On June 6 my wife’s parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in their home city of Pune in India. My parents-in-law are wonderful about visiting us every year in Chicago, usually in June, which has tended to make us procrastinate for years in returning the favor. But this special anniversary gave my family the perfect excuse to make the long overdue trip back to my wife’s home country and be with her parents for their golden jubilee.
For the first half of our two-week trip we stayed around Pune, in the west central state of Maharashtra, to celebrate the anniversary, see some sights, and visit old friends. For the second week we traveled to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two southernmost states of India, and the home states of my wife’s mother and father, respectively.
Although I had been to Pune before, this trip gave me the chance to see Kerala and Tamil Nadu for the first time. As the homes of her late grandparents and dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, these two southern states are very dear to my wife and she has shared many stories about visiting family there during school holidays as a child. I was very much looking forward to seeing these places for the first time!
Early June is one of the hottest times of the year in Maharashtra. It is when locals anxiously await the onset of the rainy season – the “monsoon” – when a daily dose of refreshing rain brings cooler temperatures and turns the dry, brown landscape a rich green. During our week in Pune we saw hints of rain almost every day, lots of conversations about the monsoon and pre-monsoon, but very little actual precipitation. The following week in Kerala, where the monsoon starts earlier, we did see rain and hills and valleys filled with green. But our last four days in Tamil Nadu were even hotter, drier, and browner than Maharashtra!
As an American married to an Indian woman, I came to India as something of a hybrid: half-tourist and half-native. Part of me wanted to see the tourist spots and experience foreign (to me) cultures. But another part felt right at home, meeting and re-connecting with my wife’s family, friends, and associates whom I either know or have heard so much about. Even the food has a familiar taste to it and is not the shock to the senses that it would be for most Americans.
During my first trip here seven years ago I was much more overwhelmed by all that was different about India. I was so distracted by the differences – driving on the left, streets constantly filled with people, the ubiquitous signs of poverty – that I never quite got my bearings. On this trip I felt more comfortable right from the start and I connected more with people and learned more about them and the places we visited.
Daily life in India is much more social and public than life in the U.S. Every day, all day and into the night, friends and colleagues were visiting my family’s house, talking, staying for tea, sharing food – and we were doing the same all over town. The focus is on people and conversation. One night an old friend stopped to visit us while I was sound asleep, still strongly in the grip of jet-lag. Because I hadn’t seen this friend for over five years, everyone thought nothing of waking me up, pulling chairs around my bed, and patiently waiting for me to rouse myself enough to carry on a conversation.
Shopping with my Indian family meant going to a different store for each item, visiting with the shopkeepers, and catching up on their families and lives. Over a period of several days my mother-in-law bought me some clothes and had two suits made for me. This involved going to one shop to select the material and another to get measured by the tailor and eventually to pick up beautiful hand-sewn fitted clothes. Not only was the price more than reasonable, especially by U.S. standards, but I had a rich experience of life in Pune.
When my wife was growing up, Pune was a smaller, quieter city known for fine educational institutions and hill-station weather: cooler temperatures and a refreshing breeze. Now it is India’s ninth most populous city and sprawls in every direction with the heat and traffic increasing right along with it. The more historic colonial and commercial districts still have the charm of the old Pune but my wife and her family and friends talk wistfully of a time and a type of city that are no more.
The 50th wedding jubilee also was a social and festive occasion. Our family is deeply connected to the Catholic community of Pune, which is rather extensive. The city is home to a Papal Seminary and dozens of houses for religious communities of men and women, not to mention the priests and parishes of the Catholic Diocese of Pune. My father-in-law is a cardiologist who is extrememly generous with his professional services to priests and nuns and to the people in need whom they bring to him for medical care. My mother-in-law is equally generous in supporting many people but especially her fellow Catholics and the clerics and religious women in particular. Because of all this, their anniversary celebration was full of priests and nuns and many other grateful friends who wanted to wish them well.
We celebrated two anniversary Masses with them. The first was a smaller, more private one at the Holy Spirit sisters’ convent with a very dear priest friend, Fr. Matthew, presiding at the liturgy. I always enjoy praying with groups of religious women or men who are used to praying together multiple times on a daily basis. Their voices are wonderfully in sync both in spoken and sung prayer – like praying with angels! The Holy Spirit sisters did not disappoint.
The second jubilee Mass was at the cathedral, St. Patrick, in the beautifully historic Cantonment area of Pune. The bishop of Pune himself presided at the Mass and there were at least 40 priests and dozens of religious sisters there along with many other friends and family. Both celebrations included food and socializing afterward and they both gave me the opportunity to meet many of the friends of my wife and of the family that I’ve heard so many stories about through the years.
At my brother-in-law’s insistence the family spent two days visiting a theme park and seeing other parts of Maharashtra. This gave me the unique experience of spending large amounts of time in crowds of Indian people who have a very different understanding of “personal space” than in my individualistic Western view. Whether queuing up to board a roller coaster or negotiating traffic on a busy street, Indians don’t hold back – if there’s an open space they fill it with bodies or cars, never mind a little jostling.
I brought this up with one of our Indian friends, a professor based in Mumbai who had spent years studying in the U.S. “Why are Indians so ‘pushy’ in crowds?” is more or less how I indelicately posed the questions. He laughed and reflected for a moment. “Many Indians live in a culture of subsistence,” he explained. “We often have just enough resources to get us and our families through the day. When we see an opportunity or see available resources, we have to take the initiative, we have to step forward quickly because we don’t know when the next opportunity will present itself. It’s a matter of survival.”
After a few days of adjusting to the heat and the new time zone, I was ready to move on and see the south of India.
In Part 2 of this trip, we visit family and friends in Kerala.