Read The Hindi-Bindi Club Online

Authors: Monica Pradhan

Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Literary, #Family Life, #General

The Hindi-Bindi Club

BOOK: The Hindi-Bindi Club
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For

ASHOK HARISCHANDRA PRADHAN

and

RAJANI YASHWANT KHARKAR

for your blood, sweat, and tears, your courage, sacrifice, and sense of adventure in leaving the world you knew behind, and starting over in a foreign land, with only two suitcases to your name. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for my life.

And for

MORSE SALVATORE CALTABIANO

and

THERESA SALVAGE CALTABIANO

for raising a hero for me to marry, and welcoming me into your family with open arms from Day One.

And for

JIM,

a dream come true.

Truth in her dress finds facts too tight.

In fiction she moves with ease.

RABINDRANATH TAGORE
STRAY BIRDS,
CXL

The Daughters

KIRAN DESHPANDE

(KEY–run)

         

PREITY CHAWLA LINDSTROM

(PREE–thee)

         

RANI McGUINESS TOMASHOT

(RAH–nee)

The Mothers

MEENAL DESHPANDE

(ME–null)

         

SAROJ CHAWLA

(Suh–ROWJ)

         

UMA BASU McGUINESS

(OU–mah)

Kiran Deshpande: Where Are You From?

I have lanced many boils, but none pained like my own.

INDIAN ADAGE

I
’m never sure what people want to know when they ask me: “Where are you from?”

The question doesn’t offend me, as I’m curious about people myself. I’m fascinated by the origins of family trees, the land and seas over which seeds migrate, cross-pollinate, and germinate anew.

In my thirty-two years, I’ve traveled to all fifty United States, lived in ten of them, in every American time zone, most since I left home for college at seventeen and never moved back. A modern gypsy, I’ve developed an ear for accents. I’m charmed by different cadences. It’s a game for me to place them, to listen for the fish out of water.

“Is that Texas I hear?” I ask with a smile—always a smile, the universal ambassador of goodwill—of a lady in Juno, Alaska.

I
never
ask that slippery little devil, you know the one: “Where are you from?”

Sometimes, I envy people who can answer this deceptively simple question in two words or less. “Jersey” or “Chicago,” “New Orleans” or “Southern Cal.” People who’ve lived most of their lives in a single state, sometimes even a single town. People whose physical appearance or last name is unremarkable.

I don’t fall into any of these categories.

When I get this question—not an everyday occurrence, but I get it more than most—I’m never certain what information the person seeks. Is it the origin of my own mid-Atlantic accent? My heritage? My married name (read off a credit card, a check, or a name tag)?

To cover the bases, I supply all three. Probably overkill, but I figure the desired answer’s somewhere in here: “My parents emigrated from India in the 1960s when my father went to medical school at Harvard. I was born in Cambridge but grew up outside of Washington, D.C. My husband’s last name is Italian.”

If I answer with a genuine smile, I almost always receive one in response, which strengthens my belief in karma.

         

A
guy once told me I looked like Disney’s Princess Jasmine, except my boobs weren’t big enough. For the first four years of our marriage, I assumed he exaggerated on both counts.

Princess Jasmine is prettier than I am, but she isn’t bigger than a B-cup, thankyouverymuch.

In retrospect, as I reflect on his statement (something I do less as time goes on), I wonder if he meant my boobs weren’t big enough
for him
. This would be a logical conclusion after coming home early to find his face sandwiched between a pair of D-cups.
Silicon
D-cups, which is my professional opinion as a practicing physician, not just another ex-wife whose husband screwed around on her.

I am wondering about this today as I appreciate the latest and greatest “water bra” in the Victoria’s Secret dressing room. It’s the first week of December, and I’m almost finished with my holiday shopping, so I’m splurging on a few things for myself. The water bra has a lovely effect, I must admit as I turn from side to side. I take it off and decide I look great, with or without the bra. I’m young. I’m healthy. My body is well toned. Nothing sags.

So why am I crying?

A tissue box sits on a ledge, as if my meltdown is not an isolated phenomenon in these dressing rooms. I thank whomever for the forethought and mop my face.

Why are you crying?
I ask the woman in the mirror.
You have everything going for you.

Yes, but where will it go from here?
the woman replies.
And with whom?

I turn my back because I can’t bear to look at her anymore, but I can’t leave either. Not like this. Once I was stuck in a stairwell after I lost a patient. I couldn’t come out until I regained control, couldn’t risk the family seeing me that way. They count on me to be strong when they’re weak. But who’s strong for me when I’m weak?

