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My family moved to India when I was seven years old. My father worked for an American company, which transferred him to New Delhi to continue his work as a buyer. Our family was American, but we had lived in Madrid since I was three months old, so the only language that I spoke was Spanish.
Before leaving Spain, my parents hastily placed my brother, sister, and me in English classes for the summer, hoping it would improve our ability to blend into New Delhi’s international school that fall. My brother and sister were older, so they spoke some English already and seemed to have no problem with this arrangement. Unlike my siblings, however, I rebelled. Though my family was indeed American and my parents spoke English to each other, I considered myself a proud Spaniard and would have nothing to do with this new identity that I felt was being forced on me. I purposely failed my tests and did everything in my power to make the teacher miserable. My determination not to give in was strong.
We arrived in New Delhi to a strong stench that we would eventually consider “normal.” The heat was oppressive and the filth blanketed everything around us. My mother was horrified and scared. My father tried easing her anxiety with quiet purrs of how everything would be all right. As for me, I sat in wonder, eyes wide open, taking in this wild and exotic setting as our fancy car with curtained windows made its way to our hotel. I looked outside at the countless people by the side of the road, most of the men in white dhotis, and the women in multicolored saris. Some of these women walked with one arm outstretched over the top of their heads, where they held pots of different shapes and sizes. One woman passed a man sitting in a folding chair while another man trimmed his hair. A waiting line of two more stood patiently beside them. There seemed to be a whole social world existing right on the street.
And then there were the cows. Everywhere. And all so skinny. The car stopped and the driver grumbled at the scene before us. One of these cows had stopped in the middle of the road. Everyone just watched them, making no gestures to shoo them away. We sat there until the cow decided to move on. I would later learn that this animal was sacred to the Hindustani people, never to be treated maliciously (and certainly never to be eaten).
We moved into the same house as my father’s predecessor. As we drove up to view it for the first time, a long line of Indian people stood waiting for us. Behind us, gates closed and guards, uniformed and armed with rifles, stood at the guardhouse just beyond them. It was nothing like our home in Madrid. It was majestic to my eyes, with huge open verandas and two large yards on either side.
The car came to a stop in front of the front door, under a canopied driveway. The driver quickly got out of the car and opened the doors for us. Eager, smiling, curious faces awaited. Dressed in saris and in dhotis, their heads bowed appreciatively as we greeted each one. It was literally a waiting line, and we were all to shake each person’s hand as we were introduced. These people, it turns out, were our servants and their families.
There was a cook; a butler; a sweeper; a nanny; and the driver. Some of them, we were told, lived just back there, a finger pointing to a structure on the back of our property. Those are the servants’ quarters. Adjacent to them was a garden, separated from the backyard by a tall hedge. This was their vegetable garden.
“No solo tenemos sirvientes…pero tambien viven detras de nuestra casa y cultivan su comida alla…?” (Not only do we have servants, but they also live behind our house and grow food there?)
My curiosity knew no bounds. None of this made any sense. I just knew that I had to go back there. “No se puede ir alla. Comprende? Nunca.” (You are not to go there. Understand? Never.) My mother said emphatically. We all nodded politely. But I didn’t get why. I had truly entered an alien world. Why did we have servants? Why were their living quarters on our property? And why were we being told never to visit them?
I don’t remember when I made my first acquaintance with Madhu. I assume it was in that waiting line, but I was too bewildered at that time to remember the faces. All that I know is that we became quick friends; that I admired her; that I was fascinated by her. Madhu was the daughter of our driver, Surijpal. She lived in the servant’s quarters, along with her mother and father. She was fourteen years old, a young woman. And as far as I was concerned, the bindi on her forehead clinched her beauty. I loved it.
I don’t remember how we communicated. I spoke Spanish and bits and pieces of bad English. She spoke Hindi. Maybe she spoke some bad English, too. I honestly don’t recall. What I do recall is our sweet, innocent, mutual adoration. I would come home from school and we’d immediately get on our bicycles and ride around the neighborhood together.
A few incidents stand out in my memory. The first, was when I searched the neighborhood for a Spanish-speaking school that I’d heard existed. She pedaled behind me quietly, as I frantically searched for this clue, this piece of my old identity I so badly wanted to claim. We never found it, but her willingness to join me on a mission that was so personal and private meant a lot, even if she might not have understood what it was we were doing. She smiled and patiently rode along.
