It Takes an Indian Village
By Sharon Van Epps
The day I left Delhi with my new 5 year-old-daughter, Didi, an Indian “auntie” I’d only just met issued a warning: Take good care of our child.
We’d been invited to attend a friend’s birthday luncheon mere hours before our departure for the US. The unexpected admonishment came from another party guest, a woman who’d never even seen Didi before but nevertheless felt the right to claim her. The woman’s message was clear: You are not an Indian, and this Indian girl will never truly be yours.
“Of course she will take good care!” my friend snapped in my defense. “You think this lady would go to such trouble to adopt an Indian child for some other purpose!”
I’d spent enough time in India to know that offering unwanted advice is a national sport, but still, the stranger’s words pricked. The truth is, in that moment I scarcely knew this little girl who stood beside me, bravely holding my hand. She was an Indian. I was an American. As soon as we boarded the plane bound for San Francisco, everything she understood about the world would disintegrate. We didn’t even speak the same language.
Adopting a child from another culture demands that you incorporate her culture into the identity of your family as a whole. My husband and I felt as prepared for this task as any two non-Indians could be. John had visited India multiple times, and I’d briefly lived in the southern city of Hyderabad. I had Indian relatives-by-marriage eager to be role models for our daughter. I’d even perfected my aunt’s recipe for yellow dal. Still, the list of things I didn’t know was long: Hindi, for starters. The Ramayana. Or how to make roti, or butter chicken, or gulab jamun. Most importantly, I had no idea how to tie a sari, a skill that I was certain that my new daughter would one day want to learn.
By the time Didi reached fifth grade, I’d mastered butter chicken but still couldn’t speak Hindi. Thankfully Didi had learned English, as international adoptees are forced by circumstance to do. With her elementary school graduation looming, she made an announcement: “I want to wear a sari to the grade graduation dance.”
I offered a million reasons why this was a bad idea. Saris are hard to move in. She didn’t own a sari. I wasn’t sure where to buy one. A salwar kameez (a long tunic with pants) or a lehanga choli (a skirt, blouse and scarf set) might be more practical. Most importantly, I couldn’t tie the sari for her, and I suspected I didn’t have the aptitude to learn. I can’t even tie a scarf more than one way.
“Get me a sari,” she said. “I’ll figure it out.”
And so I bought my then 11-year-old her first sari, a dress traditionally reserved for adult women in her birthland. Didi chose electric blue with silver embroidery, plus matching bangles, a necklace, electric blue heels, and a package of stick-on bindhis. Finding somewhere to shop in Silicon Valley wasn’t hard at all – I’d fibbed about that. A quick trip down El Camino Real in Sunnyvale put dozens of saree palaces at our disposal. We picked one at random, where the shopkeeper kindly explained how to wrap and drape while I filmed the tutorial on my phone, hoping her advice would be enough.
Once home, we consulted YouTube videos, but of course there’s more than one way to wrap a sari, and we both ended up confused. I asked my cousin’s wife, Priya, if she could help tie Didi’s dress the night of the dance, but she confessed that she wasn’t adept at wrapping herself — my cousin Gabe or her mom usually tied her sari for her, and besides, both she and Gabe would get home from work too late to help.
“Why don’t we ask Reya’s mom?” Didi suggested.
Reya, the only other Indian girl in the fifth grade, was a friend, but the girls weren’t especially close, though when they’d played in the basketball league together, Reya’s grandmother had once brought Didi a bag of sweet ladoo. Remembering that thoughtful gesture gave me the courage to approach Purvee, Reya’s mom, for some assistance.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Saris are really hard to wear. She may not be able to walk in it. I don’t even like wearing them.”
I agreed with her completely, and then I begged. Donning a sari meant something to Didi that she couldn’t fully articulate. Purvee relented, inviting us over to her house for a trial run, expecting that once she’d wrapped my daughter up, Didi would come to her senses. That didn’t happen, of course. Once draped in several feet of satiny blue material, Didi grinned and gleamed like a sapphire.
“This girl was born to wear a sari,” Purvee admitted. “Some people just have a knack for it.”
On the night of the dance, the girls got ready together at Reya’s house. Thanks to Purvee, Didi’s vision for the night came true.
A couple of years later, another occasion arose that Didi deemed sari worthy: my cousin Mike’s wedding. There would be plenty of Indians at this wedding, including Gabe and Priya, but they were in the wedding party and too busy to help Didi dress. My Aunt Allison volunteered her sister, who recruited her daughter, which is how Didi ended up getting wrapped by the cousin of my cousin, a confusing turn of events that felt culturally authentic. Cousin Robyn turned out to be the ideal teacher, patient and perfectionistic in terms of folding and refolding the pleats in the skirt. Once again, Didi looked beautiful and confident and the sari didn’t even unravel when she danced to Michael Jackson at the reception.
Last month, when an invitation to a Bat Mitzvah arrived, Didi again announced that she’d be wearing a sari, but not the blue. She wanted to go swathed in gold, wearing a dress she’d picked up on her first return visit to India, but getting her wrapped was more complicated now. We’d left California for Seattle, where we had no Indian contacts at all.
“I can do it myself,” Didi said.
This time, with more hands-on experience, the YouTube tutorials made sense, at least to her if not me. In the end, the golden fabric proved too slick to wrangle, but the old blue sari came through, and when Didi descended the stairs to depart for her friend’s celebration, she looked perfect – the beautiful and self-assured Indian American I’d hoped to raise. I’d been afraid that day we left India together that I would never be enough. Now I know. I’m not enough — what mother is? — but I’m also not alone.
“I’m so proud of you,” I said.
“The pleats aren’t quite right,” she replied, “but I’m okay with it.”
Sharon Van Epps is a writer, wife, and mother of three teenagers whose work has appeared in Redbook, McSweeney’s, DailyWorth, Motherlode and elsewhere. You can find her on twitter @sharonvanepps