BIOGRAPHY

me-at-one-at-the-citizen-art-studio-in-the-khirtabad-market
1 year old me at the Citizen Art Studio in Khirtabad Market 

This picture starts it all…my mother recalls how for every birthday they took each of us to a local photography studio around Hyderabad and spent the little money they had on these beautiful black and white photographs. With love and care, my mother placed garlands of jasmine as a diadem on the head and then used a kohl eyeliner to spread a ring of dots across my forehead—a sign of beauty in South India.

Most of all, I understand now why birthdays are such a big deal in Indian families. Infant mortality. My mother (Parveen Sultana) was one of 6 children but 2 did not make it and it left my grandmother with depression (both the weaker one from a set of twins). My father (Mohammed Abdul Hadi) was one of 18 children and there were a few lost on that side as well. A birthday meant another year of life and another year of averting death.


me-at-threeMe at 3 years old

There I am at the photo studio again…a knife wielding three-year old who now has a pixie cut—my mother’s favorite choice for a haircut. But the same good luck kohl dots are still there crowning my forehead and now the flowers are the ever-present garlands found at all auspicious Indian events. But I cannot figure out why I am holding the knife with my left hand… 


my-older-brother-at-5-in-the-kalpana-photo-studio

My brother at age 5 

 

My parents like most Muslim families believe in having large families regardless if there is dysfunction: lack of food, lack of an education, lack of space for all the children, etc. My older brother, Sattar, was born when my mother was 17. Then she had me at 19 and my younger sister Rubina at 21. Next my father left India to make money and it was 6 years later that my younger brother Faisal was born in Chicago when my mother was 27. Then they finally stopped. The pressure to have many children is one I felt from my parents regardless if I had a doctorate. At the same time, the joy I get from my own three children cannot match up to the joy of any career. I think my parents’ love of children rubbed off on us and soon evolution worked its gears and there are exponentially more Hadi/Sultanas.


mummys-wedding-dayMummy’s Wedding

Perhaps the story should really begin here with my mother’s wedding. My mother was the second of 6 children, all girls minus one male heir. But heir to what? My grandfather had lost his job in the police force after the 1948 partition when he refused to convert his religion and become a Hindu. His brother did change his name and remained on the Hyderabad police force, even though the uncle’s family practiced Islam secretly in their home after the conversion. Nonetheless, the children were given secular names like “Sooraj” and “Sundar.”

My mother was only 16 when she was married, and due to their poverty, my mother was not able to continue her education—even though she is the smartest and strongest person I know today. My Uncle Akbar, the male heir, did continue his education up to high school but then had to leave school to work and help support the remaining three girls. Meanwhile, my mother’s older sister was already married at that time to her male cousin whose father had converted. In this photo, you can see my grandmother standing in a torn sari with my emaciated looking mother.

My mother did not see my father until their wedding day, even then under the gaze of a mirror placed between them. However, my father was a good friend of that same male cousin of hers. The story is that my father would try to ride his bicycle in front of their house in order to catch a glimpse of my mother but with no success. When he knocked on the door, my grandfather initially refused to let him in but then eventually caved into the marriage proposal when he found out that my father was an engineer with some prospect and not a vegetable seller. But my father was still curious as to what my mother looked like especially since there was no photograph of her at all. So my mother’s male cousin dragged my Uncle Akbar (a good looking man) out of the house and said that my mother looked a lot like him. That convinced my father and off he went to start collecting money for the wedding, a bachelor of 28 years.


the-boudoir

The Boudoir

There is my mother getting her face powdered on her wedding day by various aunts in silk covered saris. Her newly married older sister is beside her staring back at the camera. All the women have long braided hair and look glamorous. But I keep telling myself that she is just 16 years old in that photo…the age at when I got a driver’s license, worked as a part time telemarketer selling basement waterproofing in Bensenville, listened to Rick Springfield, and was a gawky teenager who was as naïve about the opposite gender as my mother was on her wedding day.


