KP, in her 60’s, had just returned from a trip to India 12 hours ago when I ambushed her for an interview. She lives in a small town in Alabama with her husband who’s a retired Medical Oncologist. She talks about her childhood in India and her journey to becoming a mother of three successful children in America. Here’s the transcript of my face to face interview with her.
Heart: When did you come to the US?
KP: July of ’72. My husband came an year earlier than me. I was finishing nursing school and my father was dying of cancer. So, I stayed back until I finished nursing and until he passed away.
Heart: I’m sorry.
KP: Yeah, its OK.
Heart: How did your mother manage?
KP: We had other siblings back there in India, so she used to live with my brothers.
Heart: Was yours an arranged marriage?
KP: Kind of, it was semi arranged. I had liked him since I was 7 years old. My sister is married to my father-in-law’s brother. So, we knew each other. But when I was 7, he came to our home town and I would see him play Gilli-Danda (street sport in India played with sticks) and think, “He’s such a smart guy.”
But, later we parted, he went his way and I did mine. And you know how in those days they used to arrange marriages, and so when I was in my 10th grade, my mom went and asked him if he was interested in marrying me. But at that time, I was a very chubby girl. And he didn’t want to tell me directly, so my father-in-law told us that he’s still in his Pre-Med in school and he wanted to be a doctor and all that stuff. (Smiles)
Then, I went to nursing school and I lost a lot of weight, and my father-in-law saw me at a wedding and he had also heard that I got a very good score in my SSC (Secondary School Certificate, equivalent to 10th grade), so he told my husband – his son, to go visit me saying, “She looks really good,” and so my husband wrote me a letter when I was living in the women’s hostel in my nursing school.
Heart: Oh my goodness. (Laughs)
KP: At that time I was staying at a medical hostel for the civil hospital. He wrote me a letter saying that he was going to be visiting at such and such day and time and he asked me to come to the train station to pick him up. I was in love with him, so I went to the train station on that day with my friend. So, those days, it was cool for youngsters to sit in the back of the train, but he was apparently sitting in the front. So, we missed him at the train station because we waited at the back end of the train platform.
But, I knew where he would be staying during his stay, so I went to his relatives house to see if he was there. We met each other and he asked me if I would like to marry him. I went to my sister’s home in Nadiad and she told my parents that we both like each other and so that’s how it happened.
Heart: Aww. Did you know that his education would take a long time?
KP: When we met, he had told me that he wanted to go to America. And I was totally against going to America. I didn’t want to come here. Because I was away from my parents because I was doing my nursing and now I didn’t want to move so far away from them.
But, he said, “No, we’ll come back in 5 years.”
Heart: Aww. Did you speak any English?
KP: A little bit. Not much. But when we came to the US, we had a few friends in Brooklyn. I didn’t have to speak much English, because we would socialize with our group of Indian friends. His classmates or our Indian neighbors. So, we were not that exposed to other people at that time. I started speaking more English when we came to Alabama in ’77.
Heart: So, you were in New York for 5 years before you moved to Alabama?
Heart: How was New York back then?
KP: It was very nice, but it was crowded. Brooklyn was OK.
Heart: Were there a lot of Indians you didn’t know?
KP: Not that many. If you see someone on the street, we would be so happy to see them. We would smile and talk to them. Those days, if you saw someone Indian you would be so happy. Its not like how its now.
Heart: Oh wow, that’s funny. (Laughs) How did you spend your days when your husband was busy? Do you have any memories?
KP: Yeah, yeah. We used to go to the library. We had a car but I didn’t know how to drive. So my husband would drop me at the subway station and my daughter and I would go to Manhattan and get Gujarathi books from the library.
KP: Once in a week, we would do that. We would bring books and I used to read to my daughter.
Heart: What did you cook?
KP: Indian food. The only places you could eat out were mostly pizza places. There was an Indian restaurant in Manhattan that we used to go a lot to eat.
Heart: When did you have your daughter?
KP: My elder daughter was born in Brooklyn. She was 3 when we moved South.
Heart: Were people generally kind to you in Brooklyn?
KP: The Americans were not social with us at all. Our landlord, we used to live downstairs and he used to live upstairs, he didn’t want anything to do with us. People didn’t take interest in us those days. I think our Indian community also didn’t try to mingle outside of our community. We had our own group, so we didn’t take interest in them.
But, when we came down South, it was totally different.
Heart: OK. So, what happened when your husband finished school in Brooklyn?
KP: So, in those days everyone wanted to go to California after finishing Med school. So after he finished his medical training and his oncology training, we were supposed to go to California. But at the last minute, his contract didn’t work out. He was going to join Chinese and Pakistanis in an Oncology department there. (Laughs)
So, there was a clinic in [redacted] in Alabama, that was paying for the air fare and hotel and they were looking for Oncologists, and we had never been to the South, and since they were paying for our travel, we thought, “Lets just go and see what the South looks like.” So, we came to Alabama and visited Birmingham overnight. We had no intention of coming down South to live. But since our California contract didn’t work out, we needed a place to start our practice. We called people in Alabama to check if the position was still open and it was.
