The Loss of Belonging

March 29, 2009
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“No! Meena, have you forgotten already? It is next Saturday that we are going to Radha Auntie’s house. She is having her house warming party,” Mrs. Jayanthi sharply says, as she swiftly cuts a long, blackish-purple eggplant into large cubes, and drops them into a steel bowl. Her slender hand moves with ease over the glass cutting board, gently bobbing up and down with every slice she makes. She is seated at a brown Formica table, a table that has been with her through 15 years of her life. Meena sits opposite her, her back facing the large mahogany-paneled window, framed with sheer linen curtains that soften the bright golden light of the late afternoon sun. Her feet are crossed underneath the table, and the intense light mollifies the frustrated scowl upon Meena’s face.

“Amma, please just this once may I go to Lindsey’s house,” Meena pleads to her mother. If Meena had been allowed to go it will be her first sleepover, at 14 years of age.

“No,” repeats Mrs. Jayanthi, as she rises up, straightens her soft, mint-colored cotton sari, and strides towards the stove carrying the bowl of cubed eggplant. She drops the eggplant into her new copper pot, already hot, filled a variety of spices in bubbling oil, and closes the lid. She is preparing vangi bath, an eggplant and rice dish, and a favorite of Mr. Jayanthi. She then comes back to the table and takes a seat in front of her daughter. Meena looks at her mother reproachfully. Her elegant doe-shaped eyes are now narrowed, and her arched brows are tightly knitted. But Meena knows better than to question her mother’s word, and obediently nods her head.

“Meena go and practice for your violin lesson, you have it tomorrow, no?” Mrs. Jayanthi then curtly adds.
Knowing better than to disobey her mother, Meena heavily trudges out of the kitchen.
Mrs. Jayanthi is a sharp woman, with a mind for organization and an eye for perfection. She enjoys preparing for unforeseen events, like impromptu dinners and emergencies that will never occur. The primness that she possesses is evident in her delicately carved features that constantly sustain an aura of grace. Her eyes, long and wide, possess a judgmental air, held within the center of her scrutinizing pupils. As if they can look at a person once and calculate their character. Her mouth is small and strict, perfect for lecturing about the importance of education, or commanding those around her. Yet the tiny tan wrinkles around her eyes make her look, at age 42, like a woman of great wisdom.

The phone begins to ring; Mrs. Jayanthi rises to answer it, but when she says hello, nobody answers. Frustrated she sits back down. It is a fake, or as they call it here, “prank” call, made by a group of silly children who have nothing better to do with their time, than waste their parent’s money on phone calls. This America is strange country she thinks, where roads are kept starkly neat, and neighbors do not spontaneously “drop by” without preparing to do so two weeks in advance. In America winter brings heavy piles of white snow that blanket the driveways and roads, so pure and serene it is; yet it is also a hazard. Mr. Jayanthi has made a habit of calling the local lawn-care service every year to shovel their driveway for them, for he and Mrs. Jayanthi do not posses enough energy to go it themselves. In time though, they learn that that is not the case with the other families in their suburban Minnesota neighborhood. In fact, the first time Mrs. Jayanthi sees the snow being shoveled at her neighbor’s house, about 12 winters ago, by a little brown-haired boy not even fully nine year probably, she is furious. So angry, that for a moment she even thinks about calling her neighbor and telling her to send the boy home. She likes watching little children wearing thick jackets and waterproof boots play in the snow. But she feels that the idea of having young children not even ten years of age shovel the snow on the driveway is absurd. Even back in India she had been loathsome of wealthy households that employed young maids to do the domestic work they could complete themselves. So a few hours later, when the boy rings the doorbell at Mrs. Jayanthi’s house, his nose and cheeks pink from the biting wind, and tells her he will shovel her driveway for $2.00 an hour, Mrs. Jayanthi gives him a five dollar bill and a biscuit and tells him to go home and rest.