the-dulhan
The Dulhan

On every Indian woman’s wedding day, she is to be adorned and gazed upon by the curious crowds. Here my mother is surrounded by her aunts and uncles who are admiring her beauty. The sehra or veil of flowers is pushed aside since it covers both the bride and groom’s faces so that they do not see each other until the end of the wedding ceremony.


purdah
Purdah

The veil plays a large role in Muslim culture. Most Westerns do not understand its complex significance and how its use varies along with the meaning it conveys. In ancient Arabia, before Islam comes onto the desert landscape, the gaze of a woman was seen as powerful—one that can tear a man apart. A woman walking into the market gazing at the men with just her eyes behind a veil was seen as a symbol of power. She was the one weighing them and analyzing them with her kohl lined eyes—a sign of ultimate beauty.

In the mosque, Prophet Muhammed asked both men and women to cover their heads as a sign of reverence—whether with a Muslim male skullcap or the female hijab—a cultural trait he learned from the Christian and Jewish veiled women around them in Arabia. In this picture, the bride is shown through a diaphanous red veil so that her gaze does not fall upon the groom before the wedding. At the same time, the veil frames the beauty of my mother’s face.


 

sibling-rivalry

Sibling Rivalry

 My mother’s sister seen in this photo (Rehana) was just two years older than my mother but already married at that time, thus she is wearing a modern sari. Due to the lack of resources at home and the very different personalities, the two older sisters have always been at odds, sometimes becoming second mothers to their younger siblings, and at other times still seeking that adult attention and approval that they needed from their parents but never fully attained, leading to all those histrionics and Filmfare Awards for Best Actress in a Family Drama.

 


cousins-and-aunts

Cousins and Aunts

My mother is finished getting all prettied up for her wedding night but looks quite miserable. This picture captures her sense of uncertainty and a feeling of being lost as her life changed so dramatically that night. The three women to the right of the photo include her tall mother looking away from the camera even though everyone else is focused on the lens. Then there is my aunt again staring right into the camera but the woman in between is my grandfather’s second wife—yes that is right—a second wife—a phenomena found in some Muslim cultures as well as in some Mormon cultures.

The story goes like this…my grandfather was a loved and liked man about town who was able to solve many people’s personal problems while sitting on his charpoy in the middle of the courtyard, very much like a Mughal ruler in a small Masab Tank court. Nevertheless, he was living in poverty with his 6 children so he married a rich widow, his second wife, who was not a Sunni Muslim like us but a Shia Muslim and not very attractive. One of her requests was for my Uncle Akbar to change his name to “Akbar Ali” in recognition of Prophet Muhammed’s son-in-law who was killed in martyrdom at Karbala. Needless to say, my grandmother’s depression increased as my grandfather was spending more time with the second wife who was able to afford a lifestyle quite different from my mother’s four-by-four world of hunger. In the end, my mother recalls the day she walked into the house and found her mother lying dead on the charpoy. To this day there are many different theories as to what caused her mother’s death: a cough that plagued her for several months and the cheap medicine she took for it, the loss of infant children, the disconnect to her own wealthy sisters and a mother who died in Afghanistan during child birth, and a husband who left her for another woman but somehow still loved her.

 


 

the-grooms-side1

The Groom’s Side

My father is very mysterious about his ancestors and does not say much at all about them to us. Using his cellphone, he still calls his siblings from his office and speaks to them in hushed tones since my mother will not allow for those “greedy sisters” of his to call us at home. My father is one of 18 children: 3 boys and 15 girls. His father was a land surveyor and made decent money but died of a heart problem before my father married my mother. Subsequently, my father has those same heart problems as do I. The large Hadi family lived on a mango farm in the infamous “Mallamphet” rural town, which is now a bustling suburb of Hyderabad. As in any large Indian family, there was bitterness and rancor over the farm; eventually it was sold and money was distributed, not evenly though. All the children went on to medical and engineering schools, even the 15 girls, and ended up marrying spouses of their choice. Most of my father’s siblings are now in San Jose, Chicago and Atlanta.