So, we packed up everything in Brooklyn, and shipped it to [redacted] and went for a quick visit to India. We came back and we realized that we really liked the South. It was clean and spacious, you know. We started looking at all the big cities around and visited Chamber of Commerce for each town to see what kind of industries they had. We visited Huntsville, Chattanooga, and all the other big cities and when we landed in [redacted], we immediately liked it.
He started his own practice and started doing really well. So, when we had first moved there, we had just come back from a trip to India and our stuff hadn’t arrived yet. We stayed in a hotel for two weeks and then we moved into an apartment. We didn’t have anything. But, there was a lady who was so nice who gave us everything for our house. Since we didn’t have our stuff with us, she gave us bed sheets, towels, pots, and pans, she gave us everything to get started.
Heart: Who was she? Your neighbor?
KP: Yeah, she was one of our neighbors.
KP: Yeah. Her name was Anne [redacted]. I guess South is known for its Southern hospitality and she proves it.
Then I became pregnant with my younger daughter. I guess we were just jumping into something we didn’t know anything about. We were taking everything as it came.
Heart: So, would you and your husband talk about what your next move should be?
KP: No, no, we just took everything as it came.
Heart: You were young.
KP: Yeah. But, whatever major decision we took, we made it together.
Heart: Was your husband around a lot when he was setting up his practice for the first time?
KP: He was around but not enough. Because he was busy setting up the practice, building it up. But, we had very good friends, actually, we just visited them in Mumbai, every day in the evening we would see each other and spend some time together. Then, when our children started going to school, I would notice that the Americans were curious about us and it was a small town and people were usually very nice.
We still live there, it will be 40 years this year, and we have made some good friends.
Heart: Have you guys thought of moving out now that your husband has retired?
KP: No, we had thought about it as he was retiring, maybe we could move back to India or somewhere else, but we have now reached an age where health care is really important. If we need medical care, we have a hospital where everyone knows you, we realized its importance when I had an anaphylactic reaction. When you have an emergency like that, the hospital won’t give you any medicine until they get all your details, but in my case, because everyone knew my husband, I got my medicine right away. But, if you are in a strange town, they don’t do that.
Heart: What sort of reaction did you have?
KP: A wasp had bitten me and I didn’t know that right away. And I had an anaphylactic reaction, and my blood pressure went down and I couldn’t see, I was temporarily blinded. I passed out in the emergency room. Because, the nurses knew my husband, they didn’t wait until they registered me, and they admitted right away.
If you would have called the ambulance it would have been different, but when we left home I was fine. But as we started driving, I started getting worse. After that incident, we were pretty sure that it’s better to stay in a place where you know people in the medical field.
Heart: Is there a favorite quote or a lesson from your parents that you would like to share?
KP: Um, I don’t have a favorite quote. But, my parents raised to us to be honest, ethical and to be nice to everyone. To respect others no matter what color or age they are. There’s nothing special I can think of. You know in those days, you didn’t talk to your parents much. You just would respect them.
But, they were so proud of me for going to America, and my mom was able to come visit me. She saw my house and she was like, “You live in a palace.” It was a simple, ordinary house, but for her, it was like a palace. She would compare my house to a big house in our home town and she would say that it’s better than that.
KP: But, I have only one regret that I didn’t teach Gujarati to my children. That’s my only regret. When I see other children talk to their parents and their family in Gujarati, I wished I taught them.
I guess my problem was I wanted them to learn English so they can fit into the American schools they were going to. So, I put more emphasis on them learning proper English than teaching them Gujarati. And also those days, there were not many Gujaratis that they could talk with.
But, I’m so proud of the way, all my kids have turned out. I’m so proud of them, they’ve have turned out to be very hard working, ethical human beings.
KP: They don’t want to cheat anybody, they make their living in an honest way. Luckily, their spouses are also the same. I have an American son-in-law, he’s also the same way. He’s very respectful to us.
Heart: So, one of your daughters married an American boy and you were OK with that?
KP: Yeah, you know, when you love your child, and you know that she will marry someone who’s well educated, I guess, it’s OK. And although my kids looked different in school, they never felt they were different.
Heart: That’s how you raised them I guess. So, in the end, what matters?
KP: Happiness. Seeing your kids happy. Peace of mind.
Heart: Yeah, peace of mind is so important. What’s your favorite food?
KP: My husband and I like Indian food.
Heart: Do you cook?
KP: We try to cook at home and we try to not use canned foods, especially since my husband is an Oncologist. I use frozen foods for those vegetables that are not available fresh. But, I mostly use fresh foods.
