O heart ! heart! heart!
O the sweet tasting drops of milk,
Which in a child’s hungry stomach,
Such wonders can unleash!
When my mother entered a nine-month old chubby milk guzzler for a baby pageant, she had no clue her life was to change forever. Although the cost of raising a child who guzzled approximately 2 liters of buffalo’s milk (which cost three times more than cow’s milk and contained more calories) would run the family finances dry, my parents (like all parents) did not scrimp on essential expenses. Also, they knew that babies who guzzled buffalo’s milk were born to be great. They come to this world not just with a gargantuan appetite (which can easily distinguish between the insipid cow’s milk from its tastier and richer alternative), but also with a matching smile that smacks of a sated self. Unsurprisingly, that nine-month-old, roly poly baby went on to become the first runner up in that baby pageant. Apparently, there was another child with a better (actually bigger stomach) who took away all the laurels on that fateful day.
The organizers of the contest, Johnson & Johnson (America), heaped me with a lot of goodies flown straight from the land of milk and honey and everything nice. In my childhood, the presence or absence of American products in India determined class status to some extent. India’s transition from a closed to open economy happened much later, when I was out of high school. So, being adjudged the first runner up and returning home with all those American goodies catapulted my family’s status in the eyes of friends, relatives, and neighbors almost overnight. This was the American dream played out in a nondescript Indian ‘gali’ (lane). As I look back on those halcyon days of my early childhood, my heart swells with pride just thinking about all the joy my appetite brought to my parents.
Two plush premium towels, a big box of crackers, a plethora of baby food packets, and the complete range of Johnson & Johnson products (novelties for Indians at that time) were all beautifully packed in the gift hamper that was handed over to my beaming parents in the award ceremony. The joy was briefly palled, though, when my parents saw the much bigger hamper that was handed out to the parents of my competitor who had successfully nudged me out of my rightful position as the winner. Notwithstanding all the glory showered on the victor, my mom was quite content with all the American goodies her chubby-bordering-on-obese baby had won. I have lost count of the innumerable times this story was retold; every time my mother would add some flourish to the story to make it more unique than the previous narration. Such were the not-so-humble beginnings of my tryst with America.
Ever since America has remained a symbol of material wealth, the land of plenty. From the countless movie outings to the local cinema halls chaperoned by Jesuit nuns to the relatives visiting us during summers with suitcases laden with American stuff, the image of America in my youthful imagination has always been that of a veritable shopper’s heaven. Years later when I was admitted to the University of Arkansas for my Masters, I was prepared to be dazzled. And dazzled I was when I first landed! (Although, to be completely honest, the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport failed to impress me upon first sight). On my first shopping trip to Walmart, I was overwhelmed. Then, I saw “The Mall.” It lived up to everything I imagined it would be. The sheer number and variety of the products astounded me, a graduate student on a stipend (and a child). That stuff beckoned and enticed me. I was on a mission to get a degree, not to go on a shopping spree. I was forced to weigh my priorities. I limited my trips to the mall to a customary end-of-the-semester visit as a reward, and I concentrated on my studies.
Gradually, as I encountered people on a daily basis, I was met with smiles and greetings. Every time my 3-year-old daughter (usually on a stroller) accompanied me to campus, the smiles and greetings of strangers made her very happy. Often, strangers seeing me with a toddler in a stroller would hold the door open for me. Sometimes, they would offer to hold the stroller while I boarded the bus with her! I have attended departmental meetings with my daughter when her babysitter went into labor and I have taught classes with her every time her school shut down due to inclement weather. Random strangers would talk to both my daughters, praise their clothes, or engage with them in some manner or another. A mother’s heart swelled with happiness every time a stranger would accost them this way. In the span of eight years, I didn’t even realize when that notion of America as the land of plenty receded and the amiability of Americans overtook my mellowed imagination. As I pack up to return home, I cherish these memories.
Afrin Zeenat is wrapping up her PhD. in English. Her dissertation focuses on the portrayal of orphans in nineteenth-century American literature through the intersections of race, class, and gender… Read full bio. Comment below!