 

the-grooms-side2

My father was never loved by his mother and spent most of his adolescence and early youth roaming the streets of Hyderabad and getting lost in the circuitous gullies, which I then traveled in my twenties. He also had a bad temper and got into fights in college with other men. He was a great chess player and also sang Urdu ghazals—sometimes as the female lead. The one thing he could not do was become a doctor because back then it was considered against the religion to open up dead bodies. Due to poverty, my father ended up tutoring rich children in order to survive and help pay the bills at home. He bought a bicycle for his travels, while also completing an engineering degree at Osmani University where many Muslim students went, since their education was funded by the Nizam of Hyderabad. Returning home, there was no electricity in their house and I remember my father telling me how he used to walk miles to the local road and study under the streetlamp, which today I truly believe to be true.


the-28-year-old-bachelor

The 28-Year Old Bachelor

My emaciated father looks so tiny in his white sherwani suit but you can tell he is happy—he is finally getting a woman in his life. The saying in India is “no wife, no life.” My guess is that his lack of good looks and his anger management issues prevented him from an earlier marriage. My mother often told us that her father agreed to the marriage only because my father had an engineering degree but did not think much of him as a man. There were other suitors as well she said.

 


tehran

Tehran 

There was a horrible recession in India in the 1970s under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and there were not enough jobs for the young men and women graduating with science and math degrees, let alone the humanities. Anyone with a nice job most likely knew someone at the top or bribed his way there through the almighty rupee. The recession made the daily rice and wheat too costly and my mother recalls eating cheaper grains like sorghum and barley during these harsh times.

So that is when the diaspora began. First, educated men like my father and non-educated men like my Uncle Akbar went to Tehran, Iran to send money back home to feed their families. From these pictures, you can see my aunts and uncles standing against a car in the red mountains of Iran. I remember hearing my father and uncles talk about money to be had, beautiful Iranian women without any veil or hijab, and the infamous debauchery of the Shah of Iran. It seemed they were welcomed into the Persian culture even though their Muslim Indian culture was a distant relative.

As word of the revolution made its way through the streets, migrants like my father and uncle returned to India and looked for another pipeline to make money. In the 1970s, American companies came to India to recruit labor for the science and medical industries back home. My father, a civil engineer, joined his younger brother, who had a degree in aviation engineering, and made his way to the United States. They chose Chicago because my uncle found a job at O’Hare Airport fixing engines. My father could have gone to the United Kingdom and I am glad that he did not—Muslim Americans are much more successful in the United States than anywhere else in terms of education and economic levels. Could you imagine me with a British accent? Eh?

In the 1980s, my remaining uncles decided to migrate to the Arab peninsula to bring money home from places like Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Now when I go back to Hyderabad it is a changed city due to Arab money and its influence. Muslim women are clad in black burkas brought back from Arabia. But if you look at the pictures of my parents’ upbringing—all the women are wearing Indian saris and the men are in western clothing. The presence of a much more conservative Arab Islam has forever changed the world as well as my beloved Hyderabad, once a seat of the Mughal Empire and therefore not Arab in culture but more Turkish, just like my last name “Tabassum.”


grandfather-haleemGrandfather Haleem

My maternal grandfather, Haleem Saab, as he was known throughout our town, was a dignified and respected man. He may not have been wealthy due to horrible business decisions along the way but he was wise. I remember our courtyard full of visitors and my grandfather sitting on his charpoy throne listening to everyone’s predicament and offering sage advice. There were stories of him saving marriages and mending irascible fences. He lived to be in his mid-60s. I remember the day he died and my mother crying inconsolably in our American kitchen—never able to say goodbye and never able to bury him. She was daddy’s little girl.


the-post-1965-brain-drainThe Post-1965 Brain Drain

My father immigrated to Chicago with his brother and tried to set roots down before we came. However, my mother often talks about his “bachelor” days when he lived with all the other Muslim Indian men in tiny, dirty apartments. Here is a picture of him hanging out with his male buddies and enjoying the trappings of a tourist on a visa. According to my mother, he sent very little money back home.

