"Maa, Indian or American is not the question anymore. Come out of the tombs in Agra. The world has changed and we need to keep up the pace.” Naina lamented on the WhatsApp video call while letting out a big yawn. “Wait, let me get some tea for myself.”
“Nainu, you listen to me. Whatever you say, do not compromise on Pihu’s Indian values. You and Shubham chose to settle in America much to our displeasure. Now, don’t play with Pihu’s life,” Amma complained.
“Wait Maa, let me put the water on the stove. I will call you back.” Naina placed the phone on the kitchen shelf against the wall and took out the organic reduced fat milk from the refrigerator. As she searched for the copper pan to make tea, her mind started dissecting her 8 years of life in California. Naina and Shubham, colleagues in Teletech International, Bangalore, relocated to America within a month of their wedding once their H1B visa got approved. Initially they were based in Jersey City but after Pihu’s birth, they relocated to a warmer California.
Motherhood did bring joy in her life but with each passing month, Naina found herself drawn into something bigger and insanely difficult to handle. Naina was surprised at the cosmic shift that can happen in life when a baby pops out of the womb. As if every milliliter of alcohol inside the body dried up, the hormones vaporized in thin air and all the morality, values and traditions of India had one door to knock – Naina’s. The questions hurled at her were too big to even grasp, forget follow. “Does she know the Hanuman Chalisa?” Really? She is not even five. “Did you enroll her in Chinmaya Mission for Hindi classes?”, “Don’t forget Basant Panchami as per US calendar!”, “Keep your home and your lifestyle Indian, everything will fall in place, don’t worry!” Phew!
The tea started to overflow as Naina scurried to save it just in time. Carrying her cup to the study room, Naina called her mom over voice call.
“Haan Maa, now tell me!”
“What is there to tell? Send Pihu here. I will take care of her. The kid doesn’t know Jana Gana Mana. Which Indian wouldn’t know?” Amma huffed and puffed in anger. Yesterday was15th August, she had asked Pihu to recite the national anthem and the mayhem today was a result of the 4-year old’s inability to remember it completely. That in Amma’s eye was a sin and Naina was facing the brunt of it. Such war of words was not new to her though. Her Amma (Ambika Awasthi) was with Naina in Jersey City at the time of her delivery. Pihu had set the game of thrones – India or USA – and Amma had been vigilant over Pihu’s upbringing since then. Today, though, it was different. For the first time Amma spoke about sending Pihu back to India and Naina was bewildered.
“I am telling you, you send her to me. I have raised two daughters and see where you both are. Nobody ever raised a finger at you or your sister. Look at the career you both have. Do you doubt my upbringing?”
“Maa, are you serious. You want me to send my daughter to you and then? What about me?”
“You plan for the second one.” Amma blurted without a thought.
“Enough Maa! I need to get back to work. I cannot have this conversation every day. It is ruining my happiness and peace of life. I fail to understand what is so grossly wrong with America? Pihu is my daughter and I know what to do.” Naina screamed over the phone.
“See, this is how you talk to me now. This America I tell you.”
“Bye Maa!” Naina cut the call and switched off her phone. The Friday morning which otherwise looked sunny and sprightly, seemed to have cast a harrowing spell over Naina’s mind. She hated herself for disconnecting the call like this but the mere idea of sending Pihu back hit her deep.
While she stared at her office mails blankly, Naina took out an A4 sheet next to her table lamp, her purple pilot pen and started writing.
I know, a 'hi' is more like me but you have a soft corner for 'Pranam', hence. But Maa, whether I say a ‘pranam’ or a 'Hi ', my love and respect for you remains the same. You will be glad to know that I am teaching Pihu to touch the feet of her elders. I know you like it that way. Thought she doesn't get to do this often. When you do things repeatedly as part of your life, chances of it being inculcated is stronger.
Amma, Pihu was born in America but has Indian origins. That's the long and short of her national/international identity. She will know about the Indian anthem and the American anthem, the national bird, the national flower, the currency, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi. But this is just information which she will memorize. 'Jana Gana Mana ' is my national anthem. Will I teach her? Yes, but merely singing the national anthem does not prove anything. Living it in spirit does. If she does not get 'Jana Gana Mana' right, I am perturbed. If she does not get her responsibility as a world citizen right, I am worried...deeply worried. Knowing the national anthem is meaningless if she does not know how to behave as a responsible citizen.
