Back in the late sixties/early seventies , when I was a graduate student in the US, it wasn't very common to see hoards of Indian students that you see today in US universities. It was even more uncommon to see female Indian students, who were single. Meeting someone like this from India was a fairly entertaining thing for the natives.
I became great friends with my fellow TA's and RA's and they would be absolutely amazed when they mentioned someone they knew from India, and I would, sight unseen, say something like "Oh, he's from the south, or "probably from Delhi" etc; basically make a guess on which part of India they belonged to. It took me a while to realize that the ease with which I could classify a Venkatachalam as being from Chennai and a Chatterji as hailing from Bengal, was something unique that I grew up with and took for granted.
And this was totally amazing to folks in a country where a person called Johnson could simply be from any of the 51 states, and even if your name had , say German or French overtones, it didn't localize you to a particular region of America. A Gonzalez could be from Chicago, and a Palin could be from Alabama......
While interstate migrations in India do take place freely , the various folks from various states continue to pursue their language and other regional loyalties in matters of family , cuisine, worship and so on.
This is the story of of Bill who came in those days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Maharashtra. He stayed for 2 years, and was great friends with us, and was, and has remained, almost like a member of our family.
He had some rudimentary training in spoken Marathi before coming here, and he fine tuned that during his stay of two years so well, that he was able to understand idiomatic things and in what context they were applicable etc. He was also a great observer of the fine distinctions in the cultures of the various parts of the society he lived in.
He has made several trips to India since finishing up with the Peace Corps in early 70's. Mostly to look up friends and attend celebrations of various life events, in families he regarded as his own.
His mother is almost 90, and she was curious about India. Last year, he made the trip, along with his mother, to take her to the village where he worked, places in Pune he frequented, and of course, came to visit me, in Mumbai ,since I am the only member of my family, left in India now.
Unlike his own trips where he enjoyed roughing it out in buses and trains, he checked into a five star hotel in Mumbai with his mother, so she would be comfortable. In a culture where everything was so different, it would take time for her to acclimatize. The hotel had a car rental list from which you could choose, and he remembered the guy he had used when he landed in Mumbai. A local Maharashtrian guy, Dilip Sathay who had just started this service, and was eager to take him around. The fellow was totally impressed by the 90 year old lady, and the fact that she was travelling all over the place without making a fuss about the heat and dust.
They started on their way to us, a trip that would take roughly 45 minutes at noon.
Bill is not the quiet type and likes to chat with the drivers. So he got talking, and found out that this driver Dilip, was a college graduate, who did not want to do a regular job , but was interested in starting a business. So he took a loan and started this car hire-transport business, where you could hire a car and driver for a price.
The guy mentioned his last name. Wheels started whirring in Bill's head. He knew enough about certain name constructs here, to be able to identify the cultural/geographical subclass of the gentleman.
Bill cleared his throat. Turned to talk to Dilip in the driver's seat ....
"You must be an "ekaranti Konkanastha Brahmin" ( belonging to the class that claims ancestors from the coastal Konkan region, and whose names end in the sound "-ay", a well known classification ( a bit like that of Boston and New England types in attitude :-) ).....
Dilip almost braked to a sudden stop.
He was totally stunned. He realized and gathered himself together with haste, so as to not alarm the old lady. And started talking to Bill. He was curious to know how Bill learned all this. How did he remember things that even people within the state, didn't bother to learn in these modern times? How did Bill know so many Marathi words ? How long did he learn ?
Bill explained things to him, smiled, and then waived his hand and said something .
" Mi tujza barsa jewloye" , (meaning, "I have eaten at your naming ceremony, when you were born") , something that idiomatically implies that "you are asking questions about something that I am deeply well versed in, and such is the depth of my knowledge. ...."
Dilip was absolutely stunned. To hear these words from an American in an accent, but so perfect in the choice of application, was just too much.
He suddenly thought Bill was one of his own. He stopped the car. His family had a home style catering business midtown. Diwali sweets were being made on order currently, and he wished to present Bill some. Would they agree to a small detour ?
Bill's mother who was observing, was willing and intrigued. They detoured into Dadar, a part of Central Mumbai, which is like the oldest and most popular market area for us middle class types. He pulled up besides an old building in a semi residential area. Rushed inside. In the meanwhile, little boys playing outside gravitated to the car to see just who was travelling with Dilip today; usually he never brought anyone home.
A few minutes later, Dilip rushed out with a shopping bag with a bunch of packets inside. His mother and sisters ran a catering business. These were freshly made sweets and savouries of that festival season, and he was overcome with appreciation and thrilled at meeting someone like Bill who was almost being thought of as an honorary Maharashtrian by now.
As he got into the car and presented the bag to Bill and his mother, his mother and sister appeared on the scene. A fair oldish lady, in a nine yard saree, worn working style, wiping her hands on her saree end, and then fanning her face. Her son had mentioned the guests. She looked for Bill's mother, raised her hand to wish her well, and they both smiled at each other , with an expression that said ,..." These young people., so excited about things, ... always in a hurry :-)".
Her daughters, not at a loss for words, rushed up to the side of the car to talk to their brother, wave at Bill's mother, and peer in. Bill did a namaste to them and they greeted him back.
The car started, and glided out of the narrow gate, with Bill's mother wondering what to do with all these snacks which were absolutely strange to her.
They arrived at my place in time for lunch. Bill handed over a bag to me. And told me the story.
These were things my family loved. We made them during festival time. This was a bit later, but Bill and his mother wouldn't really be eating much of it. Bill enjoyed a piece with us, and the rest got passed around !
Dilip, of course waited for them till the evening to drive them back. In between we took Bill's mother and Bill, for a drive around our campus.
Dilip was totally mortified at us bringing out our 37 year old Fiat , (with special features, like, dents, involuntary sliding windows, tilted mudguards, seats that exhaled when you sat, places on the floor that gave you a vision of the actual road below, and bangable doors), for the purpose.
Bill's mother sat comfortably in front, and was totally amused by Dilip's concern. She asked me what Dilip was saying. I told her that he offered to take us around in his newer car, and he didn't think that you deserved this antique rattling jalopy......
She looked at Dilip. patted the outside of our car, then pointed Io herself, and twisted her index finger and middle finger, as if to say, "we are a pair !".
The car, dented with old age, but still clutching and accelerating noisily, but earnestly, for old times sake, albeit in a rattling manner; and she, sprightly, erect, full of enthusiasm, overflowing with humor and understanding, silver haired, in a golden moment......
And Dilip gave hearty laugh as he realized what she was saying.
It didnt matter if you were ", Kokanastha Ekaranti", and from the heart of Mumbai's old parts, or if you were from the poshest part of one of America's largest states; it certainly didn't matter if you couldn't speak each others language fluently, or even less.
Between an enterprising young man full of beans, and a "young " lady of 90, they spoke the same language.....and even understood...