Bookish behavior

My Mother used to read to me when I was a child. I remember the softness of her sari as I nestled against her. She smelled like her favorite perfume (whichever that was at the moment) and Indian sandalwood powder. I would sit as close to her as I could. Later, as I grew older, too old in my mind to sit so close, I would wish for those times again. Being close to your mother, both physically and emotionally are safe feelings. I don’t think anyone has ever made me feel safe that way again – it’s now my place to provide that safety for my children.

I don’t remember my favorite book as a child because I liked so many. I have a handful that I remember: “Follow my Leader”, “A Room for Cathy”, “The Miracle Worker”. They all had a similar theme: Someone was an underdog, downtrodden, in need. Later I became fascinated with thrilling “junk” stories, John Saul, Stephen King. And as I entered what I called my “dark period” I began reading Edgar Allen Poe exclusively.

We traveled to India frequently as I was growing up (every other year or so) and I began to collect books from there as well. Usually we would have to pack the suitcases with many of my books in each one to balance the load. It wasn’t surprising for me to bring back at least 20 large texts. Any Indian of my generation would know Amar Chitra Katha (w.amarchitrakatha.com/us/) , the comic like books that told stories of the kings and queens of Indian history, and the Gods and Goddesses alike. Early on I learned much of my Indian history from these tales. As I grew older, I began collecting various versions of the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Bhagavatam, Gandhi autobiographies, and Rabindranath Tagore poetry. I would duck into bookstores in Chennai, and beg for more books to take home with me. My many uncles and aunts would oblige me one book each.

Those stories stayed with me, such that when I was a camp counselor at UCLA Unicamp years later as a junior in college, I would tell the stories of the Mahabharata to my group of eight year old boys. They would ask every night, “another Indian story please!” And in that way I was able to teach them a bit about my culture as well as the outdoors.

As I grew older my favorite book became Little Women. Interesting that a book steeped in Christianity appealed to this Hindu American – but I also loved to read the Bible, which to me was akin to reading one of our Indian religious tales. I don’t know why, but to this day I call Little Women my “comfort food” book. Something about Jo spoke to me. Perhaps it was her scribbling suit, or her pet rat, or just the sister love within the book itself. It’s difficult even now, after reading it hundreds of times, to articulate well what brings me joy from that book. But, a good 35 years after I first read it, after a hard day at work, or a difficult time with my kids, my hands still reach for Little Women.

Now that I read to my toddler again, I find myself gravitating to old favorites, “Miss Suzy”, “Mog the Forgetful Cat” and others. But new books have also entered our sphere, “The Sound of Colors”, “The Blue Stone”, “Christina Katerina and the Box.” My ten-year old son is crazy about books, he reads them again and again, and I love buying them for him. I’m a fiend against clutter, but somehow piles of books don’t bother me at all. They exude warmth, coziness, and peace.

Reading has always been a solace, a place to hide, a place to rest my overactive mind, a place to disappear into another world. Books have always beckoned me. Some more than others, but like my son, I can read anything and disappear – a cereal box, a newspaper, a book, and be entertained. In this world of instant gratification, I still believe that nothing is better than a good book. Books taught me all about a culture that I was raised away from. And they made me love that culture, its color, its flavor, its joy. I still have the amar chitra katha tales – I’ve since passed them on to my son. And my Ramayana sits beside my bed on top of Little Women. In the deep evening when it’s time to rest, I still love to read those old favorites, or a new book, that thrusts me into its world and surrounds me with its silence.

 

 

What is an American?

With the current political climate, and everything that I’ve been reading lately, I have to wonder, what does it mean to be American?  I used to think that words to describe Americans were: inclusive, hard working, diplomatic, democratic. Is this still true?

When I was in grade school I learned about the new settlers to this country, and I read about it romantically. The hardship! The loss! The struggle! The bravery! We learned the poetry by heart, we cherished the flag, for these were stories that set the stage for our country. But then I learned about the mass murders of native Americans, and slavery.  I learned about people who were so racist that they would murder another just because of the color of their skin.  I learned about lynchings, and the internment camps, and Tuskegee.  And with every new horrific historical tale, I learned that often, not always, but often, when the good band together, it eliminates the bad.

