Author’s note: This is one of the chapters from a new novel I am writing. The novel explores the challenges faced by Asians in adjusting to the new culture in US while preserving their traditions.
Because we live so close to Washington, D.C., we frequently get visitors from India. Most of the time it is family, but sometimes it could be friends or friends of friends. Members of the family stay longer, for up to a month or more. Friends not that long, maybe a few weeks or less.
This year it’s family. More precisely, it’s going to be uncle Mayur, Dad’s younger brother, and his wife Anjali. It’s late December and the houses on our neighborhood are lit up with Christmas lights. We don’t celebrate Christmas but adorn two small bushes in the front with string lights. The same thing goes with putting up the Christmas tree. In the beginning dad was furiously against it. But mom convinced him that we should do it for us, children, who are growing up here.
“It’s for the children, you know.” I once heard mom tell our neighbor Betsy. “They see their friends celebrating, getting gifts. The whole place is in holiday mood. So I say to Vijay why be so obstinate about it. We are still Hindus.”
“Then what did he say?” Betsy had asked.
“You know how he is. Oh, it’s not our religion. We celebrate Diwali.”
“Sometimes I have to put my foot down, you know. I know an Indian wife has to listen to the head of the household, her husband. But, heck, we’re in America.”
So that’s how dad agreed that we “celebrate” Christmas. It started with us having a small two feet tall tree that we kept on a coffee table. Now we have a big six feet tall artificial one that is decorated with ornaments. I think he now enjoys it.
“Look here,” He says on Christmas Eve, addressing mom, as we are sitting in a Greek restaurant. “Mayur just sent an e-mail. He and his family want to visit us in January. They want to see the snow this time.”
We sometimes go out to a restaurant on Christmas Eve. Mom first doesn’t pay attention.
“Did you hear me?” he asks, slightly raising his voice.
“I hear you, I hear you. How long are they staying?”
“I don’t know. But they are family.”
“But Daddy, we just hosted a Diwali party. You know how much work it was. Now to entertain these people? for a month? or more? And that Anjali. She doesn’t lift a finger to help, like she is a royalty or something.”
That is true. Uncle Mayur owns a business in Mumbai — something to do with commercial air-conditioning. They have five servants to serve them in their house, is what I hear. There is one to sweep the floor, one to cut vegetables, one to cook food, one to wash their clothes, one to iron their clothes, etc. No wonder auntie Anjali acts like a manager without doing anything herself. Labor is cheap in India, but it’s also a question of one’s social status. If you have achieved a certain status in society, you don’t do manual labor. Auntie Anjali doesn’t realize life in America is different.
“I can’t say no. We’ll manage.” Dad says after a pause.
“Okay. But don’t expect me to cook for them morning, afternoon and evening. They are very picky eaters.”
“Okay, Okay. We have to plan something else. There’s always Bombay Cafe. We can take out sometimes.”
Mom doesn’t argue. She knows dad is not going to budge.
So it was. Uncle Mayur arrives on January 16th, the Martin Luther King birthday. Dad is in a jovial mood and picks them at the Dulles International Airport. When they are home Mom hugs Anjali. She has to appear cordial. She just says how are you? to uncle Mayur. Says it must have been a long flight, should I make some tea?
They agree. Dad is all smiles, just keeps looking at his brother as if they haven’t met in years. As a matter of fact they had visited us a couple of years ago.
Our house has three bedrooms. When Krishna is home we share one bedroom. Mom and Dad have the master bedroom and Lakhmi has the third one. Now I have to give my bedroom to the guest couple and got to the basement. A situation I am not looking forward to.
Uncle Mayur says they have seen all the monuments and museums during their last visit. They had visited in summer, but this time they have come during winter to experience the snow.
“We’ve seen images of blizzards on TV, but want to actually see how it is in person.” He says.
“Believe me it’s no fun,” Says Dad. “It’s good to stare at from inside the house. The roads are treacherous, going to work is hazardous.”
“Yes. Once I went to get the newspaper from the driveway and slipped. My glasses bent out of shape and I looked like a fool.”
Well for two weeks after their arrival it doesn’t snow. We wonder if they may have to return without witnessing a snow storm. Dad goes to work at the University as usual. I have school. Poor mom has to entertain them by taking them for grocery shopping, to the Fair Oaks Mall and then cook for everyone. Visitors always have to buy stuff to take it back with them. Mom is getting tired but doen’t show it.
