On Sunday at 4am along the south east coast of India, a woman sleeping next to her 9 month old infant sat up on the berth of a moving train, collapsed on the floor, frothed at the mouth and died. Her husband of 3 years sought help in the next station the train had stopped 3 hours after she had collapsed. The last thing she told her mom as she boarded the train to leave her parent’s town was that she didn’t want to go back to her home which she shared with her husband and his parents. The post-mortem report was inconclusive and when pressed by her parents, the doctor reported the possibility of a massive stroke as the cause of her death. She would have turned 30 this year.
As an Indian American there is something that I juggle with almost every waking minute of my life. Should I lament on how teenagers in America are wasting away their potential as they glue their eye balls to their phones or get worked up about the crisis that is exploding in India that is threatening the essential building blocks of its cultural fabric, the family unit. To be a family in India when I was growing up was to be an unbroken, unshattered, and a single cluster of a set of parents and two children. We didn’t have pets like how in America 48% of households own at least one pet. Sometimes, we lived among families who had only one kid or those who had 3 kids mostly because of religious reasons, like restrictions on artificial contraception for Muslims and Catholics.
When I got married and came to the States in 2002, I started working at Subway which was owned by a friend and met customers with whom I had limited interactions with and employees with whom I ate leisurely lunches and had long conversations with. (This was the age of no smart phones). I met men who would come in for lunch every single day and ask me to pack their sandwiches to-go. I would see them go out and sit in their cars while they ate. I wanted to ask them if they had families and if they believed how great and uniting the concept can be. My coworkers who were like me, in their early 20’s, would talk about their parents as if they were the worst of humanity. In my head, I wound understand these as symptoms of the individualistic society of the Western world, freedom of speech and all.
After all, I had come from a culture which was known to show overt reverence to its older generations. Our manners so subservient to our elders that one would suspect if there were huge monies of inheritance at stake. You simply follow orders even sporting fake loyalty if you had to. You belong to a family and are a part of it, not an individual capable of making independent decisions.
Of course, people had affairs and we have had our share of UPS men and desperate housewives over there too, but the delivery guy must be replaced with the milk man in narratives until the late 1990’s. Of course, with the onset of online shopping services like Amazon going mainstream in India, this urban “myth” might as well be Westernized too.
A few years ago, a coworker told me that her husband was a lazy asshole and that she was struggling to inspire him on a daily basis to help her out with kids and chores. I told her to meditate during that fateful lunch date to which she rolled her eyes and never confessed anything else. Well, what I was thinking and my subsequent defense will make for another story. Then, as I was pregnant with my first child in Pittsburgh, I went to volunteer for the Allegheny regional hospital where my volunteer coordinator wished me good luck with the whole parenting thing, and called her children lucky entitled pricks.
Most times, before I knew any better, I would rationalize that the structure of the American family was created out of selfish individualistic traits but attributed the familial settings in India to cultural norms. Women were encouraged to stay silent and compromise and contribute to the family’s well-being without questioning their afflictions. “Stay, don’t divorce” was the unspoken rule that women who were married were brainwashed into. Cases of domestic abuse almost always went unpunished and infant kids roamed around in their homes while their desperate mothers hung from the ceiling fans until they were discovered. Women would be rushed to the hospitals after being doused by kerosene and set aflame for not bringing more dowry, sometimes years after the marriage. Again like most times, the mother-in-law and the husband would go unpunished, mostly after bribing their way through the legal system. A widower sometimes would promptly get remarried especially if he had small children to take care of. A widow might end up unmarried for the rest of her life, or if there were progressive thinkers in her family, she would be lucky enough to marry into the company of a divorcee or a widower. Although, women have come a long way since my childhood, I simply cannot act like these things happened in a bygone era and don’t happen now. Take for instance the case of an Indian American, Neha Rastogi, the battered wife of a Silicon Valley CEO who has been offered a plea deal of less than 30 days in jail. Secret video recordings of her being berated and hit by her husband, which were later submitted to the court, are circulating among the outraged Indian American public for a couple of months now. We have signed many petitions on the matter.
