Crossing Cultures


“How do you open this thing?” Laddu’s cry is plaintive as she wrestles with a miniature Hawkins pressure cooker. I show her how to open and close the cooker. Ammu pipes up “Did you have one growing up?”

“Never!” I say. My ferocity surprises me though it shouldn’t. I try to explain to her how we were a “Prestige” family, not “Hawkins”. I fail miserably and the lack of cultural context hits me. I also realize this is a different generation and a childhood India would probably have made little difference. I tell her about “Sumeet” mixie and how I eventually moved on to “Preethi”. The brands mean little to her but the gravity in my voice seems to convey that this is important, to me, so she listens quietly.

“Why are you listening to that song over and over?”

“Indian music is boring! Can you listen to it when we are out of the house?”

The otherness of M. S. Subbulakshmi in a suburban American home has never felt so stark. I try to talk about what this music means to me. Words fail to convey what triggers are, how the mellifluous sounds of the veena, the voice of MSS all bring back memories of a time when I was happy, carefree, responsibility-free. I tell them instead of how young it makes me feel. I tell them of Geetha paati who listened to these songs on cassette tapes, her otherwise braided hair wet from a shower, the ends knotted. I tell them of lazy Sunday mornings. I tell them of oil lamps, the smell of nallaennai, a portal to simpler times.

Pattu is now engrossed. Bridging the cultural gap seems impossible. I try another tack. I tell them years from now, they will hear JoJoSiwa or Ariana Grande the way I listen to Vishnu Sahasranamam and their children will groan in collective disgust at their choice of music.

The air is light, the kids are laughing at my analogy.

Raising children in a world I do not understand much myself, I rely on old goalposts, ones that served my parents well. I realize without context those goal posts are meaningless. Crossing the cultural divide requires all the effort on my part, little from my children as they live ensconced in a world they understand well.

I have lingering regrets about the things that will die with me. Inane things like Hawkins pressure cookers, the smell of vadu maanga, the crunch of manohara paruppu thengai and the art of extracting pulp from tamarind. The inexorable march of time has never hit me this way before and I wonder what lost treasures linger in my Amma’s head.

8 thoughts on “Crossing Cultures

  1. Why should it be lost?
    I am sure kiddos will miss your dosa chutney breakfast and wish they knew how to make it themselves. Just like I miss those days along with the food.

    Don’t kiddos like Indian food? Mine misses Indian food if we don’t have it for a few days, and has started appreciating the many flavors of Indian food. May be all will not be lost and if not all atleast some of your treasures will be passed on !! Cheers

    1. Food is one thing I am sure will be passed on. At least the stuff I make regularly like aviyal and kootu. The bakshanam not as much.

  2. I constantly find myself comparing what I’m going thru raising my kids here to my mom raising me and my sister in Bombay. She grew up in Kerala and it was such a different experience for her. She embraced Bombay fully and made good friendships with lots of families from different Indian regions, which helped me get comfortable with folks from all parts of India. One big difference is that there were so many families in Bombay who were from different parts of India so they were all going thru the same thing together and I feel that made it a bit easier. Many similarities though:-).

    1. I am sure growing up in Bombay would have been like being in a different country for your mom. Fascinating how much in common we have across cultures and generations.

      1. The funniest is when my kids laugh at or correct my pronunciations:-). It takes me right back to how we would laugh at my moms pronunciations. I can only hope that I was as polite and kind as my kids are when they correct me:-). Very funny though and kids and I have a good laugh:-)

      2. That is another blog post in itself. Somedays I get mad when I get corrected because of the whole “American = World” mentality. Then I realize my kids don’t have the exposure I do.

  3. I completely get that! So thankful for the internet. I have used it many times to show kids different pronunciations of the same word ( they would never believe me if I just told them that). They r amused watching me stand up for myself:-).

    I’m reading Mallory towers to the kids now and they find the old times British English very amusing:-)

Leave a Reply to Sandya Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.