For all good Indian-American families, it’s necessary to go back to India every few years to make sure your children don’t lose sight of where they came from. Indian-American parents everywhere load up their suitcases with American goodies for their relatives, which once emptied out, can be filled with enough saris, salwar kameezes, and jewelry to outfit the entire cast of a Bollywood Cirque du Soleil.
For my very first pilgrimage at the ripe age of 8, mom and dad planned to take my sister and me to India for a month so we could get to know our cousins and our culture better. My parents regaled me with magical stories of their childhood, scampering around with their cousins, playing pranks, going to Juhu Beach, near-death rickshaw rides, beautiful temples, palm trees, chauffeur-driven cars, and going to the latest Bollywood flick.
I was super excited for my first trip to India, where no one would sound like they were choking when pronouncing my name (Reshma), the other kids wouldn’t accuse me of eating smelly food, and everyone would look like they stepped out of a Bollywood movie (have you ever seen how glamorous Indian movie stars look?). Krishna and his fellow gods would be well-accepted, and gulab jamuns would pour down from the sky. India was going to be amazing.
Alas, my fantasies were soon to be dashed. I should have known things were going were not going to turn out so well when we ran into Bollywood stars Sridevi and Anil Kapoor on the plane. My mom had somehow gotten word the dynamic duo was in first class, so she decided we were going to say hi to them. I had always loved Sridevi. She always looked so dazzling running around in the rain in her sheer saris. Finally, I’ll get to meet someone like me!
She was wearing a powder blue chiffon sari, a diamond necklace and matching nose ring, and sapphire earrings. Her tan skin gleamed while her hot pink lipstick and kohl-rimmed eyes enthralled me with their luminosity. I thought for sure she would love me instantly.
“Excuse me can we get your autograph?” I asked politely. I wasn’t sure that I wanted her autograph (I just wanted to see her), but my mom told me I did.
She looked at me irritably without smiling. “Sure.”
“All I have is my coloring book.” I handed it to her. I hope she didn’t realize that in some of the pictures I had colored outside of the lines. I would blame it on my sister if she noticed, I decided. She signed it and handed it back to me.
“Oh, I want him to sign it too.” She handed it to him, and he begrudgingly signed it.
I took back my coloring book as I eyed them suspiciously. I might be young, but I was wise beyond my years. I knew they were giving my sister and me the hairy eyeball. I decided then and there I would never watch another Bollywood movie with the likes of those two again.
Unfortunately, while my parents did their best to sell me on how awesome India was going to be, they forgot to tell me the climate is similar to that of a sauna. My hair went from straight and lustrous to Albert Einstein the moment I arrived. As we drove in from the airport, I glared at the thick monsoon clouds looming over Bombay ready to let loose a torrential downpour. It was a bad hair month waiting to happen.
“Don’t think I’m not ready for you,” I said as I eyed the clouds suspiciously.
“Oh, we know. And don’t worry, when we go to finals we’re going it bring it,” the clouds said to me.
“Bring it on bitches,” I said with a menacing glower.
One thing I did love, however, was the motorized rickshaws. If you ever have a death wish, come to India and ride in a rickshaw. There are no doors, no seat belts, and the drivers have a predilection for driving into opposing traffic. I loved the intense danger of it all. And then there are the cows. Those yahoos don’t give a shit if there’s a rickshaw or a four-hundred-ton truck barreling at them. Those bovines are NOT moving. They own Mumbai.
That means if you’re not afraid of a head-on collision, you’re scared shitless of hitting a cow. Especially because they’re sacred and stuff. We came super close to hitting one for the umpteenth time when some cow decided to cross the street. That’s when I lost it.
“COW!” I screamed from the rickshaw at a stop light, “What are you doing? Are you trying to kill us all? You could try NOT moving when a car is coming at you, you know.”
“Fuck you. I’m sacred you know. I can do whatever I want.” This cow was exceedingly insolent. I instantly hated him. Or her since I guess since cows are technically all girls.
I scowled as we drove away. “I’ll get you one day!” I thought of all the cheeseburgers I was going to eat when I got home. This was before I read A Diet for a New World and became a pescatarian.
As an American in India, I was the center of attention amongst all the neighborhood kids. All the other kids were fascinated by my hot pink striped leggings, my Barbie collection, my patent leather shoes, and my charming American accent. In America, I was just another kid, my plastic necklace wasn’t as cool as Melissa Schwartz’s, my pink leggings were too avant-garde, and my accent was like everyone else’s. I knew the kids didn’t really like me; they just wanted to hang out with me because I was American. But I didn’t care. I was going to milk this for all it was worth.
“Say something in American!” one of the neighborhood kids asked me asI was holding court outside in the playground.
“Like oh my god, totally,” I said feigning boredom.
“Do you have the moon in America?”
“Yeah, we have three.”
“Oooh. I wish we had three moons.”
“My friends and I have slumber parties every weekend and talk about Barbies and trade stickers. Look at my bubble necklace.”
I began to blow bubbles from my coveted bubble necklace. All the kids ooohed and ahhed. This was fantastic.
