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Jaya and I

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January 2004
Jaya and I

By SINDYA NARYANASWAMY

Jaya is one of my cousins on my father's side of the family. As children, we often played when I went to India for summer vacations.

Once, I recall asking her, as she'd been a chubby child, "Can we call you The Fat Sister?" She had burst into tears, and then, wiping them away, made me promise not to tell anyone she had started crying. I don't know if she ever forgave me for saying that to her.

Recently, ten years after that incident, I visited India and met Jaya again. We are both now in our 20's?older, taller, and much more grown-up. My chubby cousin had transformed into a beautiful woman, and I hardly recognized her.

We spent a few days together, visiting my other cousins, their husbands and their children.

It was strange to me how different we were, yet how closely we were related. She is "Jayalakshmi," the Goddess of Victory?a name that evokes a classic strength and old age sophistication. My name, Sindya, has no "book" meaning. In a wave of creativity my parents took a piece of my grandmother's name, Sindhubai, and my mother's name, Udaya, and conjugated them. Sindya, to me, has thus always had an element of fusion to it; it is neither Eastern nor Western. And it is more New Age and casual than classical and sophisticated.

We laughed so much together though, Jaya and I, gathering our nieces and nephews into our arms, laughing, dancing, and holding hands. We were sisters at heart and we reveled in each other's company, and cherished the time we knew was precious and would pass all too soon.

When I was visiting, she took me to see a matinee movie, and then to a restaurant where we had delicious sweet corn soup and other Indo-Chinese cuisine. From place to place, we were chauffeured in her car by her father's driver. When we returned, just three hours later, at 3:00pm, full from our afternoon meal, her father scolded us for staying out for so many hours, "especially being girls."

I shuddered at what my uncle would say if he knew about the times I stayed out in college at parties, and then returned to my dorm room without the protection of a car or a driver. I have always been on the quiet and conservative side?limited by my own reservations. But I realized that even within those limits, I was far out of the bounds of Jaya's playground.

Although I have always felt that my parents were too strict with us kids growing up, not allowing us the freedom to stay out until midnight in high school or giving us full liberty with the car keys, all such thoughts flew out of my mind when I saw Jaya's life.

Jaya does not work. Although she is bright, college-educated and speaks perfect English, her father does not believe that women should work. For a woman in Jaya's conservative family to work would be daring to break barriers never even touched before. She was also not allowed to pursue her M.B.A. because the nearby Business School was co-ed, something the family was not in favor of. Nor was she given permission to go to a girls' boarding college in another city.

Thousands of miles away, my father had encouraged both my sister and me to attend co-educational colleges. "After all", my parents had said, "it is a co-educational world, isn't it?"

Upon graduating, it was expected that I work. Here, it seems everyone must earn their living to survive. To be young, educated and not working is almost shameful and as much as I sometimes struggle with forcing myself to get up and go to work everyday, I don't really dare quit.

My father often marvels at how grown-up I seem. Although I think nothing of it, he seems bedazzled by the fact that the baby he raised now lives alone, pays her own bills, and does her own taxes. How different from my cousin, who has never even bought her own vegetables. When she does manage to escape the clutches of her massive house and protective relatives, it appears to be a breath of freedom quickly savored for the moment.

In her conservative family, only traditional salwar kameezes can be worn by the women, and after marriage, only saris. Jaya's aunt looked through my photo album and came to a picture of my sister when she was on the homecoming court. My mother had bought a conservative, long, umbrella-cut blue dress for my sister to wear on the occasion, sleeveless, but with thick straps and a high neck. But to Jaya's aunt it seemed scandalous. "Why isn't she wearing a shirt?" she had asked, puzzled. Even Jaya's sister had found the picture strange. "I've only seen such clothes in Tamil movies," she said, meaning she didn't know "real" Indian girls wore such outfits.

In my world, I cannot imagine not wearing jeans or sleeveless shirts. Shorts are standard, skirts are typical, and dresses are more than acceptable.

One night, as we lay in bed side-by-side, Jaya asked me in a whisper. "Who will you marry Sindya? Will you marry an American?" By American I knew she meant Caucasian. I replied, slowly, "I think I would like to marry someone like me. Someone who is Indian, but with a Western upbringing."

