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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Here We Are

American Dreams, American Nightmares (A Memoir)

Aarti Namdev Shahani

Celadon Books




I’M GOING TO LET you in on a little secret—the real reason so many people from far away risk everything to come to the United States. It’s the backstory you’ve never heard. But it’s so obvious, it’ll make you stop and wonder: how does the truth always get so buried? It’s the reason my parents came here.

Mom and Dad met over a game of poker in Casablanca. In the crowded salon, people kept coming up to him.

Namu-bhai, when will you bring Teesri Manzil already?” someone asked about the latest hit from back home. “I’ve been waiting forever, yaar.”

Dad was the filmwalla—a film distributor. Not for Hollywood. For Bollywood, which is the world’s largest film industry. The B stands for Bombay, where it’s based. It was Dad’s job to take reels of film and get them to theaters across Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. This was the 1960s, when movies were still literally printed on a thin black strip of glossy paper called film.

It was taxing work. He rode around on his bicycle, just like the boy in Cinema Paradiso, only with an Arab-world twist. Dad was also the censor. He’d take scissors and cut out each and every scene where a man and woman got too close. And mind you, too close did not mean kissing on the lips. Indians wouldn’t go as far as those Americans did. But there was the occasional suggestive shot—cheeks brushing or a long embrace. For the Arabs of North Africa, that was going too far.

“Don’t cut too much, Namu-bhai,” the Hindus at the poker table chided him. “Leave something juicy for those of us who are not Muslim.”

Mom and Dad didn’t convert to Islam. That fact defined their lives early on. Dad was born in Karachi, which used to be part of India, back when it was still under British rule. While the Brits spent more than three centuries colonizing the subcontinent, they were in a big hurry to leave. They decided four months before departure to divide the land into two parts: Pakistan for Muslims, India for Hindus and Sikhs. The Partition—as it’s called—was set for August 15, 1947.

The Brits didn’t consult a single astrologer, which was ludicrous. While religions were at war, everyone agreed: consult the star experts before any major decision—be it a wedding, the naming of a child, the divorce of a country. Astrologers jumped up and down, warning the date was ominous. It would result in untold misery.

They were right—though to what extent is unknown, a data point lost in history. The widely cited estimate of 15 million displaced and 1 million killed is a gross understatement, leading scholars say; and there was no serious effort to do a body count.

Dad was six years old at Partition. A gang of men with burning torches and sticks came banging on his family’s front door. His mom grabbed the kids and pushed them out the back. “Hide on the terrace,” she ordered them. The next day, they were all on a boat sailing from Muslim-held Karachi down to Hindu-held Bombay, with just the clothes on their backs.

Mom was from the same region as Dad—it’s called Sindh—but from a different city. She was born in Hyderabad, about a year before Partition. Her real birthday is a mystery. It may have been in August or September. No one can tell for sure. In the middle of a freedom struggle or civil war, it’s hard to remember what day a mother goes into labor.

The man in charge of drawing the line through the homelands of 88 million human beings was a lawyer who’d never set foot on the subcontinent. He did, however, go to the same prep school as Britain’s prime minister. The Brits believed that with his “objectivity”—modernity’s religion, the Western cult of judgment without empathy—the First World would bless our Third World. He used a low-resolution map as his guide.

His final Partition map was not revealed to the leaders of newly independent India and Pakistan until the celebration parties were over. It was a tough morning-after pill to swallow. No side was happy. As politicians squabbled, so too did the masses. Cities that were once cosmopolitan melting pots erupted in tribalism. Muslim babies were put on skewers and roasted. A trainful of Hindus and Sikhs were butchered, arriving into a station as corpses. There were so many dead bodies, dogs turned their noses up at second-grade meat.

Everyone at the poker party in Casablanca had Partition in common—the blood that soaked the streets, their clothes, and, for some, even their own hands. Call them Pakistani or Indian, refugee or expat, they were defined by that day and eager to forget. It was time to live in happier times.

And they were happier. Even if Mom and Dad didn’t have a homeland like their ancestors, they did have electricity, flushing toilets, and a chance to flirt with the most intoxicating question the world has ever asked: what is love? Mom and Dad wouldn’t be dragged to the altar, made to stand in front of a complete stranger and utter “I do” before ever making eye contact. They’d get to meet and talk first.

From across the room, Mom noticed married women flirting with Dad, manufactured smiles on their heavily painted faces. And, she noticed, Dad did not flirt back. He didn’t try to cop a feel like the many handsy men who liked to grab more than their playing cards. Dad kept his hands to himself. A shy guy, she thought. She felt something for him.

