise for them. Mom holds her breath. The surprise was this: he was starting music lessons again. And the instrument was…not violin, as mom had guessed but close. He chose mandolin.

He loves it. And facetimes mom and dad so they can hear him practice. The first piece he’s learning is the Wedding Tarantella. Mom requests he also learn “Speak softly” from The Godfather – both their favorite. And some Beatles songs. Michelle. He looks up sheet music online and tries them out while on the phone, and promises he would call for more practice sessions on facetime.

This mom is thrilled and is looking forward to, as the boy puts it, “wow mom we can now bond over the Beatles in a different way”.

 

On Fear Of Fears

Conquering your demons. Fears. Phobia. Whatever you call it, I am talking about that thing that nags you at 4 am in the morning. It could be something small  (why can’t I make a decent biryani), or it can be climbing Mt Everest. I have them, and assume (read: hope) you do. In all sizes, shapes, and forms.

And as I get older – if only I get a nickel for every time I say that! – I have been making an effort to knock these out one at a time. See how many of these I can get rid of in this lifetime.

When I was not quite ten, I used to be afraid of the dark. My mom’s best friends lived in the house across the street and after dinner most nights, she would go to their house and chat with them while my dad was at work (he used to work in shifts). Sometimes I would need to come back home to get something. This meant crossing the small residential street to go across to our house (which was the top portion of the house that we rented from folks who owned the house), climb the stairs, and walk across an open terrace to reach our portion. The second floor (or the first floor as they call in India, and the first floor is called the ground floor) contained just the bedrooms of the owners, so there would normally be nobody at that time, and therefore no lights. The terrace would be usually lit by the light of the moon. I used to be terrified to go alone but over time, I reasoned to myself that there really was nothing to be afraid of, of course ghosts weren’t real, and would make the trip and back to mom.

One of my cousins also told me recently that she thought I was very cool because I used to wade in the farthest when we went to the Marina beach in Madras.

I was jolted into being aware of my many fears when a friend casually, and not at all in a mean way, commented that I had a lot of fears when I froze in fear at her 5 lb dog. Fear of the dark, fear of water, fear of heights, dogs, rollercoasters (yep, I’m not so much fun, but I’m great for watching your stuff while you have fun), and for a very brief, but scary time, fear of highways that I talked myself out of—fears that somehow crept up in my adult life, fears that didn’t exist in my childhood, or my adolescent days.

I have finally completely gotten rid of the fear of dogs (at least the domesticated, pet kind) when my daughter brought this little guy into our lives. Now I have gone to the other extreme, and scare away friends with photos of Kashew, and have become that person who seeks out dog owners to pet their dogs on walks, and is constantly sharing dog videos to my family.

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I also learned to finally completely ride a bicycle a couple of years back, with my son’s help – read all about it here. What can we call this fear—fear of balancing? (“what do you mean, completely ride a bicycle?” Well, before that, I never was actually sure I rode it myself – someone may have been holding on and I sometimes wonder if I did really ride at all.)

So last weekend, when lunch plans came up, an opportunity presented itself to face one of those fears head on. This is not so much a fear, but a social awkwardness. Raj had some appointment, and I didn’t feel like cooking or eating left overs. And I was really really in the mood for a pancake. So, I told Raj I would pick up a pancake from a local pancake place.

Raj: Pick it up and eat in the car? Why don’t you eat it there?

Me: Eat it there? By myself? All alone? In a public place?

Raj: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Well, I don’t like eating by myself if I can help it. Eating is a social thing for me. I can do breakfast by myself, at home, but that’s about it. When Raj travels, I try not to cook and make do with something I eat over the sink for the same reason. I grew up in a family where at each meal there was a guaranteed minimum six people. For 26 years. And I never really got used to eating alone.

As for lunches, I can do a smoothie on the run by myself if I’m running errands. But for lunches I need at least one more person, unless I’m working through lunch and eating at my desk which is not very often.

But to eat by myself in public? Doesn’t that mean I’m friendless and uncool? But the said opportunity got in my face, looked at me square in the eye and dared me.

So I went, armed with my phone and my ipad as a backup in case the phone died. As luck would have it, at the restaurant they said it would be a 40 minute wait and I almost sighed in relief. See, I’d tell Raj, it wasn’t my fault, I was ready to do it, but it was a 40-minute wait and I was too hungry.

But then, they said wait! There is a community table (I shuddered). If we can find you a place, you’re in.

At first it seemed like the worst idea. But on second thought, this was actually a great “dip a toe in” kind of situation. I would sit with total strangers, and if anyone looked funny at me, I would pretend I had come with one of them.

The community table was a high table that had 8 seats and six were occupied. One vacant seat across another lady, and one with a set of 3 frat-looking boys. I chose the one across from a lady who looked like she had come alone, and hoped she wouldn’t leave while I was still eating (which she did).

