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The countdown begins the moment you call—at a bleary-eyed 2 a.m.—with the news that your tickets have been booked for the trip home. The dates of your arrival and departure spread like wildfire to reach grandparents in Kumbakonam, uncles in Chennai, and assorted cousins scattered over various Indian metros. Calendars and astrologers come into play and every auspicious day falling in the period of your stay is greedily appropriated and crammed with weddings, anniversary celebrations (never mind the exact dates), your daughter’s “first” birthday party (the fact that she will be three in a couple of weeks is a trifling detail) and, most importantly, a rendezvous with the sickle-and-trident-wielding family deity who has been waiting patiently in some long-forgotten backwater for the promised offering of your child’s hair.
Of course, you are expected to share your time, with scrupulous fairness, between your parents and in-laws: a few days more/less in either home is acceptable, but anything more/less is asking for trouble. Both households get ready to receive “the baby.”
Your mother/mother-in-law who spent three months with you in the U.S. during your pregnancy—gamely attempting to make your favorite tamarind curries and dried-fish gravies in an alien American kitchen—came back with insights about baby showers, the correct way to pronounce “pizza,” and the incredible news that her son/son-in-law was actually with you during your delivery. (Every round-eyed woman sympathizes: “Did she have to bother about her husband even at that time? Has he sworn off having another child?”). She has also not fully recovered from nightmarish recollections of the bouts of shivering she endured whenever she ventured outside your centrally-heated apartment and swears that your newly-minted American citizen (that’s why you didn’t come home for your delivery) couldn’t possibly survive a single night in Indian temperatures. So, an air-conditioned room is mandatory—never mind the fact that you used to sleep on a quilt on the floor of the living room, as one in a long row of sleeping siblings and cousins.
An excited horde of screaming, “there-she-is!” gesturing, relations descends on the airport/railway station to hug you, to lug your oversized, wheeled, fancy luggage, and to grab and smack kisses on your petrified daughter.
Your little mite, who has hitherto lived in a well-ordered, sparsely populated world, comprised mainly of Mummy, Daddy, and herself, has to suddenly contend with totally strange adults who loudly demand, “Who am I?” and a sizable number of like-aged cousins who are ever ready to snatch toys, pull hair, and shriek with laughter when she innocently remarks that she gets milk from the supermarket or asks for “jelly” with her bread (Indian children, of course, have “jelly” with ice cream and “jam” with bread, and get milk from cows!).
You start off being, shall we say, “slightly excitable?”—“paranoid” might be too harsh—about matters of hygiene. You throw a fit when the insouciant domestic half-heartedly rinses your child’s mug, leaving behind a miniscule trace of Vim soap. You control, with great difficulty, your rising hysteria at the sight of a mosquito hovering above your daughter’s head. You boil the drinking water almost to the vapor stage before you deem it fit for consumption. As the weeks pass, you unwind gradually and begin to ignore the cans of bland pasta and pureed vegetables you brought along with you, when you realize that your little angel is wolfing down the spicy sambar and rasam pressed upon her by fond grandparents with the immunity of an ethnic Indian stomach and is actually thriving on it. You sometimes even forget your jumbo-sized pack of tissue paper when you leave the house.
Your generous little gifts—for everybody from the aunty next door, who once gave you carte blanche to pluck raw mangoes from her tree, to the long-serving gardener who taught you to fashion whistles out of coconut palm fronds—are oohed and aahed over. Any little faux pas is forgiven: we do get Suave shampoo and Jiffy peanut butter at our department stores these days, you know! We sympathize with your embarrassment when you find that the “little” cousin brother who lay in ambush for you in corners to frighten you out of your wits with the sudden rat-a-tat of his machine gun has metamorphosed into a gangly seventeen year old, who doesn’t quite know what to do with the packet of glitter pens you present him with.
The days whirl by in a round of lunches and dinners at which okra and bitter gourd, coupled with the more obscure parts of the goat, feature prominently on the menu and are heaped on your plate in generous quantities and admonitions to “Eat! Eat!” A sizable number of your female relations begin to secretly plot ways to emigrate to the U.S., as they watch with green-eyed wonder as your husband hovers solicitously around you, matter-of-factly carries your paraphernalia when you shop and even—can you believe it?—cheerfully bathes, dresses and feeds your daughter.
Long, long before we have had our fill of taking pride in your American confidence, of admiring your chic clothes, and exclaiming over your news bites (your garbage is quantified! you have day care even for one-month old babies!) it is time to go. A final round of visits, one last lamp lit before the Goddess at the corner shrine, one last beeda popped into the mouth, one last late-night Rajinikanth movie, and that’s that.
A subdued crowd of relations troops into the airport/railway station to hug a slightly plumper you, to lug your masala-and-lentil-packed luggage and to smack kisses on your daughter (who has mastered the art of holding her own with pugnacious cousins, been thoroughly initiated into the mysteries of milking cows, and insists on sporting a strand of jasmine in her hair everyday). We murmur and wave, and send you back to America, along with a tiny part of ourselves.
Preetha Rajah Kannan is a self-professed “typical South Indian housewife” who loves to read and write.