Dad tried not to stare at Mom, but he couldn’t help it. She wore clothes she’d made herself—taking Indian saris and stitching the yards of fabric into Arabian kaftans with belts. (She learned sewing in Barcelona, where her family eventually settled after Partition.) The lustrous black hive on her head was so thick, it looked like a wig. Is that her real hair? he wondered, desperately wanting to pull it. He felt something for her.

Their first date was, fittingly, a movie. Mom’s little sister sat in between, relaying messages back and forth, the fulcrum in the balancing act between old-fashioned propriety and modern romance.

Dad grew up poor. Mom came from money. So when it was her side that asked him for his hand in marriage, he felt lucky. Acceptance into a world he was not born into was a sign of good karma.

The elders called it an arranged marriage, the union of two good families. The youngsters called it a love marriage, the union of two attractive people. Fashionista weds filmwalla. The wedding was picture-perfect. Except for the moment when Mom had a question.

“Mama, Papa, why do you have to clean my husband’s feet?” she asked during the ceremony, as her parents hunched over a bowl of water. She thought youngsters were supposed to show respect to their elders, not vice versa.

Her mom slapped her. “Don’t talk too much.”

The ceremony was in our native language, Sindhi. When the priest wasn’t listening, Mom and Dad whispered to each other in French. Between the two, they also spoke Arabic, Spanish, English, Hindi, and Urdu—not from studying, just from living. They had a knack for languages.

Dad encouraged Mom to keep sewing even after marriage. He liked that she had passions outside the home. Mom made him a three-piece suit, which everyone praised—including Dad’s mom, my grandmother, Dadi.

* * *

Dadi didn’t live in Casablanca yet. She was in India, in the same city that happened to be home to the men who’d assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. When Mom visited, she brought Dadi presents—including the gold coins people had given as wedding gifts.

Dadi had seen a lot in her lifetime. Soon after she’d begun menstruating, she was married off to her husband, who was in his thirties or forties. (His first wife had died.) Dadi gave him eleven children: seven boys (future breadwinners), four girls (burdens on the family, who’d need to pay a dowry to marry them off).

For a brief period of time, they were all under one roof. Dadi would line up her army of hungry mouths and rub butter on their faces. Just because they were poor didn’t mean they couldn’t have bright, shiny skin.

“You’re so different from my other daughters-in-law,” Dadi praised Mom. “They’re not smart like you” and “they don’t know how to dress and talk to people like you.”

Mom relished the praise. She did feel she was different: not a simple villager but a driven woman with skills. She’d started her own business in Casablanca, as a designer, and got paid to sew wedding trousseaus.

That didn’t mean she was a career woman. That concept didn’t exist yet. A woman’s primary responsibility was her family. And that’s why Mom obliged when, one day, Dadi asked her for help.

“My sweet girl,” Dadi said. “You and I are great friends. Please tell your husband to bring me to Casablanca. Let’s all live together, as a family.”

Mom and Dad were renting a flat with marble floors on the rue Chénier. It was the cosmopolitan part of town, a stone’s throw from United Nations Square and the Moulin Rouge—a replica of the Paris nightclub. While the flat was only one bedroom, Mom thought they’d figure it out. A lifetime of war and migration had separated her husband’s family. Now, with minor inconvenience, she could bring them back together.

When Mom went to Dad, to ask if he’d like Dadi to come live with them, he choked up (which wasn’t like him). “I’m so grateful to you that you think of my mother,” he said. “I promised my father I would take care of her.”

It was a heartwarming idea, in theory. Reality was a different story. If Mom had done her homework, talked to the neighbors while visiting India or the girls in the Shahani family, she would have learned: Dadi was a control freak. No daughter was allowed to set foot outside without interrogation and express permission (extreme even in those days). One of her daughters was so scarred, she refused to visit Dadi after marriage—even though she lived nearby. Mom came to learn the hard way.

Dadi did not come to Casablanca alone. She landed with a younger son who was married and unemployed and an elder son who was married, unemployed, and a belligerent drunk. The fancy apartment started to feel like a slum, sheets and blankets spread across the floor and people tiptoeing around each other, trying to avoid faces and feet on the way to the bathroom. Because Dadi was too old to rough it out, Mom offered the bedroom (which had the only mattress). She didn’t mean forever, but that’s what it soon became.

While sleeping hours were uncomfortable, waking hours were downright hostile.

“Where are you going?” Dadi began to ask Mom her whereabouts.

“I’m getting fabrics for a trousseau.” Mom would try to explain her business.

“Sure you are, you slut! You’re seeing other men. I know it.”