Upon Dad’s arrival from the university both brothers have a cocktail hour, mostly scotch on the rocks, as mom cooks and auntie Anjali watches. Sometimes they share the Indian snacks they have brought with them. Mom and auntie Anjali sometimes have red wine. But if auntie Anjali said “no” to drink, for whatever reason, then mom would feel obliged to forgo. We never bought takeout food from Bombay Café as dad had suggested earlier.
One Saturday Dad took our guests to the Udvar Hazy Air and Space museum. They had missed it in their earlier visit. I have home work to do, so I donn’t go. It is late afternoon when I hear some voices upstairs and many footsteps as if several people are walking around. I come up from the basement and notice everyone have returned and in addition there is Betsy and Kevin, our next door neighbors.
“So Dr. V, you must be glad to have your brother with you.” Kevin says to my dad. Kevin always wears shorts. Even in dead of winter he may have a fleece hoody or a winter jacket but it’s always shorts instead of jeans or long work out pants. Today, however, he is wearing jeans and a checked sports shirt. I guess Betsy must have said something.
“Yes. Mayur and his family arrived here a couple of weeks ago.”
“I tell you,” Kevin says turning to uncle Mayur. “Your brother’s such a gentleman. Very nice neighbors, very peaceful.”
Uncle Mayur doesn’t know how to respond.
“Mayor, is that how you say it, your name?” Kevin continues addressing uncle Mayur.
“No, sir. It is pronounced M A A Y O O R.”
“My apologies. You don’t have to call me Sir. I’m Kevin. What do you do Maayer?”
“I have business with commercial air-conditioning. We have contracts with major companies in Mumbai.”
I notice uncle Mayur avoids calling him by his first name. Mom is in the kitchen preparing tea. Betsy is talking with auntie Anjali.
“Isn’t that a beautiful sari? Do you wear saries all the time?”
I don’t think auntie Anjali is wearing a special sari. It is just a run of the mill everyday sari. But what would Betsy know? Auntie Anjali says no, she sometimes wears Salwar Kameez.
“Well, I guess a sari will keep you warm in winter. I want to wear one, one of these days, Perhaps Sharaada will loan one of hers. Isn’t that so, Sharaada?”
She has elongated my mom’s name. Mom looks up and says “Oh, sure. One of these days. I have some very colorful ones. They’ll look good on you with your fair complexion.”
“Oh, you are sooo sweet.” Betsy says slightly touching mom’s shoulder by her fingers.
Mom has finished preparing tea and brings it to the family room where the men are sitting. She notices me standing quietly.
“Oh. Arjun. I didn’t see you coming in. We met our neighbors when we came back from the museum and invited them in for tea. It’s so nice of them to accept.”
I join the men. When Kevin looks at me I go and shake his hands and say “Hi, Kevin. How are you?”
Dad looks at me as if I have done something terribly wrong. How can a high school kid address a grown man by his first name? Perhaps he is expecting me to call Kevin “Uncle Kevin.”
Mom keeps the tray with the tea and cookies on the coffee table. Dad asks Kevin if he would prefer scotch instead.
“Oh, no-no,” Kevin replies. “I’m fine with tea. Thanks Sharaada.”
For a while there is silence. Then Kevin asks Dad if he was following the Wizards or the Capitals.
“Following a what?” Dad asks.
I notice it is an awkward moment for Dad.
“The baseball spring training will start in a month.” I say to change the subject.
“Hey, Ajun. I didn’t see you standing here. How’s the future Bryce Harper? I heard a lot about your game.”
He always misses the “r” in my name.
“Thanks Kevin. Guess I lucked out.”
“How would you like your boy growing up to be a great baseball player, Dr. V?”
“Noo. I am trying to convince him to be an engineer.” Dad gives his standard response.
Uncle Mayur is listening in silence, not finding anything of common interest to talk with Kevin. I had seen him in heated discussions with other Indian friends that visited us, but this is different. The ladies, especially mom and Betsy, are having a great time in the kitchen. I can tell by their loud laughter. They are probably talking about the terrible sales during the Christmas season and any new stores opening up in the neighborhood — normal womanly gossip. Kevin and I talk at length about the prospects of Wizards making it into the playoff and John Wall’s numbers. Kevin is a fan of the Gonzaga Bulldogs. So we talk a bit about college basketball. Dad is probably glad I saved him from having an uncomfortable evening.
Kevin and Betsy leave after an hour.
“Enjoy your stay here. So glad to meet you both. Hope you get to see the snow.” They say.