You were worried over her Hindi two days back. Pihu understands Hindi and I am teaching her to write as well. But how much of 'Hindi' I will be able to infuse in her is a question? How did you forget your famous elbow nudge, reminding me and didi to answer in English when an uncle or an aunty spoke to us? From the by lanes of Agra to the college corridor in Delhi to the IT cubicle in Gurgaon, English has been my shining armor and worked for my advantage each time. We killed our own language in our own country and did not utter a word. It's unfortunate but the reality. The language of English has catapulted us completely. Pihu should know her mother tongue but if she doesn't I am not ashamed. I will be truly ashamed when she talks impolite, rude, and disrespectful be it any language. Is it wrong to subscribe by this thought?
India is a country of 1.3 billion people, we have 1.3 billion views/opinions/judgments about religion. What happens when 1.3 billion views compete against each other to proclaim whose religion is the best? Interestingly, religion defines us, binds us, and separates us all at the same time. Coming from a Hindu Brahmin family, I hold religious beliefs, and practices very sacred and close to my heart. There is one difference though – I am trying to make my daughter a God loving person and not a God-fearing one. Papa never believed in rituals and symbolic expressions of religion and faith. I have defined religion to Pihu in two words – Sensitivity and Responsibility. The way I understand religion, actions and deeds are more important than rituals and you show your devotion to god by being a good human being. So, what if you don't know the mantras? Am I teaching her? Yes, to chant and to live it both. If she forgoes the former, I am not worried. If she forgoes the latter, I am worried...deeply worried. To say that religious practices and rituals give way to a good human being is to turn a blind eye, a deaf ear and a back to the bloodbath happening in the name of religion. You cannot ignore it. To know she is a Hindu Brahmin is part of the identity she is born with, to believe that she and her religion is supreme is problematic. To force this supremacy on others is horrifying, frightening and dangerous. I am not even straying there.
You remember you used to tell me and didi that in life there are only two kinds of people in the world – the good and the bad. There is no third really. The good ones do kind things and make you feel good by their deeds. The bad ones do bad things and make you feel miserable. Staying here in the USA, I see lots of value which are part of Indian soil too. To me they are universal. What is Indian about love, respect, kindness, and honesty? One finds all kinds of people in India and I am not to judge them. Lies are lies everywhere. Rude words hurt and kind words are recognized by every soul. Does it matter if those values come from India or Uzbekistan or the United States? As of today, our country is currently fighting one of its biggest challenges, child safety and girl safety. At a time when the nation is gripped in fear watching in horror the cruelest story of a school peon raping a 4- year- old girl in the bathroom, I need not say a word more. Is Indian tradition set far away from bringing up a good human being?
Did you notice that Pihu loves samosas and aloo parathas? Back in India, I see a lot of Indian children gorging over the exported JUNK and people take pride in saying, ‘Oh! he is such a Mac D fan.’ Strange! If we eat pizza in India, it's fashionable, if we eat pizza here, it is being -Un-Indian. If we play the guitar and sing the Beatles in India, its COOL, but if we sing Hotel California here it is being Un-Indian. Do all the children back in India learn Bharatanatyam? Learning a dance form is great. Learning an Indian dance form is a choice. Does that make someone less Indian?
Amma, you know what disturbs me most about life today and therefore my biggest challenge? THE INSENSITIVITY. Raising a child who is sensitive to what goes around, considers her responsibility, however minuscule, in making this world a better place and choosing the truth over the tempting lie is the biggest challenge for me.
If Pihu is sensitive and responsible, she will know that teen sex can be dangerous, drugs are harmful and marriage sacrosanct. She will know that elders deserve our respect, the family is the strongest bond you can nurture and where you reside, ensure you plant a tree.
If we raised more sensitive and responsible children, the world would be a better place to live in. I want her to become a good human being first and not necessarily a good Indian human being. I don't even know what good Indian human being is for I see so many different facets of India in our own family. Which Indian are we referring to when we talk about India is the eternal question?
I want her to have morals and the judgment to differentiate the right from the wrong, the good from the bad and the vice from the virtue. Isn't this Indian? Symbolism is great but living it is greater. A value can exist without a symbol but a value is reduced to NOTHINGNESS if it does not translate into action/behavior.
This is my understanding about myself, my upbringing, my Indian-ness, my daughter, and her Indian-ness. And what I know about you and the way you have raised us, it's similar to yours. In fact, it's just the same. I love you Maa and I am sorry for talking to you the way I did.
Naina sealed the letter and slid it inside the envelope. She smiled to herself at the thought of her mom’s fascination for handwritten letters. She pasted the postage stamp on it, gulped the last bit of tea, closed her eyes and rested on the recliner…the letter resting on her bosom.