Sunday, January 23, 2011

Of Immigrants and Religion

Yesterday K and I woke up early in the morning and stepped out to do our errands, which also included a doctor’s appointment. We recently changed our family doctor as I wanted a female doctor. Additionally, I wanted a doctor who was not only from India but trained in Mumbai. I was fortunate to find one, ahh the wonders of living in New Jersey! So being Ms. Chatty Kathy, I broke the ice by asking her which part of the City she belonged to. I was pleasantly surprised to know that not only did she grow up in the same neighborhood as K but that she was fluent in Marathi. Those of you who are bilingual will know how great it is to be able to go back and forth in several languages. K on the other hand is reserved and doesn’t like to indulge in small talk or chat with people, which also includes his doctor. So after she examined me, she examined K and spoke to him as if he were her long lost brother. Did I mention that they both belong to the same caste? K shot me a glare as I walked out of the examination room with a broad grin because he would be forced to now have a conversation with her which was not related to his check up. After we were done, we stopped by to eat breakfast at a South Indian place. By far I was enjoying my morning as I spoke my own language at the doctor's and was going for an Indian breakfast! Who says that I am homesick for Mumbai anymore????

K and I go there pretty often when we crave South Indian snacks and I know that the owner is a devout Hindu as the entire day they play CDs with Sanskrit chants set to Carnatic music. In fact NY Times has given rave reviews to this establishment but has commented that it is pretty orthodox that they don’t like people getting their own alcohol to the establishment. So I asked the guy if they were open for business. When he answered in the affirmative, I like a complete smart ass, said, “Today is your lucky day as you are starting your new day with me as your first customer. You know I am like Goddess Laxmi, I bring prosperity with my footsteps.” (To those who are not familiar with Indian culture, they say that women are to be venerated as they bring prosperity. Of course women’s rights in India are a totally different story!) I was only joking but those who are from India will know that there is superstition in India among Hindu merchants about “bohonie” (as they call in the pidgin Mumbai Hindi) or the first earnings for the day. Anyway the kitchen had barely opened but he did not want to turn us away as we were the first customers. While we were waiting to be served, he brought out the hottest soup that ever was. It felt great to soothe our throats in the cold weather.I started asking him questions about when he started this restaurant etc etc. He was first slightly embarrassed and said to me "I am not highly educated as you people are so you will probably judge me." I said, “No but I am curious so tell me.”

He was born in a small village near Udipi in Karnataka. People from Udipi, as a source of livelihood, started Udipi restaurants in Mumbai. This is the equivalent to fast food in the United States. Anyway so this person started earning a living for himself by cleaning tables at a Udipi restaurant in Mumbai as a young lad. He rose to wait on tables and then to manage restaurants. He saved enough money to come to the United States and when he came here 21 years ago, he decided to marry an American woman so he could live here legally by obtaining a green card. He then started his own restaurant and sponsored his extended family who have settled here and now own restaurants all over the country. He said that the one thing he misses the most in his life is the fact that he couldn’t obtain an education. He thought K and I would judge him but actually I don’t. He took whatever opportunity life gave him to make a better life for himself and his family. In many ways his devotion to religion makes sense, because perhaps he must have sought solace in the philosophy. I think the man came a long way from being an attendant at a roadside restaurant to owning one in the United States. Being Chatty Kathy I continued telling him stories about K and my road trip to remote villages in Karnataka and the amazing vegetarian food we had there years ago. So at the end of the breakfast, K asked for the check.

He said that he was not going to take money from us as he felt that I was indeed Laxmi. I was thoroughly embarrassed by this and K was infuriated with me. K told the guy that he had provided a service and we should pay for it while glaring at me the entire time. Of course we walked out by quietly leaving a 60% tip. Still I felt like I cheated him as I was being completely facetious when I said that I was like Laxmi. I was teasing him about his devotion. To be honest, I practice Hinduism as well. I know Sanskrit, chant prayers every morning and also follow certain Hindu customs which are such a part of my so called “good Hindu upbringing.” That being said, my beliefs are very private that no one except my family and closest friends know it. I tend to make fun, albeit subtly, of those who wear their beliefs on their sleeve. For example a couple of years ago, I was working with a very religious coworker, a holy roller if you will. He always spoke about his christian beliefs (almost proselytizing) and when we become friends I used to tease him. Once he asked me, “you should ask yourself what Jesus or whoever is your Hindu Jesus would like you to do?” We were working late and it was almost 10 PM. I was tired and wanted to go home. So I had replied cockily, “I am sure Jesus wants me to go home, have a drink and sleep instead of talking about religion and faith.” So making fun of holy rollers comes very easily to me. However I have to be honest, this person’s naiveté and strong beliefs made me feel awful about my own cynicism.

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