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My initial impressions of India were formed when the Beatles brought sitars and transcendental meditation back from Rishikesh in 1968—a naive picture of a spiritual and enlightened country filled with revered cows and flowers. This idea stayed with me until 1980, when I briefly dated a Hindu man whose Punjabi parents had immigrated to Canada in the sixties. He was caught between the rigid traditionalism of his family and the self-focused "Me Decade" that dominated North American culture in the 1970s. Our relationship, which ended when he acquiesced to his family's insistence on an arranged marriage, caused me to modify my image of India. I kept the cows, flowers and spiritualism, but replaced enlightenment with reverence for tradition—a no less naive picture that lasted right up until I stepped off the plane at Annadurai International Airport in Chennai to attend the wedding of a friend in 2003.
I don't remember much about my first week in India. What I can recall is limited to a few surreal flashback images of chaotic traffic, ornate temples, encounters of the nasty kind with the ubiquitous cowpats and an overwhelming sense of relief when I collapsed into the safety of my air-conditioned hotel room every night.
By the beginning of my second week, I'd replaced my jeans and T-shirts with the much more comfortable long dresses and baggy pants of churidars, learned to walk in traffic like any other self-respecting pedestrian and bought a bottle of bleach to cope with my sandals' uncanny attraction for manure. I abandoned organized tours to famous temples in favor of random rides in auto rickshaws and, once off the tour buses, I began to meet people. They approached me on trains, buses and street corners, initiating conversations with stilted phrases learned in school: "What is your good name, madam?" Or "Madam, how do you do today?" Our brands of English were usually too different to permit real communication, and most encounters ended when my new acquaintance would hand me a scrap of paper with an e-mail address or phone number, as though lack of a common language was no barrier to forming a lifelong friendship. By the end of my third week, I was utterly enchanted by India. This was no country filled with stodgy traditionalists and spiritual ascetics. This was a gaudy, noisy, smelly, chaotic, exuberant celebration of life; a country where the bumper sticker most often seen on the back of vehicles as diverse as ox carts and city buses read PLEASE HONK HORN. The scent of incense, sandalwood, jasmine and spices permeated my clothes, which were now as sequin drenched and brightly colored as those of every other woman I passed on the streets, My last few days in India were spent, along with two thousand other guests, in glorious, glittering celebration of my friend's marriage.
My body returned to the West, but my heart never did. I talked a friend into a three-week luxury tour of south India in 2005, a fabulous adventure that was nothing like my first and far-less-opulent visit. After that, longing for India took over my life. So in 2007, I quit my job, sold my house and went back to Chennai with the intention of living there until I got India out of my system. To facilitate meeting people, I signed on for six months as a volunteer with a social services organization. Working with their women's empowerment programs, I saw a completely different India, terrible and beautiful and more compelling than anything I'd ever experienced.
The social workers gave me the task of teaching English to the residents of two shelters they ran for homeless women. Armed with a cracked blackboard and the translation services of a shelter resident who spoke an interesting variant of English, I gave it my best shot. Unfortunately, my translator was heavily medicated and kept falling asleep in class. When the novelty of English lessons degenerated into vocabulary lists and stilted conversation practice, most of my students lost interest in acquiring a language they would never have an opportunity to speak. I gave up teaching and went to work in the office, writing funding proposals and transcribing case histories for the social workers.
The lives of my ex-students were fascinating. Some came from impoverished backgrounds, others from wealth. Some had been rejected by their families; others were fleeing abusive families. They ran the gamut from illiterate to university educated and came from all castes and religions. A number of them had physical deformities. A few had been victims of human trafficking. What they all had in common, though, was a kind of rebellious courage, a determination to survive, to make a place for themselves in a society that had no place for them. I grew to admire my ex-students as much for their obstinacy as for their optimism. With the help of the social workers, I came to see my Western ideal of education and careers for women as a simplistic approach to a very complex problem. Whatever paths these women took in life would have to follow the contours of a social and economic landscape dominated by extended family, the one thing they did not have.
My six-month volunteering obligation was almost over but I wasn't ready to leave India. I'd made friends among the social workers and shelter residents. I'd also "gone native," trading in my churidars for more sensible and flattering saris, enjoying evening walks through my neighborhood, where I chatted with shopkeepers and bought ropes of heavenly night jasmine from little table stalls set up outside the gates of the local temple. I'd lost my fear of the feral dog packs that roamed the streets and the herd of tanklike water buffalo whose evening grazing route happened to be along the road to the Internet café. Best of all, I'd developed a sixth sense about cowpats and hadn't had to disinfect my sandals for weeks.
When a chance encounter in the grocery store led to an apartment located not far from the shelters, I decided to renew my visa for another six months and make myself a home. I wouldn't have lasted a week on my own without my landlady, the resourceful and generous Lalitha. She bullied the electricity board into upgrading service to the house so I could install an air conditioner. She found the carpenter who put screens on my windows and the maid who came by every second day to do my laundry. It was Lalitha who hooked me up with the Internet provider, the drinking-water man and the cable guy. She also fed me frequently, and over delicious home-cooked lunches at Lalitha's table I learned about the strength and stability of the traditional Indian extended family.
