International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: India Life Stories
told me that Vaishali had been born a Brahmin. Because the hierarchy
of the caste system is based on the relative purity of the castes,
Brahmins rarely leave their houses, preferring to stay sheltered
in the unblemished confines of their homes. Brahmins are very proper.
They are proper about what they eat and who comes near them and
the ceremony that is performed for the deceased. They are proper
about education and their status as the upholders of the true Hinduism.
And they are proper about marriage.
The first time I
met Vaishali was in Madison, where my seven classmates and I took Tamil
in preparation for our year in Madurai. A meeting with Vaishali had
been scheduled in a small room on the deserted top floor of a University
of Wisconsin building. What I remember about that meeting was not the
clothes Vaishali wore or the details of her lecture on Indian political
history. Rather, from her answers to our questions after the lecture
about what living in India would really be like, I remember coming away
sure that she would be an insufferable rule enforcer.
Vaishali had warned the American girls of the nasty intentions of seemingly
nice older men and implored all of us to be careful with our possessions.
She asked us to avoid the police and to be wary of the beggars that
we would find along most streets. But most importantly, she said, we
must avoid any and all sexual relationships during our year in Madurai.
She said that once before, a girl on the program had carried on a secret
affair with a young Indian man, but that it had ended badly, as all
relationships so far out of traditional frameworks likely would.
Sometimes it felt like Vaishali, my study abroad director, was trying
to make herself disappear. Her hair was cut above her shoulders, unlayered
and plain. Her shalwar kameez were dark blue or dark green. No designs,
no bright colors. She had an overbite and a wide, strong chin. She wore
glasses. Her behind rather than her belly bore the brunt of her aging
weight. She rode a small, puttering moped that I once passed along a
straightaway on my bicycle. In the program house, she stayed mostly
behind her computer in the office. Even during lunch, when she sat eating
with us at the giant table, it still seemed that there was a wall she
took with her everywhere, separating her from the world.
A minority of what I know of Vaishali, I have pieced together from conversations
in her office about my 100 page research project on "Happiness"
and the odd talk at the breakfast table when we were the only ones left
sitting after everyone else cleared. Throughout the entire year, I learned
from her only that she had worked as a bureaucrat, had a son and a daughter
and recently completed a Phd dissertation about Gandhi. The rest I learned
from her husband Sachin.
Sachin used to be a famous rock and roll performer. Now he works for
the University of Wisconsin Madurai program, has a bald head and is
quick to laugh or talk at a volume greater than one would expect from
such a small man. He shares an office with Vaishali and though he had
been involved with the program since the first years, she is his superior.
Near the end of the year, to celebrate the birthday of one of my classmates,
my friends and I smoked weed on the roof of that girls house with
two of our Kenyan friends. The family that lived below must have smelled
something and called Vaishali because the next day she held a meeting
around the giant table in the program house. In that meeting, Vaishali
said that she was most disappointed in our decision to smoke with Africans.
"Africans have a bad reputation in Madurai" she said slowly
with furrowed brows and odd gaps between words and small random tics
of her head to the side. "There have been many problems with Africans.
I do not want any of you to go to jail."
Yet despite being obviously troubled by our actions, Vaishali meted
out no punishment. When people woke up too late for breakfast and skipped
class, she looked the other way. When assignments were turned in late
and done shoddily, she said nothing. And when I got sick from drinking
the water she told me over and over to avoid, she took me in a rickshaw
to the hospital and didnt chastise me for refusing her advice.
After a couple of months in India, I realized that, awkward and cold
as she was, Vaishali was no rule enforcer. And as the year stretched
on and I filled hot, lazy afternoons gossiping in the breezeway of the
program house with Sachin, I learned that Vaishali had been a rebel.
I knew that Sachin smoked and drank; after a lecture at an ashram that
had dragged on and annoyed both of us, he said that his retreat was
"drugs, sex and rock and roll." Sachin often talked about
smoking and partying with groupies when he was a touring performer.
I guess his stories of revelry, not all of which I believed, were his
way of connecting to us young Westerners. This connection was understandable;
he claimed to have first found out about rock and roll and marijuana
from early students of the same program he now worked for.
Sitting next to me in the breezeway reading chairs Sachin said, in a
booming voice that surely could be overheard throughout the house, that
Vaishali used to be much different. He said that Vaishali had been a
wild woman when she was younger. He said that she smoked and drank and
dressed scandalously and was sexy. "Some people change, Nate. And
some don't ever change," he said that day, the same day he told
me that they lived apart. He also told me that he had been born Christian.
My guess is that Vaishalis former vibrancy that Sachin so missed
had partly been bottled down by becoming a parent, but even more by
a disconnection from her family. Sachins Christian family was
unhappy with the marriage, but kept up distant contact. But Vaishalis
Brahmin family was viciously angry and kicked Vaishali out and considered
her polluted. They refused to let her enter the house. They thought
her entrance would make the house impure. It took over a decade before
they let her come back to her childhood home, and in rare, tense encounters,
retain her place in the family. But when Vaishalis father died
and Vaishali attempted to attend the funeral, her family prevented her
To be without a family in India is, in the eyes of many, not to exist.
Sachin and Vaishali live this ethereal existence. That must be why they
love Americans. For Vaishali, Americans, or at least the majority of
the Americans who go on the program she runs, are fellow atheists. I
remember after a lecture on yoga during which I grilled the presenter
with tough, perhaps rude questions, she approvingly called me a "Doubting
Thomas." And earlier in the year, she lent me a book by Bertrand
Russell. When she went to Chennai for a meeting, she bought more of
his books at a big bookstore and gave them to me. For Sachin, Americans
were fellow aficionados of Rock and Roll. But perhaps we had failed
him in this. After missing most of his references to old bands over
the course of the first two days, he had made few musical references
the rest of the year.
But outside of the program house, in the India that they couldnt
fully avoid, these fascinations received little interest. The only community
of which they were truly a part was the group of American college kids
they were paid to watch over. In a place where faith, family, food,
marriage, birth, death and community are so closely linked that they
approach meaninglessness without one another, their marriage received
As a young man who desired romance and believed in the transcendental
power of love, I could understand Sachin and Vaishali's love marriage.
They too had been young. They too had seen the stale, passionless arranged
marriages based on utility rather than connection that I saw all around
me. Like me, they preferred to leap off into the unknown, come what
may, than submit to a life stuck in constricting filial roles. Plus,
they wanted to marry each other, not strangers prescribed to them by
their families to be met on the day of their weddings.
It was as if Sachin and Vaishali were sandwiched, caught between the
restrictive Indian culture of their upbringing and the liberated, individualistic
West. Perhaps if they had lived in America, they would have found peers
and their marriage would have prospered. Or maybe, with divorce being
a more acceptable option in America, their separation would have come
Sachin insisted that their marriage was once passionate. It must have
been; the strength of their connection compelled them to leave behind
their families for a life with one another. But sitting in the little
nook outside of the kitchen, reading one of the Bertrand Russell books
Vaishali had bought for me, I looked up to see Vaishali and Sachin pass
without even a glance towards one another. They had lost their families.
Now they had also lost each other.
© Nate Bell August 2009
It was with Cartamma and Mutamma that I felt connected to the "real"
India. Working side by side and laughing with me
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