In the brightly coloured shopping mall in suburban United States, as I bag up the bhindi and karela, the Indian grocery store owner hands me a copy of Piku, the new movie starring Amitabh Bachchan. He knows I am a huge fan of the legendary superstar.
I really liked the movie for many reasons -- for the magic created by Bachchan, for the poignant relationship between the father and daughter, the humour.
But as I watched the movie, my mind took me back to 1975. I was seven years old. And there were two seemingly random incidents that changed me forever.
One day, when I was playing with the little girls in my middle-class Kolkata neighbourhood, one of them nastily said, "Oh I knew it was Wednesday because you are wearing the green dress. You start the week with the purple dress on Monday, the blue on Tuesday, so I knew...ouch," she said rubbing her ribs to deflect the pain inflicted by one of the other girls.
"I was mesmerised during that famous scene in which Bachchan triumphantly asks Shashi Kapoor, "Tumhare paas kya hain? "
There was nervous laughter as I slowly registered the fact that the mean girl was pointing out that I had only three dresses.
Later that week, I went to see Deewar, the iconic movie which firmly established Bachchan's status as a star.
I was mesmerised during that famous scene in which Bachchan triumphantly asks Shashi Kapoor, "Tumhare paas kya hain? (What do you have?)" after he lists all his assets: house, car and money.
(Artwork by Miten Lapsiya)
The audience had erupted in cheers but for me, that was the moment I grew up. It suddenly become clear to me what the girls had been talking about. I realised the fundamental differences between the rich and the poor.
I was uncharacteristically quiet on the taxi ride home. When I went home, I reviewed the facts: I lived with my parents and siblings in a one-bedroom rental flat. Our furniture was shabby and we had no car.
Apart from the three dresses my playmate had counted, I had a red one with white flowers around the neckline. I loved it because it flowed around me with its clingy synthetic fabric. I wore it so often that sometimes I had to pluck it out of the clothesline while it was still damp.
I had black, shiny Mary Janes, a pair of white Bata sandals and cheap flip flops. And tons of tattered hand-me-down Enid Blytons donated by my rich cousins.
I was depressed for a few days. I looked around and for the first time I did see that some of my friends had big homes, comfortable cars and expensive clothes.
(Artwork by Miten Lapsiya)
I then examined my heart: I did not feel poor. I did not begrudge them their wealth but I envied one thing that they had. Oh God, I nakedly and hungrily envied their books. I coveted those books with such greed that today, I know a priest would have ordered me to say hundreds of Hail Marys to atone for my sin. Greed is wrong, I know.
But seriously, Deewar was the defining movie of my life. It was that moment when I became a grown up.
I became aware of how people looked at my clothes, my shoes and my hair clips. I just accepted it. I hung out with girls like me and avoided the mean ones. I survived.
The good thing about being a part of a community in India is that people know all about you and they don't ask questions.
All that changed when I came to the United States. And dealt with the Indians here.
Parties I go to, I get tired of the intense questioning I'm subjected to. Where you live? What kind of car do you drive? How much do you make annually? These questions are employed to find out enough so that you can be placed in the category of rich (winner) or poor (loser).
It's not a subtle investigation. Basically, they want to want to know "Tumhare paas kya hain?"
In my 20 years of living an immigrant here, socialising with Indians is an exhausting ordeal because they cannot stop listing all their material possessions.
It's also mind-numbingly boring.
We have a house and cars because of my husband's hard work but we are not among the wealthy. I personally own clothes, lots of shoes and 700 books, which to me is an extravagance I had only dreamt of back in the day.
But I have not received a copy of the essential Indian handbook that apparently all non-residents have worldwide.
If I had to guess at what it reads like, it would say: Own a palatial mansion, drive a Mercedes, Audi or BMW, wear designer clothes, shoes and finish the look with Ray Bans and pricey cologne. Always show the exclusive American Card at any opportunity you can get. Mention the vacation home, the stocks, the expensive cruises and whatever you think the current status symbols are.
At a recent party, I smile politely and sit down to chat with the women, who are deceptively casually dressed in True Religion jeans, Jimmy Choo sandals and loud pieces of statement jewellery. They dye their hair in reds that do not exist in nature.
They carry designer bags and make a huge show of balancing them for maximum effect. Two women widen their eyes and make excited noises as they notice they are both carrying the black quilted signature Chanel purse.
(Artwork by Miten Lapsiya)
"Same pinch," they triumphantly squeal. (Something we used to say in elementary school).
"Let's take a picture and put it in on Instagram, same to same purses." Double squeals and more air kissing.
They pose theatrically as one of the other women pouts, "I have a new Louis Vuitton, I should be in the picture."
I look at them and have this thought: Why not have an international anthem for Indians worldwide?
It will begin, "Namaste, tumhare paas kya hain?"
Credit for all artwork goes to artist Miten Lapsiya. Admirers can follow him @mitenlapsiya
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