The colors of nostalgia

We celebrated our first Holi in the United States today. Although we have been here for almost four years now, it was only last year when we actually got to know some Indian people. For some reason, we could not find enough motivation or time to go looking for other desis. Plus we got our social fix from local friends and colleagues from India who used to visit from time to time. That also meant that sometimes we did not do anything to celebrate our festivals. After all, festivals are meant to be celebrated with other people. What fun would it be to celebrate all by yourself? That’s why we always ended up not doing much at all for these special days. It was in fact much easier and more fun celebrating Halloween and Christmas because everyone else around us was doing the same.

Last year was different. There was not one special day that was not celebrated with this new-found group of desi friends. It is a different kind of satisfaction, to meet people whose jokes you can always understand, who are just as crazy as you are about movies and cricket, and to see our son getting to know little bits of his culture even though he still thinks that the Diwali decoration that I got from India is actually for a Christmas tree.

You don’t really understand or realize what you have been missing until you get to experience it again. Keeping up with tradition, we had a Holi get-together at a friend’s place today. We got there, rang their door bell and waited. The door opened and suddenly people came running out to smear our faces with the powder colors called ‘gulaal’. The kids stood there watching with their mouths open, probably wondering what was it that had come over their parents. It will take them some more years to understand what is so much fun about this. Actually, I was a little taken aback too. I had expected it to be just another get-together with a little bit of rubbing gulaal on each others faces just for the sake of doing it. I had almost forgotten about the element of surprise that makes Holi so much fun.

Some of my best childhood memories are of the festival of Holi. Getting out of the house early, armed with gulaal, pichkaris (water guns) and small balloons filled with colored water. Hiding and waiting for our friends and other suspecting victims to come out so we could drench them before they could drench us. Playing with colors until the evening when our parents came to drag us back in. The fast colors that would not wash away and the tints of which would still be on many proud faces the next day at school.

Those were some of the best days of my life and sometimes it makes me sad to think that  those casual days of  no responsibility will never return, that I will never go back to that house on that street and will never meet those friends again. Life changes when you grow up. I just wish that even as adults, we could be as capable of finding happiness in the littlest things, as we did when we were kids. I wish I could be as impulsive and stupid as I was when I used to live in that house on that street, without being judged by anyone. I wish I could skip and jump instead of plain boring walking. Who knows, may be I will do that one of these days. Thanks to my desi friends for reminding me of the child that still lives inside me, I’m pretty sure I will do that one of these days.

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Right or Wrong – who decides?

A news story has been doing the rounds at many Indian new channels these days. An Indian couple in Norway had their children taken away by the Child Protection Services. Allegedly, because they were feeding the children using their hands and the family slept in one bed, both of which are normal and acceptable in Indian culture (google “Indian couple in Norway” for the complete story).

Maybe there is more to it, but if that is the case, no one is talking about it. If there is nothing else to it, then taking kids away from their parents, separating the family for something as trivial as this, shows a serious lapse in judgement by the authorities. Seriously, what are they thinking? It is hard to imagine that in this age of globalization, a progressive government will refuse to acknowledge cultural differences while making such decisions. Cultural differences or not, since when did feeding kids by hand or co-sleeping become a crime?

Raising a child in a foreign country already has challenges of its own. You sometimes have to follow parenting methods you don’t really believe in, just to avoid being judged, and so that your child is not always the odd one out. It is a good thing to adapt and adjust, to do as Romans do when you are in Rome. In fact I would go one step forward and say it is not just good but necessary to be flexible and tolerant of new beliefs and ideas if you want to lead a happy and productive life, especially so if you live in a foreign land. However, you should not have to live with the fear of your child being taken away for doing what you think is normal, you should not have to compromise on your righteous beliefs and you should definitely not be punished for them.

When someone leaves their country to start a new life, they are looking for growth and a better life. This is not something they consider even in their wildest dreams. This is one of the worst nightmares of any parent that unfortunately came true for the Bhattacharyas.  I hope that the authorities come to their senses before any more damage is caused to the family, and if the parents are truly innocent (which I believe they are for the lack of any convincing evidence to the contrary), they be reunited with their children.

