On going native

My sister and I had a normal American upbringing.  We learned from our parents through sound and sight, language and action, whether they intended it or not.  They argued over the best way to guide, advise and instruct us.  Somewhere along the way, they abandoned their plan of moving closer to their families and decided to confront challenges on their own.  We prayed to the old gods and the new.

When I close my eyes and think of home, it looks like lamps made from heavy tarnished brass, wrought with jagged symmetry and topped with oil-soaked cotton; it smells like strong coffee, cardamom, asafoetida, mustard seeds, turmeric; it sounds like the clattering of dishes through the ceiling of the kitchen and the floor of my bedroom, sounds I hated as a teenager wishing to sleep well past 8am and will soon miss; it feels like food and holidays and rain and heat on my tongue.

So I just cannot yet bring myself to say “bus-MAT-ee” or “guh-NESH,” words that have recently begun to breach the vernacular, without air quotes.

As a new kindergartener, my sister once recited, “The cow jumped over the chandamama” without blinking an eye, impervious to the startled looks and mutterings of her classmates.  When I was a child, probably around 8-years old, I told my mother I wanted to be a vegetarian, not like her, but like a god who was raised a cowherd in myth.  She recognized this impressionable phase but did not take advantage of it, rather encouraging me to reconsider and decide for myself [it couldn’t have lasted more than a week, such was the draw of burgers at birthday parties].  I don’t know if she remembers our brief conversation; I even remember where we spoke, in the kitchen of our neighbors’ house.

Just last week my mother was instructed by her cousin’s wife to refrain from speaking in front of her son in any language he could understand lest he be infected with heretical ideas of his own and turn out like my sister and me.  That would leave Hindi and Telugu, which my father, sister and I don’t speak.

Though I gently mocked my father, informing him how ¨we Americans¨ say it, I do hope he is correct that “karma is a bitch.”


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