They said Saffron. It has more value than gold. Sprinkle into milk for a fair complexion, insisted one family member, 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 all windows, doors, crevices, curtains drawn tightly, a bed sheet over the curtains for more security from the rays insisted the cook. Eat groundnut balls for protein recommended the neighbor’s maid from across the terrace. Don’t touch peanuts yelled my Indian doctor. Drink jugs of milk insisted my mother in law. Aieee! Milk causes allergies for the baby said American Pregnancy books. Sweep. Mop floors. Good for labor, said the gardener’s wife. No no. Rest all the time others said. Must eat plenty, some said. Eat for two. Don’t eat too much, you are eating only for one and a half still others said. Dates and jaggery, a must. Lie on your left side, squat when you can, bend your knees when you walk, tuck your backside in. Why are you not glowing? It’s a boy then. Put banana on your face. No, milk on your face. Better wax your legs just before the delivery. Your brain will function slower during the pregnancy and faster while nursing. No fish on Wednesdays. Garlic. Garlic. Homeopathy from a close friend, Allopathic bottles of protein, calcium and iron from mom’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. The new mom’s. Your cook. Your neighbor. To the Gayatri Mantra, to Mozart. Wwwwaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
Our son is a miracle but man does he owe 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 so uncool. My mother in law has summoned an ayah from Mangalore for the first forty days according to tradition. The ayah is mother to nine children and wet nurse to a few nations. She handles the baby as Shaquille O’ Neil does a basketball, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all (the baby that is.) I on the other hand have to leave the room when the baby is given an oil massage and bathed by this mother of all mothers from Mangalore. She turns and twists his body chattering all the time in Thulu, her native tongue. She yanks his arms, spreads his legs and turns him upside down. She rubs the sides of his nose (to elongate it) rubs his forehead (to flatten it), wraps his head in a white cloth turban (to round it (as a new mother I choose the liberty to create verbs!) and there’s more but I cannot bear to elicit further her “God Complex” as she moulds and shapes my dear newborn to match her own aesthetics. Then she turns to me. She gives me an oil massage and a bath that would seem horrific to the uninitiated. Some of us have had the rare opportunity of seeing buffaloes in hamara desh being bathed in the river. I stand cowering in one corner of the bathroom as she flings bucketfuls of searing 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 at the end of this ordeal 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 of all mothers by my side until my son has graduated from Harvard with at least one degree in Robotic Science and after a couple mega successful companies that he would start in our garage next to the old pressure cookers. But this Mangalore Mamma is off after three months to guide other new mom’s and babes into the world of oil massages, and hot water. Baby and I now turn to my devoted mother in law, who kidnaps anyone visiting America, Singapore, Malaysia and Dubai, threatening to stop her annual supply of summer mangoes from her garden if they did not return with acres of tree annihilating plastic bags stuffed with diapers. (It isn’t that diapers are unavailable in India. I think it has something to do with the diapers being foreign). So delighted with us, this kind woman never hesitates to bring all guests to pay their obeisance, even while I’m nursing. Gentle readers often I have often felt like a Centerfold in a national geographic magazine holding a sign-board caption that reads, “Native Non Resident Indian Woman With Son!”
I am now back in LA. There may be not a scarp of difference bringing a baby into the world by women 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 it quits and the kindly nurses send you home with 2 diapers and Johnson’s baby powder. No endless entourage of ayahs here, to fetch and carry, run errands, play with your child while you are getting a pedicure, watch him when you simply must ‘get out of the house,’ wash his cloth diapers, iron his undershirts with precision, cook a variety of wholesome healthy foods and have all of baby’s utensils sterilized and sparkling at any given time. Post Partum what? How could you sink into neurosis and dark desolation when there is a fiesta taking place right in front of you every moment, 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 kicking in to forge a recognizable force to help the new mother regroup and regain her equilibrium. Truly my child was raised by a village! I merely took credit for his Mr. Congeniality smile and his sharp nose. So needless to say I was unprepared for the real labor when I returned to LA.
LA is a different beast. Here, you will find me with hurtling down the aisles of Vons supermarket looking for bottles of ready made baby food. My son, since our return to LA like his mother, is going through a post colonial diasporic, transmigrational transitional period. He will feast on bird droppings, shaving lotion and wet newspaper. But try to entice him to the joys of costly protein packaged Vons baby delicacies and he will spit it in your face. Here in LA my village that raises my son is an imagined dinosaur named Barney, on television and the trash collecting trucks on Mondays. These two items in my son’s life are lifesavers to my sanity and well being. A quick glimpse of weightless Barney prancing around spreading teeth-grinding love and good will along with the mammoth trash collectors, heaving green, black and blue garbage bins into their yawning mouths, are enough to send my son into shivers of delight leaving his mouth open in awe. I quickly shovel spoonfuls of costly store bought food into his mouth.
In LA I am surrounded by moms who belong to pre-natal breast feeding support groups, take yoga and alternative breathing exercises, feng shui lessons in the art of birthing in the right auspicious direction, watch the TLC channel and tape every one of the water births complete with screams, oozing blood, and watch them every night. And then there is the working mom goddess icon whose soaring successes range from the kitchen to the board room. Often she whispers loudly that I am trapped in the stone ages, staying at home smelling my son’s diapers to check if they had the “right smell.” She reminds me that I was once an avatar of Bharitiyar’s Puddumai Penn, a new age desi woman, who listened to NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ and fought every cause in the book and outside of it, complete with candle lit midnight vigils and angry raised fists thrust into the air. Today, I am too concerned by terror in the local playground sandpit from two-year-olds with better and faster motor skills than my son. Today, I am armed with Johnson’s baby powder in one hand, a mismatched pair of socks in the other, a diaper between my teeth, Pink Barney giving toothless gooey smiles on TV, garbage trucks crunching the gravel up our street, I am like any picture of our Hindu Goddesses, wielding power from her numerous arms. But she’s smiling, benign and beautiful, her hair is all in place and she even has make up on. I on the other hand look like vampire grinning maddeningly through it all.
So maybe I ought to start a support group for new age desi mom’s in LA, without our perfect ethnic village, floundering 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 with accents fed on coke and McDonalds 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.
Since writing this article, Anu has joined the ranks of working moms and is employed at UCLA’s Center for Intercultural Performance. She looks forward to sharing notes on the “working mom immigrant saga.”