By Shaila Kapoor
My parents are from India, but I was born and raised here in America. I married a man from India, and three years ago, he and I and our two children visited Mumbai to spend time with his mother.
She hadn’t been doing that well, and as a result, had avoided her regular trips to America for several years. During our visit, we spent hours every day sitting close to one another. She commented often on how beautiful the children were as she touched their faces and mussed their hair. My 7-year-old son took tabla lessons at her home, learning to move his hands on the drums in harmony with his instructor’s singing. My mother-in-law sat at a table nearby and tapped her fingers to the beat. My 12-year-old daughter learned how to knit, tasted all her grandmother’s cooking, and begged me to be able to stay longer.
A few days before we left, my mother-in-law took me into her room and opened a drawer in her vanity. She pulled out a carefully chosen birthday card addressed to her granddaughter. Inside was a message of love and admiration for the girl she had become. I knew it had been tough for my mother-in-law to go out and buy this; her illness made it difficult for her to leave the house. She took my arm and said, “Please take this with you. Give it to her when she turns 16. She will be so beautiful. I want her to have this card from me.”
“Oh, mom,” I said with a laugh. “You give it to her when you are all better. Nothing is going to happen to you before then.” With a quiet smile, she slowly put the card back in the drawer.
She died four months ago. I looked so hard for that card as we went through her things, but I never found it.
This year, as Diwali approaches, I am filled with memories of my beloved mother-in-law. She was a petite woman, no more than five feet tall, and her hair was always tied simply in the back. I imagine her in the rooms of our house in Redwood City, California. I see her as she used to be – many years ago, when she visited – meeting our friends, determined to shake hands “the American way” instead of greeting them with a namaste. I remember her holding my infant son and laughing out loud when he squawked. I remember her playing the role of nurse when my daughter insisted on being the doctor.
When I was growing up in Texas, my Indian immigrant parents threw large parties for Diwali.
As a child, I don’t think I even knew the meaning of Diwali, except that it was the most important Indian holiday of the year. It was a day of celebration, treats and expensive phone calls to India. My mother often explained it to others as something similar to the way Americans celebrated Christmas. Only as an adult do I now understand the story of the Ramayana and Lord Rama’s return from exile through a path lit with lights. I now understand the meaning of lighting candles and putting up lights to decorate the outsides of our homes and symbolize the triumph of light over darkness.
We were part of a large community of recent Indian immigrants, and everyone was like family. Somewhere around the end of September, our festivities would begin for Navratri, a nine-day Hindu festival that comes before Diwali. The traditional festival involves nine consecutive days of performing dances called garba and dandiya raas. But in Weatherford, Texas, we improvised and rented a hall on weekends, and stretched the holiday over the month. On each Saturday night, aunties and uncles would gather at our home and the women would dress in elaborate chania chorris, long skirts and blouses with short saris wrapped around the waist and shoulder. The outfits were often in bright colors, covered with embroidery, mirrors, beads, and gold. We wore bindis on our foreheads, and as many bangles as we could tolerate on our arms. We traveled to the hall together, sometimes in minivans, our destination often two hours away, and we danced past midnight.
For Diwali, we cooked for days, our house smelling of spice and delicious treats. We made huge batches of sweet halwa out of Cream of Wheat. We decorated the house with lights and candles, and dressed up in our best Indian clothes for a party made up of 50 or 60 close friends.
While my parents stayed in Texas, my husband and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area after we got married and eventually had our two children. The four of us now celebrate Diwali and other Indian traditions on a much smaller scale. We can’t replicate that community of aunties and uncles for our own children. We might attend one garba every other year. Early Diwali morning, the four of us gather on the living room floor and we do a small prayer facing the gods, before the sunlight streams through the windows. We make halwa and keep candles lit throughout the day. It still feels special, more intimate with just myself, my husband and our two children.
But this year, as Diwali approaches, I think a lot about my mother-in-law. I ache at how life continues to go on, holidays are celebrated, birthdays are had, despite her no longer being with us.
Twenty years ago, when my husband and I got engaged, my future mother-in-law called me from India and it was the very first time we spoke. “Everyone is asking me how I will communicate with my American daughter-in-law when she speaks English and I speak Hindi,” she said in heavily accented English. She then laughed and said, “I tell them we do not need to know each other’s language. We will speak the language of love.”
Over the last few years, our relationship was limited to phone conversations. We spoke weekly, and I shared all kinds of details about the children. I sent her pictures and videos and explained events and school activities that were so different from what she had seen in India. Her relationship with the kids was mostly through me. They didn’t speak on the phone that much because she found their American accent hard to understand. But she knew them.
This year, my daughter is 15 and she goes to garba on her own with her friends. I dress her in one of my chania chorris and she is laughing so hard she can’t stand up straight as I try to wrap the sari around her waist. Just as she leaves, I snap a picture of her. Without realizing, I click the button on my phone to forward a picture to my mother-in-law. Abruptly, I stop myself. I silently note that her email address still pops up. Will it always be there?
Last time she visited, my mother-in-law made me a jar of her special garam masala, a spice mix I can never seem to make in the same way. She gave me the recipe numerous times, but I never wrote it down. Now that empty jar stands alone in the pantry with her handwriting still on the label. I catch my breath whenever I see it.
This year, when I think of our tradition of a family prayer early on Diwali morning, I think about who won’t be celebrating. And now, with the four of us, I just feel lonely.
Shaila Kapoor lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and two children. As a first-generation Indian-American, her writing explores identity and the push and pull of two cultures. Outside of writing, Shaila consults for companies bringing new products to market. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and UCLA. Shaila can be reached at email@example.com.