Yet, I know my father struggled finding legitimate work and told us stories of working at the local gas stations and 7-11 store. Eventually, he did get a job with Skidmore & Owens on an H-1 Visa, which meant he was getting paid half of what an American engineer would be paid. There was no equal pay for equal work. Many also do not realize that the Sears Tower (Willis Tower) was designed and built by these young Indian engineers who came over and worked for companies like Sargent & Lundy and Skidmore & Owens. In fact, the head architect for the Sears Tower was a Khan.

Eventually my father went to night school at the IIT campus and earned a Masters Degree, which gave him greater equality. I remember running around the Mies Van der Roe campus on Saturday when he studied for hours at the library. The decision to become a citizen much later is what eventually increased his earnings. However, many Indian families did not know if they wanted to stay or go back home. They were waiting to see how the youth would grow up in such a strange place and whether they needed to return to their native culture if the children floundered. The process of becoming a citizen is an arduous one and takes time, money and patience. But we always heard stories of the prodigal son who was sent back home to live with grandparents or even worse—an Indian boarding school.

leaving-for-umricaLeaving for Umbrica 

On the day we left for America, the entire clan came to the airport. I cannot believe my mother traveled half way across the globe with three young children and without knowing much English. She did talk about being stopped by the Indian Customs Officers who confiscated all the goods meant for our new beginning. She was also naïve to say “yes” to every question.


welcome-to-chicago
Welcome to Chicago

When we arrived in December 1976, there was a blizzard and we had that magical realization that snow is a beautiful thing for young children. Our intense snow masks show how protective Indian parents are of a very cold climate. A funny moment that I remember is when my mother rubbed coconut oil into our kinky South Indian hair and how our hair froze over when we arrived at school!


the-apartment

The Apartment

My early memories of America are tied to this apartment at the corner of Lawrence and Kedzie. Back then, it was a Jewish enclave and our apartment building had immigrant families from Yugoslavia and Korea. It was not until the 1980s that Mexican Americans were coming into Chicago. In this two-bedroom apartment, my siblings played endlessly, often getting in trouble for the level of noise and rough housing. The furniture was bought at garage sales along with everything else in that apartment.


the-anchor-baby

My younger brother Faisal was the only one born here in the United States. He was the one fed on American food and had access to better childcare than we did. Today we joke that he is the smartest one of all four because of avoiding those initial years of malnutrition. However, my brother was also born on my 6th birthday. Just when I was about to blow out the candles on the cake my mother declared that her water broke and needed to go to the hospital right away. Fortunately, there was a room of adults at the party who were ready to take care of the three of us while Faisal was born at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Till today, he and I are very close Gemini twins.


the-auto-show

The one ritual that my father shared with us was his love of attending the auto show at the McCormick Place. Every year we would get dressed up and take photos in the new cars. At night, we would come back tired and pour over the glossy catalogs of shiny cars and beautiful models. My father still goes each year but often alone since none of us are interested in the auto show as grown adults.


my-paternal-grandmotherMy Paternal Grandmother

There is my father’s mother in a white sari indicating to the world that she is a widow. I do not have any memories of her outside of the white sari. At some point, my father invited her to the United States so she could take care of us while my mother went to work. Needless to say, there was no possible that she could take care of all four in that tiny apartment. My paternal grandmother soon returned to India and then we went with my mother’s side and its endless pipeline of young aunts and uncles who came to take care of us in the end.


my-bismillah

Every Muslim child has a Bismillah by the age of five. It is when the child learns to read some bits of the Koran. I was tutored by an Arabic teacher in India but then my schooling stopped when I came to the United States. My parents were too busy and too poor to continue it. Here I am surrounded by my Albany Park schoolmates and friends. The imam has me recite a passage from the Koran into the microphone. Immediately, I was instructed to eat from the giant laddo placed in front—a ball of sweet.


desi-plaines

Eventually my parents made the Westward move from the city to the inner-ring suburbs. We started off in a small apartment in Des Plaines where we lived with my paternal uncle’s family since he worked at O’Hare Airport. Skirmishes soon developed and we ended up buying a townhouse in Bensenville, which later became a public housing project that then was torn down due to violence and crime. My uncle left for San Jose and ended up working for Boeing there. Des Plaines is now a suburb with a large Indian population and has been coined with the racist epithet of “Desi Plaines”—the word “Desi refers to people from India and translates from Hindi as “people from the same country.”