She is a kind woman indeed, who feels a need to help. Every other Wednesday she tutors middle school children in chemistry, for that had been her subject in India. She learns that here they do not begin to study true chemistry until 10th grade, and merely disillusion parents by calling the subject Pre-chemistry in middle school. She teaches the children what the numbers mean on the Periodic table, and how to balance chemical equations. Sometimes they become frustrated and disheartened, when this happens Mrs. Jayanthi puts her arm on their back and tells that there is nothing to worry about. Sometimes, on days when the weather is particularly gray she drives Mr. Jayanthi’s old Toyota Camry to the St. Monica’s nursing home. She reads Tagore to the deserving elders, watching with content the way they applaud and enjoy her favorite poems. But when people see her at the grocery store or Walgreen’s, they see her mask of austerity. She feels as if the immigration has changed her, made her more abrasive, rough to the touch. She wonders how she might have been had she never left home in Hyderabad, close to Amma, Papa, and Akka. It feels to her like America is a foreign planet, not a home, but a fertile land in which people blossom. And after they blossom, they should go back to home. She finds her new life hard to define. In America, she longs to observe Diwali with festivity, lighting candles around the house, wearing a sparkly new sari, praying to Goddess Lakshmi with family and friends. In America, she misses late night chats with neighbors, all sitting on the stone floor sipping a fourth cup tea. In America, she feels the need to keep busy only so that she will be impervious towards the longing for home. But the occupation never seems to alleviate the sorrow, for it constantly lingers in the back of her mind. But during those seldom times she is in India, she feels like foreigner again. Although she is seeing her family, the country has changed without her. She now sees girls in jeans and t-shirts riding motorcycles, and college students skipping class and gossiping on the concrete steps of the nearest computer café. Although she is back home it does not give her the same sense of warmth that it used to. The visibly modernized youth give her an unexplainable feeling of detachment from this country. Once back in America she feels even more lonesome than she has ever has felt. She feels like she belongs nowhere, not in America where the culture is so different it is strange, nor India where the people are modernizing so fast that they are becoming Americans. She belongs to an undocumented country suspended between two worlds, The United Immigrants of India.

Mrs. Jayanthi came to New Haven, Connecticut almost 16 years ago as a newlywed, for Mr. Jayanthi was a professor of math at Yale. When she first arrived, it was December, and the bleak snow frightened her. But as days passed by, the fluffy white snowflakes falling softly upon the growing layers of a white mattress seemed inviting, but only from the inside. As if the heavens were sending a message to the Earth. At 4:30 everyday Mrs. Jayanthi would prepare herself a cup of tea flavored with saffron and cardamom, play cassette of classical carnatic flute in their second-hand tape player, sit by the window of their small apartment on the outer corners of the Yale campus, and watch the snow fall. By precisely 4:45 she would begin to prepare dinner. Mr. Jayanthi liked to eat his dinner rather early, around 6:00. Her first winter was passed like this; the snow comforted Mrs. Jayanthi in an odd way, for although it was the most foreign phenomenon of nature she had ever seen, the serenity of the snow gave her a sensation of bliss. By the time summer arrived Mr. Jayanthi told her that he was informed by a colleague that there is a farmer’s market every Thursday during the months of June-August. Mr. Jayanthi encouraged Mrs. Jayanthi to go; telling her it will be much a like bazaar. So the following Thursday she went by bus, to the local mall where stands upon stands stand side by side laden with rare gourmet foods. And Mr. Jayanthi’s words held true, for the farmer’s market did remind her of a Hyderabad market. Several Thursdays were passed there for Mrs. Jayanthi, strolling through the parking lot of the mall, trying things like pumpernickel bread and crystallized mango.

The following year Mrs. Jayanthi learned that she was pregnant. Mr. and Mrs. Jayanthi were elated. Letters were sent, and phone calls were made. Mrs. Jayanthi’s phone conversations with her mother, father and sister were enthusiastic chats about what to name the baby and whom she would look like. Her mother also instructed her on how to massage swollen feet, and treat morning sickness.

Finally, in the month of June, the baby girl is born. She is named Meena. Meena is an adorable baby with long black eyes and a thick head of hair who comes to anyone who says her name. At three months she is able to sit, by six months she is able to crawl, and by one year she can walk with speed. Books fascinate Meena; she always clutching one in the tiny pink palm of her right hand and saying, “Mommy let me tell you a story.” She is an excellent entertainer who tells a story for anyone who will hear. In preschool Meena’s teacher Mrs. Larson tells Mr. and Mrs. Jayanthi that Meena is extremely capable and should be moved to kindergarten. Meena excels in whatever she does, passing all grades in primary and middle school with flying colors. By age 14 Meena has become strikingly beautiful. Tall and slender with a luminous golden complexion, she looks neither like Mr. or Mrs. Jayanthi, but has features that are very much her own. She has a delicately rounded nose with a rather blunt tip, and she has elegantly long eyes that are thickly lashed. She is in 10th grade where she studies Algebra II, and is using a graphing calculator for the first time. She takes a variety o history and science classes. In her English class she reads books like Oliver Twist, A Doll House, A Separate Peace. Mr. and Mrs. Jayanthi are sometimes awed by the amount of homework she does, and the diversity of it. They let her go over to her friend’s house occasionally, but do not let her go to sleepovers or parties, for fear that something bad might happen. Meena is well liked by her classmates in school both for her intelligence and carefree disposition. She has one good friend named Lindsey with whom she goes shopping and watches movies. She seems to her surroundings the epitome of perfection, a brilliant beauty.

