Pragati Grover came to the U.S., newly married with just two suitcases and a Ganesh statue from her mother. She not only learned how to cook, drive, and fall in love with Oprah Winfrey and soap operas in the U.S. but also developed a deeper love for Ganesh, a Hindu god and the remover of all obstacles.
We Belong is a visual series highlighting different experiences of South Asian and Indian identity. This series was produced by India Currents in collaboration with CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Photographs and interviews by CatchLight Fellow Sree Sripathy. The project is currently on exhibition at the ODC Theater in San Francisco now until October 2, 2023. For more information about exhibit open hours visit https://odc.dance/robins-cafe-odc
Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Durgapur in West Bengal. But most of my childhood was spent in Delhi, as well as in Haryana. I went to boarding school in Delhi for high school, and college in Delhi. For my master’s, I went to Tata Institute in Mumbai.
I left India in 1988, from New Delhi and I came to San Francisco. And I’ve been in the Bay Area since then. I landed on May 13, 1988. And on the 14th, my husband took me to listen to Jesse Jackson at Stanford University. That’s one of my fondest memories. And the next day was Bay to Breakers in San Francisco. So can you imagine the introduction I had to America?
How old were you?
I was 23.
What were your first two days in America like?
I did not know how important Jesse Jackson was at that time to the history of America, to the history of human rights. I’ve realized the importance of it, and how blessed I am that I was able to listen to him when I came to this country. He has such a powerful voice and message and I hoped that this country would elect him one day, but unfortunately, that did not happen. Bay to Breakers was an eye-opener for me because there were not only all these people running, and walking, but there were all these naked people. And I had not seen anybody else naked but my husband! I loved the fun so I became a regular Bay to Breakers walker.
Where was your first home in the U.S.?
The first home I went to was in San Jose. My husband Mahesh and Ashok Jethanandani* are brothers, and along with Arvind Kumar*, Mahesh and I lived together in that house for the first three years of my marriage. From the movies I had seen, I was hoping that when I came to America, I would stay in an apartment. My husband had just graduated from college, we had known each other since we were kids. He said we couldn’t afford to buy a house and renting didn’t make sense. I was the only woman in the house. But I was not the one who was expected to cook or clean every day. There were four of us. Everybody was given a calendar schedule, who was cooking and who was going to do the cleaning.
*Ashok Jethanandani and Arvind Kumar started India Currents Magazine in 1987
We bought our first home together, the four of us. And then when I became pregnant, that’s when we needed a bigger home. It was so wonderful for me to have Arvind at home because India Currents was just taking off and he was working from home. Mahesh and Ashok would go to work. You know how quiet it is to come from India and just be alone? You don’t know how to navigate anything. So I would bug Arvind about simple things like how to use a microwave. I didn’t know how to cook when I came to this country. He was very patient with me.
Ashok taught me how to drive. We were such a wonderful unit and I feel so blessed that I had them in my life and it was not lonely for me. It took me about five years to get my green card and I could not go back to India. So having them and a cousin in Santa Clara really helped me to settle in. Mahesh and I were newly married so we were still exploring our relationship. When two people start living together, then you find out the real person.
Did you feel more Indian when you first arrived in the U.S. than now?
When I look back at the pictures from that time, we celebrated Diwali, we celebrated all the Indian festivals, and we cooked Indian food most days. If I look at the pictures of the decor, there are definitely strong elements of Indian art. And because Ashok and Arvind were not only doing India Currents, they also had started Trikone.* I would meet all these wonderful people who would be coming home for meetings and to hang out. Such vibrant discussions about US politics and different authors. I was just soaking it in.
It’s different when you’re living in India, you read about it. Here, people are actually debating the pros and cons of whatever was going on at that time. They did not have a TV in the house. A friend of ours gave me a small, maybe 15-inch black and white TV. Only I watched it. Oprah Winfrey was my favorite and I would watch her every day. And then I started watching one or two soap operas because I got hooked on it.
I remember when I went to the grocery store with Mahesh I was fascinated that there were aisles of food for animals, cats and dogs. What kind of country is this where they have food for just pets? And then when you’re checking out, this woman says to Mahesh, “How are you doing?” I’m thinking, how does Mahesh know this woman in the grocery store?
*Trikone, a magazine started in 1986 was the first publication addressing the needs of the South Asian LGBTQ community
In India, when you were growing up, would you chat with the store staff?
I would never go to the store because we had servants who would go and pick up the things I wanted. I had a driver who dragged me around wherever I wanted. Here, I had to learn how to take the bus from Eastridge Mall to San Jose State. Mahesh told me, if you don’t learn to drive, I am not going to drive you around, I’m not going to be that kind of spouse. And I was like, oh my gosh, how mean he is! But till today, I thank him, because believe it or not there are women my age who still cannot drive on the freeway because their husbands drove them around.
What was it like moving into your own place and maintaining a connection to Indian culture?
I got to meet other young couples. Mahesh had friends from New Jersey who had moved to the Bay Area. They introduced us to all the other couples in their lives, so friendships started forming. By the time I was pregnant with my first one, and moved out, I already had a small village of couples who were having kids at the same time. I saw that they were following Indian traditions of gruhapravesh or namkaran, which is a naming ceremony for the child. We used to go to the Fremont Temple. That was the only temple available at that time.
Can you tell me about the brass box in your living room?
This is my maternal grandmother’s jewelry box. My mom is from Uttar Pradesh and in Moradabad they make this with brass and do all the etching. This is probably 100 years old by now. I got it more than 20 years ago from my mom because I told my mom this is Nani’s and I will cherish it more than my brother or his family. I’ve never asked my mom for jewelry or anything in my life. But I asked her for this and she said of course you keep it. I have not polished it. I’ve not done anything to it. I never move it around, like I might move other pieces around in the family room or living room. I never move this piece around because I feel as if it’s just perfect where it is, on a table in between two chairs. It’s not perfect. The etchings have faded over time since it’s 100 years old but gosh can you imagine holding anything in your hand which is 100 years old?
How did your love for Ganesh and your collection of statues and figurines begin?
In India, I used to have a small mandir, like a temple, in my bedroom. I always found Ganesh very cute as a child. In every Indian household, they set up either a temple or they have whatever God they believe in because that’s supposed to be auspicious. A friend of mine gave me a very cute Ganesh, a small one, as a housewarming gift. And I was like oh my gosh, it’s so cute, I love this! Then I started buying Ganesh. My friends, if they’re traveling and they find Ganesh in different mediums, they will bring me some form of Ganesh. So the collection grew.
I like all kinds of Ganesh. I don’t mind a dancing Ganesh. I don’t mind a Ganesh who’s playing the drums or whatever. What form Ganesh takes doesn’t matter. I think of Ganesh as my friend. When I go to the temple the moment I see the Ganesh murti automatically in my head, I say, please remove any obstacles in our lives. Naturally, it comes to me to say thank you, Ganesh, for helping us with whatever we are going through.
A call for portrait volunteers was promoted in the India Currents newsletter and on social media for this series. Do you have a story to share? We’d love to hear from you! Fill out the Portrait/Story Submission Form and we will contact you.
This series was produced by India Currents in collaboration with CatchLight as part of the CatchLight Local CA Visual Desk. Contributors include Vandana Kumar, Meera Kymal, Mabel Jimenez, and Jenny Jacklin-Stratton. Learn more about CatchLight Local’s collaborative model for local visual journalism at https://www.catchlight.io/local
This series was made possible in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program.