By Nidadavolu Malathi
[A first generation Indian woman’s immigrant experience in America]
I moved to America in 1973 from Andhra Pradesh, India. It took me a decade to get over the culture shock I had experienced. That was the starting point for this novel.
I worked on this novel with three basic premises:
1. Ill-conceived and/or unsubstantiated notions are prevalent in both cultures, about Americans in India and about Indians in America.
2. Basic human values, hopes, fears, aspirations, and primary needs such as food, shelter and human relationships, are the same across all cultures. The difference is in the manner in which each culture addresses those characteristics.
3. Those characteristics originate from environment, population, and available resources.
Also, I strongly believe that a good read must be able to transpose the reader into the story’s nuance. If it does not do so, it has failed its function, in my opinion.
I began writing this novel in my mother tongue, Telugu, in 1984, and completed it in 2004. It was serialized on www.APWeekly.com.
Currently, the novel is being serialized on www.neccheli.com. I have made extensive revisions in this version in 2021.
In this English version, once again, I have made significant changes, with the target audience, non-native speakers, in mind.
The title, Chataka refers to a mythological bird, supposed to be flying around in the sky, and awaiting, with its beaks turned upwards, the fresh raindrops from the sky for its food. According to the legend, the bird would not accept water from any other source except the fresh raindrops from the sky, and only in a specific season.
I used the metaphor to describe Indian immigrants in America in pursuit of happiness and material comforts. The comparison, however, ends there. The culture shock emanating from the cultural conflicts they face is a lot harsher and harder to handle.
I am thankful to my good friend and author, Judith Ann Adrian, https://judithadrian.com/ for her valuable suggestions.
I am thankful to my Facebook friends, Rama Neelakantham and Suman Latha Rudravajhala for providing information about Chataka bird.
Also, I must mention a comment I had received long time ago, when I had submitted my translation of a story to an American Journal. The editor wrote to me that footnotes were just right; not too many, not too few. To that end, the footnotes are meant not to be elaborate explanations, but only helpful in understanding the context in this story.
Read, enjoy, comment, if you please. Thanks.
May 13, 2022
The Chataka Birds
The new bride, Geetha, arrived at New York International Airport. Her eye-catching new sari, dazzling gold bracelets, and fading henna designs on her palms were proof that she had been married not too long ago.
She looked around, feeling totally lost, as if she had just landed on a different planet. She kept telling herself that she was in America now. She could not believe it, but she knew that that was the truth, that was the reality.
Geetha’s marriage with Hari had been performed in such a hurry that even she could not believe it. How it had happened was a different story.
This is how it happened:
Hari went to India on a 2-week visit with the sole purpose of finding a bride and getting married. With the help of his near and dear, he found Geetha, and decided right away that she was the one for him. By then, ten days of his 2-week trip were gone; there were only four more days to go. So, he told the bride’s parents that the marriage had to be performed within the next 3 days, or else, no wedding. It was not easy, but the bride’s parents agreed, and performed the ceremony on the third day. After the wedding, Hari told Geetha that he would send the Visa papers ASAP and left. This is not normal, but not totally unheard of either, I must add.
Eventually, Geetha received the Visa papers, completed the forms per instructions, and sent them back to Hari.
Mrs. Geetha Hari landed in the U.S.
Geetha stood there for a while, scanning the airport lobby, like Alice in Wonderland. Suddenly, she felt a jolt from behind. She realized that she just must not stand there in the middle of a rushing crowd. She moved along with the crowd. Everybody was eager to grab their luggage and get into the lines at the Customs counters as fast as they could. Geetha followed the crowd reached the baggage area.
She was watching people grab their suitcases, at the same time, feeling lost, and empty in her head. She turned to the conveyor belt and noticed that her suitcases had rolled farther, and out of her reach. “Oh, no, no,” she jumped, pushing away the two Americans in front of her to catch the runaway suitcases. One of them smiled and told her not to worry, and that the suitcases would be back soon. “Oh,” Geetha said with relief.
A little later, the same gentleman picked up her suitcases on their second round and handed them to her.
“Thanks,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
She did not know what to say in response. She nodded vaguely and headed toward the Customs counter with her luggage. There were several lines, each seemed to be endless, like the tail of Hanuman  A character in the epic Ramayana, known as Monkey God in America. He possesses extraordinary gifts, one of which is to be able to extend his tail as long as pleases . She joined the one closest to her. The line was moving at a snail’s pace, which was a surprise to her. She had been told back home that everything in America was systematic, mechanized, and all things got done quickly, since they had advanced mechanisms for everything. “Apparently, not always,” she told herself.
