Saturday, December 8, 2012

Brown Paper Bags in Massachusetts

Six months in Massachusetts was a learning period in my life. I had always been a loner, and though I enjoy gang life, the real test of the loner is when he or she is separated from the familiar. So there I was, with a six year old who went to school in a yellow bus, with the fat winter squirrels who are warriors in the snow, watching as we put her in with a pack of other cheerful tiny children. Then Shiv and Sandhya and I would have bagels with soft white cheese with coffee in one of the many cafes which dotted the street, and after that, Shiv went to office, and Sandhya, who was not yet two, and had a few words in her grasp, would diffidently ask me "Key?" and I would say, "Yes, I have the key", and together we would let ourselves into the old wood house.
My identity card said "Spouse" and I would look at it sometimes in a puzzled way..I was married for thirteen years at that point, (1992) and the word "spouse" had an unfamiliar twang to it. The babysitters would come in the evening, and for two hours, I would head out to the Forbes Library, which was immediately next door,  for only a hedge divided us, and there I would immerse myself in 19th century mission records, and keep my commitment to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library that my six month stay in USA was to further my research archive on mission history for South India as a Fellow of the NMML.
It was in that small town that I learned to wash dishes, and to clean house and make beds, for we were without a servant. Sandhya helped me by following me around, and it was here that I discovered that I was pregnant for a third time. The physician who saw me at the hospital was a charming man, who said " There she is, sucking her thumb. I have one like that at home." I was completely startled, and grew fatter by the day, and wondered what people would say when I returned to Delhi. Malli is now twenty, and has a distinctive love for pizzas.
So there I was, winter in Massachusetts slowly turning into spring, the first buds shooting through, friends dropping in continuously, since Shiv was gregarious by nature, and when I had time, I wrote not just on Mission History, but I wrote a novel too ( the so called failed novel in The Visiting Moon was written in Massachusetts. I was following a Bernard Shaw principle there, the play within a play). My neighbour was a kind Bavarian woman, who taught at the College, and who went out her way to make us comfortable in our university house. And Frederique Marglin and Kathryn Pyne Addleson, both well known feminist scholars and collaborators in a course Shiv was teaching, introduced me to the practical aspects of Feminism. Frederique loaned me a very  valuable collection of jailhouse blues, and presented me with an african violet which kept me company for all those six months, blooming consistently in the hot radiator environment of a New England winter, which in January 1992, was blizzard weather indeed.
And there were the corner shops from which we got our groceries. They were lovely. Going to a mall, for a pedestrian family like ours, was out of the question, since we could not have got the rare bus that went on to the high way. The corner grocery shops had fresh vegetables and fruit, since these came in from the tropical zones, with their name tags attached. A mango from Mexico, in a shop in  the college street, which stood shoulder to shoulder with bookshops and restaurants and music shops.....we just looked past the curious mango, and bought tomatos and apples and beans and potatos and since I eat a lot in winter, the brown paper bags were always heavy, and we would carry our grocery shopping back in Sandhya's pushcart. The green apples were a delight, they were sour and crisp, and I loved them. Sometimes Shiv's cousin who taught at the same college would take us for a long ride, and we would see the Malls from where we had bought our Chinese windcheaters, and our shoes, which were also sheep lined from China. "Communism feeding Capitalism", I would wonder, but the shoes were really comfortable ( we each had only one pair and they did not flap apart, but allowed us to walk in the snow without skidding). Those malls too each had their distinctive appearance about them, and were a congeries of shops put together, but our visit was only that once to buy our jackets at a sale, since the winter was so bitter. Meera still has her red one, and  I wear my olive green with the navy blue piping even now,  well worn though it is.
Those brown paper bags in which we brought our daily groceries  were my mnemonic for the corner shops which each had their distinct character, for we got to talk to people, and sometimes the customers were very old people who would buy single things, for their ability to purchase was limited: and it would be just a yogurt and cucumber, while we lived like the middle class always do in India, with  lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, everyday. Once I  asked "Do you have milk?" and the student doubling as a salesman said, "As much as you could possibly want!" which I thought was a very odd answer indeed. We ate pizzas for dinner, in a place where the owners spoke Italian, and only one member spoke English to deal with the collegiate clientele. They would talk to each other as they made the dough, and cut the vegetables and put it all on a spade which went into the log oven. For some reason, it was called Harvard Pizza, though we were three hours journey from that University.