‘Her name is Manjuben. She caters and helps in the kitchen,’ said Samirbhai, the proprietor of my local Indian market. My people being a famously entrepreneurial lot, I all but expected the owner to be Gujarati, and that he would in turn have the name of a Gujarati sous-chef for hire to assist with HUSH prep.
I promptly called Manjuben, addressing her in my native tongue. Her accent wasn’t a rough Surati slang like that of my family, rather something softer, kinder, unlike anyone from south Gujarat. I assumed she hailed from the northern part of the state, where people ‘shush’ their ‘s’ and generally display manners foreign to Surati lovers of profanity that could make Tony Soprano blush.
She responded eagerly, first talking of the cost of a rotli order, then marketing her skills with appetizers and sweets. I explained that I wasn’t looking for a caterer, but a helper in my home. ‘Home’ being in the heart of DC meant hours of negotiations over several days to convince her that the big, bad city was worth entering. I tried explaining the metro to her, promising to pick her up at the station and calling her to check up. Like so many immigrants, she lived sequestered in her suburban apartment, venturing out to the market, temple and work, but never leaving the security of her known paths. Entering the city by herself on public transport was almost as daring as traveling to another continent.
The metro option wasn’t selling. Next came driving. She had a car, but had never driven to the city by herself, only felt comfortable driving in daylight, and needed to be home before her husband returned from work. She needn’t have explained any of this to me, since from the words Kem cho (‘How are you’ in Gujarati) I knew this woman as well as I knew my own aunts. The easy familiarity lay in the assumption that Manjuben had the same ideas, struggles, and motives for emigrating as everyone I was raised with. Like my father’s sister and two of my mother’s sisters, the story doubtless went something like this:
She and her husband were hard working, but not highly educated. Maybe the equivalent of a high school degree, at most a community college level education. Her English was hesitant, limited and grammatically incorrect (though I had yet to speak a word of English to her). She probably left India later in life, mid 40s or so, in hopes of improving her lot and educating her children. She was shamelessly cheap, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the price of everything from milk to okra to underwear at dozens of shops. She disliked the US, distrusted Americans, espoused openly racist tendencies untempered by direct experience, especially toward African-Americans, and spent most of her time ignoring American life, watching Zee TV, TV Asia and other Indian satellite TV channels, and suffered from various ailments such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
“I knew this woman as well as I knew my own aunts. The easy familiarity lay in the assumption that Manjuben had the same ideas, struggles, and motives for emigrating as everyone I was raised with.”
Though I found such a resume tedious in its predictability, it was a resume I could manage with little effort. The racism was intolerable, but best avoided lest we come to a heated debate amidst sharp knives. The rest was the comforts of home. We would work away the day in humdrum chatter involving recipes, gossip, and suitable boys.
Nonetheless, I was nervous at the prospect of sharing hours in the kitchen with a woman who would surely be full of passive-aggressive judgments about my life and lifestyle. The single city life, absence of husband or child at my age, my vagabond career change from respectable World Bank consultant to aspiring (read: broke) writer and underground cook. I had enough of these furtive jabs from scores of relatives and dreaded the prospect of a day trapped with more. But cooking a 5-course meal from scratch for 30 people alone was unthinkable, so Manjuben would have to be tolerated.
“My love life looks like a United Nations minefield of multinational heartbreak.”
All that remained to secure her morning arrival was driving directions. She passed the phone to her husband for the final arrangements as I prepared to talk to some variation on the theme of Gujarati uncle. So imagine my astonishment when a man speaking with a slightly southern American drawl, who sounded decidedly black, answered in English to my Gujarati pleasantries. If filmed, the sound effect would have been the scratching of a vinyl record on a turntable. He introduced himself as Rodney as I tried to cover and switch to English without dropping the phone.
Dear Reader, let me be clear. I have not a single issue with the mysterious Manjuben married to a pardesi (foreigner). Neither is there the slightest problem with an American spouse of any color. (My love life looks like a United Nations minefield of multinational heartbreak.) The shock came from the how and why, not the whom. How could a woman with a back story anything like the one I outlined meet, much less marry, an African-American from the South? In what alternative universe would they come to converse, date, and fondle?! And how many of my smug assumptions were now just so much ignorant profiling on my part? It was beyond the beyonds, and made the wait for the coming morning lengthy and spiced with intrigue.
So, what happened? In keeping with the telenovella style of her life, you’ll have to wait until tomorrow for the conclusion. This much I will say – what began as the most familiar of conversations, morphed into a history lesson of 20th century Indian migration as told by one woman peeling carrots.
Join HUSH tomorrow for more.