Sorry for the long wait! Hopefully, as my apprenticeship schedule becomes more routine, I’ll post more regularly.
The subject of today’s blog is my host family. I don’t wish to draw any profound meaning from my interactions with them. I only want to share you a piece of my life by painting brief portraits of each member.
REYES (THE SON)
One early September morning, I was waiting to meet my new family at CDSA, a large rural property in which all the India fellows were staying. We were seated in a large carpeted stone room, talking as we caught brief glimpses of the families arriving outside. The staff had told me the following about my new hosts: They were a Catholic Goan family, with an energetic 5-year old daughter and a 11-year boy who loved soccer. I ran over the details in my head.
I met the family several minutes later The father gave me a warm hug as the children hid behind his leg. I made awkward small talk before quickly running out of things to say. After a painful silence, I remembered that the boy liked soccer.
“I was told you like soccer”, I said.
“Yes” he responded, with a slight smile.
“I like soccer too!”
“Bhaiya (brother), who is your favorite player?” He grew more excited.
“I like Messi.”
“Cristiano Ronaldo is my favorite player. I think he is better than Messi. If you watch Messi, you will see that he does not come back!” He exclaimed
“Ay, but Messi is the better striker”
“No Bhaiya! Ronaldo scores more goals! Have you seen him play for Portugal? Portugal is a very good team. They won the Euro Cup, no? I remember because they lost to the French. The French were not playing well. They had so many shots. But they were not playing well.” He asked.
For the next several minutes, Reyes streamlined everything he knew about soccer: his favorite teams, his favorite leagues, past matches he’d played. Once he’d exhausted his interest, he abruptly asked me another question.
“Bhaiya have you seen Black Hawk Down?
“No? I heard it was good though.”
“It is so good! You see an African man with an RPG is aiming at an American Helicopter. But the helicopter is so fast, no?! It is turning so fast!”
“But then the helicopter falls?”
“Yes, Bhaiya! That is why the movie is called Black Hawk Down. Because the Helicopter is called a Black Hawk. It is a very good helicopter, you know?”
Then, more questions.
“Bhaiya, who is your father?”
“Bhaiya, what food do you eat in America?”
“Do you believe in ghosts?“
“What is one thing you want to change about yourself?”
“Do you have a six pack?”
By the end, I was exhausted. For an hour, he asked me everything that came to his mind. Some questions were strangely personal i.e. “What is one you thing you want to change about yourself?” But his curiosity was so adorable and endearing that I didn’t mind. The usual awkwardness of the first interaction had gone. And now I felt that Reyes and I genuinely knew each other. That night, Reyes would use his newfound knowledge to make me feel more at home, giving me a notebook with Messi’s Number 10 and asking if we could eat burgers because “that’s what Bhaiya eats in America.”
RENEI (THE DAUGHTER)
While her brother was talking soccer, five-year old Renei twirling around in a shiny pink backpack.
“What’s that?” I managed to ask between two of Reyes’ questions. .
“Its my magic bag.” She twirled and the picture seemed to move. “See…. it’s my magic bag.” She repeated before walking away.
At home, I realized that such abrupt interactions with Renei were not uncommon. Even for a five-year old, she seems to live in her own world. She usually acts as if she is completely ignorant of your presence, speaking only to her stuffed rabbit and teddy bear. Other times, she acts like a demanding 70-year old matriarch, “Bhaiya” she’d call in frustration, “I am sore from school! Fetch some water for the cats!” (the family doesn’t have cats) or “Bhaiya! You need to tend to my wound!! I am bleeding!!!!” (she was not.)
My favorite interaction with Renei occurred during my first night. The entire family gathered before dinner to recite Catholic prayers in English and Latin. I struggled to understand and felt awkward standing in silence. After a concerned glance from the grandfather, I worried I was offending the family. I tried to mimic the prayers and leaned over to Renei to imitate what she was whispering. That’s when I realized – she wasn’t praying at all. Beneath her family’s overlapping Latin prayers, she was quietly reciting the lyrics to Justin Beiber’s “Despacito”. I struggled to contain a smile listening to “Volontuas tua sicut in caelo….pacito, pacito, suave suavecito… na na na na na… POQUITO POQUITO.” Although she didn’t intend it, her quirkiness, wide toothy grin, and complete lack of self-awareness instantly made me feel better.
CARMO (THE FATHER)
Carmo is the confident, charismatic head of the family. He manages hotels for a living, which you can gage by how quickly and silently he commands a room. He’s fluent in multiple languages and intelligent in conversation. In the last several weeks, we’ve discussed politics, culture, and American literature. Our conversations were always somewhat intimidating; he has a low, resonant voice, breaks for long pauses in the conversation and maintains eye-contact for longer than is typically comfortable. But over time, I’ve begun to see that past the rough exterior, Carmo’s a kind-hearted, religious man who deeply cares about his family.
