Manjula and Pallab immigrated to Canada almost 30 years ago and settled in the southwestern part of Ontario in the city of Queenston. They have two children. Their daughter Maya and their son Raj, a true so called million dollar family. Maya and Raj are genetically purely East Indian, but environmentally they are purely Canadian. This combination has put them in a very unique situation. For everything they do, or say, or act upon, they have to think about it first, make the decision and then proceed. They can't walk down the path of life thoughtlessly.
When Maya was six months old Manjula's mother came to Canada to baby sit Maya for six months. Manjula's mother was clear in her mind that Manjula needed help for that long. During her stay Manjula's mother befriended a Punjabi woman who lived across the street and ran an Indian grocery store. From that Punjabi woman Manjula's mother collected a lot of information. She came to know that the minds of the first generation immigrant Indian's children, the so called second generation immigrants, growing up in Canada are clouded with confusions. They don't always know how to dress appropriately, at times they are not even sure what kind of food would make them happy, rice? or paratha? or Mcdonald's? On certain occasions they don't have a clue how to behave properly.
Like a pendulum the second generation immigrants growing up in Canada always sway between the two countries, between the two cultures, between the two value systems. Manjula's mother didn't wish to add to that confusion of her granddaughter Maya or her grandson Raj. In fact Manjula's mother was the person who discovered the word khichoori children, the children being as mixed up as the dish khichoori, a wanton dish prepared with a random erratic mixture of rice and various lentils. If there is any left-over vegetable, that too, can be added to the khichoori, a rainy day dish, cooked with all kinds of leftovers.
She also made up her mind that if Manjula requests her to stay on and baby sit for a longer period of time she would let Manjula know, 'hire a Canadian-babysitter to look after Maya, in that way Maya would be exposed to less confusion'. If, on the other hand, she, the grandmother goes on babysitting, then that might only add to Maya's confusions.
Very few things come to the second generation immigrants naturally. They are incessantly in the process of sorting out what is Canadian and what is Indian and what under the present circumstance they should be doing. They have to size up every situation, every person. Do I give this person my hand for a hand-shake? Or, do I fold my palms to offer a namaskar? Every new person they meet they have to size up. Whether to offer a handshake, or offer a namaskar or whether just to let the right hand fly up in the air and say an offhanded HI.
Maya and Raj are always under such decision making process analyzing the two customs and continuously figuring out which one to choose from. Their brains are working 24-7 there is not a moment's rest. This kind of constant working and constant stress brings on a huge burden of pressure on the brain, so much so that at a certain point the brain throws its arms up in the air and shouts out, heck with all the customs and rules, I don't wish to follow anything, neither the eastern genetics, nor the western environment, just let me be, I need a break.
At the same time the child might also ignore the parents' constant pressure, to get better grades at school, be the best boy in the class. Because that's what the Indian parents believe in. Being excellent at school and having an excellent profession would solve all their child's problems. Little do the parents acknowledge that having an excellent profession might only be the beginning of their child's problems. A misfit, an off-center person sticks out like a sore thumb in a higher position than in a lower one. A judge is more in the limelight than a court-clerk.
Now, after being pushed to the extreme, the son emerges as a rebellion, 'I don't want nothing with getting better grades, nothing with better marks, nothing with becoming a doctor, or an accountant, or a lawyer (the three most favorite professions of East-Indian parents). I am me, and there the buck stops. The parents shake their heads and leave the room. 'Another tantrum' they whisper between themselves.
Constantly torn between the eastern genetics and western environment, finally the second generation child gives up and they accept the fact of being confused, being off center. His friends tease him, sometimes even call him names. Hey, bookworm, (yes, that is his teasing name) are you coming with us to hit some tennis balls or, are you going in the books to do your favorite activity? Namely, to dig some attractive tunnels through the pages? Bookworm, which activity would you prefer to do? Of course, to dig tunnels and, meet a lady bookworm coming from the other side of the tunnel. Oh, how romantic such an encounter would be. The others say, with their lips twisted with a sarcastic smile. Right book-worm? Answer me, book worm, Brian, a Canadian boy asks in a loud tone. The Book-worm boy, the son of a first generation East Indian immigrant reluctantly nods, his eyes glistening with moisture. His head hanging in dejection.
On the top of the constant barrage of decision-making processes, at times the youngsters get quite confused, instead of answering in Bengali, they flounder in English. While going to a birthday party, the girls might get dressed properly, but then in the last moment before leaving home they might stick a self sticking bindi right in the middle of their foreheads. Such an incongruous dressing up might make them look peculiar, although the girls themselves don't see anything peculiar in their way of getting dressed up in the mixture of Indian and Canadian styles. They think, what's wrong with their way of dressing? They ask themselves. But the others stare at them, the others ask them questions. Why are they so peculiarly put together? They try to mumble out some fitting answer.
