I don’t like to stand out in a crowd. I’ve always tried to blend into the background, be quiet and listen rather than speak. My clothes are modest, nondescript, and I wear little or no jewelry. I’m a plain Jane, a country mouse, eager to scurry away from large gatherings and uncomfortable at formal parties. My cup of chai is a quiet evening at home; time spent with my family or dinner with a few friends—to me, eight is an ideal number for a dinner party.
My Indian husband, on the other hand, loves a party, loves to meet new people and loves to talk—to anyone, anytime, about anything. He grew up going to the country club and attending lots of parties. I grew up on Savannah Street where a party was a room filled with Polish aunts and uncles, a loaf of rye bread, and a ham.
When we were first married, way back in the dark ages of the sixties, Nerm’s mother sent him a custom made tuxedo and a custom made raw silk dinner jacket as a wedding gift. This was my first clue to what Indian parties were like, but since there were no other Indian families living anywhere near us in Hyde Park, New York, I never had to worry about formal affairs. In fact, my very first Indian do wasn’t until we had been married for a few years.
We lived in Reston, Virginia, and my husband worked for IBM, along with a few other men from India. He was no longer the lone Indian. Before long, there were several Indian families in the area, and we were invited to a Diwali party. Diwali, I learnt, is a major holiday in India, marked by visiting friends, lighting candles, giving gifts, gambling, eating sweets, and decorating one’s house. It sounded almost like Christmas, my favorite holiday. We were requested to, “bring a covered dish to share.” I groaned at the thought of cooking Indian food for Indian people; I was not that familiar with the cuisine. There were no Indian restaurants in any of the places we lived. The only Indian food I had ever eaten, except for one notably bad dinner we had on our honeymoon in Manhattan, had always been prepared by my mother-in-law. “What shall I make for the party?” I asked my still-new husband. “I don’t think I can cook any Indian dish that is good enough to serve to people from India.”
“Make my mother’s chicken curry,” he replied. “You do that really well.”
His mother had written her chicken curry recipe for me, step by step, and I did make it fairly well. Since this was the only authentic Indian dish I had ever perfected, I really had no other choice. My next decision was what to wear. I did have some beautiful saris, woven with silver and gold threads, which my in-laws had given to me as a wedding gift, but wearing a sari was not something that felt natural to me. Besides, I didn’t even know how to wrap a sari; the only time I ever tried one on, my mother-in law dressed me. If I tried it myself, I would probably unravel like a roll of ribbon and end up standing in my petticoat with seven yards of silk heaped at my feet. I decided to play it safe and wore my voguish, go anywhere little black dress, black pumps, and a simple strand of pearls.
The day of the party arrived. I agonized over my chicken curry, tasting and adjusting the spices over and over again. I wanted it to be perfect; as good as any Indian wife could make, as good as my mother-in–law could make. I showered and dressed, thankful that I didn’t have to wind seven yards of silk around my body or put a red dot on my forehead. I dressed comfortably in my Western clothes. “Simple, yet sophisticated … perfect!” I said to myself in the mirror.
Nerm and I arrived promptly on time and were greeted by the host. We handed him the bottle of wine we had brought as a hostess gift and were shown into the living room. He took my covered dish and set it smack dab in the center of the long dining room table that was covered with a shiny white brocade cloth. Our host excused himself and said to make ourselves comfortable. I had the feeling that we should have been fashionably late, but at least I could have a good look around before anyone else arrived. Richly patterned oriental rugs were scattered about, several squat, square-ish chairs and settees, very low to the ground, were placed against the walls. I looked around for a higher chair, but there was none. A huge round brass table occupied the center of the room, and smaller, intricately carved wooden tables were scattered about. One table boasted legs carved to resemble elephants, their tusks made of ivory. An ornate silver tea set gleamed on a sideboard, and Indian paintings depicting a mythological blue-faced god hung on the walls. Colorful silk pillows, some with embroidered flowers, others with tiny mirrors sewn onto them, added vibrancy to the décor. It was a beautiful room and so unlike our Montgomery Ward/Sears Roebuck newlywed furnishings.
I sat in one of the low chairs, trying to fold my long legs to fit. The heels I wore made my legs even longer and sitting a foot off the ground made my dress even shorter. My knees almost touched my chin. And if I stuck my legs straight out, it would not only look unattractive, but be a tripping hazard as well. Now I wished I did have seven yards of fabric covering me.
Furthermore, if I continued sitting with my legs folded just so for any length of time, would I ever be able to get up gracefully?
About 40 minutes passed since we arrived. The host and hostess still had not appeared, and no other guests had come. “Where is everybody?” I whispered to Nerm.
“I guess they’re on Indian Standard Time.”
“In India, no one ever arrives at the given time for a party. It’s just not done. People usually come an hour or two after they’ve been invited.”
“Why didn’t you tell me,” I grumbled, “and why didn’t you tell me about the chairs? I can’t pull my dress down, and I don’t know what to do with my legs.”
“Sorry, I forgot.”
Just then our host reappeared and offered us some soft drinks, apologetically stating that he did not serve alcohol in his home. “Why did you tell me to buy a bottle of wine for the party?” I hissed to my husband. Nothing seemed to be going right, and the party hadn’t even begun. I prayed that my chicken curry would be good. A few minutes later, our hostess walked into the room, resplendent in a shimmery turquoise silk and brocade sari trimmed with gold. She wore matching jeweled sandals, dangling gold earrings studded with precious and semi-precious stones, a heavy matching necklace, and an armful of tinkling bangles. Her lustrous black hair was piled high atop her head. Her dark eyes, rimmed with kohl, sparkled. She clasped her hands together and greeted us with, “Namaste.” She looked exquisite.
Finally, the other guests arrived. All of the women were, like our hostess, beautiful Christmas trees who could easily, charmingly sit on the low chairs, their knees covered by saris. They all had lustrous black hair and golden brown skin. And there I sat, the pasty white, bare-kneed American wife, gangly, awkward, underdressed and unadorned. All I could think about was my favorite childhood comic strip about a little mouse named Sniffles, and a little girl who said, “Magic words of poof-poof-piffles, make me just as small as Sniffles.” I wanted to shrink and crawl into a hole.
By now, the dining table was filled with dishes, and our hosts urged everyone to help themselves. Nerm hoisted me up from the chair, and we joined the others in the dining room. I glanced at the table and, poof-poof-piffles, I wanted to evaporate. The table was filled with Indian sweets, only sweets—tiny, colorful, dainty, bite sized goodies—and, in the center, a casserole dish filled with lumps of chicken curry, the dish brought by The American Wife. “Why didn’t you tell me it was only dessert?” I again hissed to Nerm through clenched teeth.
“Sorry, guess I forgot,” he nonchalantly replied as he piled his plate high with dainties. He didn’t take any chicken curry, but, boy, did I want to give it to him.
The evening ended, and I collapsed into the car, finally able to breathe again. “That was a great party,” said my formerly adored husband. “I’d like to have one at our house, too.”
This was too much for me. Holding the dish of untouched chicken curry in my lap, I glared at him and cried, “Over my pasty white, un-saried, unadorned body!”
Now, almost 50 years later, my husband—yes, the same one—and I laugh about my first encounter with the Indian community in America. Indian faces now smile at me everywhere I go, and Indian markets and restaurants abound. Our senior center celebrates India with food and music; our friends, regardless of ethnicity, discuss Indian movies and music. And me, I still think that Indian women, clad in saris and jewels, look exquisite, like beautiful Christmas trees.
Pauline Chand lives in San Jose, CA with her husband of 48 years.