The woman in the mirror mocks me because she still looks so young, yet for the first time, I feel the acceleration of time. It doesn’t seem so long ago I turned twenty-two, med school and marriage my dreams. Now here I am a decade later, a doctor, married and divorced. I’ve crossed thirty, and I’m afraid if I blink, I’ll be staring at forty, looking back on today.

“It seems like just yesterday I fell apart in the Victoria’s Secret dressing room,” I’ll say as I recollect the days when I had perky breasts.

Stark reality presses against me, a cold stethoscope on my bare skin. I cringe and shiver, hug my arms, rub my goose bumps. The truth is I am terrified. Of squandering my precious time on this earth. Of wasting what’s left of my youth. Of turning the big Four-O and looking back with regrets.

I’m a
family
doctor. Every day, I see
families
. I want a family, too.

I’m healthy and vibrant
now,
but with each passing year, my eggs age. I’m tired of wandering. Tired of my gypsy existence as a traveling doc, temporarily filling in where there’s a need. Tired of running away from the fact my foolish heart betrayed me as much as Anthony’s cheating.

I yank two more tissues from the box and discover they’re the last ones. Isn’t that life? One day the tissues run out.

So what’s your strategy with the tissues you have, Kiran?

I don’t want to freeze my eggs. I don’t want to visit a sperm bank. I don’t want to be a single parent, if I have any choice in the matter. I want a nuclear family. I want to put down roots, to let my seeds germinate, to watch them bloom and flourish. Not one day, if and when I ever fall in love again, but
now
. While I still have my youth, damn it.

I glance over my shoulder at the puffy-eyed woman in the mirror. Slowly, I turn and face her. There is a solution, if she’s willing to keep an open mind, to think with her head this time, instead of her heart. I take a deep breath, hold it, and nod. And right there in the Victoria’s Secret dressing room, in my yuppie-chick equivalent of a midlife crisis, I allow myself to contemplate something I always deemed impossible, dismissed as cold, archaic,
backward
. The mate-seeking process that served my parents, most of their Indian-immigrant friends, and generations of ancestors for centuries.

An arranged marriage.

         

L
eaving the shopping carnival of Georgetown Park, I stand at the intersection of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue and wait for the
WALK
signal. You’d think I’d be done with malls, but no. When I got my driver’s license at sixteen, Georgetown was
the
place to hang out, and for me, it’s never lost its appeal. I love the shops and restaurants, the international and academic atmosphere, the colonial architecture. Whenever I’m back in town, I make a pit stop here on my way home. It grounds me.

I walk up the brick sidewalk to 33rd and Q. It’s been five years since my last visit, but my ritual’s unchanged. If I can get a space, I parallel park near my dream house, a Tudor that resembles a gingerbread house, its fence and gate laced with a jungle of ivy, trimmed to reveal the pointed tips of cast-iron rungs as straight as spears. When I graduated from high school, in addition to throwing a penny in the mall fountain and making a wish, I put a note in the mailbox on Q Street asking the owners to please call me when they wanted to sell the house. I hoped by the time they were ready, I would be, too. I’m still waiting.

With my purchases—a red poinsettia in green foil and white roses with sprigs of fern—ensconced in the passenger seat of my Saab, I take Key Bridge across the muddy Potomac and cruise down the G.W. Parkway toward the ’burbs. I’m tempted to stop—and stall some more—at one of the scenic overlooks (make-out hot spots). Instead, I crack the windows, crank the heat, blare the Goo Goo Dolls to calm my nerves, and force myself to keep going.

I’m
so
not looking forward to this. As if it isn’t hard enough coming home with my tail between my legs, the thought of approaching my parents with my brainstorm makes it that much worse. I already know what’s in store. The Mother of All Lectures. The Granddaddy of
I-told-you-so
s. A lifetime of smugness. Vindication they were right and I was wrong in my decision to marry Anthony…If only I’d listened to them…
Blah blah blah

No matter how old I get or how much respect I garner from the rest of the world, to my parents, I’m still an exasperating, recalcitrant child whose ear requires constant twisting. And in their world, I feel reduced to one. Which is why I avoid them as much as possible, and why I feel like a runaway coming home.

In my hometown of Potomac, Maryland, I almost run a stop sign that wasn’t there five years ago. I slam on the brakes. The seatbelt pins me. I lunge my right arm out to catch the poinsettia before it takes a header. Too late. The plant sails off the seat, smashes into the glove compartment, and skitters under the dash, dumping black soil all over the cream floor mat and filling the air with the scent of damp earth.

Do you believe in omens?

