Friday, January 27, 2012

Spicy Mac 'n Cheese: American Desi

Today I was contacted by a reporter affiliated with Public Radio International. She wanted to find out my views about the Indian diaspora in the U.S.--how issues of class and caste continue here long after we have adopted a new homeland. While the weighty topic deserves its own time in the sun, her question reminded me about how little time I spend every day pondering the larger issues. I am an Indian American yet both parts of me are completely fused together. At home, we eat "Indian" food and go "international" (yes, even macaroni and cheese counts) at least as often.

Just about every American I meet for the first time will ask me: "Did you have an arranged marriage?" The answer, No, seems genuinely disappointing to most. Already my husband and I don't fit into easy narratives. Yet our Indianness permeates our lives in many wonderful ways--in the aloo paratha my older daughter claims is her comfort food or the kailas jeevan my younger daughter will use when she burns herself making chocolate chip cookies.

Pondering over the reporter's question made me wonder about the times when my Indian side and my American side show up together and how they resolve themselves, most of the time, without any incident.

One recent episode comes readily to mind. I ran into an Indian friend who lives in the same town as I. Lalitha and I shop at the same desi store. The term desi is often used as an adjective in a slightly derisive tone, and translates loosely to "country bumpkin." In the U.S. it is used to describe pretty much anything of South Asian origin. Lalitha tells me how in a desi store in New Jersey, apparently they had found a snake nested in some exotic produce the store was selling. The story went that the snake bit the man who was fishing around in the box preparing a bag to bring home to his family. In half an hour the guy was dead. Both Lalitha and I knew that the story was probably not entirely accurate--that in its telling and retelling, it was quite possible a few spicy details had been added.

Still Lalitha was rattled enough to approach our own desi store lady and ask her what precautions the store was taking to make sure such an accident doesn't happen here. The incident didn't faze the store owner. "Uska time aaa gaya hoga," (his time must have come) was the response Lalitha managed out of her. "Can you imagine?" Lalitha asked me, taken aback by the answer. Both of us shook our head in indignation. The silent fact left unsaid was that such a thing would have never happened in an "American" store and that the manager would never have replied so callously to a customer's genuine concern.

Yet both Lalitha and I knew exactly where the store owner was coming from. Fatalism is a vital undercurrent of everyday life in India; it's an easy way of coping with life's unexpected challenges. Brushing disasters off as something out of our hands, as His way of making sure things come out even, makes life tolerable.

In the wonderful book Mumbai Noir, the editor points out that many have wondered how Mumbaites for example, can continue to persevere, to carry on unfazed, even after so many incidents of mass violence and terrorism have taken place in the teeming city. His rationale, that the city is comprised of many "mini cities" each doing its own thing, seems right but doesn't reveal the entire picture in my judgment. What binds Mumbaites together is a sense of a larger purpose, all of us moving together in a crowded suburban local, each a puppet whose strings are controlled by someone else. Fatalism. When a bomb blast goes off, it's not callousness that makes Mumbaites move on, it's an essential survival technique. Uska time aaa gaya hoga, someone says and shakes his head. And everyone moves on.

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