Thursday, April 26, 2007

"Molae" Exploitation

My husband's younger cousin-sister lived with us while she finished her studies in Bangalore. She is a "molae," which in Malayam means daughter or girl, and anyone of a certain age can call you that. A Molae has a lot of duties, but most of all she must serve the elders in the house. "Go get my wallet from my dresser upstairs." "Run and get my cell phone before the caller hangs up." "Help Chechi with the baby."

I discovered a formula while I was there - the more someone calls you molae, the more work you have to do.

I, also, lived in a state of domestic servitude while growing up. I had to run and fetch eyeglasses and other on-the-spot jobs, in addition to whatever I did for my "allowance" - dishes, vacuuming, gardening, snow shoveling, etc. But I only served two masters, my parents. If I served anyone else, it was out of love and/or respect, like my grandfather.

I feel so badly for all the molaes I have met. Our household molae mostly gets assignments from my father-in-law and husband. Neck and shoulder massages, leg massages, in addition to running for the cell phone when it rings. When my mother-in-law comes (my husband's parents are divorced), all hands are on deck but it's mostly "Molae, this" and "Molae, that" when she wants something...everything from chai to reheating the chai because she was too busy talking to drink it when you first gave it to her.

My empathy prevents me from assigning Molae any work. I would feel like a jerk, remembering the relative independence and fun I had in my college years contrasted with the duties of her college years.

Perhaps that is why she speaks highly of me to her friends. "You have an American chechi (older sister)? What's that like?" She tells me she tells them that she thinks she is lucky she didn't get another indian chechi because then she would really have to work.

the cousin-brother and cousin-sister

When Americans first start moving in pukka desi circles, they will be confused the first time they hear someone say something like..."I am going to Madras for my cousin-brother's wedding." Or, similarly when I was talking of one of my cousins, I was asked to clarify
whether I was talking about my cousin-sister or cousin-brother.

I thought that the sibling modifier was just to indicate to people the cousin's gender. Most languages in India have specific words for specific relationships. I studied Tamil and my mind swirled during one session where my teacher was telling me "ok, your husband's aunt on his father's side is called X. your husband's uncle on the other side is called X. No simple Uncle Steve and Aunt Faye here, but still no ambiguity as to how exactly that person is related to you. My daughter calls her father's father just malayalam it is achachan - achan is father and they contract it to achachan.

So I asked my husband one day why people used the term "cousin- brother" or "cousin-sister." He explained that the sibling modifier is not just an indication of gender, but of the closeness that people feel with that relationship. In western families, the core or nuclear unit is all-important and all others are just secondary. In India, the core is important but each person connected to any given family is promoted a rung. For instance, cousins become brothers and
sisters, second cousins become first cousins, aunts and uncles are secondary parents (my husband calls his mom's younger sister "little mommy,' and his dad's younger brother "little dad", and any and every other person who is older than you is either called "older brother" or "uncle" or "elder sister" or "auntie," depending on the age difference.

When you are in India, you will hear so many people calling someone "Bhai" or "Bhaiya" (Hindi), "Ana" or "Aka" (Tamil).... to entreat the Rickwalla (Autorickshaw driver) not to cheat you, you might say "Meter Down, Bhai" as you get into the Auto.

Friday, April 13, 2007

But that's for celebrities!

I spotted some teeth whitening products the other day which jogged the following memory:

I arranged to have a dental checkup at the well-reputed Manipal Hospital one afternoon. One of the great things about India is the ridiculous population level. Having so many extra people means that doctors administer tests that normally only medical technicians and nurses do in countries like the US.

The dentist has always been my favorite doctor to visit; as a child I was a test subject of the Tufts University Dental School. They provided me with free toothpaste and free seals on my "grown up" teeth. Coupled with the efforts of my orthondontist, my teeth could not help but be an object of admiration to the dental set. Dentists could only half-heartedly try to upsell me on whitening treatments, seeing that route canals and implants were not in my immediate
future. (Thank God.)

At the end of my checkup at Manipal that day, the doctor did not try to tempt me with any other treatments. I was shocked, and more than a little bit interested to see what the savings would be of getting my teeth whitened in Bangalore vs. like, anywhere in the US. I asked the dentist whether I would be a good candidate for teeth whitening.

The dentist looked at my teeth again and said, "But, why? Your teeth are a natural color, the color teeth are supposed to be. Besides, whitening is only for celebrities and such people. You are not a celebrity, are you?"

Well, if you have to ask, I guess I'm not.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Firangi Baby was a bear, firangi baby had no hair...

It is said that the hair is a crown of sorts. In India, many people shave their heads as an act of humility or sacrifice to God. When I first got to Bangalore, I once complimented a trainer at the gym on his newly shaved head, and he looked back at me in shock. I now know it was because a) Indians usually don't compliment people publicly, as it invites the Evil Eye, and 2) he shaved his head for God and not for compliments.