Heart: Are you religious?
KP: I’m not very ritualistic. The main reason that I go to the temple to meet people. If you really want to pray and meditate, that little corner of your house is good enough. As I am getting older, I’m turning more and more away from religion. Religion has done nothing except create walls.
Heart: Do you watch YouTube?
KP: I don’t watch a lot of TV, I just watch a few shows. I like historical shows or live shows. There’s a show called Amazing Race, it’s a travel show. It’s difficult for us to travel all over the world, but this show shows so many different cultures around the world and I like European history. I also read books that have anything about world history in them.
My husband and I play tennis, so we watch a lot of tennis on TV. We watch American football with my son.
Heart: Do you use apps on your phone?
KP: I read CNN news, Times of India news, I use email and Whatsapp to stay in touch with folks in India.
Heart: Can you live without Whatsapp?
KP: Oh yeah. We just came back from a trip to India and we didn’t watch any news while we were there.
Heart: (Laughs) Nothing has changed by the way.
KP: We just want to be aware of what’s going on in general.
Heart: Do you compete with anyone?
KP: We don’t compete with anyone because you know that’s when we become upset. That’s when you compare and become unhappy. We have everything we want. I come from a very poor family, so for us, this is more than what I had expected in life. Even now, I’m very happy with what I have. I don’t want any diamonds or gold jewelry just because someone else has them.
Heart: Is there a childhood memory that sticks out?
KP: I have a lot. My parents always encouraged us, my sister and I, to always study well, even though we didn’t have a lot of money. They tried to find ways to not pay or pay little but get a good education for us. I remember two things. My sister and I used to live alone in our home town while my parents lived in our village, and our school was going on a field trip and I wanted to get their permission. So, I wrote a postcard to my parents, but my father knew that I will not get his reply in time, so he sent me a Telegram. And that was my first Telegram. And back then getting a Telegram was a big deal. So he sent a Telegram which said, “Yes, you can go to Nal Sarovar.” Nal Sarovar was a bird sanctuary and our school was going there. For me, that Telegram was a big deal.
And I went to Nursing school later, and my brothers were against it, but my father wanted me to go. Because that was the only school where he didn’t have to pay any money. My brothers could afford it but they didn’t want to pay for it. They said, “We are Rajputs. People from our caste don’t go to these kinds of schools.” Because if you are a nurse, you’ve to clean other people, and they were against it. But, my father told me, “It doesn’t matter, do what makes you happy.” And for me, it did two things. The stay in the hostel was free and the school would pay a stipend to every student. So, that was the main reason for me to pick nursing, the financial reason. I got paid to go to school. And I love taking care of people, so it was great.
Heart: That’s awesome.
KP: It’s totally different world back then. Whenever I go back to India now I count how many people are wearing sarees. It’s become so westernized. Hardly, 3 or 4 out of 10 women wear sarees these days. (Laughs)
Heart: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. The shorts are getting shorter and shorter by the year.
KP: The public wants to do what the actors and actresses in Bollywood are doing. But they don’t realize that they have all this protection, they’re surrounded by bodyguards. We can’t live like celebrities.
Heart: How was it when your parents were getting older in India and you were raising young children here in America? You told me your father had passed away even before you came to America.
KP: When the kids were young, we would go to India once a year. When they came to middle and high schools, we couldn’t go that often. That’s the only way we stayed connected to my mom and his family. His mom died in ’92 and his dad had died in ’76.
His dad had come to visit and in the airport, he had a severe headache and we took him to a hospital. He knew that there was something seriously wrong, and they did the MRI and my husband was the one who diagnosed that his father had a big tumor in his brain. He never forgot that day when he saw the report and saw a big tumor. And those days, there was nothing we could do about it. So we had to send him back. It was very hard for my husband.
Heart: Did he tell his father about his diagnosis?
KP: He didn’t tell him directly. You know in those days when you called India, you would shout over the phone for the other person to hear, and when he was talking to his brother to tell him about their father, my father-in-law heard him.
When we took him to the airport to see him off, we could see that it would be the last time we would see him alive. He died 6 months after that.
Yeah, there are tough things in life, but you know that’s life. You have to accept things and just learn from their lessons. Its difficult to survive in a different culture, but we learned many things along the way. We didn’t have all these Indian stores all around us when we first came here. To make a simple mango milk shake, we would mix peach and pineapple, it would give a similar taste as a mango. We would share recipes among our friends. Now everything that you get in India, you get here and more. But until 1998, we didn’t have many Indian places around us. We didn’t have puffed rice, so we would buy the Uncle Bean’s rice packs and made puffed rice out of that. We had to become more creative with our food because we just can’t leave our taste buds back in India.
Note: Before you rate this episode, please consider if you would’ve been so open and authentic about your own life. Earlier episodes available at The Anonymous Manifesto.
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