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You live … where?”
I was on vacation in my parents’ house in India. A friend of my father’s had dropped by, and on being introduced to me, asked where I lived in the U.S. of A. My answer flummoxed him, and he squinted at me, coffee tumbler and davara(saucer) in hand.
“Bozeman … it is in Montana.” An explanation was clearly due. In my case, it always is. “Montana is the 41st state; it is the 4th largest. It is located north of Utah and Wyoming, east of Idaho and west of the Dakotas. It is just south of Canada’s province of Alberta.”
“Ah yes, I know Canada. My sister’s grandson’s friend’s brother lives there. It must be quite chilly up there.”
“Yes, it does get quite cold up there.” Sitting in my parents’ living room in Chennai where the day was already a balmy 90 degrees at 10 a.m., and climbing, I saw little point in elaborating on exactly how chilly it could get. After a point, cold is cold, be it 12 above or below freezing.
“Do you like it there?”
“Oh, yes, I do.” Even as I answered emphatically, I couldn’t help remembering a time when I wasn’t so sure.
It was March ’91 to be exact. Armed with a Rotary scholarship for studies toward a Master’s degree in Biology, I landed in Bozeman’s Gallatin Airport. It had two gates and a grand total about 50 people in it, including the disembarking passengers. On my way into town, I saw snow on the ground. What a wonderful adventure, I thought, being in a whole new country, a whole new climate zone, with a whole new set of friends!
The feeling lasted maybe 48 hours.
You see, I was most ill-prepared for my adventure. Coming from a very conservative middle-class close-knit South Indian family, I couldn’t deal with the loneliness, the difference in culture, and very absence of everything familiar. I had no family in the States, and only had two friends, both back East. And as for the weather, I used to be the first one in my family to feel the cold in Coimbatore, my hometown in South India. My titanic adventure had struck an iceberg, literally.
I knew that something was different the very first morning. I woke up … and heard nothing. After ascertaining that I hadn’t lost my hearing, I looked out the window and saw … no one. I must have stayed at that window for half an hour before I finally saw a car go down the street. Ah-ha, so I wasn’t the only one alive in town. This Stephen King moment has repeated itself several times in my life since; in fact, every time I come back from a trip to India, I get this feeling that I am the lone resident of a ghost town. But now I’m wiser and know what is happening: I’m missing the background noise and chaos that is India.
In Indian cities, the noise starts at around 4 a.m. Honking vehicles, screeching brakes, reversing cars—the street noises are ubiquitous. Into this, blends the music from the local temple loudspeakers, the radio in the teashop, and the call of the hawkers.
“Kaye … Kai, kai, kaaye.” Vegetables for sale.
“Aattangal kuthalayo, Ammikkal kuthalayo.” This service involved chiseling holes into the granite grinding stones used to grind batter for idlis and dosas by a grizzled “Michelangelo” of Marudamalai. And let’s not discount the calling bell. From 5.30 a.m. when the newspaper boy and the milkman visit, calling bells peal through the day and into the night.
Contrast that to a U.S. university town with a population of 30,000, during spring break, when most of the school kids are in Florida. I might as well have landed on the moon.
This was followed by other out-of-this-world experiences. My first snowfall was a fairytale event, with silvery flakes that settled like tiny kisses on my face. However, the days that followed it were one long nightmare; the same fairytale snow froze in the night and sent me skidding, before depositing me solidly and ignominiously on my behind. And the cold … it was a slap of reality. It was the end of March, for goodness sake, how much longer could winter last? Three more months, I was told. I needed at least two layers of clothing, socks, boots, a thick woolen hat, scarf, and thick waterproof gloves, not to mention a jacket that resembled a polar bear’s winter coat. In the beginning, it didn’t help that I constantly forgot my winter accoutrements, often ending up on the street minus one or more of the Thinsulate necessities that didn’t seem so important indoors. So I was lonely and cold, and fit perfectly into the profile of an overdressed Oliver Twist … yes, I was hungry too!
An army is not the only one that marches on its stomach. Pampered as far as cooking was concerned, the only thing I was familiar with in my mother’s kitchen was where she hid the goodies. So I couldn’t cook, and as for eating out, Indian food was simply nonexistent here. In a place where the term “Indian” was a politically incorrect way to say “Native American,” there was absolutely nothing resembling Asian cuisine. Even in the token Chinese restaurant, there were beefy Caucasian Americans who just added soy sauce to noodles and called it chow mein. For the first few days, I mooched off some fellow Indian students who cooked Indian food, but after that I had to fend for myself. That was when I tried to take the easy road: I went to the cafeteria.
