Ladies and gentlemen, meet Maggie..errr...Maheshwari. Maggie is spending three months in Madras as part of a self-concocted self-discovery program, an explore-my-roots-and-heritage effort that many of her college friends are currently involved in.
Maggie grew up in a small town in the United States (Houndsville, NC, pop. 7000). Her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Dharmarajan (shortened to Raj in pronunciation-challenged Houndsville; lately, in keeping with the Initial-dash-Last Name trend among entertainment and sports celebrities, Mr. Dharmarajan has taken to calling himself D-Raj), are each the oldest of a large brood of siblings, all of whom live in a cluster of towns within a 200 mile radius of Houndsville. Maggie’s grandparents, all four of them, were sponsored for their green cards by her parents. They have lived in the United States since even before Maggie was born, and are on a timetable devised by Mr. Dharmarajan that sends them from one sibling’s home to another, spending a little longer here, or there, depending on whose chauffeuring or baby-sitting or house-sitting needs are predominant at any particular time. Now they are old, and tired most of the time, and their stays tend to be longer, sometimes stretching to over a year. Maggie has overheard her mother complain to some of her aunts that she feels that an unfair share of the burden of looking after the old people falls on her.
Since Maggie’s closest family members are all in the United States, she did not visit India very much while growing up. There was one trip with some of her uncles, aunts and cousins from her father’s side, when she was 13 years old. It was an a meet-the-relatives and discover-your-culture endeavor that was an utter nightmare as far as Maggie was concerned. Most of her memories of that trip are a blurry recollection of an endless succession of temples that after a point all looked alike, although Maggie had to admit that they were magnificent. The atmosphere in these places was anything but serene, which is what Maggie thought a holy place ought to be. Instead there were over-eager guides and touts, beggars, clanging bells, cacophonic chanting, smoke that stung the eyes and made her cough, people thrusting garlands, oil, flowers, butter, bananas at her and her family and demanding money with a zeal that had nothing spiritual about it. There was the heat, heavy and humid and utterly enervating, and dozens of curious relatives, all eager to pinch her cheeks and proclaim her defective in a myriad different ways - she was too thin and dark-skinned, her Tamil was incomprehensible, she did not eat properly, horror of horrors, she was left-handed... Poor Maggie. Throughout the trip she felt that she was being scrutinized through a giant microscope that discovered and magnified a vast multitude of faults.
But oh, the worst, the most unbearable of all, was Tara. Her cousin, two years older than her, and the darling of everybody they met on that trip. Tara the Flawless, Tara the Perfectly Proportioned, the Alabaster Complexioned, the Ever Smiling and Charming, the Speaker of Impeccable Tamil, the Amazingly Accomplished Dancer and Singer and Student, the Always Polite and Charming, the So Well-Informed and Interested in All Things Indian.
It made Maggie sick.
Because only she knew the real Tara. The two girls shared a room everywhere they went on that trip. Where Maggie wore her heart on her sleeve and pouted and sulked liberally and expressed her opinions in no uncertain terms, Tara let hers out only when they were in their room at the end of the day. What an acrimonious torrent of venom and scorn spewed out, what wicked imitations of all those adoring, tongue-clucking maamis and admiring maamas, what contempt for everything and everybody she saw! Maggie, the shy, awkward younger cousin could only listen in silence. And the next morning, it was Good Tara all over again, simpering at the adoring praise that was heaped on her.
India was ruined for Maggie and she hated everything about it and never, ever, ever wanted to set foot in it again.
That was over six years ago. A lot had happened in the years since. Maggie went through a turbulent adolescence, during which she distanced herself even further from her south Indian heritage. This was when she took to calling herself Maggie. She announced to anyone who cared to listen that she hated Indian food, that she thought Indian clothes were loud and shapeless, and that Indian music was a cacophonic assault on the ears. Her cousin Tara, her nemesis on the India trip, became her closest friend and ally and fellow hater of anything Indian. They decided that if every family should have a black sheep, they would provide theirs with two.