I was still putting in a few days a week with the social services organization. One of the problems they faced at the time was the impending loss of funding for one of the shelters. No one wanted to turn the residents out onto the street. The social workers attempted to find alternate housing for those women who had steady, low-paying jobs while I wrote proposals to various organizations, hoping to obtain subsidies that would allow the unfunded shelter to be converted into an inexpensive hostel for poor working women.
The idea for Sisters of the Sari grew out of the hostel proposals and some if-I-won-the-lottery fantasies I had while writing them. Many elements of the book are based on my own experiences; others are composites of stories told to me by friends and colleagues. Any errors in the portrayal of Indian culture are the result of my inability to correctly interpret these stories and in no way reflect upon the many wonderful people I worked and lived with during my stay in India.
My Western friends who reviewed the first draft of the novel had many questions about India. I incorporated the answers to most of them in subsequent drafts. Answers to a few of the questions didn't fit naturally into the story, so I will attempt to answer them here.
Nearly everyone wanted to know more about south Indian food. I considered testing some recipes to include in this section but my local Asian grocer doesn't carry all the ingredients and my Western kitchen is ill-equipped for tasks such as grinding lentils into paste. Well, that's the official excuse. The truth is I just dislike cooking.
South Indian cuisine is nothing like the north Indian foods on offer in the West. The most noticeable differences are the delicacy of the spices and the generous use of coconut. Chipped or shredded or ground into a paste, coconut shows up in just about everything. Most gardens have a coconut palm or two, and most kitchens have a special device to grate coconut meat from the inside of the shell, and a flat stone and roller to mash coconut meat into a paste. Curry leaves are the dominant spice in nearly every dish. They have a pungent, slightly bitter taste and are said to aid digestion. Breakfast is generally a small meal of dhosa (imagine a crepe) or idli (imagine a dumpling) or vadai (imagine a salty donut filled with peppercorns) which are all made from ground lentils and rice. They are served with creamy coconut sauce and thick, tangy tomato sauce called chutney. For a really fancy breakfast, dhosa is wrapped around spiced fried potatoes, which is then called rava dhosa.
The main meal of the day is lunch, which includes: rice, sambar (see below), rassam (searingly hot pepper soup), curd (thin yogurt) and a small amount of spiced fried vegetable. Special-occasion lunches will have two or more types of spiced fried vegetables, a banana, apadam (paper-thin, crispy-fried crackers) and barfi (a delicious but unfortunately named sweet made from solidified condensed milk). Nonvegetarians add a chicken, fish or meat dish, also cooked in spicy sauce.
The evening meal is a much simpler affair: dhosa, idli, chapati (similar to a Mexican tortilla except made with wheat flour), parotta (the Indian answer to croissants), and puri (a deep-fried relative of the chapati) are served with vegetables in a variety of sauces.
The Chettinad region of Tamil Nadu is considered to have the best cuisine. For Western palates it is an acquired taste because of the strangeness of seasonings such as flower pods and a mysterious spice called kalpasi, or black stone flower, which turns out to be a lichen.
Sambar is a thin, spicy sauce made with vegetables and lentils. There are as many sambar recipes as there are cooks, and if you are ever invited to a south Indian home for lunch, praising the sambar will garner you instant popularity with the lady of the house.
Leavened bread is available in a thick, sweet loaf that has a crumbly texture. However, it is expensive compared to other types of starches, and many Indian people dislike it because they associate it with sop, a dish of crumbled bread in warm milk introduced by the British to treat fever.
My Indian friends also disliked raw vegetables, mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs and just about any kind of cheese, making my one attempt at a Western dinner party a total failure. Fortunately, Indians adore potato chips and Oreo cookies, so at least no one left hungry.
Some people wondered why I didn't give surnames to most of the characters in the book. The answer is because most of the characters in the book didn't have one.
Until the coming of the British, the concept of family names was practically nonexistent in Tamil Nadu, which is primarily Hindu. Traditionally, Hindus have only given names, usually something long and complex and invoking at least one god, which they use for official purposes. In everyday life, they use only a portion of their full name. When the need for a second name arises, on official documentation, for example, they preface their given name with their father's initial.
Throughout the book, I used only shortened names for the Hindu characters with the exception of Krishnamoorthy, who was acting in an official capacity, and P. Ramaswamy, who used his father's initial on his business sign and on the advertisements he published when looking for Santoshi.
A few people were curious about Meeta's dislike of diapers.
Most of the babies and toddlers I encountered in India were bare bottomed. This is partly for financial reasons, as most parents can't afford diapers. Another consideration is hygiene; bacteria breed quickly in the tropics. But, most important in my opinion, going au naturel is more comfortable for the child. In a tropical country, all that material wrapped around little bottoms makes for hot, cranky babies.
People in India were always handing me babies to hold. At first I was appalled at the prospect of cuddling a cute little bundle of incontinence. It turned out that Indian mothers were adept at recognizing the signs of impending elimination in their offspring. They didn't always manage to retrieve the child in time, though, and I learned to accept philosophically the inevitable consequences of a diaperless society.
Posted March 11, 2013
Loved this book, author takes you to inside India and a feel of the life style there. Definately an inspiration to reading more of life around the world.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 18, 2011
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Posted October 15, 2011
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