The first thing I saw there was a tray of doughnuts, and yes, I thought they were vadas. Now, keep in mind that I had had very little western exposure. These days, even middle-class kids in India know all about different kind of pastries, specialty coffees and Mexican food, but I’m talking about the early 90s, when western influence was restricted to Hollywood movies, and Doordarshan was the only channel on the tube. I was beside myself with excitement; things were going to be fine after all. I hurriedly paid for one and bit into it, my eyes closing in anticipation of when my teeth would penetrate the crispy fried exterior with a satisfying crackle and break into the salty-spicy dough that held tasty secrets, maybe a sliver of chilli or coconut or even, dare I hope, a whole black pepper. Instead, I bit through a wimpy crust into an insipidly sweet cakey mass with as much character as a used-car salesman. I later grew addicted to the stuff, but that’s beside the point; I teared up as I finally acknowledged the truth: I was far, far away from home.
That was the beginning of my life as an Indian in America. At the time, long-distance calls cost up to 75c per minute, so my phone bills were horrendous. It was before the Internet was accessible to all, so I had no idea of what was happening in India at the time. There were at the most 50 Indians in the town, most of them students. We had an Indian Students Association, meeting occasionally for potlucks and festivals, but for most of the time, we were foreigners studying in America. The highlights of our days were when somebody came back from a visit to a big city, where there were Indian immigrants that held jobs, owned houses and had families, where there were actual Hindu temples, and Indian movies in theatres, and above all, where there were Indian restaurants … the Promised Land.
I visited Chicago three months after my entry into the States, my first excursion into the America that I had heard and read about in India. I marveled at the huge crowds, I gawked at the tall skyscrapers, and I went into ecstasies in their big department stores. But I cried when I saw my first fresh masala dosai on my plate. I would have had it bronzed if I hadn’t inhaled it in seconds.
What that visit taught me was that there were really two Americas. One was metropolitan America or Desiland, where the immigrant Indian could be a part of both his native and his new communities; the other was small town America or “real” America, where he could live a life that is one hundred percent American, down to steak and potatoes, Levis, and Chevy/Ford trucks. I lived in the latter. The experience was like getting on a roller coaster for the first time: the ride was harrowing, scary, and excruciating, but after it was over, well worth it.
For I got to see how friendly and helpful Americans really are, how broad-minded and accepting they can be. They showed a lively curiosity about me, without being judgmental, and accepted me as a friend with all my quirks. I felt like an ambassador at times, explaining the way we do things in India. And I learnt that it was a good thing that I wasn’t into telling tall tales since, just because they chose to live in a small town, it didn’t mean that they didn’t have any exposure to the outside world. Most of the people I met, both in school and out of it, were very well traveled; some had even been to India. As a student, I was stuck in Bozeman; it felt good to know that there were people who had been elsewhere, that actually chose to live here.
Then spring came to the valley, and I realized what a beautiful place this was. Bozeman is nestled in the Gallatin Valley and bordered by mountains on all sides, the Bridgers, the Gallatin Range and the Spanish Peaks, all part of the North American Rocky Mountain range. The Gallatin, Madison, Jefferson and Yellowstone rivers flow around here. It is 32 miles southeast of the headwaters of the Missouri River (the object of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805-1806), 100 miles northwest of the world’s first national park at Yellowstone, and near some of the best ski country in the States. In fact, a fifteen-minute drive in any direction will take you to a picnic area, fishing access or scenic area that is beautiful and, best of all, has no other humans around. I enjoyed every bit of that wonderful summer. Of course, there was another big reason for that: there was one Ph.D. student, (tall, dark, handsome, single male) in the Veterinary Molecular Biology department from Coorg in India, who was very, very nice …
As I grew used to the American life, I began to accept the way things were. The winters were still bitter, but had their moments, like when the brook that ran alongside the road from student housing to the school iced up on the surface, but still ran liquid underneath, or when sparkling bits of snow fell from trees when the breeze blew. There was still no good vegetarian food to be had, but I found substitutes, like tater tots and bean burritos with Tabasco sauce. These may appear lame in comparison to all-you-can-eat Indian lunch buffets, but still work when you are hungry as a bear. One of my favorite memories is the time when I went into Hardee’s and asked for a cheeseburger without the meat. I wonder if the pimply kid who took that order with his jaw hanging open still remembers it. Yep, I have been in beef country and come out still a vegetarian! A popular bumper sticker hereabouts says, “Save a cow; eat a vegetarian,” but I successfully evaded all attempts to be made the entrée du jour.
