There is this group in India, who are sometimes jokingly called "The abandoned parents brigade". More and more of our young ones have found a life away from home in this land of opportunity called America. Left behind are parents growing old, reaching the years of vulnerability and longing greatly to have their children and grandchildren around them, in their sunset years. Their children urge them, "Come to America. Come and live with us. Come at least for six months." Reluctant to leave all that is familiar behind them, nervous about leaving their home untended, but joyful at the thought of a reunion they long for, you decide to make the journey.
The journey begins, in fact, in the crowded hall of a cold and somewhat hostile American consulate, or embassy. Queuing from the early hours of the morning, tired and apprehensive, the first taste of America is usually the Indian at the counter, who can be rude and abrasive and acts as if he is protecting his own "homeland" from all unwelcome invaders. Once past that hurdle, the next leg of the odyssey begins, strapped into a airplane seat, with little room to maneuver, for sixteen long hours. At last you are at your final destination and you Queue wearily once again, to clear immigration. Forewarned, you forget to mention on the customs declaration form, the pickles and papads and home made goodies you are carrying for your loved ones. Almost like a magnet, the customs officials seem to single out Indians for special attention, because they know only too well that Indians carry food to this land of plenty. "How long are you coming for? Why are you coming?", the questions are fired at you, as penetrating eyes switch from your face to passport and back again. "Well" you say chattily, "My daughter is having a baby". "Oh you Indian mothers", he exclaims "thats all you seem to do, come here for babies. What do American girls do?" What indeed?
And there at last, as you wheel your trolley out of those doors, is your family, smiling, waving, so happy that you are here at last and they no longer need to have a guilt complex about lonely parents back home. Their home is two hours away and you dutifully admire your sons foreign Japanese car; unaccustomedly strap yourself in with a safety belt and then go into complete shock as he heads down the freeway in the "wrong side" of the road, at some unheard of speed. "Only two hours away, not far" you are told. You stop en-route for "gas", not "petrol" and the big American fast food experience, before entering American suburbia.
There it is finally, the house you have seen before in so many photographs and proudly displayed to all your friends and relatives, to see and admire. It is fall and the leaves are turning all shades of Orange and Gold, and it is really quite beautiful. You are so proud, your son is only thirty five years old and he has his own home and two cars and modern conveniences, you can only dream about in India. Clinging to the walls are the familiar aromas of good Indian cooking and the artifacts and cushion covers you have sent from time to time, adorn the home and bring a touch of India to the home. Friends, all Indian, drop in all weekend to welcome you, till you find yourself more and more weary, as you give in to Jetlag and total exhaustion.
It is a week later and you have kind of got used to seeing your daughter-in-law get into her European clothes to go to work; the grand children with their strange American accents, calling you granddad and grandmom and wanting to know if there are really Tigers in India. It is also so funny the way your children switch accents. You know immediately when they are talking to an American, or to an Indian, on the phone. For a week you sit in front of the large Telly, watching strange programmes, as the house stills and grows quiet when your family leaves, five days a week, from eight in the morning till five in the evening, unrelentingly. You slowly learn how to operate the many machines in the house and learn how to shut off the fire alarm, which seems to respond noisily to Indian cooking. You learn to reorient the way you cook, and you begin to cook in right earnest. The family is so appreciative and in any case what else is there to do? You see the solitary old Indian gentleman, sitting out on the kerbstone everyday, staring vacantly into nowhere, thinking of India no doubt. "Where are the people"? he says. "Everyone is so friendly, they all say, Hi how -are ya .. ?" But are gone even before I can respond. No one has time here", he reflects sadly.
Two months later and you miss home, though in your heart you tell yourself again and again, home should be where your loved ones are. But really it is not. You miss the sights and sounds and smells of India, like an ache inside yourself. There is no news of India on the Telly, or the newspapers, except a disaster report now and again. Forget about that cricket tourney in Sharjah. India does not exist for America, or barely so. On Sundays, as if to compensate, there is an hour long program and thousands of Indians all over America, treat it like the holy hour, soaking in snippets of old news and song and dance sequences, like people starved and hungry for their homeland.
Weekends are for living. The time to travel; to do the Niagara thing; (averting eyes from all the other fellow Indians you see there), to go to the cineplexes; the malls, to gaze in wonderment at the shopping extravangza, the like of which you have never seen before. Choices are difficult, just because there is so much choice. Like going to the supermarket and looking at forty brands of cereal and wondering what makes one different from another. You save newspapers and those beautiful tins a bottles, out of sheer habit, till your daughter in law, to your total dismay, puts the lot, unceremoniously, into the garbage can. You miss the Indian markets, the bargaining, the seasonal vegetables and fruits; The easy choices and the familiarity of everything you buy and everything you do. The cheery "have a good day", sounds nice, but do they mean it? You are unsettled by strangers talking to your children and not to you, as if your Indian clothes signaled that you could not speak their language. Your children have a life here, but are you really a part of it? Like them, you are caught between worlds, but they are young enough to make the transition into this world, while missing the one they grew up in. You are too old and too set in your ways, to bridge the gap.
American suburbia is a lonely place. Cut off from people, from big city life, it revels in its isolation. To get out of it, you must be able to drive, or you are trapped. It is not as if you can catch a bus or train, or hail a cab to go anywhere. You have become totally dependant on your children for your sustenance, for your entertainment, for companionship and in fact, for everything you need. This is what defeats you in the end. After three months, with a heavy heart and a certain amount of guilt, you decide to return home. You will come again every two years or so, but maybe for two months, not more. The next time will be easier, because you understand this culture better and your children's place in it. But though you make the small adjustments, like wearing sneakers, even with your saree and saying "Have a good day", to the lady at the supermarket, you know and your children know, that in America, YOU ARE HOME ALONE, and home for you will always be in India.
- Mrs. Nomita ChandyCurrently in Philadelphia, USAThe views of this column are the author's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of NRI Online.
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