After I placed the order (one humongous multigrain pancake, and a kale tonic), I got busy with my phone. A few minutes in, I looked up to see what all the people who had come with friends/family were doing. Cool, everyone was on their phone. Hey! This ain’t so bad, after all. I didn’t feel out of place at all.

When the food came, I actually put the phone down, and ate, people watching. And found that it wasn’t as awkward or uncomfortable as I had imagined—even after my imaginary friend across left while I was still eating. Nobody looked at me funny, or with pity.

That’s one more down. With about 97 to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Birthday Letter To My Daughter

Hi baby,

There was a time, long long ago,  when I was your world and you were mine.

When you would sleep in the crook of my arm, my warmth like a protective blanket around your tiny body.

When you were obsessed with Barney the dinosaur, and we lived it – I was Lucy and you were Tina, and we played the big sis-little sis characters all day long.

When you were fascinated by the book “Are You My Mother” by Dr Seuss, the first book I ever read to you. At nine months. You didn’t understand it then, of course, but would sit still in my lap for hours, making me read it over and over again. It became your favorite book.

When you came home from Montessori, crying “amma, Mica called me a watermelon”. And we learned Sandia meant watermelon in Spanish.

When you asked me “Who’s coming home, amma?” seeing my frenzied cleaning of the house. In my defense, I was pregnant with Ad, and living with a wise cracking 18 month old who spoke in complete sentences since she was a year old.

When you were fascinated with numbers, and I was partly shocked/partly amazed that someone who had come out of me had (and still has) a favorite number. 8!

(On that note, this year, your and my age are inverse of each other – ha!)

When I knew of and could control every outside influence in your life, and keep you safe and warm.

Do I wish for those days back? Some days, yes.

But if I am honest with myself, I think I am done missing your childhood. Because, as an adult, you’re even more fun!

Top Reasons Why I Love Having A Grownup Daughter

I love that you and I can grab a drink now and then, and just be cool! Go to a bar if we want to, although I’m no fun after 10.

We can have mature, adult conversations where I come to you now with all my problems, and you analyze it like the psych student that you are, and tell me to get my act together.

I love that we laugh about people and things – Appa, also other things and people, and ourselves. But mostly appa.

I love that you let me borrow your clothes, sometimes! Some people will no doubt think this is atrocious. Who cares!

I have always enjoyed shopping for you, but now I love shopping with you. (Remember the purple French beret that you refused to wear? I still have it, saved for your child, whether it’s a boy or a girl)

It’s so much fun to dissect the dynamics/interactions after a party, and find that we mostly saw the same things!

I love that you’re venturing out of your basic food groups of more kozhambu, fried potato, and Taco Bell 🙂 Onward and upward to the likes of coconut rice, and korma! Maybe one day you will like pulav?

I love the dedication and the caring that you show for your chosen path in life. And I love that you know that it is what you want. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life! Kudos to you, kiddo!

I love that you are such a good mommy to Kashew. You’ll make an amazing mom to a two-legged, human baby when you have one!

But mostly, I love that you have come back to me – for a while there in your late teens, it felt like you were far away!

You are an amazing human being, and I wish for you to achieve everything that you deserve – and do it with grace, kindness and humor, with good health, and the love of friends and family.

Happy Happy Birthday, Kannamma!

Lots of love,

Amma

 

 

Stupid Stuff I Have Done

Read this In Huffington Post

Young, naïve, and stupid:

Getting my head stuck between two bars, at a friend’s friend’s place, where I had wandered off by myself to their terrace, and looking down to see what they were all up to. I must have been 8. I did eventually wiggle my head out of the bars…yep, no cell phones back then and I didn’t even know the person whose house I was in. Ah! To be young and not afraid of embarrassment.

Throwing coins at a hungry dog who was chasing me, for the bread in my other hand, and running…

Leading a group of girls in performing Ganesh puja after school, at school, and getting caught. I will never forget the disappointed look on the principal’s face. I was in 6th grade, I think. Not a clue why I did this (maybe rebellion?) – it wasn’t out of love for Ganesha, or pujas, heck I was barely 12 years old…but I have to laugh that my illegal activity was leading a few girls in a spiritual activity. Not smoking, or other such normal stuff.

Doing homework for a mean girl at school because she said she wouldn’t talk to me otherwise…(elementary school!!) Although, this habit of doing anything for a perceived friendship continues in a milder intensity even now, but I’m getting somewhat better at recognizing it and applying the brakes…

(Thank you to the friends who encourage me to not give a damn with those kinds of friends. You know who you are!)

Not applying to a really good school for the +2 years of my schooling (11 & 12th grades) which my grandfather had asked me to, because the school’s uniform was a mustard color sari.