Eventually, she reached the Customs counter. It took sometime for her to convince the Customs Officer that all those powders in her suitcases were made of various lentils and grains; the pickles contained preservatives and were safe to eat. If they were safe to eat, they should be safe to transport, she said.
After what appeared to be eternal, the Officer signaled to her to move on. She grabbed the bottles and packages, threw them into her suitcases in a hurry, and left for the next adventure, which was to find Hari’s friend.
The day before she was set to leave for America, Hari had called her on her neighbor’s phone to leave further instructions regarding her travel to the United States. For her, it was embarrassing, but that was the only venue available to her at the time.
The neighbor knocked on her door in the wee small hours of that day, and said, “Your husband called from America. He is on the phone.”
She apologized to the neighbor profusely and finished the conversation quickly. The gist of it was, due to an unexpected situation at work, Hari would not be able to meet her at the airport, but no worry, he added. His close friend, Peter, would meet her at the airport and take her to his apartment. He also mentioned that his friend was tall and white, and she would be able to recognize him very easily.
With a jolt from another traveller, Geetha returned to the present, and looked around. Everybody looked tall and white. How on earth she was supposed to identify her husband’s friend? She was annoyed. While she was passing through several moods of annoyance, grievance, desperation and confusion, she heard a voice.
“Namaste, Geetha garuA term of respect, similar to Mr. and Mrs. In Telugu language, the term follows the name/relational term.”
Startled by Telugu sounds, she turned around. There was a tall white man standing two feet away from her, with folded hands and a big smile.
“nenu Peter,” (I am Peter) he said again in Telugu.
“I am Geetha,” she replied.
Peter apologized for the delay. He said he had started early, but was caught up in an accident; and, it took some time for the cops to show up and complete the report.
Accident was the only word that hit her head. Her heart beat twice as fast. Her face turned pale.
“Accident?” she repeated.
He laughed. “Ah! it is nothing. Don’t worry. These things happen. Come on, let’s go,” he said, reassuring her.
As he leaned forward to get the two suitcases, Geetha said hurriedly, “No, no. I will, I will.” Back home, she had been told that people in America would carry their own luggage.
“It’s okay Geetha garu, I know it is not appropriate for a man to let a woman carry luggage in India,” he said.
“Oka rupaayi iiyandi madam,”(Give me one Rupee), he added, teasingly.
Geetha was amused, was not sure whether he was joking or showing his language skills. She kept quiet.
Peter asked her to wait at the curb and went to fetch his car.
As he pulled over, she saw the car, her heart thumped. This car must have weathered a few storms, she mumbled to herself.
Peter parked the car by the curb, put the luggage in the trunk, and opened the passenger side door for Geetha. That settled the one question she was worried about, that whether she should sit in the back seat or front seat?
She settled in her seat. Peter went around, sat in the driver’s seat, and turned to her. “Please, you need to wear the seat belt,” he said, almost apologetically.
“Do I have to?” she asked, sounding equally apologetic.
Peter nodded. “Yes, ma’am. That’s the law here. If you don’t, I will get the ticket.”
Geetha pulled the belt over her shoulder but could not get it to the end.
“Let me,” Peter leaned over, pulled it, maintaining the distance between the two to the best of his ability. He was aware of Indian women’s sensibilities, their customs and habits fairly well, thanks to his stay in India for a few years.
All the way home, Peter was talking about his stay in India several years back. He had been to Chennai to learn classical music. Previously, during his middle school years, he had listened to South Indian classical music at a friend’s house, and immediately fell in love with it. Lucky for him, his friend’s mother was a singer. She was more than happy to teach him. Later, in his college days, he went to India under a study abroad program, which gave him an opportunity to revive his interest in music again. Hari had been a great help in getting his dream come true, Peter said.
Peter kept talking about a lot of things: He was really taken by India and Indians, the land was so beautiful, people were so kind and generous, food was delicious, and so on.
Most of it was lost on Geetha, but she understood one thing. Peter did not talk about population, poverty in India, and did not question women’s inferior status. The second thing she realized was that her Master’s degree in English Language and Literature was no help in understanding the American English. She kept nodding and uttering a vague “oh, oh,” every few minutes. A few times, she looked out the window. The tall buildings on either side of the street, fast-moving cars all around, dazzling streetlights overpowering the stars in the sky… everything was like the “Maya Sabha” An architect in Maha Bharata. He created an illusory mansion to confuse Pandava princes. for her.