my-working-mother
My Working Mother

My mother never wanted to work and grew up with the understanding that it should be the role of the man to provide for the family. Besides, she grew up in a Muslim household that forbade the women from working outside the home. But my father insisted that she work since there were four of us and there was not enough for everybody. Since she only had a 10th grade education from India, the only option was factory work. Soon she found a job putting perfume bottles into boxes at the Jovan Cosmetics Company. Along with many other Indian women from our neighborhood, my mother carpooled and worked the late shift from 6 PM to 6 AM. Every afternoon after school I came home and helped prepare the evening meal.

Often under stress, my mother yelled and screamed a lot but I also learned to be a more responsible person since I had to feed my siblings, wash dishes, clean up and then do my homework. My father was of no help other than taking us to the park where we played until it got dark. My mother barely made $12,000 a year but it was enough to put food on the table. She worked into my early college years and then quit due to back injuries. I had such guilt in college knowing my mother was working in a factory at night so I often ended up in the library in solidarity and plugged away while my mother was breaking her back. She has been a stay-at-home mother ever since. I gained my work ethic from her as well as learning the trade of domestic work—from scrubbing toilets to cooking a mean Indian meal.


 

my-mothers-pink-sari
my mother’s saris

My mother looked absolutely ravishing in her saris—even when she was developing that American midsize body. Here you see how each sari represented a different time in our lives—from perennial trips to Toronto to visit her cousin and our home in Chicago. The style of saris is continuously changing, as well as the tailor-made blouses worn underneath the lengthy yards of silk and chiffon. Many do not realize that the sari is a remnant of the Greek toga, which was brought over to India in ancient times when the Greek and Persian Empires had conquered most of South Asia—from Darius to Alexander the Great.

 

 


indian-schoolingSchooling in India, Chicago and Bensenville [Indian Schooling, Hibbard Elementary, Tioga Elementary]

The juxtaposition of these three images is an interesting notation in educational systems. My brother and I attended the local Catholic school for our early years in India where we learned a bit of English; I went to Holy Mary on Road 1 in Masab Tank. You can see how crowded the classrooms are as well as the rudimentary chalkboards as the only teaching tool. Yet, many brilliant people come out of the Catholic schools of India. My parents did not have money to attend private Catholic schools; they are products of Urdu-medium government schools where the majority of Muslim children enroll.

 

My mother remembers beautiful teachers in expensive saris who taught them absolutely nothing. Even though government school teachers are paid fairly well, the reality is that 60% do not even show up on a daily basis to teach. When working in India today, I still see teacher-less classrooms in which students learn to imitate teacher behaviors in order to teach each other or an older girl is brought into the classroom to teach while missing her own education. Organizations like Teach for India are trying to place high-quality teachers in government schools—instructors who do show up and who teach and who track student progress. Yet, I still see Indian teachers make students copy endlessly from the blackboard for hours as well as beat them with sticks. India has a long way to go…only 10% of the population gets a decent education…which explains the flight out and the brain drain.

 

When we arrived in Albany Park, Chicago, we enrolled at Hibbard Elementary where I felt truly welcomed. My teacher was African American and I remember her as being kind and gentle with me even though I did not know English well. The classroom was diverse and my peers were also immigrants from places like Korea and Yugoslavia. But a few years later we moved to Bensenville where we were the only non-English speaking students and only a few non-white students. In the Tioga Elementary photo, most of my peers were working class white students who were far removed from their immigrant histories. Needless to say, I did not fit in along with the other minority students. One of the reasons I teach race theory today is because I was racialized immediately when we moved to Bensenville where we were called “dot head”, “sand nigger”, and “camel jockey” on a daily basis. The sad part is that the adults watched it all happen and never said anything until we reached high school when there were full-fledged race riots but the school district only recently addressed diversity issues within the last decade. Today, the District 100 School Board is still all white.


extended-familyExtended Family

When my mother started working the night shift at Jovan Cosmetics, she needed help raising her four children. Since she had a Working Visa, she was able to sponsor her siblings who came to America because of her. First my Uncle Akbar came with his wife and they lived with us in a tiny townhouse for a few years before they were able to save money and purchase their own townhouse nearby. I remember my uncle coming home tired from his factory job and my aunt trying to feed us when we came home from school. Then came my favorite aunt, Saadiqa, and she lived with us for a longer time with her husband. Eventually, she gave birth to my cousin Shazia at 31 Sunset Court.

