This lazy Saturday morning, I'd turn on a popular Indian cultural/Bollywood show, and saw the host talking to Sanjay Gupta. Sanjay began by describing the site he and his brother started, "the Kahani movement"
As soon as they described capturing and sharing the first-generation Indian American experience, I immediately identified with it. Over the years, my parents have told me stories regarding each of their families. As a child, they seemed as wild and adventurous as anything I'd seen on television, but as an adult, I realized that these memories were what kept them true to their cultural identities in a foreign country for decades...
My parents were married in southern India in 1966, in Kottayam. My father had just completed his MBBS at Manipal, and my mother had completed a few years in her BS studies. Though they were both Christian Indian (Syrian Orthodox-Jacobite), their families could not have been more different, despite the fact that both families considered them a good match.
My father, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, lost his mother when he was still a young man and shuttled between siblings' households, seemingly yearning for his own place in the world . His oldest brother, Umbothi, 20-30 years his senior, had supported the family by emigrating to the Middle East, and sent money from the oil rigs to support everyone - his family took my father in and raised him among his own sons. My cousins have related stories to me about how he would push himself to study as well as compete in sports with his brothers and his friends - no easy feat, as my uncles were all about six feet tall, with light skin and blue-grey eyes, and my father is only 5' 4", with darker skin and brown eyes. Originally, he had started in business, working with his older brothers, contracting, and was successful enough so that he had a chauffeur by the time he was in his early 20's. However, he found some of the bitter realities that accompany running a succesful business distasteful, especially when it came to firing people or bribing local officials. A deathbed promise to his mother ultimately pushed him to medicine, where he flourished and came into his own. He was expected to marry, as part of family tradition, but I'm not sure he knew what to expect - the boy who'd always wanted a stable home was now a young man about to start his own family.
In contrast, my mother's family was a neat unit of four children - my mother was the third child, behind her two older brothers, but almost identical to her sister a year younger. Though each child had a distinct personality, the enitre family was extremely close-knit, disciplined by strict but loving parents. My mother grew up loving to learn, and entered college for a Home Economics degree; Despite this, I don't think she fully expected to get married so quickly. Life for her was her family, and the goings-on in other households did not really concern or bother her much.
I'm not exactly sure about how they felt when they met each other - the black and white photos I have of them, in my opinion, show a very good looking 60's Indian couple, attired in traditional wedding garb, wearing floral garlands. My father, with his hair combed up like his hero, Sean Connery, looking fairly dapper, while my mother, very pretty but quiet. What strikes me about this picture are how neither is truly smiling, and yet both are focused, staring intently into the camera. It's such a contrast to my wedding photos with my wife, where we are overjoyed in almost each or every shot.
I can't imagine what was going through their heads at that moment - gazing at this virtual stranger sitting next to them, thinking, "This is the person I'm spending the rest of my life with?" They'd only met a few weeks before, and their fathers had done most of the talking. Though both the bride and groom had had the chance to say no if they were not compatable, they'd each agreed that the other would be fine, and made a decision that would affect both their lives, with no pre-knowledge of the other person.
I also don't know the details of how my father decided to come to America. I know that there were times growing up that I'd cursed his decision to come to Detroit; why not New York City, or Los Angeles, where there were possibly more Indians, and specifically more Malayalees, so I could find more people like me?
It's taken me the better part of four decades to come around and appreciate how frightening it truly is, to leave everything you've known behind, with a complete stranger, and fly halfway across the world, to an entirely alien environment and culture, with no more than the clothes on your back and $15 in your pocket. As I said before, my parents would relate stories to my older sister and I, to teach us, as well as give us a sense of a larger family that existed beyond our home.
My parents, in their own humble way, never recognized how incredible their own experiences have been, how they have changed and changed others. I hope to capture their experiences and the rest of my family's stories to teach my children and their children, so they can appreciate and be proud of our family.
I'm grateful for a medium such as Kahani to do just this. Thank you so much.