Two Indian strangers sat in the front seat of the car. My friend Sholeh and I sat in the back, hanging onto each other as we weaved between other cars, trucks, camel carts, and cows. I clutched my noise-maker key chain just in case; in case of what, I didn’t really know. Pulling the chain would only omit a piercing siren that would surely result in a swerve off the road and a fiery crash, despite the Ganesh good luck charm dangling from the driver’s rearview mirror.
“You like India?” Bijuraj asked, turning around. His giant white teeth reminded me of the keys on a piano. “You like my country?”
Bijuraj had tracked down Sholeh on the internet and had translated a few of her poems, and when he found out she would be traveling in India, he insisted that we stay at his family’s home. I am a naturally nervous person, so I was skeptical. “Are you sure we should stay with someone we don’t know?” I kept asking.
“Don’t be silly. It will be lovely to stay with a family,” Sholeh told me.
When we stepped off the plane at Cochin International, there was Bijuraj, a tall Indian, grinning and waving his hands above his head. He had written to Sholeh, telling her he would hire a car and driver to fetch us from the airport. He said: “Look for the tall and fat Indian.” He was certainly tall but not at all fat, at least not by American standards.
Despite Bijuraj’s smile, one large enough the rival the size of a watermelon rind, I clutched my safety key chain until we pulled up to his house, a modest two-story home set behind a leafy patio. On the front porch waited Bijuraj’s also smiling mother, Amma. She wore a beautiful maroon sari, a matching bindi on her forehead, with her black hair pulled into a tight bun. I didn’t think a bigger smile than the one on Bijuraj’s face was possible until I saw Amma.
“You see,” Sholeh said. “They couldn’t be more lovely.”
I tucked my noisemaker away, feeling a little silly indeed.
When Amma heard that I wasn’t married, she began calling me daughter, which she pronounced doughter. And she insisted that I call her Amma, meaning “Mommy.” She also took it upon herself to make sure I was well fed, shoving food into my mouth whenever I opened it. If I opened my mouth to speak, which happens a lot, Amma would shove half a banana in my mouth. I can’t even begin to imagine my own mother doing this. If anything, she would ask me if I really needed that extra banana. According to Amma, I did, and a well-fed child is the sign of a good mother, so Amma stood over me with the pot at mealtimes, replenishing my plate of rice, plantains, chicken masala, as soon as I took a bite.
I am the only person I know who gained weight in India.
Amma also made sure I used proper dining etiquette. If I used both hands — they don’t use utensils in southern India — she would slap the left, which should be reserved for my bathroom business. Because I have always had trouble keeping track of right and left, I could not keep my hands in order and received many slaps to the wrist. I ended up having to sit on my left hand at mealtimes.
Amma also made her displeasure clear when I wanted to try “toddy,” the milky wine made from the fermented husk of a coconut. Amma stood with her arms crossed, shaking her head vigorously. We had stopped at a roadside “bar” on our way home from the tea plantations in Munnar, and Bijuraj had to go in for it because women were not welcome in such an establishment. He brought out a bottle of the whitish brew, and when we tried it, Sholeh spit it out on the ground and said it tasted like someone had thrown up coconut milk. Amma looked vindicated, so I didn’t tell her that I didn’t find the toddy half bad.
For the most part, Amma left Sholeh alone because she was a married woman and therefore a grownup. But I was unmarried, a mere child of 36, so Amma followed me around the house, trying to put sesame oil on my skin, comb my wild, curly hair, or affix bindis to my forehead to make me look “more Indian,” but just ended up making me look like a pink-skinned dimwit who was trying just a little too hard. But all of this wasn’t because Amma needed me to need her — a dynamic that many grown daughters encounter with their own mothers. She was just curious, and more than anything, she wanted to be helpful.
In a country of over a billion people, the American concept of privacy doesn’t exist, so Amma was there when I woke up in the morning, and at night when I got ready for bed, she stood next to me in the bathroom, smiling at me in the mirror. The first time I took out my contact lens, she screamed in horror. Then she laughed in delight when I showed her the lens. She made me repeat this, putting the lens back in and taking it out, over and over as she looked on, squealing in horror and glee, clapping her hands as if I had just performed a fantastic circus trick.
When it came time to leave, Bijuraj begged us not to. Bijuraj himself had become a bit of a celebrity in Kerala as his house had become a magnet for all the journalists in Kochi, wanting to interview Sholeh, the Iranian poet, and have a peek at me, the “American writer.” But more than that, his family loved us. And we loved them.
And here is the epitome of Indian hospitality: We found out that upon hearing of our arrival, the family had a Western toilet installed just for us.
As we were leaving, it struck me as odd that I could become so attached to Amma, who knew about 10 English words, including “no,” “daughter,” and “eat.” But I suppose that’s enough. Sometimes, words aren’t necessary. Sometimes they even get in the way.