Vietnam, Cambodia, World War I, World War II. I questioned our motives, but cried for those who fought, some of whom returned battered and worn, and without support from our government. But history is history, and I was always proud to live in America, because of its opportunities, and the hard working people, and, since I was born here, it was where I knew best. And America always seemed to try to do the right thing, maybe a bit later than it should have (WWII) or when it maybe shouldn’t have (Vietnam), but the intentions were more often than not, good ones.

But are we doomed to repeat others’ history? I read that at certain political rallies people just say whatever they want about whomever they want. That the racism and bigotry that has always been an undercurrent in America is now bubbling or has risen to the surface. There are those of us who hear about this and are genuinely scared, because the color of our skin could dictate how we are treated, if this election turns to the right.

So what are we going to do about it? Americans are hard working. They are proud. They are strong. And they are fair. But it seems like most of us are just sitting back and waiting to see what happens. Or we are “sure” that a bigoted, insane zealot will never be elected as President?

His supporters are out there. They are very loud. And they are gaining momentum. Even if he does not get elected, they will still be out there. And now, because we allowed them to vocalize at their political rallies, they may feel that they can vocalize whenever they want to whomever they wish.

Racism has always been strongly present in America. Now it is floating free. This is what people in other countries are thinking when they think about Americans. Is that what we want included in our definition now?  Inclusive, hard working, diplomatic, democratic, and racist?

I think it’s time for us to once again decide what it means to be an American. We need to decide what it means to live in America. And it’s time for us to end the racist, sexist, misogynistic, discourse that is pervading our society.

We never should have taken a crazy man seriously. If we hadn’t, he would not be so close to the most important office in our nation. And our identity would not be in such peril.

The next time you turn off your radio when a certain political figure is on or refuse to talk about politics because it’s just too hard right now, think about it. Instead of turning away, what can we do to stop the hate? What can we do to change the course? What can we do to heal? And how can we find ourselves again?

It’s still 1970 for vegetarians

It was very frustrating to be a vegetarian back in the 1970s and 1980s. I distinctly remember a friend’s birthday party at McDonalds (OK I guess I should have known there would be a bad meat experience here, but I was 10, and wasn’t planning on eating anyway, I was just there for the party). I was sitting in the booth with my friends and the Mother slapped a cheeseburger in front of me. “Um, I don’t eat those,” I said. She just looked at me like I was a martian. “You don’t like cheese?” she replied. “No,” I said, “I don’t eat meat, I’ll just have fries, thank you.”

“You don’t eat meat? Who doesn’t eat meat?” was her stunned response.  “My family,” I said, “we are Indian, Hindu, we don’t eat meat.” Remember, this was Northern California in the late 1970s. The result. She pulled the meat and cheese off the bread and gave me the bun to eat. A bun soaked in beef juices. Needless to say I didn’t eat it. But the experience was slightly scarring.

I went hungry a lot in my early days.

It’s no wonder I was 91 pounds at 5’1” when I went off to college.

Yes my parents fed me at home. But anyone who knows anything about South Indian food, knows that it is light, and pretty much goes right through you – especially if your Mom is a Nutritionist, and doesn’t make all the good fattening fried stuff.

Nowadays so many people are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and lactose intolerant, that people get what you mean when you say that you don’t eat meat. And there are often good options at parties and brunches.

It has been about 35 years since that McDonalds episode.

With all of this “awareness” one would assume that going out to dinner, especially in California nowadays, should not be a problem for a vegetarian.

But it still is.

So far, every time I go out to dinner, or stay in a hotel, I remain hungry. Less than a month ago my husband and I went to a fancy restaurant in Pacific Grove that our friend recommended. As we looked at the menu he asked me, “are you going to be able to eat anything here?”

Not really.

But by that time we had already ordered our drinks so it would have been rude to leave. I ended up eating a cup of lentil soup, four mushrooms, and friend zucchini sticks. Meanwhile the table next to us scarfed up giant plates of chicken and fish. After paying our $70 bill, we left disgruntled, hungry, and confused.

Why weren’t there more vegetarian options? We must have just gone to the wrong type of restaurant.

I figure at this point, if I want a good dinner with choices, that doesn’t leave me hungry after paying out a ton of cash, I have to go out to: a) Sushi (veggie sushi options are pretty good); b) Indian food (though many restaurants seriously cater to the meat eating majority, there are still lots of options for veggies); c) Italian (though there is often too much cheese in these recipes); or d) A specialty vegetarian restaurant (which often serve food on the bland side).

