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James was thin, dark-haired and bespectacled, with a slight shift in his walk.
He was one of the few men at this conference, where women occupied the space both behind and in front of the podium. The charged discussions ranged from immigrant rights to organising minority communities to changing the policies of the Immigration and Naturalization Service towards helping immigrant survivors of domestic violence.
I am a family therapist who counsels victims of violence and sexual assault, a career I chose later in life. A first generation immigrant from India, I have been living in the American spirit of volunteerism, spending most of my time on causes promoting the safety and empowerment of women and children.
So it suits my current status as a carefree mother of two adult children to have a career that offers, more than money, the same sense of fulfilment I had grown accustomed to feeling. But I wasn't sure what attracted someone like James to this particular line that tested one's emotional and empathic endurance.
In the mental image I had developed, I saw men who worked with battered immigrant women as liberal to the core, slightly offbeat, and certainly not interested in jobs that provide power and money. And for this reason, I rarely imagined them to be white and over 30.
But James was both.
This peculiarity notwithstanding, the reason why I remember James has to do with the stark realisation of my own superiority complex as a minority woman proudly bearing the heritage of a land and customs far away.
I may be brown. I may have an accent. I may be reticent in nature. But I alone have the knowledge of a specific south Indian village culture that is fascinating to many Americans, something Amy from the Arizona desert or Karen from the Colorado Mountains cannot intrude upon. And I can choose to share as little or as much of it as I want.
There was no need for such sharing when I was growing up in my village in Kerala. It was not until I moved to the United States that I had to consciously learn and understand aspects of my identity and culture I had taken for granted --- the meaning of my name, the bindi on my forehead, the thaali around my neck, the altar in my home and why cows, fire and the tulsi plant have a special place in my culture.
My explanations, based on both facts and hearsay, are never the same. They depend on the type of audience, the genuineness of their enquiry, the setting in which the conversation takes place and, of course, my own mood and inclination.
True, I have found the enquiries of clueless Western minds to be annoying at times. But more often, they provide a springboard for conversation and an opportunity for me to assess strangers.
It was during one such enquiry session that I spoke to James. Every chair in the restaurant was occupied. The line at the buffet lunch was long. The two conference attendees I had met earlier waved and offered me a seat at the head of a long table. James happened to be in the seat to my right.
My first impression that he must be different was confirmed at the buffet line. He guided me on selecting items that were vegetarian; usually it is the other way round. I could see he was a picky vegetarian, who asked for clarification of ingredients. I was impressed. For a change, I was not the one vexing the waiters with questions.
I crunched on arugula and watercress and applied a layer of butter on the roll. Introductions were being made despite the nametags around our necks. No matter, my name always calls for an explanation and I am used to it. At the very least, I will say, My name is Lakshmy, as in lucky me.
If I want to make an impression, I will narrate the significance of the mythological Lakshmy as part of the trinity, bestowing the world with wealth and prosperity. Only special circumstances would have me explain the pronunciation and meaning of my last name, Parameswaran --- Lord of the Universe.
Mixing with the tinkling of ice in goblets, our table soon resonated with laughter and conversation. This group needs to hear I am the goddess of wealth, I thought, as I said, "Lakshmy is an old name, older than Mary perhaps, but one that will never go out of style, for she is worshipped in every Hindu home for money and prosperity."
"Not only that," said James. "Lakshmy is worshipped in many different forms. In fact, she has one thousand names and one of them is Padma, which is my daughter's name."
Mmm, someone with a fascination for the Hindu religion? I smiled at James. I'd heard of parents like him who select what they consider unusual names for the sheer fancy. I read somewhere that is what Uma Thurman's father did.
James continued his explanation. "As for her last name, Param, it means universe and Easwar means lord --- Lord of the Universe. Goddess of Wealth and Lord of the Universe! What a combination!"
Mildly shocked, I pondered what I could say to retain my rank as an expert. The whole group had their eyes fixated on James by now and he was forging ahead.
"Such long names ending with a 'an' is very typical of the south Indian tradition, usually denoting the synonyms for God."
He turned towards me. "Which part of the South are you from?"
My notions about Americans developed over three decades of living and learning in this country soared through my mind. I told myself, he must have studied comparative religion in college and written his thesis on Hinduism. Bet he even made a trip to India. You know how Americans are. Once they get hooked on something, they go all out with passion. There's no middle ground for them. No wonder they are either total duds or amazing experts.
"Originally from Kerala, but later settled in Madras," I answered as I gauged James further.
"Oooh, Kerala," he said, smiling. "Appo, Malayalam ariyum [So, you know Malayalam]?
Totally shocked, I could feel my jaw falling open to my chest. This had to be beyond a college degree; much beyond a fascination or a visit. James, the atypical conference attendee, was asking me if I knew my childhood language!
Struggling to recall the appropriate words of a language he had hardly used in recent times, James narrated his sojourn to Kerala with his wife to live and study Hinduism over two decades ago and his perceptions of a community where his daughter was born and raised. All the while, I sat in disbelief at this chance encounter with the most unlikely Malayalee.
For the next four days, James would find me every morning to enquire, "Sukhamai urangiyo?" or "Kappi kudicho?" Greetings that would take me back to a place where a good night's sleep and morning coffee seemed to erase the woes of the previous day and prepare one for the new one that lay ahead.
"The food may be spicy," James said during one of our conversations, "but I learnt to relish it, idlis for breakfast and sambar and all that!"
"Idlis don't taste quite the same here," I said, filling my plate with an apple danish, blueberry muffin, and a tyre-like bagel. "It's hard to match that texture, fluffy and soft like a white jasmine in full bloom."
"Well, the flavour there is so unique," James said. "I do not know if anything here can quite match that."
I sensed in James an even understanding of a distant culture that I didn't expect to be ingrained in people like him. It is not because James was the first American I met who loved India and all things Indian. I have come across many of that kind.
James came across as a native --- as native as I feel in this country. But I had to admit, there was something that set me apart from him.
As a young man with an overwhelming desire, James crossed the ocean to a wonderland of contrasts, colour, and history. He opened his heart. The land embraced him and he seemed grateful for it, even years after leaving it. And I could easily see why he would feel that way about my land.
As a young woman, I also crossed the same ocean to this distant land of beauty and opportunity, my heart filled with excitement. And I was sure I've given of myself to this land in every way. Since meeting James, I wonder: Have I really?
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
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