In our first month in India, every so often someone would come up to my daughter and ask “Do you like India?”
“Because the buffaloes stink.”
Depending on how you look at it, for a 6-year-old, moving to another country is either a huge life event or just another adventure. Like all American-born kids, my daughter Aparna wondered if she would get pizza and ketchup in India and if the kids in school would speak English.
When the first baby tooth started wiggling just prior to our departure, she worried if we had left a forwarding address with the tooth fairy.
“Will the tooth fairy come to India?” she asked repeatedly. “Will she bring me a silver dollar, Mommy?”
I reassured her that the tooth fairy would come but the Indian one may not have silver dollars to give away.
“How about a shiny five rupee coin then?”
“I think she can manage that,” I replied.
Beyond that major dilemma, her concerns were limited and her answers to most questions are very literal. She doesn’t worry about being politically correct. Most observers are taken aback more by her directness than by her answer. The remark about the buffalo causes the observers to remark: “She is so American. She doesn’t like India.”
That is so not true.
Aparna seems generally happy most of the time but sometimes talks about her friends in California.
Once she starts attending school though, the changes in her are remarkable.
She adores her teachers. They are not the dumpy old women of my childhood, wearing dull saris with their oiled hair coiled into a tight bun on top of their heads, but stylish young ladies wearing wide-bottomed salwars and sequined kurtis. As someone who has always fancied Indian clothes, Aparna is fascinated by the colorful outfits that her teachers sport.
“My teacher is so pretty but she wears ugly shoes though,” is her honest comment.
I look closely to find the reason for this unkind remark and soon see. Today’s Indian woman creates her own style without scrimping on comfort; this teacher wears sneakers!
Imitation being the best form of flattery, she comes home and changes into her comfy shorts and t-shirts but with a semblance of teacher-like elegance, she drapes a dupatta around her shoulders. A dab of bright lipstick, pink Hello Kitty shoes, and she is ready to teach a class of imaginary preschoolers. Her steady companion, the lovable Arthur the aardvark, rechristened Akhil, is her star student, among other assorted dolls.
“Say the alphabets loudly, children. A, B, C, D, … Zed.”
Instead of the customary pointed “yes” to indicate an affirmative response, she has found several typically Indian gestures that mean the same. Sometimes she moves her head like wipers on a windshield, or traces diagonals on an imaginary square or even moves her chin from side to side.
Her textbooks have characters with names like Radhika and Ahmed. She learns about Divali, Id, and Christmas and “kutcha” and “pucca” houses. Her wardrobe now boasts of Indian outfits with shiny beads, intricate embroidery, and dangling bells.
Aparna is fascinated by long hair and resists any suggestions of a haircut. Impatient at the slow pace of hair growth, she tries to get me to buy her a wig. After losing that battle, she now pins a long strand of flowers in her hair and pretends it is her braid. Each day she discards the dry strands and substitutes it with a fresh one that her grandmother is only too pleased to provide.
While most of her newly-acquired traits are adorable, I mourn the sudden loss of her American accent. Her “cow” now sounds suspiciously like mine, as she tries to make friends by trying to be just like her classmates. I wish she had not given up her knowledge of phonics to learn spellings by repeating each alphabet “T-w-e-n-t-y” five times.
Having struggled with the “what to pack for lunch” all these years, I am surprised when one day she says, “Mommy, can you give me dosas or rotis for lunch instead of noodles and sandwiches?” Getting her to eat Indian food is no longer a battle. In fact, we have to ration her trips to the local sweet shop to prevent her from overdosing on jalebis, rasagullas, and the like.
On her birthday, we first go to the temple to pray for a long and healthy life and follow it up with dinner at Pizza Hut.
Aparna’s transition into life in India has been remarkably effortless. Most observers attribute it to her young age, but they are only partially correct. I think our matter-of-fact attitude towards the move is another factor that has made her transition so easy. We have tried to smooth the bumps by bringing her bed, her books, her Barbies, and her bunny slippers. But we have also let her form her opinions about what she observes around her. While she does not care for the stray dogs in the neighborhood, she is genuinely thrilled to see the occasional camel at the intersection. She plays games on the computer and tries her hand at street cricket. She acquires a taste for pineapple pastries and mango pickles. She gives her own twist to her choice of clothing, a unique and spontaneous fusion flavor.
While a lot has indeed changed, I am thankful for those things that have not. We still say our prayers together before I tuck her in bed at night. But I know that more changes are afoot when she says “Goodnight, Amma.”
Ranjani Nellore, a former San Francisco Bay Area resident, now lives and writes in Hyderabad, India.