We poured out of the car onto the ground, like liquid people. The families under their silken tents making churies were much amused.
“You should see all the looks you are getting,” my wife muttered in my ear, with a tone of pride mixed with the contradictory sound of ownership. I looked around. Nobody seemed to be noticing me at all.
“Nobody is looking at me,” I replied.
“Everyone is studying you. An American with an Indian family is rare. The sharp-eyed women even see your blue eyes.”
I looked some more. I just caught the quickest glance of a disapproving mother-in-law, but she may have just been looking for something to add to her glass-coloring mix. But that was all. Nobody else seemed to be paying us any attention.
This was part of my never-ending schooling of how subtle Indians can be. They must have superb peripheral vision because they notice everything and can report in detail on it, although you’d swear they weren’t looking your way. It is very easy to underestimate the common Indian. Just because they don’t have a lot of formal education, or they work in the fields outside a small village, or perhaps they grew up playing in the dirt, they still each have a very powerful brain inside that skull. It’s in the gene pool, and that’s why we see so many Indians spreading through the world in the top fields of science, mathematics, and in the arts of building multimillion-dollar businesses.
The car had parked in a kind of courtyard surrounded by buildings that were separate in style but joined together at the edges. There was only one little street in or out, and that was the way we came, between the families of churi makers. I looked around. I had expected a kind of grand entrance to the house we were visiting, for this member of the family was quite wealthy. Instead, I saw just a couple of ordinary dusty doors amid other dusty doors embedded into the various buildings tightly enclosing us.
Since I’m considered by the family to be stupid and in much need of help, not being Indian, I was usually helped with obvious things. I was pushed gently through one of the dusty doors, but it was as firm a family’s push as if I had been pushed by a surfing-size wave of the Pacific.
Once inside, I saw the grandeur I was looking for.
We left our chappals at the bottom of a long, straight white marble staircase. Climbing, the smooth stone felt cool and welcoming under my bare feet. As I moved up the grand staircase, I saw glass and dark wood and mirrors all around, built in an old, extremely elegant style. It was like walking into one of those fabled Gentlemen’s Clubs in London. A servant wearing kurta-pajama ushered us through a wide double-door at the top, where we were met by Rani-jiji and her daughter-in-law Alka. We moved through hallways, past many closed doors, past an inside courtyard open to the sky, and sat in a semi-formal living room.
In a moment, Rani-jiji’s son appeared. Everyone called him Munna, which is a pet name that means, more or less, “little boy,” and he and Alka were the parents of the two screaming, giggling things zooming around the room.
We sat on chairs, on cushions on the floor, and on a bed-like thing commonly found in Indian houses as an analog to an American sofa. The cool plaster walls were painted in the usual Indian residence style: bright colors, not matched with each other in a Westerner’s eye, but exactly what the largest democracy on Earth liked, so I wasn’t qualified to find fault. The wall colors reminded me of the mixed colors one sees in women’s saris.
All around the room were mysterious double-doors of the kind you always find in old Indian houses. These doors were narrow even with both panels open. Many of them were locked with very secure-looking padlocks. It was impossible to tell if these were doors into closets for clothing or storage, or into another room or corridor.
“There is a room somewhere in this house where they used to keep all the money from their businesses,” whispered my wife as I sat with her on one of the bed-things in the semi-formal living room. “I saw it once or twice when I was a child.”
“Can I see it?” I whispered back.
She wasn’t able to answer. Just then, a servant dressed in a crisp white shirt and somewhat dusty trousers entered the room where we all were sitting. He was barefoot and very skinny. He carried a silver tray with cups of chai: Indian tea with milk, sugar, and usually some cardamom or other exotic spices. Serving and drinking chai was the first thing to do when guests arrive.
His being barefoot was not especially strange. As most people wore chappals (sandals) their feet were bare on the top half anyhow. At the entrance of an Indian household, even in a small poor village, you always remove your shoes. Sometimes you would wear inside-chappals for places like the bathing areas, because the floor was wet or might be a little unclean. If he could afford it, an owner of the house would also have a pair of inside-chappals that he uses inside the house but not in the unclean areas. It is very similar to the customs found throughout the East with respect to shoes in the house. In the kitchen, you never wear shoes of any kind: their soles just might have something on them, and the kitchen is meant to be kept very clean at all times. It is the responsibility of the people who cook in the kitchen—be it servants or the people who just live there—to keep their feet clean, and go barefoot into the kitchen area. Of course, in homes where servants are not found the family simply follows this rule when they cook.
Servants in India have been commonly present for about the last four thousand years, if not more. It is simply a job for people who have not been able to get a better education or a different job. Although in times past the caste system dictated that whole groups of people be assigned automatically to certain roles in society, now it is just a form of employment with no degradation of character. You earn money by sweeping floors; you earn money by driving a train; you earn money by managing a bank. The younger generations of Indians see no personal differences here, although the older generations still hang onto a feeling that servants are a little below the household owners.
I always found it a little hard to ask a servant to get me something when I could walk into the kitchen and get it for myself, but that’s what makes Americans different since we were mostly an equal-opportunity melting pot, or at least tried to be.
