BOOK EXCERPT

This might be the funniest book you’ll read on the immigrant experiences of Indians

Scaachi Koul’s essays on an Indian family’s life in the US make reality look hilarious.

When you’re a kid, your parents are the bravest people in the world, but my parents’ provenance still feels impossibly brave to me. My father didn’t exactly “tell” my mother he wanted to emigrate from India before they got together. That’s the way she remembers it, that it was only after they got engaged that she found out he had paperwork ready to apply for permanent residency on the other side of the planet.

My dad first saw her at his cousin’s house – my mom was her friend – and was flustered by her beauty. Ask my dad and he’ll wax poetic about my mother’s cheekbones, her rich eyes, her long hair, how he needed to get to know her. My mom didn’t even know he was there. Years ago, when I asked her about her first impression upon actually seeing my dad, she merely pursed her lips and continued folding towels, saying, “I thought he was okay.”

This, the great love affair that spawned me, a woman who would one day get both of her hands stuck in two different salsa jars at the same time.

My dad asked her father for her hand (and the rest of her, presumably) when she was just eighteen, about to head off to university away from their small town in Kashmir. My grandfather said no, but to try again when she was older. He was a police sergeant, but a gentle guy who rarely raised his voice or grew upset.

My mom did not inherit his calmness – he yelled at her once when she was twelve and she felt so wronged that she launched a hunger strike, one that lasted entire hours. He apologised by placing his hat at her feet, begging her to please just eat something. (I did the same at eleven, but my parents just shrugged and said there were bagels in the fridge when I was ready – brown people don’t know what to do with bread.)

When Mom was twenty-two, my dad was approved, and they were engaged and married within a year. Another year and some later, they had my brother. Soon after that, my dad moved to Southern Ontario; his family waited months before joining him.

But before this, there was the big death that marked Papa just after the birth of his first child in India. My brother was small enough to sleep between his paternal grandparents on the flat roof of their home during a mercilessly hot night. My grandmother, in her fifties at the time, woke up and took him inside to change his diaper.

When she returned, her husband didn’t wake up: he had died of a massive heart attack in his sleep. Mom says they found him with his hand on his heart. My dad was only thirty. He doesn’t talk about it. We don’t ask.

My father’s mother, Behenji, lived with us in Calgary when I was young but she hated the cold and didn’t speak any English and I didn’t understand who or what she was.

She opted to leave after a few years, something that infuriated Papa because wasn’t it his job, as the eldest son, to take care of her? It didn’t matter that she was generally in good health or always prickly or maintained her usual routines, he feared for her constantly. Near the end, she started to get confused and would forget things or people or where she was.

Papa would sit in his armchair, clenching his teeth, ruminating on how he’d abandoned her years before. “I’ve asked her to stay put until I come, but who knows,” Papa said to me, two years before she died, as if he could tell her body not to retreat.

“If she has to go, I hope she goes in my arms. That will be the culmination of a life. Of a life well lived. A hard life. She had a hard life.” He was on the phone with me at the time, speaking to me mostly in sighs and rueful grunts, a language I’ve since learned to speak myself.

Behenji lived into her eighties, thirty-odd years after her husband had passed, dying when my dad was already in his mid-sixties. Now, he does long-distance running daily and takes multivitamins the size of horse tranquilizers every morning. He has high blood pressure and high cholesterol and does everything he can to try to reverse what his blood has given him.

He says he’s pre-diabetic now, so every morning starts with a spoonful of fenugreek seeds, which I tried just once – they tasted so strongly of death that eating them seemed more like an omen than a cure.

After his long runs, he does yoga in his bedroom, flipping over to do headstands next to his dresser. (His headstands are getting weaker the older he gets, though maybe avoid mentioning that if you see him.) Sometimes he recruits my niece to stand on his back, cracking his bones, and he lets out a delighted, “Ahhh-ha-ha-ha-haaa.”

Mom talks about moving to Canada as though my father had requested she start wearing fun hats. Why not try it? she thought, instead of This fucking lunatic wants me to go to a country made of ice and casual racism.

Before I was born, my parents returned from their vacations to their new Canadian home with photos of my mother perched precipitously close to the edge of a cruise ship or drink- ing a flute of bubbles in a dimly lit restaurant. Mom never half-assed things; she had a kind of blind faith that made it easy to follow her. When I was little, too young to know how to swim, Mom took me to swimming pools and would wade into the deep end and let me hang off her shoulders like a baby koala.

She rented Sea-Doos in Kelowna and dragged me onto the back of them, driving too fast for my comfort. Mom put her hand flat on a pan to check if it was hot enough (though could never answer my eternal question: What if it’s too hot?). Mom sucked marrow out of a lamb bone with shocking fervour, then stuck her tongue through the hollow to tease me about how truly, deeply gross I found it. Mom made rotis from scratch, kneading the atta with her hands and then dragging a knife across her skin to gather the excess, laughing at seven-year-old me recoiling in horror.

Mom’s arthritis got worse but she kept cooking rogan josh so spicy it ripped the roof of your mouth clean off, whipping a wooden spoon around a pressure cooker with her aching wrist. Mom yelled. Mom told you how she felt, when she felt it, as much and as often as she needed to tell you. Mom cried all the time, happy or sad, her tears running a moat around a mole just under her eye, her face like a Shiva Lingam for feelings.

And Mom was not afraid of you. When Papa was angry, or afraid, or nervous, or happy, or thrilled, he just seethed quietly because it was all too much to handle. Mom, on the other hand, hugged you with her arms and shoulders and suffocating bosom, burying you in all her soft, cool flesh. That, or she would kill you. These were your options.

Excerpted with permission from One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul, Penguin Books.

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