Saturday, February 10, 2007

When Viresh Forgot English

In 1979, when I was about two, my family moved from Chicago to Mobile, Alabama. At the time, very few Indians lived there. When I was older, my parents and their Indian friends would tell me, “If you saw an Indian family in Bel Air Mall, you would approach them and invite them over for dinner. That’s how our community came together. How else?” When my family arrived, I was told, there were fewer than twenty families in all. Indians came to Mobile for the jobs – professors at the University of South Alabama, engineers at Union Carbide and International Paper, and the convenience store and motel owners along interstate 10. We were Indians from different parts of India: Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Bengal, and so on. In a way, our small group reflected Nehru and Gandhi’s nationalist dreams more than anything you would find in India itself. We had Hindus, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, and Muslims among us. Our secularism was of the Indian kind in that each religious holiday was celebrated rather than American-style, which is to attempt a complete separation of religion.

What really astonishes me about my memories of those early days of Indian life in Mobile was the communion across caste and class lines. I remember frequently going over to a motel for dinner. The motel owners, like most Indian motel owners in the United States, were Gujarati. My family is Gujarati as well. But we are Nagar Brahmins and they were Patels. My parents both had M.D.’s and faculty positions at the University of South Alabama. The Patels operated a run-down motel on the side of a highway. Our family room window looked out on a big, green lawn. Their family room was separated from the receptionist desk by a beaded curtain and looked out on a parking lot. Our caste has historically practiced professions like medicine, law, writing, teaching, government administration, and diplomacy. Patels were farmers. Yet, on what felt like the furthest edge of the Indian diaspora, our shared language and food mattered much more than all the differences.

As the Indian community grew in Mobile, we did what Indians do best. We started to segregate ourselves. We did not have the numbers to have a Bengali Society and a Telegu Society, but there were enough Gujaratis to form a group. A group? Our group? Their group? My family spent more time with the South Indian professionals than with the “Motel Patels” in the Gujarati circle. I remember the stories we would tell each other about Patels. They have a deal with the pimps and prostitute, charge them by the hour. They have good training from life in India for hiding the extra money from the IRS. If they are losing money, they burn down the motel for the insurance. They can go anywhere in the country and have a free motel room to stay in. Did you know that the last motel before you reach the North Pole is owned by a Patel? I remember one Sunday at a weekly Gujarati class. My brother and I were looking down from a second floor window when a tiny car – maybe it was a Volkswagon Beetle – pulled up. We watched as eight Patels spilled out of its doors. "How did they all fit in there?" I asked. Someone said, “I’ve seen ten Patels fit into a car no bigger than that one.” At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I think these “Patel stories” served to draw a line between us and them. They transmuted the old caste boundaries from India into a new set of distinctions.

The Patel story that really grabbed hold of my imagination was about the time Viresh Patel forgot English. I do not remember Viresh very well. I think his family had moved away before I turned eight. What I remember are people’s descriptions of him. Even though he grew up in the States like the rest of us, he had a thick accent. He was said to have curly hair that stuck out in all directions. And, apparently, his parents took him back to Gujarat for a long summer and when he returned, he had forgotten English. His family’s home in India was that rural. That backward. No one spoke English to him there. But how can you forget English? I would ask. How is it really possible? Did he have trouble for a week, or was it like someone starting from scratch, learning the alphabet and reading, Jack and Jill ran up the hill? In my young mind, this story struck some chord inside that resonated with my anxieties. My fear was more that I was not really Indian enough and Mobile would never let be anything else. I knew I would never forget English. That’s all I had, English. Gujarati was a swamp to me. A bog. The story of when Viresh forgot English seemed to speak to our tenuous place in Mobile. Our non-place. I have written on this blog about being treated like the substitute nigger at my all-white school, but for the most part we were just off the map, outside of all rhetoric and discourse, beyond all communal ties and prejudice. Sometimes it seemed like we could say or believe anything about ourselves, and it would be true. At other times, I felt outside of all the groups – the Patels, the educated Indians, and even my family. Maybe it was this alienation that Viresh’s loss of language resonated with.

I know that BabyG, as a half-Indian and half-American-whatever, will face even more nuanced questions that I did. Sometimes I don’t feel that responsible for shaping her social milieu, so much as helping her sort through it whatever it is. Other times, I think we have to live in a city like Houston, where you can pick and choose the cultures your children are exposed to. Part of me wants to take her, when she’s about six, to India long enough that she forgets English.


Henitsirk said...

I was really jolted when you wrote "our caste." I guess I assumed that castes were a thing of the past, a more distant past than your childhood.

I wonder if coming from a culture with castes makes you more aware of class differences in the US? It never occurs to me to think of people being in different social strata, except perhaps the extremes of millionaires and indigents.

GreenDaddy said...

Caste is definitely alive and kicking. It continues to dominate life in India. But it is a very different beast than it used to be. For example, the lower castes form an extremely powerful vote block in India and often determine the outcome of elections.

I don't know if I'm more class conscious because of the Indian background. That's kind of the question I'm trying to get at, though. I'm trying to think about how to raise BabyG to be conscious of class and to be savvy about it.