“So many cars! What happens if the lights go off suddenly?” she said, as if thinking aloud.
“Most of the time, nothing happens. We will manage. Come to think of it, it is not any worse than the traffic in Hyderabad, right?” Peter said.
“True,” Geetha nodded.
Peter stopped the car in front of his building, went around, and opened the car door for her. He took the luggage out of the trunk, put it next to her, told her to wait, while he parked the car. He returned in a few minutes, and they both entered the building.
Susan, Peter’s girlfriend, opened the door with a big smile, “Namaste.”
Geetha said, “Namaste,” and walked in. For some reason, she was feeling awkward.
“Let’s call Hari and tell him you’ve arrived safe,” Peter dialed the number.
“Is it not too early?” Geetha said, hesitantly.
“Normally yes. But from you, no.”
Hari picked up the phone at the first ring.
Peter handed the phone to Geetha.
“How’re you? Are you okay?” Hari asked. His voice resonated with his concern for her.
Yes, yes, yes, Geetha replied with a thumping heart. She was excited to hear his voice. She was in a daze. Hari told her to get some rest, he would be coming soon to bring her home, and hung up.
Susan, without moving from where she was, pointed to the two rooms, “That is the bathroom, and this is the guest room. You may freshen up and get some rest in that room.”
“It’s almost daybreak. I can’t sleep,” Geetha said.
Geetha was quiet. She had been told everything in America was different from what she had been accustomed, and received plenty of advice regarding manners and customs in America. In other words, she would have say no in India. The hosts would not take no for an answer, and continue to insist until she accepted it. But she was not in India now. She was not sure how to respond.
Peter smiled, went in, returned with a cup of coffee, put it on the table in front of Geetha, “Here, have some. It would be relaxing,” he said.
He turned to Susan, “Indians don’t say yes right away, even when they like to have.”
Peter shrugged, “It is customary, I suppose. It is hard to explain how customs come into play.”
Geetha smiled vaguely and nodded. She slowly added, “We think it would be additional trouble for the hosts.”
“How could that be a trouble? They would not offer if it is a trouble, would they?” Susan asked.
Geetha did not reply. She finished her coffee, and went into her room. She lay on her bed, and kept thinking about Susan’s question. Peter was right, she thought. Customs and traditions are hard to explain.
She could not sleep. Returned to the living room. Peter and Susan were watching TV. She joined them.
“So, how did you meet Hari?” Susan asked.
Geetha thought for a few minutes and said how her marriage had taken place.
“You mean you did not know him, and yet married just like that?” Susan expressed surprise.
Geetha felt uncomfortable. Back home, she had been given extensive lessons about the questions she would be facing in America; she was told that the “arranged marriages” For Indians, marriage is not a personal choice, not just a commitment between a man and a woman only. It carries a familial, social and metaphysical responsibility–all rolled into one word, … Continue reading was one of the big ticket items. She, however, did not expect to get it so soon and that from a total stranger. The way Susan put it did not help.
“I don’t think anybody can really know another person fully ever, or else, there would not be so many divorces,” she said gently, without looking into Susan’s face directly.
Susan was about to say something, Peter stood up and said, “I am going out. Geetha garu, do you need anything before your next flight?”
“No, I don’t need anything,” Geetha replied.
Susan excused herself.
Geetha was left alone in the room. She sat there sitting for a while about the day’s events. After a few minutes, she went into her room and fell asleep.
(May 13, 2022)
|↑1||A character in the epic Ramayana, known as Monkey God in America. He possesses extraordinary gifts, one of which is to be able to extend his tail as long as pleases|
|↑2||A term of respect, similar to Mr. and Mrs. In Telugu language, the term follows the name/relational term|
|↑3||An architect in Maha Bharata. He created an illusory mansion to confuse Pandava princes.|
|↑4|| For Indians, marriage is not a personal choice, not just a commitment between a man and a woman only. It carries a familial, social and metaphysical responsibility–all rolled into one word, Dharma. Marriage brings together not just two individuals but two families. The daughter-in-law shoulders several responsibilities in the in-law’s family.|
Even when a boy and a girl fall in love and decide to get married, it is given the ruse of arranged marriage for the same reason; it is a family matter.