They said Saffron. Sprinkle into milk for a fair complexion. Then they said never mind, just add it to everything you eat. Suryagrahan. Last solar eclipse of the millennium. Stay indoors all day, my frantic mother called to say. Stay indoors only during the eclipse my sister called to say. Shutter windows, doors, crevices, curtains drawn tightly, a bed sheet over the curtains for more security, insisted the cook.
Eat groundnut balls for protein recommended the neighbor’s maid from across the terrace. Drink jugs of milk insisted my mother in law. Sweep. Mop floors. Good for labor, said the gardener’s wife. No. Rest all the time others said. Eat plenty, some said. Eat for two. Don’t eat too much, you are eating only for 1.5. Dates and jaggery. Lie on your left side, squat, bend your knees when you walk, tuck your backside in.
Why are you not glowing? Put banana on your face. No fish on Wednesdays. Garlic. Homeopathy from a close friend, Allopathic bottles of protein, from my mother’s favorite doctor cousin, Ayurvedic oils from Mylapore, Reiki from relatives in Karnataka, Pranic healing on the phone from cousins in Washington. Listen to your instincts. To your doctor. Your mother. Your mother-in-law. Your cook. Your neighbor. The Gayatri Mantra. Mozart. Waaaah!
Our son is a miracle and he owes me Big Time! I have circles as wide as Texas around my eyes, my hair is a nest, my slippers don’t match and my clothes are uncool. My mother-in-law has summoned an ayah from Mangalore for 40 days according to tradition. The ayah is mother to nine children and wet nurse to a few nations. She handles the baby as Shaquille does a basketball. She turns and twists his body chattering all the time in Thulu, her native tongue. She rubs the sides of his nose (to elongate it), his forehead (to flatten it), wraps his head in a white cloth turban and moulds and shapes my dear newborn to match her own aesthetics. Then she turns to me. I stand cowering in one corner of the bathroom as she flings bucketfuls of hot water at me. The hot water actually eases my aching limbs and shrinks my still bloated belly. Then she scrubs me down with the all the force of a vacuum cleaner gone amuck! Baby and I are exhausted and we lie down in bed and refuse to reckon with the world for next few humid Chennai hours.
Needless to say, I want this strong, strapping, no-nonsense mother by my side until my son has graduated from Harvard. But this Mangalore Mamma is off to guide other unsuspecting moms and babes into the world of oil massages, and hot water. Baby and I turn to my devoted mother-in-law, who cajoles anyone visiting Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, to return with bags stuffed with diapers, threatening to stop the annual supply of summer mangoes from her garden if they do not. Delighted with us, this kind woman never hesitates to bring guests to pay their obeisance, even while I’m nursing. I have often felt like a centerfold in a National Geographic holding a signboard that reads, “Native Non-Resident Indian Woman With Son!”
I am back in Los Angeles. There may be not a scrap of difference bringing a baby into the world in India, Idaho, or the Congo. But raising one can be starkly different. In America, baby and you are on your own from the moment your insurance calls quits and the efficient nurses send you home with two diapers and baby powder. No endless entourage of ayahs here—to fetch and carry, run errands, play with your child.
Post-partum what? How could you sink into neurosis and dark desolation when there is a fiesta every day—complete with jaunty aunts, nieces, neighbors, and visiting street vendors vying to help you, from remedies for baby hiccups to tips on the stock market. The comfort zone of family and friends unconsciously kicks in to forge a recognizable force to help a new mother regroup and regain her equilibrium. Truly, a village raised my child. I was unprepared for real labor when I returned to LA!
Los Angeles is a different beast. Here, you will find me hurtling down the aisles of supermarkets looking for bottles of readymade baby food. My son, since our return, is undergoing a post-colonial, diasporic, transnational, transitional period. He will feast on bird droppings, shaving cream, and wet newspaper. But try to entice him to costly protein-packaged baby delicacies and he will spit it in your face. Here, the village that raises my son is an imaginary Dinosaur named Barney, and the trash collecting trucks on Mondays. These two items in my son’s life are lifesavers to my sanity and well-being.
In LA I am surrounded by moms who belong to pre-natal breast-feeding support groups, take yoga, alternative breathing exercises, and feng shui lessons in the art of birthing in an auspicious direction. And then there are the working mom goddesses whose soaring successes range from the kitchen to the boardroom. They remind me that I was once an avatar of Bharitiyar’s Puddumai Penn, a new age desi woman, listening to NPR’s “All Things Considered” and fighting causes. Today, I am concerned by terror in the local playground from two-year-olds with better and faster motor skills than my son. Today, I am armed with baby powder in one hand, a mismatched pair of socks in the other, a diaper between my teeth—I am like any picture of our Hindu Goddesses, wielding power from her numerous arms as I tap out these notes from the edge.
Maybe I ought to start a support group for new age desi moms in LA, without our perfect ethnic village, amidst coupons for Gerber food and a long way from oil massages. Maybe we ought to say Bravo as we greet each other. For we have run with the Wolves. We have danced with the Shamans. We have participated in living nature. And there is always the prospect of yearly visits to India when we can surrender our children to the waiting arms of our large families and even the man selling bananas from a cart who has his own opinion on raising my baby.
Anuradha Ganpati has recently joined the ranks of working moms and is employed at UCLA’s Center for Intercultural Performance.