I wrote this story 18 years ago and it was published on an indian blog site called Sulekha. It is a true story from my life that I rewrote as “historical fiction”. I hope you enjoy it.
Her mom watched her from the big living room window. Sita always felt comforted that she could look up and see the small, round face giving her warmth as she waited at the bus stop across the street. Most days she wished that she could stay at home with her mom and pad around all day in her foot pajamas while helping with the chores. Sometimes she asked but her mom would just smile and say, “Sita, school is fun isn’t it? You get to read, do math and play with all of your friends.” Mom didn’t know that school was usually fun, but sometimes it was lonely and scary. It was much nicer to be at home where everyone loved you no matter what.
The bus stop was a big rock on the corner of the Wilson’s property. Every morning her mom would help with the big backpack that seemed to engulf her 60-pound frame and her Bernstein Bear lunchbox, kiss her cheek and watch as she crossed the street. Sita’s friend, Lily, would get on at the next stop. They always had fun on the bus together because Lily had this neat electronic calculator that you could play games on! Once Lily got on the bus Sita had someone to talk to. At the bus stop no-one paid any attention to Sita because all of the girls were in the 4th and 5th grades while she was only in the 2nd grade.
Sita lived in Allentown, Pennsylvania with her sister Anu and her parents. They were the only Indian family on the street, actually the only Indians for miles around. Her parents had emigrated from India six years ago and had recently moved from West Virginia. Sita’s mother Lakshmi wore a sari every day and was a stay-at-home mom. She was a great mom. On cold, snowy afternoons, her mom would make the yummiest hot chocolate in Allentown. All the kids loved it. Her dad worked at a big company where he was an engineer. Sita didn’t know what the word, “engineer”, meant, but she knew it was very important because daddy got up very early every morning and went to work in his white Volvo station wagon. Daddy prayed to Lord Srinivasa every morning. She liked that because he burned sandalwood incense, the kind of incense that floated up into the bedrooms and made the house even warmer and toastier on cold mornings. He also used this interesting oil lamp that each morning required the cutting and rolling of a wick. She loved watching him meticulously roll the wick between his fingers and moisten it with cooking oil that her mom kept on the bottom shelf of the kitchen cabinet. Sometimes she or her sister Anu was allowed to roll it and her father would patiently wait in his white cotton dhoti with a smile on his face.
This morning was like any other at the bus stop; Sita smelled of residual incense and the talcum powder her mom liked to put on her chest. The powder was called Cuticura, and it smelled deliciously like India. As she grew older she would still find herself going through phases of wearing that powder just so she could feel closer to her mother and her country.
On this cold afternoon, Sita was standing alone watching all of the big girls swish their blond hair and smooth down their pretty clothes. Sita’s mom had made her wear her pink hat and matching mittens. Every winter mom knitted new one’s for her, she liked this year’s because Anu had a matching set. Anu was too little to go to school, as she was only one year old. Sometimes mom would hold Anu while she watched at the window. Today her mom was alone at the window and Sita looked over and waved. Mom pointed up to the sky, and as Sita looked up she felt the sprinkling of new snow on her face. She smiled at her mom as the bus pulled up and took them all to school.
That afternoon the snow really began to fall and by the end of the day, it was a full-scale blizzard. Everyone talked about how it might be a snow day tomorrow. Sita was very excited because snow days meant no school and playing all day! The next morning she and her mom listened anxiously to the radio, but Allentown Elementary was not called out. School was still in session. Dejected, Sita got herself ready for school. Mom helped her put on thermal underwear and her big scarf and she marched out to the bus stop. The snow was falling fast and all of the kids were shivering.
“Brrrr,” Sita thought, “I can’t wait for the bus to come”.
Mom watched her from her seat in the warm, toasty living room. Sita was thinking about how nice it would be if she could wait inside with mom or if she should wait for the bus when Julie Wilson came running up. “Hey everyone, my mom said that we can all wait up on our porch since it’s covered, ” she yelled. Sita followed as everyone gathered up their things and started walking up the path. She was about a quarter of the way up when Julie came up to her side.
“Umm, Seeetta?” she said.
“Yes?” smiled Sita.
“My mom says that you can’t come up to our porch because your parents are weird,” she stated matter-of-factly and ran up the walk.
