Immigrant Bengalis

Independence Day

Indrani Mondal

Shadows are gathering.  There is an occasional warm breeze like a long-drawn sigh.  We are at the same picnic spot where we come every July 4th, sitting on the same picnic blanket.  I look at mom. Her head is slightly tilted as if to catch any faint nudge or rustle of leaves in the humid stillness around.  Mom looks pensive as she gazes at our picnic blanket with our two empty sandwich wrappers and some drink bottles.  A few ants scurry by.  I think mom feels strange sitting here, noticing these rather forlorn sights and sounds so unlike the hustle and bustle of our high summer July 4th picnic last year at this very same fest ground. 

Last summer it had been packed to capacity.   At one end of the park an open-air rock concert boomed.  The fairground at the other end competed with the loud whir of the giant Ferris wheel and its strobe lights, along with the creak of the brightly painted Rocking Gondola with its screaming teenagers.  Long lines spilled out of the local handicrafts and food tents bubbling with buyers and sellers with intermittent loud squabbles about which stall had the best deals or the yummiest barbeque sauce.  We and our picnic pals had found a spot in between the two sound zones so that we could catch the fun at both ends and live summer to the fullest. 

I remember our red gold tandoori chicken drumsticks smoking away on the grill close by with endless compliments from nearby picnickers about the wafting mouth-watering smells.  Alongside, foil wrapped spicy baking potatoes and corn on the cob roasted above the smoldering charcoal.  Mom had relaxed her no-nonsense denim and tee shirt style and had worn a sleeveless, ivory cotton tunic with a multicolor embroidered yoke.  I thought it was a little too fancy for a picnic on a hot summer day.  But I also suspected it was a gift from the two new ladies in our group, Gul and Sita, as they were profusely complimenting her on how she looked in that outfit.   To me mom’s hair looked best.  Her thick dark shoulder length tresses were streaked with a subtle copper and casually tied back with a scrunchy.  No doubt Gul and Sita had worked on her haircut and color.  I had to admit they had done a superb job for mom looked young and amazing.  In fact, I even toyed with the idea of growing my own short hair and then have them style it.  Mom had a hard coconut water cooler in her hand and was talking incessantly in her native language to Gul and Sita, her protegees and now friends.  Though I could decipher the overall meaning from the expressions of others in our group I sure couldn’t catch all her nuances or idioms.   I remember feeling a bit jealous suspecting mom was looking far more comfortable with these two women than with me, her own daughter.  Something that had never quite happened before.

Still this picnic was my yearly family ritual with mom so I had swallowed my discontent and stayed.  I sensed July 4th was more than an Independence Day holiday for mom.  It was like a self-assertion for her struggle as a single parent, the first in her immigrant family and friends circle.  From being a much-protected only child of doting parents and the quiet wife (through arranged marriage) of a well-to-do ladies’ man, she had managed to leave bondage and injustice behind to carve out a life for herself and her baby girl, me, with her own sweat and tears, and eventually to buy a small business as a female minority entrepreneur.  It was a tale of the American dream and every July 4th endorsed it for her.  Ever since I was old enough, I could tell it gave her a sense of freedom that was gratifying and humbling at the same time, celebrating her independence as well as that of her adopted country.  I knew she herself had never analyzed any of this but I had seen how she had changed over the years since she had left a failed marriage, through hands-on education over and above the academic degrees she had painstakingly earned.  I had always admired her for the battles she had fought and won, I had revisited all these thoughts last year as I watched her growing closeness with our new guests. 

Time had flown and before long all the fair lights were switched off and fireworks filled the hushed air with loud bangs and the smell of sulphur.  Flashes of golden fire lit up our upturned cheering faces, including those of mom’s new guests who were celebrating only their second July 4th here in America. Continuous showers of red, white and blue flashing stars from the heavens, along with our resounding applause, filled our guests with wonder and awe at that spectacular sky show of light and sound. 

This year, no picnickers, no rides, no crowds to jostle, no smells from the open barbeque pits to tempt and of course, no fireworks; nothing to plan, lots to forget.  At least for mom.

