The Things I carried
The things I carried when I came to this country were dictated partly by the rituals of my Hindu heritage. In my luggage I had a solid silver oil lamp, eight inches tall, which took five wicks and had the capacity to hold one ounce of oil, enough to burn a single wick for about one hour. My Hindu custom required that the prayers be offered in front of an oil lamp. But once I started residency in Pathology, the daily routine of prayers lasted less than fifteen minutes at the lamp. That was all I could spare in any twenty-four hours. The lamp kept burning for a much longer time.
At twenty-three, when I came to the United States from South India, I tried to be pragmatic about what I brought with me, but sentiments over-ruled pragmatism with more than one item I included in my luggage.
I chose a brown leather suitcase instead of a metal trunk to make the most of the weight restrictions of what I could carry on the plane.
I brought with me a jar of coconut oil, boiled and cooled with black peppercorns, to maintain the gloss in my hair. Ammachi, my maternal aunt, made me promise that I would prepare more of it when that jar was empty. One of my most cherished childhood memories was of “Oil bath Sundays.” We ran and played in our courtyard shiny and half naked, with warm oil rubbed lovingly all over our bodies, by our mother or aunt. The smell of the black peppers in that oil is still with me.
Of course I needed a unique steaming pot to make Idlis. Idlis are steamed rice cakes, for which the batter takes over one hour to grind the urad lentil and rice grain (at the ratio of 1:3), twenty-four hours to let the batter rise, and twenty minutes to cook. The pot has two special trays atop a water section, and a domed lid to trap the steam. Once cooked it takes barely one minute to down an idli, smothered with butter and sugar, they are so devilishly delightful. Idlis are breakfast food where I come from. With little time for sit-down breakfasts, I made them for supper on Monday nights. Only vegetarian fare was served at my table on Mondays, the day I observed the Shiva Vratham, a fast in honor of Lord Shiva, for the health and happiness of my husband. If the head of the household stayed healthy and happy, the rest of the family would be happy too.
Also included was a chattukam, a metal spatula, thinnest ever, to turn over dosas, pancakes made without eggs or leavening, and ones that will stick to the griddle, unless extra care is taken in handling them. Just as with some people who will crack if not handled with care. Why are all references to food akin to references to what we are made of? Maybe the food makes the man, or does the food we eat reflect the man in us?
I carried a dog-eared cookbook in Malayalam, my native language. It belonged to Ammachi, my maternal aunt who raised me. She depended on the book for her culinary efforts, which were at best sporadic and not highly regarded even by herself, but what little she did was based on this little book of authentic South Indian, Kerala cooking. Unadulterated by any north Indian recipes, she felt I needed it, her ultimate sacrifice for my future. I guard it from wind, rain, oil splatters and fire, and will pass it on to the next generations, even though they cannot read it.
Besides the white sarees and blouses to be worn at the hospital, I packed a dozen baadis, special bras that I wore. A baadi is a short chemise tied up in a knot in front, thus flattening one’s figure and masking any curves, an effort at modesty, in those times. I thought it quite contradictory that while we took pride in the feminine spirit, and in having sensuous bodies, adorned them in gold and silver, there existed traditional efforts at covering up and hiding aspects of sexuality. To play tennis, I had to wear salwar-kammeez outfits, long pygama-pants worn with long loose-fitting shirts, and a shawl draped across the chest. Wasted efforts at modesty, as I look back. But then my ammoomma’s, grandmother’s, word was dictum, and I obeyed. Still, my ammoomma allowed short choli blouses with our sarees that left our midriff bare. Not that I complained.
The baadis were replaced by regular bras, when I had to go to the hospital here in the States for the delivery of our first-born. It was too embarrassing for my husband that in 1964 I still wore undergarments from the Stone Ages.
The baggage of superstitions I bore would stifle an army. While many were self-assuring, others, if I allowed them to, could have destroyed me.
I carried the firm belief that touching my husband’s feet in respect first thing in the morning was equivalent to honoring God, who is within each of us, for he is the first image of God that I saw when I woke up. I did that, and felt blessed that I had a loved one that I could so honor.
The sense of optimism imbued in me assured me that as an agent of God I could do what is right and honorable even in dishonorable situations. I held a conviction that while one should compromise at times of conflicts, one need not jeopardize one’s principles. As wise as I was for my age of twenty three, the conflicts remained, and as the Western life molded me, many such beliefs came in handy for survival.
