My family and I moved back to India seven years ago. Having been extremely isolated from family doings in the state of Montana in America, I was ripe for schmoozing. I would be there for family, I thought. By that, I meant weddings, funerals, baby christenings or “naming ceremonies” as they are known here, for the “head-shavings,” and “ear-piercings.” Mentally, I had images of myself decked to the “sevens” (even in my dreams, I haven’t been able to be decked to “nines”) meeting group after group of family members, introducing little ones around, reminiscing about our shared past, enquiring after their families, oohing and aahing over little ones who were all “growed-up” and talking about what the future holds for us all. In short, I would snuggle back in to the bosom of my family.
When I got my first invite, I was all set for the start of my Back-In-India-and-Ready-to-Integrate scheme. However, I’d not reckoned witht a very important group —my own family. I showed my daughters the invite, explained the far-fetched family connection and explained in detail how we’d been brought up together. I also revealed my ace with a flourish: “Guess what, it’s on a weekend. You needn’t take the day off from school, either!” Then I sat back, beamed, and braced myself for the “Yeah, let’s go’s!”
Instead I got a flat “No!” The reasons were valid: the kids had time to relax only during the weekends. They were not going to waste it by wearing glittery-but-itchy clothes and going to the noisy wedding of someone they didn’t care about. They also wouldn’t know anybody. They would get introduced to innumerable people who would pinch their cheeks and ask which class they were studying in. All this for just a laddu, jalebi or mysorepak? No thanks! In vain I pushed the need for family. They didn’t budge. “You go if you think it’s that important!” was the final verdict.
I looked at my husband. He looked at the newspaper in his hand. When I asked him, he looked up with a martyred air. “Someone will have to stay with the kids. I’ll do it. Meanwhile, you go and enjoy yourself.” I didn’t buy it for a minute. He didn’t want to go and luckily the kids had handed him the perfect excuse.
Well, “It” was that important to me, so I went, togged in a too-grand sari with a too-tight blouse and some matching fake jewelry, all ready to meet and greet, only to find that the large family groups that I’d anticipated had dwindled into representation by one in the family, just like me! There were no kids over seven years of age. The older ones must have had the same ideas as mine.
And since their offspring weren’t around to give lie to what they said, the parents were extremely free with their praise. “My son is so into technical things that I won’t be surprised if he became an inventor,” said one parent with a fatuous smile. “Mine has been always first in class, except the time she missed the exam. She was in a Science Olympiad; she won the first prize,” another parent boasted. Yet another one turned to me then. “I suppose you don’t have to worry about that kind of thing with your daughters.” That was so mean that I retaliated, “My daughters are more into sports. They swim.” My voice trailed off dramatically, as if to imply “Michael Phelps, you better watch out.” The person in question opened his mouth to presumably deflate my claim, but luckily we were called for breakfast.
Enough of the young parents crowd, I thought. The older aunts and uncles might be more fun to visit with. But after the initial pleasantries, I began getting a lot of scolds: why I’d come back to live in India, why I hadn’t come back earlier, why I’d put on weight, why I’d cut off my long braid, why I wasn’t working full-time, why I was working part-time, why I had come to this wedding and not to the one that they had conducted last year. It was just a bunch of rebukes.
They say that women tend to forget the pain of child-birth until they are confronted with it the next time around. I found that the pain of attending weddings worked the same way. With all the years away, I’d forgotten the bad consequences of having many family members being present in one space. They still treated me like a little kid, but scolded me like an adult. In short, it was no fun at all.
Well, to be fair, I was exaggerating when I said it was all either boasts or reprimands. There was another topic of conversation. During a lull in the dressing down I was getting, I asked an aunt if her husband had come to the wedding. She fixed a sapient eye on me and said, “He couldn’t come because he has PKD.”
PKD? I knew about CID and LAPD. What was this PKD? The aunt looked at me pityingly. “Progressive Kidney Disease. His was in Stage 3 by the time he went to the doctor. Stage 4 would have meant dialysis. We had to hospitalize him. It cost Rs. 5 lakhs.” She settled back in her chair, her expression daring me to top it. Wait a minute—was she really proud that her husband had a disease?
I honestly didn’t know what to say. Hesitantly, I replied, “At least you were in good health and could take care of him.”
At that, she gave a merry laugh. “Oh, not at all! I have a long list of back problems. My spinal cord became compressed between my 10th and 11th vertebrae and I was in the hospital for a month. My treatment cost four lakhs and I still can’t sit or stand for any length of time. And my son has Ulcerative Colitis, while my poor daughter has borderline COPD.”
I was flummoxed. This aunt who had barely passed her high school was talking like she edited the latest edition of a “What’s What of Human Pathology.” Secondly, her family seemed to be plagued by disease. But most importantly, she seemed to be proud of it!
A few more conversations showed me that this kind of pride in having a disease or a health problem was the rule, especially when told along with treatment costs. Somewhere along the way, having a disease had become a status symbol, and if you didn’t have one, your name was mud.
I realized this fully, a little later. I was part of a group where everyone was talking about health problems, their own and that of their family members’. Suddenly there was a lull in the conversation. My head reeling with names of diseases and doctor’s fees and advice, I saw it was my one chance to regain some status.
“I had knee surgery a few years ago. I had to be in bed for one and a half months. It cost $5000!” I saw a gleam of respect in their eyes and was gratified. Unfortunately, it made me a little reckless. “Thank God, I’m okay now,” I blurted out.
They all, every last one of them, gave me a disgusted look and closed ranks to continue their descriptions of the operations they had, the size of their gall stone and the problems they still suffered, post-treatment. Mumbling something about having to meet someone else, I quickly made my exit.
At least there is the wedding lunch, I thought. I’ll enjoy that. Alas, by the time I went to lunch, they were out of the special sweet they were serving. Unlike the old days when guests used to be God, it’s first come, first served, these days. Caterers cook exactly what is required for the number of ‘plates’ ordered, so if people take seconds, latecomers lose. The rest of the food was so rich and oily that I came home with bad heartburn of both the physical and mental kind.
So I faced the truth: weddings weren’t what they used to be. And neither was I. I wondered if I’d ever get back that eagerness with which I used to attend weddings.
Recently, however, I had an epiphany. I’m going to enjoy the next wedding, just you watch.
I’ve begun to turn my creativity to come up with glowing if not wholly veracious stories about my children. After all, they were not going to be there to verify them one way or another. As for the aunts and uncles, I’ve found a way to handle them. Talk to them about the old days, and they become as putty in my hands. And in the meanwhile, I’m also working on coming up with some diseases that are badass but not so badass as to be life-threatening.
Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em …
Lakshmi Palecanda moved from Montana to Mysore and is still adjusting. Lakshmi.firstname.lastname@example.org