Poor Maggie. Could you blame her, really? With parents who were uncomfortable with their own names and ill-at-ease with their accents which they attempted to mask with their version of an American drawl, who veered between rigid strictness and permissiveness depending on who was involved, was Maggie’s reaction that surprising? Paradoxically, the people she felt the most at home with were her grandparents, the most rigidly orthodox, tradition-bound, quintessentially Indian people she knew, clinging to rituals and a way of life that even the people she met in India had abandoned or supplanted with a watered down version. But they were wholly, unapologetically, unabashedly themselves, without a trace of self-doubt about who they were or what they believed in. Sometimes Maggie felt that in her head was a screaming mob of people all telling her different things, pulling her one way, pushing her in another, whirling her around, knocking her to the ground. But with her grandparents, she felt that she was in the calm center of the storm where right and wrong were laid out for her, uncomplicated and in black and white, where it was ok to be dark-skinned and curly-haired and big-hipped and buxom, and where it was perfectly normal to have a large, loud, interfering family who had opinions on everything and insisted on arguing about them at the top of their voices. But these interludes of calm were ephemeral, too short-lived to boost her out of her adolescent morass, her self-absorbed angst.
Somehow Maggie made it through the high school years. Through the clamorous cacophony of her thoughts her family’s message came through loud and clear: academics were the most important thing in life. The family name was upheld by sky-high SAT scores, straight A grades, and not in fluff subjects like humanities or art. In that area, Maggie did not let her family down, and was admitted into a college whose name her parents could proudly drop at Indian gatherings and parties, and which created no small amount of jealousy both in and out of the family circle.
Maggie loved college. The freedom from home, the freedom to explore, the amazing diversity of places and backgrounds her classmates and roommates came from, the staggering array of classes to choose from, the heady midnight discussions and arguments, even the food in the cafeteria. And the icing on the cake, just weeks before the summer vacation, a Boyfriend. At last. After years of being denied one in her high school years, the forbidden fruit was all hers to enjoy, with no parent or relative asking a hundred questions about where his grandparents hailed from, what his parents did, what his grades were, whether he had any bad habits.
And here Maggie’s life took a turn that she never dreamed it would. The Boyfriend, who would have failed miserably in the quiz her parents would have thrown about him had they learned of his existence (Caste? Jews don’t have castes; and there the quiz would have screeched to a halt), had grown up in New York City, bemoaning the fact that he was a cookie-cutter Jew who studied with other cookie-cutter Jews in a school run by and for cookie-cutter Jews. He was ready for the Exotic, and Maggie was Exotic beyond his wildest imagination. The Boyfriend was smitten by everything about Maggie, particularly her Indianness. He peppered her with questions about the food she ate, the festivals she celebrated, the music she listened to, the places she had visited, the politics, the history, the customs, the languages. And to Maggie’s great embarrassment, she realized that the exotic Indianness that the Boyfriend so prized, was so smitten by, was pitifully deficient, riddled with holes, shallower than a baby’s wading pool. The Boyfriend would see through it in no time at all. She would have to fix things, fast.
The summer break came with the Boyfriend’s adoration surviving, undiminished. Maggie had made frantic phone calls to her bemused parents demanding a one-minute distillation of Hindu philosophy, quick summaries of major historical events in India, the stories behind various festivals, funny anecdotes from their childhoods. Her parents, who had narrated all this and more to a blatantly disinterested Maggie while she was growing up, never guessed the real reason for this sudden interest in her Indian roots. At social gatherings they crowed about how college had done wonders for Maggie and how well appreciated her Indian upbringing was.
Like any young person in love, Maggie would not settle for half-measures. She wanted to experience her Indian-ness extravagantly, she wanted to overwhelm the Boyfriend with larger-than-life tales of India, to smother him in more authentic exotica than he could ever imagine possible.
She told her parents she wanted to spend the summer in India.
To be continued.