The struggle is real.

Last weekend, I was staying in a very fancy hotel for a meeting. I arrived at the hotel at around 3PM, and was going to order some room service to tide me over – I looked at the menu. The ONLY vegetarian option was chips with queso. I was so hungry that I ordered it – which made me sick in the end because it wasn’t even real queso — just melted Velveeta with some green chilis embedded in it – a.k.a junk food. Let me clarify, even all of the salads contained chicken, tuna, or beef!

Dinner was the same. I went downstairs to the restaurant to eat – thinking that there would be more options. I had two: pasta with sauce, or a portabello mushroom sandwich. I chose the latter because paying 20$ for pasta I could make at home for 5$ seemed ridiculous, even if I wasn’t paying the bill.

Meanwhile at the conference my friend was attending at the same hotel, the vegetarian option was the same for EVERY MEAL. Roasted, wilted squash and peppers, salad, and rolls. She gagged down her unflavored, mushy food while all the rest of the crowd feasted on chicken breasts, with rice (cooked in meat broth), potatoes, and salad and rolls. She woke up at 3AM every day of the conference starving – but remember, that hotel only had chips and queso as its room service vegetarian entree. Besides, room service wasn’t open at 3AM.

I ended up driving over the the closest Target and getting some bagged salad and nuts to tide me over.

On our way home we decided, based on the unknown amount of time that it would take to get through security at LAX, that we would just eat in the airport. That posed its own issues. As we walked to our first restaurant, we looked for the vegetarian options – there was one – chili. We started walking away and the Maitre D’ accosted us. “Come on ladies, come in and eat here.” “You don’t have many vegetarian options,” we replied. “Sure,” he said, “we have chili.” “We don’t want chili, thank you,” was our response. “I can wrap it in some lettuce?” HUH?

We ended up eating in the next place that had ONE vegetarian option – a veggie burrito – not too different from chili wrapped in lettuce, but easier on the stomach lining. We didn’t ask if the beans had been cooked with lard – we just at the burritos. At least we weren’t hungry anymore.

So what is the deal? Why are there a myriad of meat and fish options for all the non veggies out there, but only one vegetarian option and not even a good one, on most menus? The last time I checked it was 2016 and lots of people don’t eat meat for a variety of reasons – not just Hinduism. Why would a vegetarian ever want to go out to dinner and spend money at a restaurant if they only have one or even two choices? That is no fun.

I have to admit, I’m flummoxed.

And often left hungry.

And it’s not even 1970 anymore.

Or is it?

I have no words.

Well, I guess I have words.

But not many choices.

 

 

 

Where is my Community?

I was four and a half when we moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania. Though my memories of that age are dim, one powerful image sticks out in my mind. The week we moved in, a “welcome wagon” came by. The majority of our neighbors stopped in to say hello and welcome our family to the neighborhood. Some brought dishes, others just came to say, “welcome to Fairway Lane”. Though we never really connected with these neighbors much after that first encounter (for many reasons (see my story from Sulekha)) the welcome wagon stuck in my mind.

I don’t remember a strong Indian community in Allentown when I was young either – though we did often go to the “new” Pittsburgh temple, which was beautiful and brought us together with our fellow Indians. And we frequently visited and were visited by my Mom’s second cousin and her family who lived in upstate New York. I imagine that being in Pennsylvania, where the snow fell for months at a time in the winter, without other Indians, was probably difficult for my parents who had only been in America for five short years. I know that my Mother suffered – she had nine siblings back home and missed them desperately. She didn’t have many Indian friends, and the American friends that she had were nice but ate meat, were Christian, and probably had a hard time understanding her and her cultural values.

We also need to remember that this was the time before email, Facebook, Twitter, and all of those easy avenues that we have now to keep in touch. The aerograms that she sent back home took weeks to get there, and then months for a return message. And phone calls on the land line (no cell phones) were hard to hear and had the feedback wherein as you spoke you could hear your own voice again as the person on the other end thousands of miles away heard you.

And my parents weren’t rolling in the dough so it took years for them to save the money to buy the tickets to India and travel there for a hot summer of reconnecting.

