The summer of my eldest daughter’s birth in Knoxville, Tenn., was my time of “confinement,” an antiquated Victorian term, but one that aptly described my condition. To welcome her into the world, my parents, in-laws, siblings, sundry relatives, and my best friend descended on us, most of them from India, a few from distant parts of the United States. Along with them our relatives brought along the cultural taboos of Hindu Brahmins, similar to those observed by orthodox Jews. These taboos kept the new parents from sharing a bedroom for a few months and kept the new mother isolated from the kitchen and living area. She was considered unclean. Such confinement kept her from contaminating the family, while at the same time protecting her (and her baby) from infectious diseases and giving her time to rest and recuperate. Even after the ritualized cleansing bath, several weeks after the birth of my baby, when I could move about the house more freely, I spent most of my time in the bedroom. I was breast-feeding and modesty kept me from doing so in front of male relatives. Confined to the four walls of the bedroom, I could not even watch television, because the only one we had was in the living room. I felt terribly removed from the exciting hubbub of world events and family gossip. Hungry for news, I’d pester my family for snippets the way my baby cried for food. It was the summer of circumspection and circumscription, of enforced bovine languor, when all I did was eat so that I could feed my baby.
Guests came and went in a steady flux. None of them could drive, so the duty of chauffeuring them to and from the airport fell on my husband. He made the airport trip over 80 times during that four-month period, hugging the steering wheel to his chest the way I hugged my baby to mine. It was a juggling act, made more complex because my in-laws were orthodox Brahmins who never ate meat; my best friend could not subsist on a vegetarian diet, eating, like cattle, what she called ghas phoos or grass. Fortunately, both my friend and my in-laws were visiting the United States for the first time and they wished to do some sightseeing. So we managed the logistics of their conflicting diets and taboos by sending my in-laws on a touring trip, organized by a reputable travel agency, while we hosted my friend and vice versa.
When my in-laws returned from their tour we realized we had not been as careful in our planning as we’d hoped. Even though we’d ensured that they carried the kitchen with them—everything from a small rice cooker to spices and pickles—they were still forced to join the rest of the group for one memorable meal. In most restaurants my in-laws could avoid watching people cut into meat by sitting at a separate table and eating grilled cheese sandwiches, or pastas and salads. Sometimes they pleaded exhaustion and went to their own room, where they cooked their simple fare. In many towns they had relatives who hosted them for Indian meals. However, when they were traveling by bus from New Mexico to Texas, they had no one to rescue them. The meal was en route to the next hotel stop and my in-laws had nowhere to hide.
The dinner that evening must have been the highlight of the trip for the rest of the tour group: a visit to a cattle ranch, a fatted calf roasting on the barbecue pit, all the tourists seated on either side of a long table, and a rooting, tooting, foot-stomping band of cowboy musicians to entertain them as they ate.
“Narakam,” said my father-in-law, when they got back. “Hell. I don’t have to die to know what cremation and hell feel like. I saw it that day as the cow rotated slowly over the burning coals, its fat splattering and sizzling as it hit the fire, the cook cutting off slices now from the top of the body, now from the side. The people ate the meat almost raw—we could see the blood oozing out of the slices. We could not swallow a mouthful of the vegetarian noodles they served us. We completely lost our appetite after that experience. We have to go to Banaras to absolve ourselves of this sin, but even the Ganga cannot wash out the memory.” Whether it was the memory of that meal, the frugality of the other meals, or just the exhaustion of travel, my in-laws looked as emaciated as Western tourists in India afflicted by Delhi belly.
There was another indelible memory of America and broken taboos that my in-laws took back with them from their trip. We discovered this when my husband and I, with our baby in tote, took them to the airport to see them off. They had tickets to JFK and then on to India. When we got to the airport we found out that my father-in-law was wait-listed. My mother-in-law did not wish to travel alone, so we lingered at the gate, hoping another seat would become available. All around us was the controlled chaos of boarding: passengers gathering their belongings and getting in line as those who’d accompanied them to the airport bid farewell. The official at the gate called out the names of those passengers who had not yet checked in, but were booked on the flight.
One couple was locked in a passionate embrace, unable to part. Inured by our years in the United States my husband and I had learned to ignore such overt intimacies, to see them as routine, to detour around lovers. But my in-laws, though they hailed from the land of Kama Sutra, were unused to seeing in public what in India remains hidden behind bedroom walls. Though they had recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, they had never held hands in company, let alone kiss. My mother-in-law stole decorous glances at the young couple, but my father-in-law openly gawked.
“Don’t stare,” my mother-in-law admonished her husband, “Porum.” Enough.
“Enough?” my father-in-law teased, his eyes still riveted on the young couple, and perhaps particularly on the stunningly attractive, scantily clad, long-legged blonde. “That’s what he’s asking her: ‘Poruma, poruma, poruma? Is this enough? Is this enough? Is this enough?’ But she wants more, more, more.”
“You think?” My husband wondered, feeling he had his father’s permission to look, if only to set the record straight. “Is she kissed or kissing?”
“Chi, chi, chi,” my mother-in-law scolded her son, thoroughly scandalized, not only that the couple was kissing, but also that it was proving so titillating for the men in her family. “This is what we saw in all the airports through which we traveled. Americans carry their bedrooms with them wherever they go and we are plunged into their intimacies. Return to India with your daughter. This is no place to raise a girl.”
Right then the attendant called my father-in-law’s name. One of the passengers was a no-show, so my father-in-law was assured a seat. We touched their feet in reverential parting, even as my mother-in-law again abjured America, advising us to return to India with our daughter. Our traditional way of bidding farewell drew more stares than the kissing couple. The airlines closed the gate as my in-laws walked down the ramp. We waited for their flight to take off safely.
As the plane taxied off the runway, the lovers broke from their embrace. The man dashed to the gate. “Hey, hey, hey, that’s my flight,” he yelled. The official checked his ticket. “We kept calling your name,” he said.
“Now, look what you made me do,” the young man laughed, hugging his girlfriend to him, not the least bit upset.
“Stop staring,” my husband said, picking up the baby in her carrier with one hand, reaching out to me with the other. We left the airport giggling and holding hands.
Parting used to be such sweet sorrow when we could go all the way to the airport gates and our home traditions spilled into our airports. There was an innocence to our intimate farewells that we forever lost on 9/11 and nothing reflects this new reality more poignantly than our inability to bid a lingering goodbye. I realized this while at the airport recently, watching a couple disembark from their car. As a disembodied voice announced, “Parking on the airport driveway is strictly prohibited … your vehicle will be ticketed and towed … you must be actively unloading or loading passengers in the vehicle,” a cop, with “POLICE” inscribed on his orange vest (in case you did not already know) walked towards the couple. In his opinion the car had already finished actively unloading its passenger and the luggage. The couple, constrained by the censorious eye of Homeland Security, hastily hugged before the man drove away. Even my conservative in-laws would not have wished so many confining rules and taboos on America.
Freelance editor and writer Radhika Kumar lives in Federal Way, Wash. The passage about dinner at a cattle ranch was first published in the Seattle Times. The essay is a tongue-in-cheek salute to Paul Theroux and his travel articles about India.