Sita just stood there for a second. Even at six years old, she knew what Julie had said was not very nice. Confused and a little hurt, she turned and slowly walked back to the rock. She looked at the porch, all the kids seemed to be staring at her so she turned her face down and pretended to be examining her lunchbox. “What is wrong with me?” she thought, “why do they think that my parents are weird?” Sita began to think, was it the music daddy listened to, or the food that they ate? She was upset because everything Indian seemed so normal, ok maybe mommy wore saris instead of slacks and her hair was in a long braid instead of feathered and dyed but she was a pretty mommy anyway! Suddenly, the garage door across the street opened and the brown Nova that her mom drove pulled out. Sita watched as her mom drove directly up to the rock and opened the passenger door. “Come on honey,” she said “mommy is driving you to school today, won’t that be fun?” Sita looked at her sister sitting in the bassinet/car seat in the back and smiled.
“Yes mommy! How exciting, you never drive me to school, can we pick up Lily on the way?” “Sure rani (princess),” her mom replied as she frowned in the direction of the porch.
Sita thought nothing of Mom’s look. In fact, she forgot all about that day until one rainy afternoon eight years later. She was 14 and her family now lived in Auburn, California. A “friend” of hers was making fun of Indians. She said that they were weird because they decorated elephants for holidays and wore weird “spots” on their foreheads. Sita and her mother were deep in conversation.
“Why mom?” Sita was asking “it’s 1984, not 1950, I thought kids these days were taught to respect other cultures?”
“Oh, Sita,” her mom sighed. “Don’t you remember the bus stop when you were six?”
“What are you talking about mom?” Sita said, annoyed.
She couldn’t remember what relevance a bus stop would have in this situation. After her mother relayed the story, Sita was incensed.
“Well Mom, what did you do? Did you go and tell off Mrs. Wilson for being mean and cruel to a CHILD?”
“I mean, remember when we first moved to California and Matt Grindon kept calling me an Iranian and saying that we were responsible for the hostage crisis and should get out of town?”
Sita took a long breath and continued, “as I recall, Dad went over and talked to his father so the next day Mark came, apologized and told me that he knew that Iranians and Indians were different and that what he had said was bad.”
Sita looked sharply at her mother and asked, “what was the difference between the situation with Mark and the one with the Wilson’s?”
“So much honey,” her mom replied, “your dad and I talked and decided that the best thing to do would be to say nothing but never acknowledge those people and whenever it snowed hard to drive you to school.”
Sita was silent.
Her mother took the silence as a reply and continued, “the situation with Mark was dealing with a child’s perceptions and the bus stop incident was a problem with adults.” “You see, you cannot reason with those types of actions, so you must just be the greater soul and learn from it,” she concluded gently.
Sita was infuriated. Her parents could be so passive at times! Her mom smiled at her anger and walked out of her bedroom only to emerge a few minutes later with two books, one was Gandhi’s autobiography and the other, that of Martin Luther King Jr.
“These are two people who dealt with tremendous adversity with what you would call passivity,” her mom said.
Sita glanced at the books and looked up at her mom, perplexed. “These are REAL issues mom,” she said, “and you bring me books!”
“You would be surprised at how much books can teach you Sita,” her mother replied.
“But mom, how am I supposed to use their example for my daily life? ”
Sita was beginning to feel as though this were a generation gap thing, perhaps her mom just didn’t get it, after all she was raised in India where everyone was just like her, maybe she never had to deal with the types of situations that Sita frequently found herself in.
She thought of another example to help her mother understand, “remember when I was in grade school and all of the kids called me Dexter because I had straight A’s? You told me to say that I was proud to be a Dexter and that way I would be ABOVE the teasing. It didn’t work.” Sita looked at her mother pointedly.
“It never seems to work Sita,” said her mom, “but it does, it works here,” and she pointed to her heart.
The conversation went on for hours over tea and cookies and the topic would arise many more times in different ways, in Sita’s life. She would read those books again and again until tattered and worn they sat like old friends on her bookshelf. Sometimes she would pray to Lord Krishna and ask for understanding, other times she would feel very alone in the world. As she grew older she began to understand the power of silence and the nature of people. Some are good, some are bad, and some just won’t let you stand on their porch in a blizzard. You just have to choose your battles, and your silence.