The funny thing was that I fell in love with that small town, so much so that I returned to it six years later. During my time in Bozeman, that Ph.D. student and I fell in love with each other, got married, earned our degrees, and moved out, thinking that we’d never return. We lived in San Francisco, Toronto and Boston, all prime examples of Desiland, but ironi cally, we felt more alien and homesick there than we had in Montana. (Incidentally, we have heard racist remarks in each of these cities; we’ve never heard even one in Montana.)
One day a scientist position opened in a start-up pharmaceutical company in Bozeman. “How do you feel about going back?” asked my husband.
I didn’t have to think twice. “Let’s do it!” I said.
We moved back in December 2000, and have loved it ever since, though there have been moments when we wish ourselves elsewhere. During my second pregnancy, I craved hot Indian food so bad that I even dreamt of it, but couldn’t cook it myself because the smells made me nauseous. We couldn’t just go out and get it, either. The nearest place with Indian food was and still is Missoula, Montana, 200 miles to the west, or Salt Lake City, Utah, 400 miles to the south. And whenever we are digging our car out of thick snowdrifts, or enduring negative 12 degrees Fahrenheit as the daily “high” temperature, we wish we lived somewhere warmer. The closest we get to live Indian cultural events is when I sing along with my Rafi/Lata/SPB/Yesudass/S.Janaki tapes or CDs, and my daughters make up “Indian” dances for them. I have learned to cook well, though I don’t do special items like samosas, which we indulge in when we go on vacations to big cities. For example, last Christmas we visited Florida, where we ate at Indian restaurants all the time. I had a samosa each day, and superlative heartburn consequently. The next Zantac episode will occur when we next visit a metropolis.
For all that, however, we really are very content. I’m not homesick anymore. Long-distance is much cheaper than it used to be, so I call my parents every Sunday. I read Indian news over the net, so I am current with everyday events. My socio-cultural needs are met by satellite TV that brings me Vijay TV and Doordarshan. My husband gets to do the work he loves most, and has only a five-minute commute. I got to integrate into the community when I worked first at the university, and then at a daycare and an elementary school.
And every time a samosa craving hits, I bake tater tots in the oven till they are crisp and eat them dipped in hot and spicy Indian tomato pickle or mango thokku. Try it yourself. The secret is to watch a desi movie at the time, so that you can hardly tell the difference; anyway, after a few, you are so sick from the greasiness that it ceases to matter.
It also helps that we are in a city that has the best quality of life. Yes, recently Bozeman was voted the top micropolitan city in the United States. We have a wonderful museum where locally discovered dinosaurs are exhibited permanently, and which played host to several traveling exhibits like the Tut-ankh-amun artifacts and a repertoire of Ansel Adams photographs just last year. Big artistes like B.B. King and Elton John have performed here. For those that like more physical activity, there are plenty of rodeos and shooting contests, as well as hiking, biking, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing. As for Montana itself, or the Big Sky Country, it has been called the Last Best Place, which is nothing but the truth. Much of it still looks like it used to thousands of years ago, and living here helps keep an individual grounded.
I now have bragging rights, since I have made it in Montana. I also have some awesome stories about my little hometown in the United States. My friend told me once that she got home to find a deer in the bathtub. It is a true story: during hunting season, her husband had shot it and frozen it whole and put it in the tub to thaw. Once, I was driving during a snowstorm when my headlights picked out an elk doe by the roadside. I stopped, she crossed like a polite lady, and I drove on. In spring, black bears come into town occasionally and get treed, until wildlife rangers tranquilize them and take them back “home.” Why stop at true stories? I can even tell some tall tales and get away with it. After all, how many Indians have lived in “Cowboy Country?”
Lakshmi Palecanda lived in Bozeman, Monatana till very recently. She can be reached at lakshmi.palecanda[at]gmail.com