I experienced this first-hand during a late night outing in Pune city. I was in an auto rick-shaw coming home when I realized I didn’t have enough money to pay the full fare. In broken Hindi, I asked the driver to drop me near a local supermarket. With the last of my phone battery, I managed to call Carmo and ask if he could book me a cab. Then I waited outside for about a half-an-hour – pacing along roadway – worried that Carmo had misunderstood me. It was getting dark. And as I stood in the empty parking lot, I felt more like a foreigner than ever before.
Suddenly, a large white van parked before me with a bright orange “Hotels” logo. A relieved Carmo stepped out and headed straight towards me. Unbeknownst to me, he had driven all the way from work to make sure I was safe.
“Are you ok? Are you ok?” He kept asking.
“Of course, I’m fine. Thank you. ” I replied embarrassed.
“Thank God!….good. That is good.” He repeated.
“You know, you didn’t have to personally come. You could’ve booked a cab.” I reassured him.
“No no no, it is fine. It is fine.”
I thanked him again. Then we sat in the car in silence. I wrote a note to check that I have enough money next time. But, amidst the embarrassment, I was still comforted by the knowledge that Carmo was there for me.
KAVITA (THE MOTHER)
Kavita is a quiet and private person, which made my time with her all the more meaningful. During my first week in Pune, I tried to acclimate to the family lifestyle and follow her in daily errands. I woke up at 6:45 with the children and picked them up from school. I cleaned the bedroom, bathroom and did laundry. I helped retrieve eggs, kurd, and bread from the local street shops. I learned all the functions Kavita routinely performs alone. During that time, we discussed mostly trivial things: how much food item costs, subjects in which Reyes should study more, how to navigate Pune streets most effectively. But perhaps the greatest joy was to see my two dimensional pre-conception of Kavita as a “quiet-caring mother” become far more complex, vivid and human.
This first came when Kavita suggested a family movie night. I prepared myself for the usual Disney, Pixar, Dreamwork’s lineup. Instead she wanted to watch the Annabelle Creation, a film about a young girl who is killed in a car-crash and then rises from the dead to possess orphan children. I have to admit, I was little surprised.
During the film, the children nibbled on their meal, cowering at every shot. I turned to Kavita; she was grinning from ear to ear. Suddenly, Reyes and Renei scream. Kavita bursts out laughing.
“That did not scare me! I was just surprised.” Reyes insisted
“You are so frightened right now!!!” Kavita said, breaking off into laughter.
“I am not scared!”
“You are!!! *Breaking laughter* I cannot! I cannot with this boy!”
Reyes went to the bathroom. A second after the door shut, she called me over.
“Noah, put the chair underneath that blanket”, she said.
“What? Why?” I asked.
“You will see, you will see.
Reyes opened the door and immediately stopped in the frame, eyes glued on the blanket.
“Mama! Mama!” What is that?!”
By know she was laughing so hard, I couldn’t understand her words. Amidst the chuckles and the screams, I realized that – despite my assumptions – there was much much much more to my host mother that I still did not know.
ABHA (THE GRANDFATHER)
I met the grandfather only briefly. He stayed with the family for three days in September. But I choose to include him because our interactions were so memorable. He is a kind and spiritual man, with the ability to see the beauty in anything. Often times I would ask him a question, only to hear a half-answer. He would then fade away into hearty chuckles and a smile. One day I asked,
“So what did you do for a living?”
“I worked…in the British consulate. Just for a little while. There were so many books! It was lovely.” He trails off and leaves the room.
On his last night, he brought his bags to the kitchen. I approached to say goodbye.
“It was great getting to know you. I hope we can see each other again soon”, I say.
“Yes, yes, yes. But I need to tell you one thing. You must remember this: culture is important, but it is not everything.” He waves his hand. “People, no matter where you go, they are the same. And that’s wonderful thing!” He smiles and leaves.
I know I promised not to pull some contrived moral from my interactions. But his words give the post a fitting end. I came to India to experience life in all its differences. I came to experience a different culture, a different language, and – fundamentally – a different people. But my most memorable experiences have also been the most familiar: laughing with my little brother, playing superheroes with my little sister, talking politics with my host father, preparing food with my host mother. And I’ve realized that Pune has no simple hidden answers to suddenly perfect life. It only has more. More curiosity, more quirkiness, more fear, more laughter, more sadness, more wide-toothy smiles. More of the beautiful same. And that is a wonderful thing.