(Irony: ended up in a school, whose uniform was green skirt, mustard blouse and green half saree. Don’t even ask about the sports uniform! Hideous. I could not buy anything green for a very long time… also, grandfather yelled at me for a good one hour)

I should know better. Right? In my twenties, thirties and beyond…

Calling a taxi to go to the airport in New Delhi, at 4 am, and going alone because I didn’t want to wake up/ ask any of my 5 male coworkers that early. Got a good “what kind of an idiot are you” lecture from said coworkers. This is probably one of the most dangerous stupid things I’ve done in my life, considering the reputation of Delhi as the rape capital of India.

Driving in blinding rain with my driver’s side window down, because dammit, I couldn’t see a thing! Engine got flooded, family laughed for years.

(I like to think Raj looked at this as endearing, and I-love-Lucy-esque. Like the episode where she’s sewing something on a carpet, and sews it on to the carpet.)

Dropping my brand new ipod in the tub. It was attached to the headphones, which were attached to my head. And I moved…

Ordering to a trash can at a Taco Bell drive through while my daughter sat there dying in the passenger seat, laughing.

Forgetting to order in the drive through line at Starbucks, and going all the way to the payment window, while my daughter is cringing in the passenger seat and begging me to just skip it.

Was so busy yelling at my daughter for something, while getting out of a parking garage, and hitting the yellow parking cones. The expression on her face and the laughter that followed was priceless!

Watering a silk orchid. For weeks. Until my son watched me once, and asked “ma, you know that’s a fake, right?” SMH.

Those are all the memorable ones. I’m sure there are countless others I’ve blocked out. My daughter is reminding about the stupid conversation on Pinocchio that my husband and I had recently. Not a clue what she’s talking about.

Oh and I almost forgot.

Writing it all down for the whole world to read… and hopefully get a good laugh. I did.

 

 

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Even the dog is rolling his eyes!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Post On Raj

Everyone who knows me well knows I like lists. So here goes a list of my favorite things about the most important person in my life, on his birthday. The list kept growing, and I had to cut it short to make sure someone’s head doesn’t 😉 just kidding, darling!

Top Reasons Why I Love Raj

  • I love that you have a sense of humor and can take the constant ragging by me and the kids.
  • Also love that you don’t give up on making corny jokes despite all the groaning. And the bad singing. Although have to say, the jokes are starting to grow on us!
  • Love that you are there for me through all my drama ventures like a rock and I can always count on your unwavering, loving, kind support, guidance, and your willingness to roll up your sleeves and help me with whatever I need, no questions asked, no judgment passed, just pure unconditional love
  • Love that you get me flowers when you know I’m upset – no words needed
  • For being the best father for our children, for providing them with the best opportunities
  • For being a nerd, and for making a lot of our vacations partly museum forays which the kids appreciate now, for nurturing open discussions on any topic at the dinner table
  • For taking a genuine personal interest in pretty much everyone you meet and not in a calculating, “what can I get from this relationship” way; especially people who worked for/with you, and caring deeply about their families, and their troubles
  • For being such a kid magnet, and the way you just adore and play with little kids and babies; at your age, it must be exhausting 🙂
  • For being an inspiration and a role model to me and the kids to be better human beings
  • I feel incredibly fortunate that in all our disagreements over 27 years, you have never once made me feel small or humiliated, and have always made it safe for us to have open discussions on anything and everything
  • I love that after 26 years, you still say thank you when I make a really good meal! Or just a good cup of ginger tea.
    • Corollary: In the early days of our marriage, when I was a newly-let-loose-in-the-kitchen-bride, and didn’t know how to make that most basic food of south Indians namely rice, or couldn’t tell the difference between toor dhal and channa dhal, you never complained and ate anything I made (not that you had a choice) – be it the rasam which was basically tamarind water with chili powder, or the burnt offerings I put on the table fairly regularly. In fact, you started to prefer the burnt toast, curries, dosai, and anything else I could burn.

Your tolerance allowed me to grow into the decent cook I am now!

  • Also: Did I mention you are mature, drama-free, have absolutely no ego issues, non-reactionary, read manuals and follow instructions, make coffee in the mornings, take my car for oil changes and maintenance when that orange light comes on (I still don’t know what that means), didn’t yell at me when I flooded the car’s engine driving in the rain with the window down (it was raining heavily, and come on, I couldn’t see), or dropped the brand new ipod you got me for my birthday in the tub the very first day, secure enough to sometimes watch the Real housewives with me and actually get involved in the stories, planted a whole row of lavenders because you know I love lavender (and I may have demanded it), and…you do so much more that I cannot list everything!
  • In general, you treat me like a queen, even when I don’t feel like one or deserve to be treated as one

Finally, I love that you are you –  kind, funny, and intelligent. Core values that we share.

I pray that our children are as fortunate as me; and they find/have someone just like you in their lives.

May all your dreams come true – every book read, every project finished, and every place you want to travel to, traveled.

Happy birthday, my Rasa!

 

 

 

 

The Nine Stages Of Navratri

Refurbished an older post for Navratri 2016.

Hope you enjoy it!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/57df119be4b04fa361d99de8?timestamp=1474241114891

 

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