Misguided traditions?

A couple of weeks ago, many Indians celebrated a festival called Karvachauth. The main purpose of this tradition is for married women to fast all day for the long lives of their husbands. You are not supposed to eat or drink anything after daybreak until after moon-rise once you have looked at the moon through a sieve, offered water to it and prayed for your husband’s long life.

Like many other Indian festivals, this one too is blown out of proportions and highly romanticized by the Indian film industry. And there is the commercial side: the gifts, the dresses, the jewellery, the heena artists flocking every corner with long lines of ladies waiting for their turn to get their hands adorned.

I grew up with this tradition and have some great memories around it. I used to love watching my mother get dressed up and sitting with her through the ceremonies and prayers. Then at night, we kids kept popping in and out looking for the moon. When it finally came out (which was always very late), we would follow our mothers to a spot where it could be clearly seen so they could perform the puja (prayer) and we all could finally eat dinner!

This changed a little when I got married and had to fast myself. Not that I don’t want my husband to have a long life, I do, most times anyway; but because it makes me feel like a completely different person than who I am. I have never been into wearing elaborate saaris and jewelry and whenever I am made to do all that stuff, I feel like I’m somebody else. Just to give you an example, when Indian girls visit their parent’s house for the first time after they get married, they are supposed to really dress up, like a new bride, and 99.9999% of the times, they like to do that. Unfortunately I fall in that 0.0001% category. When I visited my parents for the first time after the wedding, I was in jeans and a shirt, everyone was shocked and I still get to hear about that from time to time.

Anyway, this background about my personality is just to assure you that not wanting to fast on Karvachauth has nothing to do with the fact that I cannot eat anything that day. Absolutely nothing to do with it, trust me! I still have fasted almost every other year since last eight years. I mean I had to when my mother-in-law, grandmother-in-law and mother call with expectant voices asking me whether I’m going to fast this year. After all, it is for the long life of their son/grandson/son-in-law. As per the folklore, if any woman does not fast on this day, her husband is sure to die soon. I don’t think many people believe it, but they still do it to follow the tradition/socialize/buy new clothes and look pretty/make their mothers-in-law happy. Although I have been a witness to this tradition all my life, this time I got a whole new perspective on it. My grandma-in-law called and gave me a blessing very commonly bestowed on married women in India. “Sada-Saubhagya-vati” which literally translates to “may you be ‘forever fortunate'” and implicitly means ‘may you always be married and die married’ or ‘may you die before your husband does’.

The oddness of this blessing had never struck me before. Living in the US has altered my perspective on certain things and this new attitude will probably make it hard for me to adjust when we go back home. However, that’s a different post altogether so let me just stick to the subject here. So for the first time in my life, I saw this tradition in a whole new light. Basically, it is all about making sure the wife dies before the husband so that she does not have to face the misfortune of becoming a widow. I can see where this is coming from. In the past, widows were not considered worthy of a decent life, not allowed to wear anything colorful, no jewelry, no makeup, were treated like servants and survived on leftovers. To me it seems like it must have been long ago because I have not met anyone who went through that, but I would not be surprised if it still happens in small towns, villages and remote areas of the country. Heck even in the modern day, in a metropolitan city, life would not be easy for a single woman. The question is – does that justify staying in a bad marriage? I’m sure there are millions of women in India who are beaten up by their abusive husbands every day and still fast to pray for his long life. That is how we have been trained to think and behave since centuries. The degree may vary based on your social, financial and academic standing, but the belief is still there. A woman is responsible for everything, from keeping her family healthy and well-fed, to making sure her husband outlives her, and more recently, providing a second income to the family all at the same time. And this notion is so ingrained into us that we never even question it. We just assume the responsibility and keep teaching our daughters the same things.

After this enlightening experience, I will never think about Karvachauth in the same way, ever again. Depending on who you are, you may be thinking I am crazy or you may be nodding your head in agreement, or something in between. Like always, I’m not trying to prove a point, just sharing random thoughts. So thanks for listening!