I remember taking her to my room and putting on a Spanish song, a 45 record, “Somos los reyes, en Galilea… ” I sang along enthusiastically and danced. She stood timidly, watching me. I encouraged her to join me. She was scared. And I realized she’d never danced before, so I took her by the hand and I showed her how. I emphasized that dancing was about expressing joy, and the more she moved, the louder she giggled. I can only imagine the sound coming from my room that afternoon. Loud Spanish music accompanied by a Hindu girl and an American transplant, giggling and dancing along.
The memory I treasure most is the welcome I received in her quarters. I knew I wasn’t to go back there, so it was always done deceptively. It was so rustic. My memory fails to conjure up exactly what the outside looked like (our family pictures burned in a house fire years later), but I remember being awed by how simply they lived. They ate, they slept, they worked, and they gardened.
I loved Madhus’s mother. She, too, was beautiful. And she rarely spoke. I went over to their quarters one night, just before my supper time, and watched her mother prepare chapatis for their dinner. She squatted in front of a fire outside, and patted flour and water onto a tortilla on either side, making a rhythmic and lulling sound. At first, she was concerned about me being there; disobeying Memsahib’s rules.
Madhu put her at ease and motioned for me to crouch beside her. I did. At first, we were all silent, watching her mother patting her chapatis. After a few minutes of this, her mother looked at me and smiled. I felt as if a wave of warmth and love had just swept through me and I was moved in a way that struck me. She said something in Hindi and I interpreted her hand gestures to mean that I was welcome to give it a shot. She handed me a clump and illustrated what I needed to do. The smell was wonderful and the white flour on my hands felt great. As I slowly began to master the art of making good chapatis, dusk became night and stars appeared over us.
Madhu’s mother had heated up some curry and started tearing the ends of the warm chapatis and scooping the curry into her mouth. She looked over at my expression and smiled again, saying something to her daughter that caused her daughter to smile as well. I was smiling anyway. I thoroughly enjoyed being there. She scooped up another portion and handed it to me for a taste. I took a bite, but instantly felt my mouth burning and reached for a glass of water to soothe it. She and Madhu laughed at this, too, and she again muttered something to her daughter as she gestured to me that I could eat the chapatis without the curry.
It was a warm night and I think I might’ve noticed, for the first time, what it was like to embrace the natural cycle of daylight and darkness. We were all outside without electricity. And by not illuminating our surroundings with artificial light, there was a sense of connectedness I hadn’t yet experienced. It was pure and natural. It felt RIGHT.
I loved these people. I loved this simplicity. I envied all of this. But I still didn’t understand it. Why did they live in these servants’ quarters on our very own property?
I snuck back to their quarters for my pre-supper chapatis on a semi-regular basis after that. The butler would ring a bell for us outside when it was dinner time, and I’d run around the back of the quarters, trying to make it look like I was coming from somewhere else. One night, when I had eaten too many chapatis and had no appetite for supper, my mother casually mentioned that I might not eat dinner elsewhere first. She knew! And she hadn’t said anything. I loved her for that.
Just before we left New Delhi, I found out that Madhu was being negotiated in an arranged marriage. I was in shock. I asked her if she knew the boy in question. She nodded no. I asked her if she was scared. She nodded, yes. And then I got angry. The westerner and the easterner, however young, are at odds with the concept of a loveless marriage. I told her that marriage in the west involved loving someone first. I was trying to offer another point of view, but I didn’t realize she had no option. And thinking back on it, maybe I made things worse by telling her this.
I cried when we drove away for the last time, wondering what would become of her life. We had all been draped with flower necklaces, each servant draping one over our heads, as we made our way back through this now familiar and loving line of Indian faces, our eyes barely able to peer over the stacks of white flowers when we finished.
I think about Madhu a lot. I think about a picture my father took of the two of us on our bikes in the driveway. And I think about what an amazing experience that was. Sharing myself with someone I would otherwise never have known. And the magic we brought to each other’s lives.
I hope she’s well, and that she’s happy. I wonder, did she ever come to love her husband? How many children did she have? And I imagine her making chapatis over a hot fire, just like her mother did. Only this time, I hope, in her very own home.