I continued on, revealing something I have recently realized about my parents attitude, "But, I if I were to want to marry a non-Indian, I think my parents would accept it. As much as my parents struggle with letting us become too American, they have also come to accept it as a fact of our lives. I think they would accept anyone who would make us happy. In the end, they are only concerned with our happiness."

Jaya told me about herself then. Her parents had been looking for a suitable alliance for her. There were three important criteria, she said, that her parents would consider in their search?a good family, a matching horoscope, and finally, her compliance in the matter.

Jaya whispered to me that night that she longed to move to a new city, perhaps even abroad, after her marriage, to experience a life outside of the confines of the small town she had spent 20-some years in.

Marriage, it seemed, would be a passage to freedom. She hoped for a husband with liberal beliefs, who would allow her to work and to open the business that she dreamt of starting.

She dreamt of marriage as an escape from her traditional minded family, where she grew up like a chained princess?with all the luxuries in the world, but no rights. How different her philosophy was from mine!

I shiver at the thought of marrying too young, at the thought of jeopardizing so soon the freedom and independence that I have only just earned. My Western mind believes that we must find ourselves, and probe deep in introspection before joining in matrimony. We must be whole, before we can become a part.

And while Jaya hopes for a liberal life partner, I expect it. I already have the freedom that she longs for. I have always considered it my birthright.

But she has something that I never did?and never will. She grew up with extended family. She has an army of aunts, uncles and cousins in India, who are like second mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers to her. My family in America is a family of precisely six; the one she grew up in has hundreds, and is still growing.

How I long to have spent more time with my grandparents! This time in India, I sobbed for days when I saw the photos of my three grandparents who have passed away, and I wept at the sight of my lone living grandfather. I felt that too much lost time had passed since I had last seen him. I would never know him in the way Jaya did. Her memories were real, most of mine were only stories that I had heard through my father.

Yet, Jaya still dreams of traveling, of living in faraway cities. The perils of being away from family seem beyond her understanding, for she has never experienced them.

I still wondered, how could two sisters have such different lives? Even as we spoke to one another, we seemed like foreigners. I speak broken, terribly accented Tamil and nasal American English. She speaks the Queen's English, and Tamil comes out of her mouth at a rate that I must listen to very closely to comprehend.

The day before I left India, my aunt took Jaya and me to our ThaTha's (grandfather's) home for a final visit. There we chatted with our 92 year-old-grandfather as he looked upon his progeny.

He looked at my aunty and asked, "Do you see anyone coming? There's a pensioners meeting here at 10 o'clock." I looked at aunty quizzically. "It's a meeting for retired people, they meet here once a month," she said. I found the thought of a bunch of old men my grandfather's age convening on the front porch monthly to discuss business oddly funny, and I let out a soft giggle.

But from the look on my grandfather's face, I saw that the matter was serious for him. He looked steadily out towards the roadside, his deep, blue eyes still powerful at 92, watching out for his pals, even as he was trying to put pieces of mashed idli and sambar into his mouth. Finally, as we were saying good-bye to him and my other aunt, one elderly gentleman showed up for the meeting at 10:30.

My grandfather led him to us, and raised his cane slightly off the ground, as if to point to us. In his slow, aged, but very clear voice, he said, "These are two of my granddaughters. Jayalakshmi, from Vellore and Sindya, from The States." The gentleman smiled at as both, for it is endearing to see an old man with two adoring grown granddaughters, one on each side. "How nice," he said and smiled. "It is a pleasure to meet you both."

As I looked at my grandfather, and then my cousin, I realized that as different as our lives were, our grandfather, with his shrewd blue eyes and snow-white hair, was our everlasting link. The warmth between us, that we felt but could not explain, was because of him. He was the reason the world of differences between us seemed so inconsequential. That was why our radically different upbringings and outlooks washed away when we held each other's hands and laughed like little girls and ate sweet corn soup.

We are family?something that tens of thousands of miles and decades of separation cannot erase. And no matter where Jaya's life takes her, or mine takes me, we will remain bonded by the blood that created us both?a 92-old-grandfather whom we both call "ThaTha," and who calls us both his granddaughters.


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