I try not to as I drive through town, inventorying the new superimposed over the familiar. Widened roads. Bulldozed trees. New traffic lights at the intersections of new neighborhoods. A parade of 5,000-square-feet-plus homes squashed together on tiny, impeccably manicured plots. Luxury townhouses offer a smart alternative for those who can’t afford sticker prices over one million dollars but want the amenities. Lots of dinky old homes, squatters on primo acreage, have been demolished, replaced with monoliths. I imagine the former owners cashed out and headed south. Gone, too, is the mom-and-pop service station where I dropped off my car for repairs, billed to my father’s account, and a mechanic gave me a lift home in a tow truck. A twelve-pump Mobil with touchless carwash now gleams in its place.

Still, while much has changed, much remains the same. The salmon brick building of my high school. The golden arches of Mickey D’s where we snacked after school and sports events, our home away from home. The 7-Eleven where we tried (no dice) to buy California wine coolers. The white picket fence of Shady Creek Stables where I learned to ride on a gentle mare named Shokie who had a penchant for carrots I tucked into my pockets for her. These and other landmarks greet me like old friends.

As I anticipate each twist and turn of the winding two-lane road that takes me home, I feel a strange mix of connection and detachment. Home isn’t home anymore. I don’t live here. I’m a visitor. A near stranger to my folks. Even more than when we cohabitated. They converted my old bedroom into a guestroom a while back, I heard. I wonder which of my photos they keep on display, if any, and where they stashed the ones they removed—like my wedding pictures.

How appropriate is it that the great philosophers the Goo Goo Dolls should choose this moment to sing my theme song, “Iris”? I join them and belt out the lyrics.

A mile away, I kill the music and raise the windows. As I pull into the driveway, my fingers tighten around the steering wheel, my muscles stiffen like the onset of rigor mortis, and I ask myself for the millionth time if it’s really worth the grief. I’m sorely tempted to sneak around back and climb the trellis to the second-story roof outside my bedroom window where my friends and I used to steal away in high school and puff Marlboro Lights. (I quit cold turkey my sophomore year in college—during finals, which I don’t recommend—but if there was a cigarette in my car right now, I sure as hell wouldn’t waste it.) I wipe my clammy hands on my jeans and pop a stick of gum into my mouth.

Okay, Kiran. You’re a big girl. You almost went into emergency medicine. You handle drug overdoses, spinal taps, emergency C-sections, and broken bones with nerves of steel. Surely, you can face—

Tap-tap-tap!
Raps on my driver’s-side window startle me mid-affirmation.

“Kiran! Is that you?”

My memory banks struggle to match the familiar, boisterous voice with the woman beaming at me. I press a button and lower the glass. It’s the chunky gold pendant that dangles from long strings of tiny black-and-gold beads on her
mangal
sutra
—Hindu wedding necklace—that cinches what should have been obvious.

“Saroj Auntie! I didn’t recognize you at first!” What’s different? “Your hair! What a cool new do,” I blurt, as if I’ve been M.I.A. for five weeks instead of five years, then sheepishly add, “Or, uh, is it just new to me?”

One of my mother’s oldest and dearest friends, Saroj Chawla, has known me since birth. “Why, thank you.” With a hand, she props up the mop of curls, cropped into a chin-length bob that suits her buoyant personality. “It
is
a new do. To go with my new body.” She grins and steps back, unbuttons her full-length, camel-colored coat, and whips it open like a flasher. I realize she has shrunk several dress sizes, shape-shifting from plump to voluptuous. “I lost fifty pounds on the South Beach diet.”

My jaw drops. “No way.”

She laughs. “Yes, way.”

Somehow, “South Beach” and “Indian” have never gone together in my mind. What’s Indian food with no rice, bread, potato—? I nearly gasp. “No
samosas
?”

“Not in the beginning. Now, everything in moderation.”

“Whew. Thank goodness.”

My favorite Indian appetizer, the triangular potato-and-pea-stuffed pastry is one of Saroj Auntie’s specialties. Not only is she a culinary genius but, luckily for the rest of us, she owns one of the premier catering services in the D.C. Metro Area, possibly the eastern seaboard. She started it back in the Boston Days. That’s how they refer to them, those early years in the States when my father and her husband were poor grad students on academic scholarships, my father at Harvard and Sandeep Uncle at M.I.T. My dad says, “We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor, so we were happy.” From their stipends, they supported their new brides and sent what savings they could to family in India, where every dollar made a significant contribution toward groceries, health care, clothing, education, rent, or utilities.

BOOK: The Hindi-Bindi Club
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