Many Hindus believe that parents should make that same sacrifice to God on behalf of their children, and so many children have their heads shaved, and all the hair is offered to God. It is the child's first act of prayer, obeisance to the Almighty.

Rather than the usual venue at the temple, our sacrifice was done at a Cartoon Cuts... an ingenious salon that features a small tv set at each styling chair for the tiny patrons. My daughter sat through it quite happily, squealing "Scooby, Scooby DOOO!" The stylist was very good about harvesting each and every hair, and handing it to me in a sealed envelope.

My husband's reason for wanting this done is entirely religious.

My motivation was to prevent twenty years of criticism of the texture and abundance of my daughter's hair.

In India, nearly every one is a mother-in-law and many "aunties" who I do not even know have urged me to get her head shaved, so that it gets replaced by a stronger, thicker thatch of hair. I do not want to hear, over the course of the next twenty years, that her hair is not up to snuff, and that I should have had her head shaved when she was younger. That is what assuaged the pain as I watched my baby's head become denuded.

I don't think she'll ever be able to watch Scooby-Doo again without apprehension.

Those meddling Americans!

As I was preparing to leave Bangalore, one night at the dinner table conversation turned to my notoriously naughty toddler. Pampered by all and sundry in Bangalore, my daughter would laugh in the face of disciplining adults. In Bangalore, people used to say "That's all right" and laugh when my daughter would try to push them, bite them, slap them; all the anti-social behaviors. Their philosophy is that the child is "king" until they can be reasoned with (around 5 or 6), until a Magna Carta of sorts will reign in the child's whims.

"What will you do if she misbehaves in public over there, like she does here? You cannot hit her in public, you know. People will call the police and children's services on you."

That is the fear of many, many immigrant parents, as I have learned. They fear/respect the American police because their honor is rarely besmirched, and, because children's services can take away your most precious belongings: your kids. Perhaps there is also a little bit of shame involved when the neighbors notice the police at your doorstep.

"That is what is wrong with the people over there! Nobody minds their own business!," he declared.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, the gong was struck on the Muppet Show... because that is what so many of my Indian friends say of the people back home in India.

what's in a name?

In general, South Indians have a very confusing naming structure. Their names are largely comprised of three or four names, only one of which really describes that particular person. If I were to follow their example, I would have been named Randolph Robert Jill. The first part of the name is usually the caste or village name, followed by the father's first name, and then the individual's first name. And to make things a little crazier, when women get married they take
their husband's first name as their last name.

I was quite ignorant about these matters when we got married nearly fourscore and seven years ago. Had I known then what I know now (head shaking ruefully)... I probably would have kept my original name. It was quite a nice Wasp name that I was born to... with swamp Yankee roots, a couple of esteemed ancestors and a nearby college all sharing the name. I even used to get compliments on my name, "good name" anonymous people on the other end of the phone line would say when I told them my name. Of course, they were probably descendants of swamp Yankees themselves with similar names, entrenched in the history of our region.

My ruefulness is compounded when total strangers (south Indians all) assume wrongly that I am married to my father-in-law instead of my husband, because his first name is now my last name.

How did this happen?

limca limca limca

Limca is a beverage that is indigenous to India. The mighty Coca-Cola company could not replicate its taste, so it had to buy the formula and Limca is now manufactured with the Coca-Cola company seal underneath its logo. "..'imca," was one of my daughter's first ten words and probably the first logo she recognized.

It is just the thing to keep your tongue from bursting into flames after a particularly spicy meal. Its ancestor is "nimbu pani" - which means lemon water, but that nimbu is really sort of a lemon and lime put together in one fruit. Nimbu pani, like its foreign counterparts, Lemonade and Mint Julep, really cools you off on a 100+ degree day.

When I found Limca at my local Indian grocery the other day, I was overjoyed and bought 3 bottles. The Indian price printed on the glass bottle is 9 rupees; the American price not found on the bottle is $1.59.

I never got to keep a glass bottle while I was in India. In fact, I only drank from a glass bottle twice, once at the pet store which rewarded my commerce by having a 70-lb, 12-year-old carry a 25 lb bag of imported kitty litter to my car, and another time outside a "bakery," (bakeries are actually part lunch counter, part bakery).

In India, there is an honor code glass bottle consumers: All glass bottles will be returned to the vendor from whom you purchased it, once you've drunk the entire thing whilst standing outside his place of enterprise.

I was oblivious to this code and wondered why one shady character kept following me around while I enjoyed my drink from said glass bottle.

Ohhh... Limca. Why have the people in Atlanta not caught on to the magic of Limca?? Because it will kill Sprite, won't it?