This past January while flying from Atlanta to Austin, I met a 45 year old woman with whom I discussed some favorite books and our shared love for reading. She was excited to go back to seeing her boyfriend whom she had not seen in 10 days. When she sensed my surprise about her excitement she told me that she had never been in love the 18 years she was married to her ex-husband, and only now feels like she has found true love. She kept her family together for the sake of her two daughters, whom she wanted to raise in a family setting until they went off to college. She showed me a video of her older daughter, who was now thriving as a vegan, happily married and doing cart wheels in front of her infant son in the front lawn of her house in Austin.
This is not to say that men don’t equally compromise to keep families as cohesive as possible. While I was growing up in the 80’s, there were women who rode scooters and were the sole bread winners of the their families while their husbands obliged with household duties, but these women were very few and far between.
On a recent evening, as we drove together to a political fundraiser, I shared my worries about modern day parenting with my 86 year old neighbor. I told her parents of Generation Z kids, my husband and I included, might be raising them with mediocre social and scholastic skills. She asked me, “At least as Indians, you give your children the strength and advantage of a secure family structure, what about the kids who come from broken and neglected homes all across America?” She has raised 5 boys, who are thriving in multi-generational families, although a couple of the families are “broken”.
Families can be broken when one of the members fades away by volition or accident. There was a poor family in India which was broken because their infant girl was gang raped and left for dead with her intestines sticking out through her private cavities. There were families that lost sons, because they choose to run away to join India’s freedom movement, never to be seen or heard from again. And this can happen to any family anywhere in the world. If the sitcoms are any lessons that America too was like India once upon a time, we can see how radically the definition and roles of family members have evolved starting from the 1950’s with Father’s knows best and then like The Cosby Show and only now like the Modern Family series.
Sometimes people whom I have met for the first time, are surprised to find out that mine was an arranged marriage. The concept has been a legendary part of the Indian immigrant narrative in America until now. When I was married into an arranged marriage in 2002, I went along with it because I did not know what else I could do. But by 2007, when it was her turn to get married, my sister was allowed to put up her profile on marriage websites. Things have changed a lot even since then. Now in India, urban women and men are free to throw a wide net to scour the landscape for marital potential. A woman can leave her husband if he doesn’t contribute to keeping a clean house. She can choose to call off the wedding if she suspects the sexual orientation of the person whom she has been engaged to. But, for every act that propels women further up along the liberalism scale, there are many women who are products of accidental misery. A really successful and well educated woman I know in her mid 30’s lost her husband (of arranged marriage) to suicide on the first night of their wedding. She has chosen to not remarry only 3 years into this tragedy.
Obviously, I was shielded enough while growing up not to notice all that my view of what makes up a family was not the norm. I didn’t grow up wondering how neglected children of step mothers survived their lives most importantly their childhood. I didn’t grow up knowing about the American foster system where children were moved from home to home until the Children Welfare advocates found a family that was willing to adopt and take care of the child permanently. I came to America listening to jokes that the American wife and husband usually tell each other that her kids and his kids will now play with their kids.
Two days ago, a boy in my son’s class (2nd grade) told him casually while putting their backpacks in their cubbies and preparing for the day ahead, that my son was lucky his mother was not a mother ******. I have known this boy for two years as my son’s classmate and he lives with his dad. Even after 48 hours, I am traumatized when I wonder what he is being “fed” at home.
Dying of old age is being lucky now. Being a part of a loving nurturing family until death is a bigger miracle. Whether in arranged marriages or marrying for love, relationships can be a hit or a miss. And finding bliss has become an ever moving target in the familial sense of the way.
Many years later at a baseball game, I had met my coworker (now ex) and her “asshole” husband and I was pleasantly surprised to see them not just hanging out but hanging out at the ball park in what seemed to be in a state of deep, comfortable and blissful love. I learnt from her that we all have a choice to rest the pursuit of the ideal relationship and to redefine what makes our own family perfect.
Since I heard about the woman in the opening lines, I think of all the women who came before her and who will follow. Should she have preserved her individuality and saved her life or was she right to give it up as she did for preserving her “family”?