I came with the confidence that I could do good to many people. When my efforts were fruitful, I thanked God. When my efforts didn’t work out, I laid them at God’s feet and accepted failure, praying for strength to bear the disappointment.
In my brown leather suitcase I carried an ivory figure of Lord Krishna. It must be very old. My mother’s uncle carried it with him to Burma during World War II, and when he returned, he placed it on a shelf in his drug store, the one my ammoomma, his sister, bought for him. It was the corner drugstore by my house across the street from the Government Hospital for Women and Children. I hung out there as a youngster. When I was old enough he let me wash the mortars and pestles, after he used them. At dusk, our time of daily prayers, I was allowed to light an oil lamp in front of this ivory Krishna. By all standards the store should have prospered. But for reasons unknown to me, the store closed when I was twelve. When he packed up his things, I stood there sadly, not knowing what to say. As he took the statue off the shelf, he handed it to me. Standing three inches tall, the smiling face of Krishna seemed to say ‘take me’, so I took it. It came with me to my medical college hostel, and included it in the things I carried here. My great uncle has since passed away. I remember him with love.
The Bhagavad Geetha is the book of advice that Lord Krishna gave to the young prince Arjuna in the great Epic Mahabharatha, when Arjuna falters in his resolve to fight his evil cousins. I was raised reading and learning the Lord’s advice and so, I included a Bhagavad Geetha book among the things I carried.
There was not enough room to bring idols of all deities I prayed to. So, I took with me a statue of Lord Shiva the destroyer, in a dancing pose with his energy emanating in a ring of flames, to me a symbol of his destroying any bad vibes in my life. I still have it in my pooja room, prayer room.
And then there was the pink purse in a floral design with sparkling thread woven on the top, a birthday gift from my husband Raj, three years before we married. A turbulent time in our lives, his father opposed our relationship, and placed undue pressure on Raj while he was struggling to keep up with his studies in Medical School. That year, on my birthday, Raj decided that he was not going to celebrate with me. His closest friend and confidante, T.K. Rajan, thought he was wrong. So, Rajan himself went to town, bought a purse for Raj to gift me, and arranged for us to meet at The Canteen, the café on the college campus, our usual hangout. Rajan then coerced Raj to give me my birthday present. How could I not bring that with me, as I traveled 10,000 miles away from home? I still have the purse.
I had a reel-tape of Malayalam songs made for us to listen in our new abode, so far away. On the day we recorded the songs, Daddy said a few words of greetings to my husband who was already in the States. Thus I have my dad’s voice with me forever. He passed away seven years later. I did not know then that I would never see him again. I wish I had more of his voice to listen to.
Also included were a necklace and two bangles made of 22Karat gold with ruby-red finial stones set in a unique design, which my ammoomma gave as part of my wedding jewelry. The rest of my jewelry had to be left behind because I was traveling alone and also because Raj and I were planning to return to India after four years of residency training. Back then there was no intention of staying in the States forever.
My album of photographs included pictures of Dad and Mom before they gave up three-piece suits and gold lace saris for clothes sewn from the rough khadi cloth, which was hand woven cotton, made in India with pride. It symbolized the principle touted by Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of our Nation, who as part of the anti- British protest shunned all items bearing any western influence. Khadi making was one small industry established by the Ghandian movement, enabling the peasant folk to make a living with a sense of pride.
There are pictures in this album of me at six months of age, butt naked lying on my tummy wearing only a toothless smile. There is a similar baby picture of my future husband as well. A series of pictures taken at my husband’s home, long before we got married, when we were still in our teens, alongside our siblings, graced the pages. As family friends, we had periodic get-togethers, and my dad being a photographer, imprinted many such visits in celluloid.
I am glad that I included photographs of my childhood chums, of my friends and me at various musical and drama functions in junior college and medical college, and wedding portraits of my sister at age fifteen, and my aunt at twenty-eight. I still carry the album; one of the most precious items that I possess.
My husband came to Chicago in June, 1963, and I followed him seven months later. While I pined for him in the interim, I drove my family crazy. My mother suggested that I knit a sweater for him. So I did, using gray wool in a cable and purl pattern. I made a scarf to match. He said he loved them and wore them a few times. But once we could afford smoother, less patterned sweaters, it was placed in the back of the closet. It served its purpose when I needed an activity to keep me sane.
The things I carried then served their purpose in my life transition to this land. They anchor me in times of turbulence. My relationship to them still contributes to my sanity and survival.