Yes, last year’s July 4th summer picnic had been special for mom.  I had left right after that visual display but I heard later that Sita and Gul were with her well after the fireworks ended.  After several years of struggle as a small business owner, mom’s salon Sri, meaning Beauty, was finally getting brisk business, thanks to Gul and Sita, her two newly hired hair dressers.  Mom had met them quite by chance at a friend’s wedding where these two newcomers were doing bridal hair, make-up and beautiful henna hand painting for the bridal party.  She was told both worked for a garment company based in India that had recently opened a US branch in our area.  As they had some experience with beauty care and wanted part time jobs to make extra money to send back home to their families, mom hired them to work at Sri on their off-days.  But within a month, their garment company was bought out by a bigger local company and they got laid off.  They had approached Mom for full time positions at Sri.  Both had visas with work permits to be renewed annually.  Mom already employed two full time and two part time beauticians at her salon.  So, with more sympathy than dire need, mom had decided to take the financial risk and bring them on board as regular employees at Sri. 

It was a good move, that enhanced mom’s business and also gave her a rewarding feeling of being able to help.  Both these ladies quickly became popular with clients as efficient eye brow threaders and amazing hair dressers.  Sita had an instinctive flair for choosing the right haircut to instantly complement a client’s face and jawline.  Gul was phenomenal with choosing hair color tones along with highlights and lowlights for diverse skin tones.  Phones rang off the hook for appointments with them.  To help their clients they often started earlier and stayed later than mom.  They received good tips over and above their hourly wages and mom happily saw two lives shaping up right before her eyes.  Some of this I heard from mom; the rest I had pieced together over the last couple of years, from talks with mom. 

Gul and Sita were immigrants from small industrial towns, Gul from the south and Sita from the north of India.  Though they lived in different parts of India they had many similarities.  Both were in their thirties.  They did not get a chance for higher education as they came from traditional patriarchal families but due to poverty and lack of earning men in their families they had been forced to work.  Both worked for the same garment company at different locations in India.  When the company asked for volunteers to go to USA to help their new branch there, both Gul and Sita, who were of different religions and lived far from each other, had signed up right away without letting their families know.  Gul was trying to leave an abusive husband but at the same time wanted to help her struggling mother care for her autistic younger brother.  Sita did not want to be forced into marriage.  All her life she had seen her alcoholic dad beat her mom but now he had liver cancer and her mom did not have enough means for his proper treatment.  So as a dutybound only child, she was paying for her dad’s cancer care.  It had seemed sensible to both of them that they could be more useful making and sending money home, working in ‘the land of milk and honey’, rather than in their native land. 

They met here in USA as their company had arranged for their rooming together.  Both were quiet women, working hard, living frugally, and saving money to send to their parents. Had they not emigrated to the US, local custom and family expectations would probably never have allowed them to room together and live independently, even though they were from the same country.  Within a few months of their stay here their personalities subtly changed.  They took spoken English lessions from mom (for free of course) and became pleasantly articulate, helping each other get make overs with easy confidence and eclectic style.

Mom had told me all this with much emotion.  I think their hardships resonated with her own struggle to survive in this country, a haven for the talented and the oppressed, but requiring much determination.  About a decade ago, she had left dad for double crossing her more than once, and along with me her only child, a preschooler then, she had used her divorce money to buy this small salon, where she had  once been a patron, and had it remodeled and renamed.  Understandably, she felt a tinge of pride and gratitude that as a small business entrepreneur she not only worked for her own sustenance but also had a minuscule role to play in giving a means of livelihood to her employees.   When hiring Gul and Sita, industrious women from the country where she had been born, she must have felt she was somehow responsible for their wellbeing.  