Immigrants rely on extended family to help raise children; however, in the end, there were too many squabbles and arguments and we become Americanized quickly by purchasing our first home as a nuclear family. Over the years, the wounds have healed to some degree but not all. But I am forever grateful coming home to my aunts and uncles after a long day of feeling like a pariah. They brought Hyderabad with them and I remember eating delicious meals, watching Bollywood movies and dancing in the living room with them.


the-pakistani-womanThe Pakistani Woman

Since all my uncles and aunts moved on, most now living in McMansions in Naperville, my mother was back to finding someone who could take care of us while she worked the night shift. Through asking around the Muslim community, she found a woman from Pakistan named Nazleen who had left her husband behind and came seeking work in America. I found her to be quite strange since she never said more than a few words but somehow started bunking with my sister and I. At the same time, I think there was tension in the house due to this newfound triangle between my mother, father and Nazleen. My mother tells me now that she eventually asked Nazleen to leave when she brought home an unknown man to our home while all the children were sleeping. That was the last of the au pairs. We were now on our own and soon we became latchkey kids like the rest of American children whose mothers went to work in the 1980s. With keys around our necks, my brother and I came home and took care of the younger siblings.


indian-birthdaysIndian Birthdays [Where Are They Now]

Within a few years of moving into the townhouse in Bensenville, the community changed quickly from working class white to now mostly Indian, Pakistani and Mexican families. I picked up Spanish with my best friend Maria, and then there was Farhan Khan, the badass Pakistani boy who became the head of the Latin Kings and protected us from the white kids on the bus. He was a six-foot Pathan with a closeted younger brother named Idris who wore the Michael Jackson white glove everywhere. We were all good friends—the Gujarati kids like Shefali and Sonali, the Pakistani kids like Suman and Naila, the Christian Indian kids like Noel and Wanda—we went into each other’s homes, played outside until it was pitch dark, made fun of our parents, lusted after Bollywood actors, went to Garba dances, and most of all invited each other to birthday parties. All of us left the townhouses by the time we started college. The townhouses became public housing projects while we were there with the sounds of gunshots and police cars quite common. In the end, they were torn down but people are always amazed that we all ended up well educated and that the townhouses raised a good number of desi boys and girls.


untitled-1

Education was my salvation away from the family dysfunction at home and the racist world of school. Once I figured out how crazy were my parents, I escaped by reading books under my bedcover as the sound of my parents arguing and screaming pierced my ears. Each one of us has dealt with the domestic violence we witnessed as children quite differently—some siblings embodying the dysfunctions while others choosing to escape. I was a quiet, shy child who did not say much in class but there was a fire inside of me that eventually gained strength once I made it to college and I started to find my own fine balance. Winning awards and trophies was a way for me to shine and find happiness in something concrete. Today, I am proud to be a nerdette who loves to read, work on math problems and talk about obtuse subject matter.


indian-hair
Indian Hair

I realize now that not all Indian children had to endure what we did as immigrants. First of all, it was the 1970s so my mother sewed all our clothes, especially for the girls, with her Singer sewing machine just like all the other mothers in America. She even learned to sew Marvel comic decals on my brothers’ torn jeans. Yet, my mother’s sense of fashion was trapped in a gaudy B-rated Indian movie. She combed the aisles of Joann Fabrics looking for shiny cloth, eye-popping sequins, and always that gold zig-zaggy lining for the sleeves, neck and fringes. In most of my family photos, I am not smiling because of both cultural reasons and for the ridiculously sparkly outfits she made me wear. Here I am wearing a gold outfit with a red brocaded vest for our birthday party at Chucky Cheese. Yup.

