– Jan 30, 2004
I recently came across the phrase, “the universality of the human condition” in an article on desijournal.com. It reminded me of all that I observed and learnt over the hours spent playing Scrabble with the wives and partners of my husband’s business school classmates , during coffee mornings with this same group of women, and in the years since.
Four years ago, my husband and I moved to southern France when he joined a business school here. This move, while it had seemed exciting when we talked about it in Hong Kong (where we lived for a few years before we came here) had also caused me some apprehension. I was scared about how I would cope with life in a completely alien environment. For this southeastern corner of France (unlike a large city like Hong Kong or Paris) did not seem to have, from what I gathered, an Indian community that can often help one ease into a new way of life in a new country.
But this is where I was helped out by the universality of the human condition.
Like all MBA programs, the one my husband attended had a very hectic pace. A typical day for him and his classmates usually began at 8AM and never seemed to end before 9 or 10PM.
Inevitably, the wives and partners turned to each for companionship and support. Soon we were a convivial group that dedicated itself to exploring the region, to playing Monopoly and Scrabble, and to cooking for each other. We became- as one very overworked and therefore envious classmate of my husband put it – “ladies who lunch.”
The salon de thé in the village where many of us rented our apartments became our favored spot for a weekly coffee-morning. It was where all of us gathered to share our stories – of families, friends and jobs left behind; of the strangeness of our collective new gastronomic experiences (“How on earth do the French eat that hard bread everyday?”); of the hassles involved in grappling with French bureaucracy while we tried to sort out our residence permits, car insurance, etcetera. (Fortunately, a lifetime of living with
Indian bureaucracy is great preparation for coping with the French system. So that was one aspect of life with which I felt right at home in this land of the two-hour lunch break).
The proprietor of the tea-salon was a kind and courteous soul who didn’t seem to mind the long hours we spent sitting at his tables. We discussed the books we loved; we swapped recipes; the mothers amongst us fed their babies. As long as we kept ordering rounds of Earl Grey with Orange Blossom, Lapsang Souchong, or Kenyan Coffee, with scones or gingerbread or tarte du pomme, he was happy to let us be. He was also a boon for those of us who were still learning to speak French. He encouraged us as we showed off our newly acquired phrases and sometimes helped us along by providing the right noun or adjective or tense (always a nightmare in French).
After a couple of these sessions, I began to see the truth of the phrase I mentioned at the beginning. As the women got to know each other better and began to confide in each other as women everywhere eventually seem to do, I noticed that these conversations were often about the same subjects I had heard discussed between my mother and her friends, when they got together for chai, or the sort of chats I have with women friends in India who I have known since I was in school or college. So it was that I began to feel a reassuring sense of familiarity when I heard Sanja, a Slovenian, moan, ” My mother-in-law is coming for two weeks. I’ll have to watch what I say – no four-letter words; and I’ll have to cook a proper dinner every day, salad or sandwiches just won’t do.” Or when I heard Anna, a Swede, grumble, “You know, Eric’s mother hasn’t taught him anything about housework. So I always have to tidy up after him.” Or when I listened to Valerie, an Englishwoman, talk about how her mother-in-law did not approve of her because Valerie doesn’t take the kids to church though her husband’s family was devoutly Catholic. I felt that though I was thousands of miles from “home,” here were people who would understand my confusion about what tradition I should pass on to my kids and how – for I was raised by Aryasamaji parents whereas my husband comes of Maharashtrian Brahmin stock.
It should perhaps not have been such a surprise to me, to see that some issues are universal –in one’s own circle of family and friends, so much of life seems to follow a pattern. And one is often struck by the sense of familiarity one feels with a character in a book or a film, even when the context is that of another country and culture. But it was so much more fascinating to find living proof of this phenomenon here among people from diverse backgrounds.
There have been other such experiences over the years. When my daughter was born, a French lady of my acquaintance visited me in hospital. After the preliminary conversation was over, she leaned over and asked quietly, “So – what was the reaction of your husband’s family that your first child was a daughter?” She then described the unhappy reaction of her in-laws to the birth of her own first-born, also a girl. For it would
seem that the French, whose revolution spoke of “egalite”, are as fussy as anyone else about wanting a male child to carry on the family name. And here I had always imagined that this particular bias is peculiar to Asian cultures.
Then there was the time when I was struck to see the resolve of one of my husband’s American classmates to go back to Seattle at the end of the program. He was one of the smartest students in the class and could probably have had his pick of jobs anywhere. But his father suffered from
Parkinson’s disease and he wanted to be near his parents as the disease progressed and made his father more dependent on others. Ever since, I have found myself arguing against the stereotype that casts every American as the selfish, “I, me, myself” kind of person. For isn’t this just the kind of love of family and sense of filial duty that we Indians, especially, consider one of our core values?
Then there was the other American in my husband’s class, a forty-year old woman called Mary. She wanted to get back too, to Atlanta, to be there for her oldest son’s last two years at home before he left for college. She said she wanted to be there to make it a special time, so that he
would leave with happy memories of his family home. To me it was almost surreal to hear this echo of my father’s voice from 20 years ago. He had expressed the same sentiment to my mother and me, about wanting to make sure that my brother’s memories of his last year at
home before starting college in another city were only memories of good times. For that, he said, was what would bring my brother back to visit the family home for the rest of his life. Maybe I was naïve then, or just plain insular. But for me there was a big learning in this – that the concerns in a parent’s heart are the same, whether the context is that of an American mother in the year 2000 or an Indian father twenty years before that time.
And so, I gradually came to appreciate just how much the same people’s lives are, whatever their nationality or whatever the language they speak. For these experiences helped me understand, much better than any book or film could, that human beings everywhere are driven
by the same desires and the same concerns. And that is when I found myself beginning to feel at home here. I realized that if one seeks, one will find like-minded people everywhere and that it is possible to develop real bonds and friendships anywhere in the world. There are cultural
differences, of course, but that is what this whole experience of living in another part of the world is about anyway – to learn all the other ways there are.
Over the years, we have also been very fortunate to become part of a growing Indian community, which has played an equally important role in my assimilation here. This community has become our extended family, and it is because of them that Diwali in France now feels like a normal Diwali. They are the people my husband and I meet on winter evenings over adrak vali chai or gajar ka halwa, and with whom we reminisce. About Prithvi Theater in Mumbai; about the dhabas on Delhi’s Pandara Road; about college festivals and about Quiz Time; about the bookshop (that used to be) called “R&B” in Bangalore.
And Valerie – who left behind a successful career to move here with her husband and to raise her kids- is still the person I want to call when I need to chase away the occasional blues about having become “just a housewife,” or when I am looking for a good book recommendation, or a tea date.
Valerie, Harshini, Neelam – my life is richer for knowing them all. They are the reason I am able to call this corner of the world home now.
When I first wrote this piece, I had just begun to realize that this part of the world is where I have lived the longest in any place ever since I was sixteen. When I think “home”, usually this is the place I am thinking of. It made me reflect about why I feel at home here, and realized that it has to do with the fact that I have been able to meet some wonderful people that I am able to relate to, regardless of their nationality.
Six years on, a time in which we have become parents to our two girls, this feels more like home than ever before. And I am happy to say that now when I meet parents at school, say, of other nationalities, I am no longer surprised when their attitudes, reactions, and concerns are similar to mine. For I see now that they are parents too, and wives, and husbands, and men and women, as much as we are.
And sometimes when they think differently, that is very interesting too, because it offers a whole new way of looking at things that I may not have considered before.