Unfortunately, my cousins were not impressed. It seemed odd that we flew halfway around the world, and my cousins behaved as if I just showed up from the building across the street. I was so excited to see them; why were they not excited to see me? They did, however, enjoy taking all the presents we brought: Barbies, Transformers, Lucky Charms, peanut butter, and CDs.
I figured all these presents would have clearly bought my cousins’ love and admiration, but I thought wrong. My cousins didn’t dislike me, but they didn’t like me either. Though I loved the attention from everyone else, I really wanted to bond with my fam. This was not the reception I was hoping for in India. So when my cousin Ashok employed me for one of his plans, I eagerly followed his lead, desperate to win his approval.
“I’ve got a plan,” Ashok said to me one day.
“A plan for what?” I asked, chomping on the chicken biryani grandma just made us for lunch. I hoped secretly it was a plan to take over the neighborhood kids and turn them into zombies.
“Let’s throw food out the window!” he said. My grandmother lived on the 3rd floor of a building in an apartment complex where everyone knew everyone. He got up and looked out the window. “I dare you to it the lady over there in the purple sari. She’s really annoying, and she’s always mean to grandma.”
“Ooh yes! I accept your dare!” Was I finally fitting in with my cousins?
Once grandma was back in the kitchen, I leaped out of my chair and peered out the window, bowl in hand. I hurled my piece of chicken trying to summon all of the skills I learned in gym class. It went flying and stuck to her shoulder. I quickly ducked so she wouldn’t see me.
“Bathameeessseeee!” she screamed.
I laughed hysterically while gearing up for my next target. I had the athletic skills of a turtle, so I was shocked I hit anything. I felt drunk with power. Ashok kept egging me on while the rest of the cousins (Madhu, Kareena, and Raya) and my sister Shefali watched in horror.
“Grandma is going to be really mad,” Kareena said.
“How would grandma know, unless one of you told her?” I asked, eyeing her suspiciously.
Meanwhile, Ashok kept egging me on. I picked up another piece of chicken and launched it at a dude in orange robes (turns out he was a priest; whoops). It didn’t hit him but landed right in front of him where he stepped in it. He looked up, and I quickly ducked again. I continued pelting chicken at people until I was all out. For my crowning achievement, I decided to dump the remaining bowl of biryani out the window.
“No, don’t do it!” Shefali cried.
I ignored her pleas for sensibility and dumped the bowl. Ashok and I watched as the little grains of yellow rice fluttered down landing squarely below us.
“Heeeeee heeeee heeeee!” Ashok and I laughed hysterically at my foolery.
In the midst of my laughter, I heard a knock on the door. Grandma went to answer it while all of us looked over to see who it would be. My mom had gone shopping that day and promised to buy me some sparkly Indian mirror bracelets, so I was really eager for her to come back soon.
Grandma opened the door and in walked the lady in the purple sari.
She looked over at me, pointed at me, and started sternly speaking to my grandmother in Hindi. I sat there cowering, while my cousins and sister watched the drama unfold in silence. After what seemed like an eternity, she turned on her heel and left.
“Bathameeseee!” Grandma yelled. “You throwing food out window? That is temple outside! That lady my neighbor. You kids embarrass me!”
I was tempted to make fun of my grandma’s broken English, but I figured now was not the time. Grandma stormed off in a huff.
I sat there trying to figure out how I was going to get out of this one when I realized I had been set up. I turned to Ashok “You knew she was grandma’s neighbor. You did that on purpose!”
“It was funny!” he countered.
“Oh yeah, well you’re going to be in trouble too!”
“No, I’m not. I didn’t throw anything.”
Shit, he was right. He didn’t actually throw anything. And he had several witnesses to back him up. I was a goner.
Just then my parents came home where they got an earful from grandma of all my shenanigans. I figured the best hope I had for salvation was to start throwing a tantrum.
“I HATE INDIA! I hate Indian food! I hate everything I want to go HOME!” I screamed to my parents. I was sick of India. I may not have fit in at home, but at least I understood it. I seemingly could not fit in anywhere. In America, I was too Indian. In India, I was too American and my cousins didn’t like me. I started bawling hysterically hoping that would at least win me some sympathy from my dad. I looked over at him with my sad face. He was about to interject when my mom cut him off.
“That is no excuse. You disrespected a Pujari and a temple, and you embarrassed grandma in front of her neighbor. You are not getting any of the bracelets I bought you. In fact, I am giving them to your cousins.”
“NOOOOOO!” I was now crying so hard I was almost choking. I didn’t care if I was grounded or slapped across the face or fed to lizards. But take away my sparkly bracelets? This was a fate worse than death. I ran to my room to save myself from any further humiliation in front of my cousins.
I hated Ashok. This was all his fault. He set me up. I had to exact revenge. But not right away. I had to bide my time until right before we left so, I could have the last word. The day before we left, I snuck into Ashok’s room and looked for the CD player we had brought him from America. I banged it against the floor until it was sufficiently cracked and then proceeded to pour water into it. I then hid it in his drawers underneath a pile of clothes. By the time he found it, I would be long gone.
But I was not to get away with it as easily as I thought. On the plane ride back to New Jersey, what decided to run out of battery power? My Discman. I was stuck on an 18-hour plane with nothing to do. Thanks, Karma.