But this is not the way she sees herself. Meena feels as if she is a gilded, masked in a way that cannot be removed, as if she is two souls within one body. Meena wears a mask that she has not created, but is necessary to hide herself. For although she is what she appears to the world, she is also more. And that is derived from that lack of empathy she feels. To feel in sync with another’s emotions, or comfort them at times of devastation, are acts that are foreign to Meena. They are things that Meena has needed to cultivate. And the fact that they needed cultivation, and did not come instantaneously bothers Meena. As if she has a lack to feel, empathize, and connect with another. Now, when she truly strives for compassion she finds it to give to those who need it. But it is that she needed to yearn so arduously to uncover that emotion is why Meena feels she is not pure internally.

Meena feels like she is truly Indian American. She enjoys being Indian, it is the sort of pride she feels about her culture that compels her to enjoy listening to musical masters churn out exquisite renditions of age-old compositions on their flutes and violins, and watch the newest Bollywood hits with her mother and father late into the night. She feels nothing less than the utmost adoration in the midst of the Indian immigrant community that her parents created for themselves, or among her relatives where her grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, and uncles who dote upon her. But she also appreciates the fact that, being one of the wealthiest countries in the world, America, is a “Land of Opportunity.” Here is place where any one who can, achieves something great, and most times people look at you with a smile. Americans, she feels, have an uncanny ability to accept the new, and modernize more than any other country she has ever seen. She knows she would never like to be fully American, but she aspires to be an eclectic mix of both, having the ability to respect the old and welcome the new. But even though she loves being this way, there is an unsettled feeling that comes along with it.

By late October of that year, it has already begun snowing. K-mart begins selling Christmas trees, and Hallmark Christmas card ads are played so frequently on the television that people can recite the lines of them by heart. Wreaths are being put up on every door, and Mrs. Jayanthi puts up her wreath to. She had bought it during her first Christmas in America, it is unlike any other wreath, for it is made of plastic shreds made to look like pine needles in the color of crimson and is adorned with delicate gold poinsettias. Mrs. Jayanthi had bought it because it reminded her of one of her mother’s saris. But by the third week of November Mrs. Jayanthi learns that her mother has passed away. The phone call comes on a drizzly Sunday, and the ominous clouds seem to foresee the terrible event. Even Mr. Jayanthi, who is definitely not the one to believe in superstitions, comments that the weather looks rather eerie. At 8:17 that evening the phone rings, Mrs. Jayanthi who is reading an old novel for nostalgia purposes, eagerly answers it. At first she speaks cheerily to her sister about recent events, but slowly her smile begins to fade, replacing itself with a blank look, and she leaves the bright family room where she has been reading. A few minutes later Meena, who is listening to a classical violin piece, and Mr. Jayanthi who is been proofreading his latest Power Point presentation for class, hear a piercing scream. Hastily they rush out of their rooms to find Mrs. Jayanthi, only to see her a few moments later huddled in a corner of their dark master bedroom, shakily clutching the phone in her right hand, and waving her left hand back and forth in the direction of the door indicating that they should leave. About an hour later, Mr. Jayanthi and Meena, who are anxiously watching the evening news, hear Mrs. Jayanthi walk downstairs. Her face is red and swollen; she throws herself onto the couch and begins to bawl. Mr. Jayanthi and Meena rush to her side, Mr. Jayanthi holds Mrs. Jayanthi’s hand in his, and Meena puts her hand atop her mother’s head. Tears are streaming down Mrs. Jayanthi’s face. But through her sobs, she manages to tell them that her mother had just passed away due to a sudden heart attack. Mrs. Jayanthi does not understand how this could have happened, for her mother had never shown any sign of illness. In fact she never complained, always selflessly helping another was the way she was. Mr. Jayanthi and Meena are shocked and do know what to say, for no matter how many consoling in words they say they know that nothing will alleviate the pain of loss, Mr. Jayanthi holds Mrs. Jayanthi’s hand for a few more minutes, and then leaves it, proceeding toward the computer the to find the next soonest flight to India. Mrs. Jayanthi knows this and tells him that she wants to go alone. Meena and Mr. Jayanthi are slightly taken aback by this, but obey her wish. The following day at 4:30 they wave to her from behind the security gates at the Bradley International Airport.