My wife’s sister, Sarita, caught my eye. “You want to see some of the house?” she said, flicking her eyes upward and ahead.
“Yes,” I whispered.
Rani-jiji’s house was huge, and ran through many connected buildings, each of which looked dissimilar on the outside. There were inside-courtyards, kitchens, stairways both steep and ordinary, confusing corridors, and rooms with plenty of windows, and some with none at all.
Since many of the four or five inside courtyards looked very similar, and because the inside partitions between rooms were not symmetrical in any fashion it was very easy to get lost.
“This sure is a big place,” I said conversationally as we walked.
“If you have the money, or a family that has been around long enough, this isn’t particularly unusual in the old parts of a city,” said Sarita. “You know how Indians have non-nuclear families?”
“Yes, but what’s that got to do with the house?”
“The idea of a couple and their children living all alone in a house, like in America, is not viewed well here in the older families … Oh! Wait a minute. You’ll like this.”
We entered a room that had furniture and things on the walls, and a couple of tables with lamps on it. She led me to the back wall, and pointed to an almari, a kind of standing wooden closet into which you put clothes. In the West, one might call this piece of furniture a wardrobe. In general, an almari has room for things on hangers, and a set of drawers for things. Often they have little secret compartments for putting jewelry or something. Empty, they weight a ton.
This almari had been pushed up against the wall. It had mirrors in the front of the lockable doors. Sarita pulled the two doors open with a grand flourish. Inside, there was a metal bar upon which some empty clothes hangers wiggled like little beckoning fingers.
She pushed on the back wall inside the almari and to my surprise it split open into the usual two-part Indian doorway. Light streamed past her. She walked through, and I followed. The little dust motes we kicked up looked like the sparkling diamonds found in India everywhere before the British occupation.
We were in a gaily painted room, with window-doors letting in lots of light. There was plenty of dust here; perhaps nobody had been in this room for some years. Around the room were a few pieces of wooden furniture and the ever-present Indian pillows, called gaddis. I didn’t sit down: it would have released a cloud of history-telling dust that I wasn’t prepared to take in at the moment.
“This,” said my sister-in-law, “is one of the partitioned-off parts of the house. It’s fun, because one way in is through the back of that almari. What fun we had playing hide-and-seek! Grown-ups came here through the ordinary corridors. But as I was saying, when you have an extended family, there are times when everybody is together. Festivals, weekend dinners, gossip, or watching Hindi movie VCDs. But there were times when the families need to be alone. Say, two sisters-in-law don’t get along and proximity will make an evening of arguing, so each sub-family can retire to their own area.”
“But what about food and things like that?”
“These houses are built with the centuries-old knowledge of how to make Indian extended families work. Each area, such as the one we are in now, can be closed off from the others. Each area has its own kitchen, bathing areas, bedrooms, and so forth. They are used when separation is needed or desired, instead of the ones in more central parts of the house.”
“But, don’t the other people feel insulted? I mean, when one, ah, sub-family leaves for its own area?”
“Of course not! This is the way families of this size can live together. Maybe the only way. It provides a wonderful pressure valve.”
“Pressure valve?” I asked.
“Yes. Say you have a teenager daughter who is just fed up with the way her brother or parents treat her. You know how teenagers are. One moment everything is wonderful and they love everyone in the family, and the next moment they are rebellious and hate you.”
She paused and pointed out a few hand-painted designs in the walls, then continued talking. “So, when a teenage girl is having problems of growing up, and her direct family doesn’t put up with her temper or foolishness or whatever, the girl can just walk over to her cousin’s family, talk to her masi, and blow off steam.” The word “masi” denotes a woman in the position of the girl’s aunt, but directly translated means “as a mother.”
“Going to your masi is like going to your alternate mother,” continued my sister-in-law, “and she probably will listen to your ranting and raving until you feel better, then you go back to your part of the house and have dinner.”
“Ah,” I murmured, “pressure valve.” All members of humanity need one, somewhere, and those that deny it need a masi to go to immediately. In the West, maybe masis are the people we call psychologists.
She looked around the empty rooms, muttering, “It was like yesterday that your wife and I were little girls running screaming through here during summer vacations. But those days are fading.”
I looked a question at her.
“There’s something insidious affecting the Indian extended family. That’s the stuff coming from America, and to a lesser degree Europe.”
“How do you mean?” I was frowning. The system here seemed so obviously good for so many reasons. Why would anyone turn away from it? For example, in America we have a huge problem taking care of older, perhaps infirm relatives. Here it was built into the system to automatically happen—at least in households like this.
“The younger couples don’t want to live with their relatives,” Sarita said. I heard the oil of disapproval helping her words flow out. “They see things on TV that you and I know are ridiculous. But it makes the young people think that living alone, or with some friends, or any place far away from the family is just wonderful. They foolishly think it makes you happy and rich and nothing bad can happen to you.”
Alex Maarten is a 20-year veteran of the high-tech industry. He now writes full time while trying to figure out his adopted Indian family.