Every time I talk to my dear old granny back at home, she says something that makes me smile at her naivete. For her, America is nothing more than a country where the so called “bhalo chele meye” (good children) go to make a career and return once in two years with chocolates, wearing weird clothes. She, much to my amusement, thinks that American women are exceptionally modern, wearing denims and speaking in English, no matter how old they are.
The last time I called her up (that was when I told her for perhaps the millionth time that I can hear her fine, she doesn't have to scream her lungs out just because I was calling from across the other end of the globe), she instructed me, rightfully with her age and wisdom- I don't want to see you turn out to be an American when I see you next.
After I hung up, I wondered for quite some time what she meant. May be she was referring to something on the lines of short clothes and changed (or utter lack of) mannerisms that maligned our so called rich culture. Was I turning out to be an American at all? Was I? Was I? And then I was shocked to hear my inner voice tell me-
Naah. But may be, you are turning to be a South Indian.
What ! What did you say? A South Indian?
I'll introduce you to someone very close to me, someone I befriended in Seattle, who is now like family. My only family in this foreign country. G, the lady who hosted me during my initial days here.
And almost turned me into a quasi-South Indian.
G is amazing. I had only corresponded with her via emails before I came here. I would never know why I was expecting a buxom lady with traditional looks, waist-length hair weighed down by chameli flowers, wearing a bright yellow Kanjeevaram saree and tons of jewelery. My first surprise (rather, shock) came on meeting a cool chick with the most un-traditional ways. Coming from a family where we usually dress up for visitors, I was a little uncomfortable to see a woman wearing shorts (as in, shorts), and be cool about it. Okay, now that was months ago. With time, G has successfully induced in me the habit of wearing shorts and not giving a damn about dressing up for people.
Soon, I was to find out so many other qualities that only increased her coefficient of “coolness” in my eyes. We soon became very comfortable with each other. She called me names and teased me of my “dehatipan” (rustic nature), getting used to the ways of the country. Her husband, a decent, God-fearing man with fearful, angry looks, dutifully informed me that if I hung around with G, my home would soon look like a garage, shopping for stuff I'll never really need. She has turned me into a shopaholic. I'll soon be sleeping in the streets, not only due to lack of money, but also due to lack of space in my room.
And thus I was introduced to the world of a South Indian couple in the US. Soon, I learned to chomp on the dosas, idlis, rasam, sambar, some preparation she calls the South Indian reduction, tamarind rice, and the coconut chutneys with relish. The weekends at her place would mean listening to the incessant melodrama of South Indian television on her TV (something she spends quite a bit of money on), with buxom women in gaudy sarees stealing babies and dark-skinned and thick-mustached men wearing half lungis and speaking a language I was light years away from understanding. The characters in these soaps speak a lot of accented English, especially when they are fighting over paternity issues and property rights. Every time I heard that man screaming Surryyyaaaaaaaaaaa Suryyaaaaaaaaaaa (as if this is the last time he is singing), I would be reminded of the Surya bulbs and Surya tubes. Soon I started to recognize the latest South Indian tunes, thanks to the fact that G subjects me to the torture of listening to Tamil songs every time she is driving. I would never know what these words meant, but they seem to be words out of popular songs- Vaaji Vaaji Shivaji (I thought it was Bhaaji Bhaaji), Unnale Unnale, Aambal Aambal (God knows what they meant, and why every word is repeated twice). My name was soon abbreviated to a more South Indianized one. Though I understand little Tamil, I soon learned that one had to say “Serri” and shake the head before keeping down the phone, and there were other words like Adi Paawi, Vanda Vanda, Rhomba Rhomba, and Kunjam Kunjam (again, the repetitive words).
Perhaps the rudest shock came to me when I started to witness these guys screaming at each other. Nothing serious, they do that every day. They call each other names which when translated mean pigs and buffaloes. And G tells me that this is their way of lovey-dovey conversation. Imagine my plight being the helpless girl hiding under the dining table when these guys scream at each other in a language I couldn't understand. Later, when I asked her- What were you guys fighting about?, she would coolly reply- Fighting? We were just talking to each other. The most difficult tasks around her husband include getting him in a picture frame, taking him to a mall, or making him smile. He could talk about work and cricket for hours, without even realizing that the ladies at the back seat of the car were snoring. And G could shop for hours, never really getting tired of sales and discounts and outlet malls. She once told me to accompany her to the Burlington Coat Factory to which I made the mistake of asking her innocuously if we needed to buy something from there. The menacing look she gave me after that (which when translated into words meant, silly girl, do we go shopping only when we need something?) was enough to give me the message. And yes, the silliest thing according to her that I have ever told her is the fact that pati is parmeshwar (the husband is God), and it is wrong to call him names that belong to the four-legged bovines and canines.
My next shock came when I was informed that he mom too is an avid reader of my blogs, and she had thus passed the link to the other members of the family. I was stumped, not knowing what to say. Soon, the amount of appreciation I got from the blog-readers in her family compensated for everything.
And thus started my first ever association with a South Indian family, their ways, their cuisine, their language, even the foul language, and the way they fought and screamed at each other. It is strange how we live in different corners of the world without even knowing who will next become an essential part of our existence. So much so that the last time I was on the phone with mom, she remarked that I have developed a mild South Indian accent, and before hanging up she told me something to which I replied- Serri. She couldn't understand if I was asking for a Sari or a glass of Sherry.
And thus started my South Indianization in the US. My introduction to the world of kootus and kozambus, half-lungis and veshtis, mustached men, and women on TV who could better be punching each other at the WWF.