Then the food became a problem. Mom, who’d learned cooking in Spain and Morocco, made lobster paella and lamb tagine, not chicken tikka masala. Dadi blew a fuse. “What garbage have you brought me?” She and the drunkard son would toss the plates at the wall and, if Mom happened to be in the way, she would duck. The wall looked like a Picasso.

The word “abuse” was not in circulation in those days. Mom did not have a language to describe what was going wrong at home. And neither did Dad.

At the beginning, he pleaded with Dadi. “She didn’t grow up in India,” he’d say about his wife, hoping it was a small misunderstanding. “Please see, she’s trying her best.”

His mom fired back: “Look how you talk to me! You promised your father you’d take care of me and now you’re forgetting your promise. You have no akkal.”

Akkal is the word for “sense.” But it means much more than that. It means the way God intended the world to be, the natural order of things. Children obey their parents; wives obey their husbands—even in the most extreme tests. Maybe the best analogy for Westerners is that chilling passage in the Old Testament when God commands Abraham to kill his son Isaac. While it’s hard to accept—we debate it; we reject it—the point stands: within the logic of that story, if Abraham did not obey God, he would have no akkal.

While on the surface both Mom and Dad cowered to Dadi, what was happening beneath—inside each of them—was different. And it’s not just because the attacks were aimed at Mom while Dad carried the guilt of wanting to give more to his family than he could afford. It’s because, to their core, my parents had different gut instincts about tradition. Dad felt that tradition, with all its imperfections, still provided the stability you needed to survive in a world full of suffering. Mom distrusted tradition. She couldn’t pinpoint why, but she sensed it held people back from liberation.

She was disappointed in her husband. Before they married, when Dad was an abstraction to her, she imagined he would be like the great Lord Shiva, doing meditation and power yoga in the face of adversity. But Dad turned to drinking and smoking instead. He sipped scotch quietly by himself in a corner. And cigarettes—a habit he picked up as a teenager—became an extension of his fingers.

My big brother, Deepak, was born a year into their marriage. When Mom asked Dad to stop smoking, Dadi would jump in. “Don’t ever let a woman tell you what to do,” she’d scold him, and light two cigarettes. “Come join me, my son.”

It took eight years for their next child, Angelly, to be born. Mom had two miscarriages in between. A few months after my sister’s birth, something terrible happened. No dishes were shattered. It was something else. Something unspeakable. Mom swallowed a bottle of white pills and tried to make herself sleep forever. When she woke up, a day or two later, she was in a hospital bed. Dad was sitting beside her, his body trembling.

“How can you be so selfish to not think of the children?” His steady voice quavered. “You didn’t think of them. You didn’t think of me. How can you not think of me?”

“I’m sorry,” she whispered.

I was born nine months later, an accident. When Mom and Dad brought me home from the hospital, they assumed Dadi would bring the tray with a few grains of rice and a candle, and put white tilak on my newborn forehead. That’s what any grandma would do, to give me the protection of my ancestors. That’s akkal.

But Dadi didn’t do that. “What have you brought me?” she shouted. “Another girl!”

Hah, Mama.” Mom said yes. She wanted to step inside. It hurt to stand because of the stitches. Doctors had to cut her wider so I would come out.

“You’re not a godly person.” Dadi began her diatribe. “That’s why God gave you another wretched daughter. Now my son will have to work hard for two dowries. He’ll kill himself slaving away for you. You don’t care about him.”

As Dad stood between his wife and mother, immobilized, tears streamed down his face. Mom’s too. They loved me. Yet my own grandmother wouldn’t so much as hold me, because I was the wrong gender.

“Get her out of my sight.” Dadi turned and walked away. “This bitch is bad luck.”

Was she talking about me or the woman who gave birth to me? It wasn’t clear.

My parents didn’t know what to do next, in no small part because of their unconventional sleeping arrangements. Dadi had not only taken over the bedroom. She’d ordered Dad to stay with her.

For most people—including my parents—having a grown, married man live in his mother’s room is odd. For Dadi, it wasn’t. Maybe she had a screw loose because of what she saw during Partition. Maybe she came from a class of elders who felt they had the right to control their children until death. It was a well-known fact that Gandhi, father of the nation, had his grandniece (who was like a daughter) sleep beside him at night.

Like many people in dysfunctional families, Mom just rolled with it. And on special occasions, Dadi let Mom take the master bedroom. Mom assumed tonight, with a newborn, would be one of those nights. Until, that is, Dadi screamed down the hallway: “I don’t want her here. Get her out! OUT.”

Copyright © 2019 by Aarti Namdev Shahani