Five years after our move to Allentown, we came to California, and while there was no neighborhood welcome wagon, there was an Indian community in our new State. I remember the first night, bleary eyed, when we stayed at the Murthi’s house in Cupertino. I had never met them before, but they were close friends with my Uncle and Aunt who we spent lots of time with in upstate New York. So therefore, they were our first stop in California. Their kids and I had an awkward meeting, but soon (after many years) became close, as during the rest of our time in California, we would frequently go and visit them.

Once we moved into our house near Sacramento, and got settled in, I remember suddenly having an Indian community where we would host “parties” and lots of Indian families from the area would come for potluck dinners, and we would go to their homes as well. Each time, the kids would all be in someone’s bedroom awkwardly hanging out, while the adults laughed, and relished in speaking their native tongue for hours at a stretch. Sometimes I would bring a book and just lose myself in a corner, and other times I’d bite the bullet and play games with the kids.

I’m not sure if you can tell by this story so far but: a) I lived in homogeneous communities – mostly Caucasian; and b) This was in the late 1970s early 1980s when Indian communities were more spread out and there were fewer East Indians in the US.

Back then, since Indians did not have temples all over (they still don’t) to find their communities – they found each other through word of mouth. When moving to a new place a friend would know someone who lived there and “connect” the families together. And they would make an effort to go and spend time with each other- even if their careers were different, or they were from different parts of the Indian subcontinent. The point was to come together and share the cultural values and speak their languages, and feel like they were a part of a like minded group.Though interestingly enough -they weren’t really like minded all the time – some were much stricter than others, and just because they were all Indian did not mean that they were all the same. But that was the best there was back then.

Living in America thirty years ago as an Indian immigrant was harder- there was no “yoga craze” or Indian restaurants in most towns, no easy way to keep in touch or dotcom industry to bring more people into the States. We had to travel one and a half hours to Berkeley to eat Indian food at a restaurant – and believe me, we did that!

I remember being a bit envious of my friends who lived in the Bay Area, which was more progressive even then and had Bharatanatyam dance lessons and singing lessons, and all kinds of Indian cultural events. But still, compared to today – even in the Bay Area, you had to scout it all out.

Now we come to my part of the story. I’m the daughter of immigrants – so in a class of my own – I was raised very Indian, in a mostly Caucasian and Christian community. I was one of a few Indians in my high school of almost 1900 students.  I remember it being hard – not having a Christmas tree, having people tell me that my house smelled funny – from the incense, and an overall feeling of not belonging because I longed for a country that I never lived in (again, another story altogether).

But when I left high school I didn’t do much to integrate into an Indian community later in life. My first year at UCLA, I felt totally overwhelmed. How do I break into an Indian group? I probably could have just gone to a meeting, but I just didn’t – my own fault. I also inherently thought it was strange to have to “join a society” to make friends. So I just didn’t connect with many Indians in college. I met a few in the “brain lab” where I used to study with my big German Med student boyfriend. But they weren’t interested in me – it felt like they thought that since I’d already chosen a non Indian boyfriend, I wasn’t really Indian enough for them.

As you read this you are probably thinking: She didn’t really want to be a part of an Indian community, she had non-Indian boyfriends (now a non-Indian husband), and didn’t go out of her way to meet Indians. Maybe you are right. But I am very Indian in many ways – I’ve read the Bhagavad Gita, the Ramayana, and the Mahabharata so many times that they are memorized (and I read volumes, not just abridged versions); I have Indian tapestries and statues all over my home along with a prayer area; I have done yoga for much of my life; and I eat and make Indian food. Plus I try to speak gutter Tamil to my kids to teach them some of the language. India and all things Indian pull on me constantly.

I admit, I tried to find some Indian friends by making sure most of my doctors and dentists were Indian. But it’s kind of awkward to ask your dentist to come to your house for dinner – just because your Indian. Or is it? My parents would have done it.

For those of us born and raised in the US – maybe married to a non Indian, it seems hard to break into an Indian community.

Or is it just me?

Or is there NO real Indian community where I live?

There is one. This year, the Indian society of the Monterey Peninsula held their Diwali celebration on Halloween night. Of course I could not attend since my kids wanted to go trick or treating. I’ve yet to make one of these events, because of timing and because I just don’t know anyone in the community. So there is that awkward thing again.