Whatever it was I started to see a lot of Gul and Sita at our home, attending all mom’s work parties and celebrations with her family, that is, me.  On July 4th picnics mom’s other employees preferred to spend time with their families so that, over the years, it had become our own summer fest picnic of mother and daughter and occasionally a few other close friends.  Last year, Gul and Sita had also joined us on July 4th, because as mom had said sweepingly, “They are all alone here and we are their only family!” I had tried to explain that since they were two, they weren’t really alone, but to no avail.   Mom was usually very professional about her employees.  It bothered me to see her so involved in the lives of Gul and Sita. 

Mom has not spoken one full sentence with me since we got here.  I have tried many general topics including challenges at my work whi,ch usually interests her, but today the conversation hasn’t proceeded much.  Ever since Sri closed for the pandemic, it has been hard for mom.  The sun has set and we should be leaving.  I can see mom is preoccupied.  I think I know why but don’t know what to do about it.  Should I just ask her outright?  At the same time, I know she is a private person and I don’t want to intrude. I grow uneasy.

“I’m so sorry I couldn’t do anything for them!” I hear mom blurt out in a low voice seeming to intone the undulating low hum of the early cicadas. “Due to this pandemic none of the immigration offices were open, their work permits could not be extended, my hands are tied, I couldn’t even furlough them!” 

I feel a tinge of annoyance.  I know she’s talking of Gul and Sita.  In fact, that’s been her main chat topic with me ever since she hired them.  “It’s not your fault, mom!” I reason. More than anything else, I worry about the tension making her blood pressure shoot up and her debilitating stress migraine return.  Frankly, I never really understood her strange mothering of these two grown women who had themselves decided to come to a different country to work for a living.  Weren’t there other pretty efficient employees at Sri, working for a longer time with mom, all living their lives the best they could, all unsure of their futures now?  “It’s not that you didn’t do anything for them mom.  When they couldn’t legally continue their stay here, you talked to the Embassy and found an Airline that was operating a few evacuation flights.  You even helped buy their tickets for them to go back home!”

“But that’s just the point!” exclaims mom.  Life comes back to her features for the first time today.  Her drawn face moves sharply.  I suddenly notice all the grey roots in her hair.  ”They didn’t want to go back.  They were just starting to realize its ok to live for their own selves.  Due to this pandemic, India was for a while not allowing entry to people flying in from other countries.  But here in the US their work permits were not extended either, so they lost their legal status and all monetary benefits.  For a few months, they did not belong to any country; no one wanted them.  And why?  Because two hardworking women had found the means of supporting themselves on their own honest terms!  Was I fair to them?”

Oh, don’t be dramatic mom, I almost blurt out.  Come on!  This is an unprecedented time for all of us.  Thank God I’m in the medical profession or I may have been fired also.  I simply say, “Why can’t we just hold on to what we have and enjoy this Independence Day holiday mom, just us two?”  My words sound trite even to my own ears.  Changing my tone and trying to make her smile, I quickly add, “I know mom!  You’re sad, cause you’re missing your favorite July 4th fireworks, aren’t you!”  

Mom gets up and starts folding our picnic blanket as I collect our few trash items and walk to the garbage bin. When I return she is shaking her head. “I tried hard to help Gul and Sita earn not just money but self-worth.  Not just slogging long hours to help relatives at home but to help themselves also.”   She continues emphatically, ”They were so good at what they did.  They deserved better”. She pauses and rubs her forehead, as if to dislodge the long worry lines from her forehead, and looks at the lonely park with the empty darkened sky above it.  “They never had a chance for a good education or family support; they were ordinary looking women in a patriarchal society!” 

Mom turns to me and says ruefully “I don’t think you’ll understand dear!  I made sure you enjoy the benefits of a free society that can teach you to be independent!   But I am a first-generation immigrant.  I understood the fighting spirit of those two less privileged women … their raw need to survive without …. without restrictions.”  She sighs softly.  “I’ll always miss not being a true sister in their journey to be independent.”   Then mom comes close to me and smiles.  “Now don’t be mad.  You know how much I love you.”  She presses my hand.  “But if Gul and Sita were here, that would have made my July 4th Independence Day really meaningful, not fireworks.”

(Posted June 1, 2021)

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