It is indeed a stressful life to watch over one's actions and words incessantly. Even after watching constantly they make mistakes. Their parents are also always in the lookout that no mistake is made, but among millions of decisions with regards to actions and words, small mistakes are bound to happen. In order to get out of this constant decision making, some of the children decide to go along with their parents' wishes, in that way at least there would be peace in the family.
Manjula had known one such family from back home. There the daughter had trusted her father wholeheartedly to find a husband for her, as it happens in arranged marriages back home in India. Her father a lawyer by profession, carried a briefcase everywhere he went and in that briefcase he carried a photograph of his beloved daughter. In that photo the daughter was heavily bejeweled displaying a coquettish smile. From the photo it was quite explicit that the daughter already owned a large amount of gold jewelry, a precious commodity of the Indian dowry.
This family lived in the eastern coast of the United States so that on that coast from north to south every Indian community was familiar with this photograph. On the top of that the Indian communities were also informed that the father was a wealthy man who was ready to dole out any amount of cash for an appropriate matrimonial match, which meant that he was looking for a physician, or an accountant, or a lawyer son-in-law. But in the whole matter there was one catch.
The father had been carrying this photograph and telling others about the lucrative offer of a high cash dowry for the last many years and in every community people looked at the photo with their brows knitted, their eyes squinted, suspicion was written clearly on their faces, If the girl was this beautiful and owns so much of jewelry and the father is eager to pay so much of cash then why is she having so much difficulty being sold in the matrimonial market? There must be something fishy in the whole match-making process. They scrunched up the skin atop their noses and breathed hard to take in and diagnose the fishy stink. Is she not that good looking after all? Or is her behavior very rude? How is the mother? Is she like a village woman? Or, as crude as a fish monger? So that one glance at her and the prospective parties took off as fast as their legs could carry them.
When one day a Bengali from the east coast explained the situation to Manjula, she asked in a sharp tone as if the end of her voice was embellished with a glass shard. There had been lots of gossip in the Indian communities along the East Coast of the United States about this rich bejeweled girl, who was up in the matrimonial market for a long time and no amount of lucrative cash could hook a good groom for her. Everybody tried their best to figure out why was she in the matrimonial market for such a long time. Is her voice nasal? Does she walk with a limp? The questions remained as unanswered as ever and the father went on calling from once stranger's house to another's showing everybody the photo of his daughter.
Even back home in Calcutta people went on for such groom hunt for six months to a year, but never for eleven years, as this father in the East coast of the USA did. But over here the khichoori daughter had no clue when to call it quits, when to tell her father to stop showing her picture to anybody and everybody in search of an appropriate groom 'Do you know what you are doing to me?' She asked her father. Then amended, 'you are destroying my self-esteem and my self-respect'. 'What shall I do in life without a healthy self-esteem?' Looking at his daughter the good natured father pondered, I am trying so hard to get a good groom for her, and instead of appreciating all my endeavors, my daughter is blaming me of destroying her self respect? The good-natured daughter realized her mistake and put her arms around her father. She planted a kiss on his cheek and asked for her father's forgiveness. Thus the father-daughter good relationship was restored.
That's what Manjula observed. Often the confused behavior of the children stemmed from the confused behavior of the parents.
With another family Manjula had observed, After a son got married to a Canadian girl, the parents were petrified of losing their son. The boy's mother started baby-sitting the grand children for millions of hours every week thus procuring an access in her son's life, and in her son's family. The daughter-in-law accepted all inappropriate behavior of the mother-in-law. But after the baby-sitting-phase was over, and the children grew up, the daughter-in-law packed her bags, took her two children by her two hands and took off, never to return again. The boy's mother told everybody, 'it was their decision, not mine'. You did play some role, Manjula mused. 'You clung to your son's and daughter-in-law's bed like a bed-bug'.
In her heart Manjula was aware, that this was one of the inherent problems in the Indian community, any Indian community, not only among the Bengalis in this foreign land the parents feel lonely and isolated. They cling to their children, zapping the meager supply of oxygen the children enjoy. As a result the children are called ABCDs American Born Confused Desis (native Indians).
Message for parents: back off, back off, back off. move to a different city, to a different province. Even better, a different country. If too lonely and too isolated, what about returning to India after retirement? Perhaps then the ABCDs would live better. They wouldn't be this confused any longer. In that way they would have more courage to walk down their own life-path, which might be very different than that of their parents.
When Manjula's children were very young, it was fashionable in the Bengali community for the daughters to learn dancing, either Bharatnatyam or, Odissi. Do we have to follow the suit? Manjula asked her husband. Let the children make the decision, it involves them. Manjula asked Maya. She shook her head. Is it the same dancing as depicted in Hindi movies Saturday mornings? 'Yes' was Manjula's curt reply. Those are dumb dances, Maya declared. 'I want no part of that.'