 

 

 


 

my-love-of-art

In addition to books, art was my other escape mechanism. I loved to draw and paint. My parents let me use a small closet in the basement as my “art studio.” I would run into my closet and draw images from magazines and books. I also got up early in the morning to watch that strange painting dude on PBS with the puffy hair and polyester pants. In high school, I joined the art club and my favorite teacher was Mrs. Pascuitto. She let us paint a mural in the school hallway. I went downtown and snapped a picture of a street scene on Wacker Drive. Then I painted this façade. I loved walking past it every day. I always begged my parents to take us to the Art Institute on the weekends, which they did on special occasions. Now I am a member. By the time I graduated high school, I remember going to see Mrs. Pascuitto’s own wall size canvas paintings of Egypt at Elmhurst College and how impressed I was with her art. She was my role model.


desi-boys
Desi Boys
desi-girls
Desi Girls

Once we hit the teenage years, I was close to mostly Indian and Pakistani girls and had a hard time relating to girls from other racial/ethnic backgrounds. Here my parents brought all of us over to the Des Plaines Lake where we would barbeque tandoori chicken and naan. We also did not practice kosher eating habits and brought over buckets of spicy chicken from Popeye’s. Recently, I have taken my own children to the Islamic Foundation Sunday School in Villa Park where I was able to reconnect with the desi girls with whom I went to high school. My brother had his own group of desi male friends in high school, many of whom I developed crushes on as an adolescent teen. By the time we started college, most of our friends went from being desi to being American from all races.


the-vfw-party

My brother was the oldest child on my mother’s side so when he graduated from high school it was time to throw another party. My parents went all out and rented the party room at the local VFW. We were able to bring in our own food which included an entire braised lamb as well as pans of biryani that my relatives all pitched in to make. My mother and her younger sister, Aquila, are enjoying a light moment with my Uncle Akbar cutting the lamb. I cannot imagine what the VFW staff thought of the smells they encountered on Monday morning.


suicide-in-toronto

Asian children are known to face a greater degree of pressure from their parents in relation to their American peers. My mother had a strange cousin who lived in Toronto, Munima, with her quiet husband and two sons. One was dark skinned like the father and one was light-skinned like his mother. I remember staying with them when we visited Toronto each year for a few days. They lived in a large housing complex in Chandni Chowk, a poor Indian neighborhood. I remember encountering some really rough Indian kids at the local park. Eventually, my two male, second cousins grew up and the dark-skinned one who never felt loved by his parents due to his phenotype decided that he wanted to marry an older Muslim woman who was divorced and had a child. I am not sure how they met but he was truly in love with her. His family was against the wedding, even my own parents. In the end, he committed suicide and hung himself in his bedroom. The shock still remains with me and how my parents tried to blame it on factors other than his lost love. By the time I reached my mid-twenties, I knew two other desi boys who committed suicide: Sanjay Jain, a childhood friend, and a young man at Columbia University who killed himself over getting caught in a lie when applying to medical school. We in the desi community need to talk about our social and emotional health in an open forum—all of us.


leaving-suburbia

I knew that I wanted to leave home badly when it came time for college. I had indeed been accepted at the University of Chicago but their tuition was too large for my parents to afford. We ended up getting a full ride from Northwestern University where my brother was already attending school. I remember my uncles and aunts advising my parents against me staying in a dorm with the opposite gender in a typical Muslim manner. My parents, Thank God, resisted and let me stay in the dorms. However, looking back, there was so much debauchery in the dorms that I too would hesitate to have my own children stay in the dorms. In the end, I left for Evanston and left behind my immigrant enclave that was locked away in the inner-ring suburbs of Chicago.

 


college-graduation

Four years later I graduate from Northwestern University but it is not a happy day for me. My parents had gotten into a vicious argument that day and my mother never showed up. I am sure she fought over some trivial matter and it never occurred to her how important of a day it was. But my father and younger brother did show up. We ended up eating at my favorite Thai place with all my college friends. It all worked out in the end.