About two months ago I had a colleague and his wife over for dinner. She’s Indian, he’s not. We had a wonderful time and connected on a number of levels – even though she is Indian from Africa, not India. Perhaps for me, that is my Indian community? The other half and halves?

I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I would like to have some Indian friends.

However, I truly believe that friendships have to form organically. One of my best friends is from Detroit. She and I look as different as night and day. Our parents are really different. But we support each other, and love each other. Isn’t that what it’s all about? She is spiritual, and can talk with me about Buddhism and meditation, and also clearly understands the American side of me.

As I write this I realize that the thing that is missing is that connection with India that maybe an Indian friend can bring. I’ve been to India eight times in my lifetime. Each time I loved it for a different reason. Then I came back to the US and felt isolated, misunderstood, because I didn’t belong quite anywhere. In America I was born here, but raised very Indian, in India, I wasn’t born there, and raised very American. I think that is what I am looking for – others who can relate to the strings that pull us toward India and all things Indian, but are distinctly American.

Are you out there?

 

 

A Hard Time to be Brown

The day the airplanes hit the twin towers I was in my little room on Downey Street in San Francisco. I shouldn’t actually call it a room, it was a closet that I stuck my bed and dresser in so that my sister and I could rent out the larger room in the apartment – to afford the cost of living in the beautiful, renovated Victorian in Cole Valley. The boy that we rented it to, a law student at Hastings, ran to the television early in the morning. “Shit, shit, shit,” he cried, his hands in his hair, and his pajama bottoms sagging on the couch cushion. “What?” I asked, emerging out of my closet/room. We watched in awe as the footage played over and over again, the plane hitting the tower, the smoke, the flames, and the second plane hitting. As the story emerged – my stomach plummeted. It was going to be like 1979-1981 all over again in America.

I was nine years old in 1979 – not too familiar with the world – though I had already traveled to India four times. And the American hostages were in Iran. Let me state this clearly – I’m Indian, from India. Born in West Virginia I am an American citizen, just like every other person born in this country. My parents were citizens by this time as well, and working hard as an Engineer and Nutritionist/Child Development specialist. And I was in public school in Fair Oaks, California.

“N*&^%!, go back to IRAN,” yelled the boy at recess. I had no idea what that first word meant, having never heard it before, but I knew it was something bad. Everyone laughed. And most told me to go back. Go back? I had never even been there, and I was from INDIA. Same first letter, same side of the world, different place altogether. It didn’t really matter on the playground though. When I went home and told my parents about the words and the anger, their anger chilled me. My father called the boys father, who professed an equally racist response. My parents sat me down and told me to stay away from him – learned behavior they said. But what else could they do? This was the late 1970s – parents didn’t just run to the Principal every time there was a problem like they do now. Children just learned to cope, and deal with problems on their own.

That was a tough couple of years. People didn’t seem to care that we weren’t from the same country that the hostages were being kept in. And brown skin and black hair was a trademark of those far away lands – where terror lived. One person came to my birthday party in 1980. I didn’t have many friends. The reason wasn’t entirely because of the Iran Hostage crisis, but rather, my family’s inherent “indian-ness”. And part of it was my travels, I would go back and forth to India every other summer – returning as a 1/2 and 1/2 mix of Indian culture with an American twist. So I didn’t really fit in – not when I wore bindhis matching every outfit in the 5th grade. Who would understand that? I admit, I was a little on the “different” side.

Walking down the street in Cole Valley 22 years later, I felt the same uneasy feeling that I used to in the 5th grade. Were people looking at me, watching me, just because I had brown skin? I wanted to hide but I couldn’t – I had a postdoc to work on, research to do, contributions to make. Days later a Sikh store owner was beaten in the Bay Area – if that could happen in such a liberal place, what was happening elsewhere in America? It was a hard time to be brown again.

When Barack Obama was elected President of the United States, it felt good. Though he is Black, and not Indian, his being there made me feel more represented somehow. And when he celebrated Deepavali at the White House, recognizing a Hindu holiday and the people, I finally felt like a part of it all – even as a minority. But now, there is scary rhetoric out there again – and it is being supported. By many.

As the movement toward one political candidate in the Republican party continues, it is again becoming a hard time to be brown – any shade of brown.

And though my brownness does not define me – I am a scientist, a writer, a runner, a mother, a wife, a daughter. To some people it does. And that is what scares me.