Meena only cries once, at the time when she first hears the news, not only out of devastation, but because she feels that it is her duty to do so. She is angry with herself for crying so little, and she works so hard to generate any tears. She does not feel the agony of the situation the way her mother does. Most times her mother’s sensitivity and easy tears irritate her, she feels that the fact that her mother cries so easily, lessens the value of tear. A tear is symbol, a representation of an event. A tear marks an extremity, to Meena, whether it is happiness or agony. Tears which fall represent that something of importance has occurred, whether they are ones which drip down the face stinging the flesh with their unforgiving taste, or tears of joy each one only increasing a feeling of achievement or happiness. Meena feels that a tear is sacred, only something to be used at a time of utmost importance. But now Meena longs for her mother’s trait, for this is a time of great anguish, but the tears to remember it have not been spared. Meena has only met her grandmother once. She was six years old at the time, and it was her first trip to India. They stayed at her grandparents place for merely a day. She remembers her grandmother’s kind face, heavily wrinkled with age. She remember her salt and pepper hair, and wise penetrating gray eyes. But these features did not make her old, just merely kinder. Meena also remembers the way her grandmother had slowly brushed her hair, and mixed her potato curry with rice and formed them into individual balls for her, despite her shaking hand, which Meena later learned was due to arthritis. She also remembers how her grandmother had told her a story purely out of her imagination. These things give Meena the ability to cry for the loss of the love that she could have experienced.

Sitting in a rather uncomfortable position in her Air India flight, Mrs. Jayanathi waits for the flight to take off. She feels mixed emotions, for she is anxious to see her sister, father, aunts, uncles, cousins, but she does not want to face the reality that one of the most cherished people in her life is gone. She does not actually feel that her mother has passed away. In fact part of her is expecting to see her mother when she arrives at her parents flat it Hyderabad. It is a childish notion she knows, but she still cannot come to the reality of the matter. She knows that when she goes back home after these two weeks, the cold reality of the incident will be upon her. Only in America will she begin to mourn for the loss, and not weep out of shock like she has been doing. She will bear the truth of the fact that she will have no one to hold her and comfort her with wise advice. Most prominently though, Mrs. Jayanthi will feel devastation. She will feel devastation for the fact that her father has lost a piece of himself, and devastation for the fact that Meena will never know her grandmother. She knows that to Meena, this is a heart-wrenching affair, but not a prominent one in her life. She knows that Meena cannot comprehend the pain of the situation. But what bothers her more though is the fact that she does not know if she can comprehend it either. She does not know if when she fully understands this loss, she will be able to bear its pain. This is a huge loss in her life, for it is a loss of part of her. And she does not know if she will be able to proceed without feeling the mental pain of her mother’s death.

Two weeks have passed by since Mrs. Jayanthi has come back from India. The first week passes by, mostly by her sleeping, due to jet lag. In reality though she is sleeping so she will not have to feel what has happened. The second week she passes in her room. She cries incessantly surrounded by articles of her mother’s. Cotton saris, books, letters that her mother wrote to her. The floor now has a visible coating of dust upon it because neither Mr. Jayanthi nor Meena have bothered to clean it. Mrs. Jayanthi comes out infrequently to check on Meena, she knows what a toll her instability is taking on her, but she cannot accumulate the strength to fight it. A few days later Mrs. Jayanthi musters enough strength to go and talk to Meena. Her hair is wildly out place, her face red and puffy, her eyes almost swollen shut, and tear tracks glisten upon her face. She sees Meena sitting on the gray leather couch, her legs swinging as she intently takes notes about the French Revolution. She notices Mrs. Jayanthi’s arm on her shoulder, and turns her head. She studies her mother’s face, focusing upon her eyes, and for the first time she realizes her mother’s concern for her.

“Tell me about her, tell me about ammama,” she asks.

Mrs. Jayanthi is touched and surprised, and moves onto the couch next to Meena. She knows what effort Meena must have taken to say this, for she knows it was not said just for talk, but through a longing to know about her grandmother and connect with her immortal soul. So she takes Meena’s hand in hers as they both watch the sun unite with the Earth once again, and for the first time in three weeks they begin to talk.

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