In and Out of India

A meditation on memory and Indian culture, from Krishna dolls to bharathanatyam

One of the many hangover curatives my housemates could never understand involved peeling open an inflamed eyeball at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning to watch Namaste America, a program on Channel 26 that caters to Indian-Americans with 20 minutes of Indian subcontinent news and 40 minutes of music videos culled from Bollywood soundtracks. For the uninitiated, it could be a difficult experience. Unfortunate houseguests would often stumble into the hall, railing against the high-pitched warbles and chirpy trills emanating from the living room; they'd squint at the lurid colors and lascivious dance routines; and, after two or three videos, they'd mock the redundancy of yet another pouty, defiant, soon-to-be-compliant young woman in a sheer sari drenching herself with water. But I've always found the productions comforting.

Not everyone knows it, but the Bay Area is home to the third largest Asian Indian population in the country. One short block away from my house, the Bombay Bazaar occupies two spacious storefronts, offering everything from saris, bangles, and bindis (for those unsure, bindis are the jeweled third eye) to bulk spices, kulfi (Indian ice cream), and strong black tea for which there is no substitute. There are at least three such markets in San Francisco, nine in Fremont, and no fewer than 14 in San Jose, with dozens more sprinkled throughout the cities in between. But my feeble beguilement with Indian culture does not stem from a passion for highly spiced food and brightly colored clothes; in fact, those passions stem from beguilement not my own.

Like so many Bay Area natives, I was born a hippie kid. This means I lived in a commune, had a guru, ate curry, and learned the "Ramayana" (an epic poem that chronicles the love and devotion of the lord Rama, his loving queen Sita, and his fearless monkey-god companion Hanuman) long before I had ever heard of Cinderella; instead of Barbies, I had Krishna dolls; instead of Batman and Wonder Woman comic books, I had Garuda and Saticartoons. Mine was to be an expansive, multicultural upbringing.

When I was 6, my mother took us overseas. We landed in Indonesia, making a temporary home in Bali, where we lived in a small mountainside village. We assimilated slowly and were happy -- rising early to cook paper-thin pancakes made of egg, haggling at the market for cloth and produce, hiking through the jungle to bathe in the river and wash laundry with the women, playing children's games with 98 polished stones and a game board shaped like a shallow boat, and taking lessons in a temple dance that made our legs quake and our knees burn -- but, for my mother, the tempestuous siren of India was never far away. Eventually, thinking the fervor of India too overwhelming and the dearth of my father too lengthy, my mother shipped me home and wandered off into her event horizon. I wouldn't see her again for several years.

Sometimes I hop on BART and go to Fremont. The Naz 8 Cinema is just a short walk from the station. It boasts eight screens, 3,000 seats, 5,000 parking spaces, and Dolby sound, but it looks like a run-down porno theater -- musty carpets, sagging posters, flickering lights, oily-faced security guards -- nestled among the loading docks of more legitimate businesses (which face the front of the shopping center). The Naz 8 plays movies from Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, Taiwan, Korea, and the Philippines, but mostly it shows Indian movies -- not films, movies -- with and without subtitles; there's a constant trickle of people moving through the doors at three- or 3-1/2-hour intervals every night of the week.

The snack bar offers cold mango lassis in bottles and vegetarian samosas, which aren't very good as samosas go but are better than nachos or cheese dogs. On Friday and Saturday nights, the theater fills with young Indian-Americans eager for the latest, fastest heist flick -- such as Kaante,this year's most anticipated "Bollywood movie with a Hollywood feel" -- but Sunday seems to be family night.

Most of the screens are devoted to standard Indian romances, which follow a story line that hasn't changed since the "Ramayana" was recorded thousands of years ago: Beautiful, privileged boy falls in love with equally beautiful girl; girl acts flirtatious and coy; boy pursues; girl succumbs; girl is taken from boy; boy laments and searches; boy and girl are reunited (with song-and-dance routines to accent each section). There are a lot of movies to choose from, but I like Vivek Oberoi, a popular "road boy," with his lean, angular face, ever-present 6 o'clock shadow, and motorbike, so I settle into Saathiya, positioning myself between two large families, melting into the saffron and crimson hues.

Last year, my grandmother placed a stack of old letters next to my empty dinner plate and quietly left the room. I fingered the feathery envelopes for a very long time, admiring the exotic stamps that adorned the corners, letting the faint fragrance of champac permeate my skin. The postage dates had faded, but I arranged them as I thought they would have arrived. "Dear Mom," began the first missive, in a hand that was familiar, though rounder and more spacious than what it has become. The early letters were fast-paced, wide-eyed, and exuberant, filled with delight and sunshine, and written in a voice I do not know; they chronicled our Indonesian adventures, from Bali to Singapore to Java and back to Bali again, filling in gaps of memory and reminding me of things I had hoped never to forget. Then, my mother wrote of sending me home and going to India; and the frequency of correspondence dwindled to a trickle. One letter. A very long wait. Another letter. Then, nothing more. In those last pages, I recognized my mother's voice as I heard it upon her return, solemn and yearning.

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