Kevin gives a light hug to mom. Betsy hugs mom, hesitates to hug auntie Anjali, but then reaches over and hugs her anyway. Dad just waves his hands at them and says “Good night.” Uncle Mayur just stands behind him, smiling.
It’s the third week since the arrival of uncle Mayur and auntie Anjali. There is no snow in forecast. We are wondering if their luck is wearing off. Finally, on a Friday Dad and uncle Mayur are enjoying their daily cocktails while watching nightly news. Amelia, the girlish weather person on NBC, is issuing a warning.
“This time it is for real, folks,” Amelia is saying. “Expect to get up to six inches or more of snow over the next two days.”
“These guys are never right,” Dad says. “We’ll see. Fortunately it’s a weekend, so I don’t have to go to work.”
“What about Arjun? Will he have school?”
“Virginia schools are very panicky about snow. You’ll see, if it happens, they will shut down everything, no school activities.”
“I’ll go to Giants and pick up a few things, in case we can’t get out of the house.” Mom says. She has heard the talk of snow.
This time Amelia is right. The snow flurries start at ten at night. Both uncle Mayur and auntie Anjali can’t get away from the front windows. They have pulled the blinds up and are watching the snow come down. The snowflakes shine in the light from the pole lamp on the front lawn.
“It’s like God sprinkling white powder from the sky.” They say.
By morning our whole neighborhood is a sheet of white coat. Trees are covered in white. It’s a picture perfect scene.
“Well, we got our money’s worth.” It’s Auntie Anjali.
Dad turns the TV on. All channels are covering the big event and giving latest updates on road conditions. We wait until late afternoon to venture out through the garage. The snow has tapered off. Dad and I go out in our snow boots, winter coats and gloves. Lakshmi joins a bit later. We see a pile of up to a foot of snow from the garage door to the street. Uncle Mayur says he wants to help. We recommend him to stay inside. We don’t want him to incur any injuries and expensive medical care. He agrees.
When we come inside after clearing the snow it has turned dark. Dad lights up the fireplace. Mom makes hot chocolate for everyone.
“Viju Dada,” Uncle Mayur starts to say something to Dad.
It’s customary in India to add the “Dada” after a name to signify “big brother.” “Viju” is short version of “Vijay.”
“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something.” He continues.
Dad is busy tending to the wood in the fireplace. He turns and asks “What’s it? What do you have in your mind?”
Dad comes and sits besides his brother.
“Okay tell me.”
“Well. It’s about Lakshmi.” Uncle Mayur is serious. “She’s growing up into a pretty young lady and you should think of a suitable boy for her.”
“I know a Joshi family from Delhi. My business partner. Pure Maharashtrian Brahmin. Very nice, respected family. Very well to do. Own a three bedroom flat, and a car with a chauffeur. ”
I am sitting on the sofa close to them watching TV. I turn down the volume, knowing something serious is going on. I look towards the kitchen. Mom is busy preparing dinner and I finally see auntie Anjali cutting vegetables.
“The Joshi’s have a son. He’s a doctor. Currently an intern at a hospital in Philadelphia.”
Dad’s eyes lit up.
“Yes. I’ve seen his photo. Looks fair, tall, and pleasant-looking. I hear he already owns an Audi.”
“What’s his name?”
I’m listening to this talk. It sounds weird to me. For all I know here in America young people meet, date, fall in love, decide to get married and then inform their parents. This matchmaking sounds convoluted to me.
“Akaash, means sky. Sky’s the limit with his potential. Get it? He’ll be a perfect match.”
“What do you suggest?” Dad is interested.
“Tell you what. There’s no rush.”
“Go on.” Dad says again.
“I can give you his contact information in Philadelphia. Maybe Lakshmi and Akaash can get together and see if there a “Click.”
I am listening. “A click?” What’s that supposed to mean, some magical transformation that says two people are compatible? I don’t understand.
“Then,” Uncle Mayur continues. He is really serious. “Why don’t you come to India this summer? Visit the Joshi family and see if you like them. I’ll make all the arrangements.”
“I don’t know.” Dad has doubts. “Let me talk to Arjun’s mom and see what she has to say. A doctor, Huh?”
“Hey. It doesn’t hurt to try you know. Unless you have someone else in mind, here.”
“No. We don’t.”
“Well, then, try it. If it works it’s well and good, If not, we’ll look somewhere else. I have a lot of connections.”
Sure I say. Is anyone thinking about talking with Lakshmi?
Mom announces that dinner will be ready in ten minutes. I go to the kitchen and to see if she needs help in setting up.