So fizzled out Maya's dance learning possibility.
Then arrived the fashion of learning how to sing Rabindrasangeet. The daughters sang, and the mothers carried various kinds of cooked food to the teacher's house. Following the singing lesson, there was a food party, a chance to chatter and gossip. So was spent half of the Saturdays Once again Manjula asked Maya, do you wish to learn Rabindrasangeet? 'Is it the high pitched nasal humming that you do?' Maya asked back. 'Yes' Manjula, answered curtly. 'Mom, that kind of singing is not my cup of tea,' was Maya's clear cut answer.
So fizzled out the possibility of Maya learning how to sing Rabindrasangeet.
The last wave that swept across the Bengali community living in south-western Ontario was the wave of learning how to write Bengali alphabets. Why on earth do we need to learn that? Maya and Raj asked in unison. Manjula told them, what she had heard other parents telling their children. 'so that you can write letters in Bengali to your grandparents. What kind of a dumb idea is that? Whose dumb idea is that?' Both Maya and Raj asked. They said, Mom, our both sets of grandparents are totally fluent in English, both in writing, as well as in speaking. For years we have been corresponding with them in English. There is no need for us to learn Bengali writing, not for our grandparents. Manjula realized with shame, how illogical her suggestion had been.
So fizzled out the possibility of Raj and Maya learning how to write Bengali.
The Bengali lessons too, culminated into another food-party, every mother had to bring cooked Indian food and after the lesson was over began the eating, chattering and gossiping party. The lesson was for one hour and the party was for two. The teacher was paid by the government of Canada under the banner of Multiculturalism. When that fund dried up, the school too, closed down. No amount of food consumption, or chattering or gossiping was attractive enough to keep the school going. Money spoke the loudest.
As the children of the first generation immigrants reached the age of 13, 14 and 15 years, They began to exert their own wishes and not reflect the ones of their parents'. And the children wished to go mainstream and not live cooped up within the walls of the Indian culture. Down the road the surging hormones of adolescence got hold of their desires, and wishes, they dated, they desired to build a nest and that was when the latest wave swept across the Bengali community residing in the south-western Ontario. It was tragic and heart breaking and nobody saw this wave coming. It was as like a Bengali social Tsunami.
For the first time the second generation Bengali immigrants came to the realization that many of their children were socially maladjusted and not capable of any long term commitment. The news arrived in bits and pieces. First a couple of the youngsters broke up their engagements after the party-hall was rented, after the menu was selected, after the bride's jewelry was bought, after the invitation cards were sent out. What they felt was more than just cold feet. Their entire bodies froze. The fear of the commitment paralyzed them. They had no choice but to back off from the engagement. A couple of them did manage to go through the wedding but the prospect of a long-term adjustment scared them just the same What do I have to adjust to? Change my eating habit? Wear a Boxer? Drive a different car? The fear of long term adjustments froze them.
They ran to the divorce court. It was as if Divorce hung heavy in the air and whoever breathed that air, had to give up on a partnership. We all know how it looks like when a room full with flies is sprayed with Raid. Back then the Bengali community looked just like that, for that matter any other Indian community looked just the same a cemetery of broken promises and broken marriages in the aftermath when the parents came with a wedding invitation, they look as scared as a chambal deer being chased by a tiger. The mother mumbled under her breath, 'we have come to invite you at the wedding of our son, although we don't have a clue how long the marriage would last'. What a way to invite. All Manjula and Pallab are doing is letting their children be. The way the Almighty had wished them to be. No khichoori, no confusion. Just two simple human beings. Following their bliss. Following their own North Stars. They have let the children go wherever their own North Star takes them.
Raj has been living with his girlfriend for six years. No, they're not married. Maya has been pursuing her education in medicine for 15 years. All Manjula can say is, she had not raised any fly by night kind of children. Her children are weighed down with responsibilities and duties. You can choose anything you wish for, she tells them, but you have to bear the responsibilities of your choices. So goes her mothering rule, free, firm, and strict, Always saturated with unconditional love.
So runs the history of the first generation East Indians and their children in North America. They are breathing in an air of confusion. Some call the children, the khichoori children, with mixed up emotions, mixed up cultures and mixed up values, Some others call them ABCDs (American born confused desis), The bottom line being, both the parents and the children have lot more of adjustments lying ahead of them. Following the painful evolution, both the generations might emerge unscathed, as it had happened with many other immigrants prior to the East Indians and every immigrant group had to run their very own endurance race and unfold in their own way. Some day the East Indians would triumph in their very own way. They would jump over all the hurdles of their lives of living in North America and prevail in all their glory.