My parents were immigrants to the United States at a time when the country was still a salvation, a place few had seen, the Mecca of the free world. It was a country people revered, where stories of life there were so good, so high, that they spurred disbelief, amazement. In India, leaving for the States was remarkably rare, and hence, anyone venturing the pilgrimage carried with them a feeling of permanence. It was a country so far away, so profoundly foreign, it seemed impossible that loved ones would meet again.
In 1969, my parents, still newlyweds, departed India and set up residence in Ireland for six months while waiting for their U.S. paperwork to be processed. Dad had worked in Ireland prior to getting married, making it a logical half step. Time passed quickly and from Ireland they flew to New York, and then spent another six months in Virginia, waiting for my father’s medical license to be approved. A new job in a new state was welcome news and once again they moved, this time to the cold tundra of South Dakota, my mother six months pregnant as they crossed the state border. Three months later, in July of 1970, my father was one of two surgeons performing the Cesarean operation that resulted in my birth. In July of 1970, I left the hospital in Gettysburg, S.D. with so much shocking, black hair on my head that the Catholic Sisters had put a bow in it.
Two years later, my parents made their final move: Weatherford, Texas. They chose Texas for weather that mimicked their native land, and the small town of Weatherford simply because it needed doctors. My father and his friend opened a medical practice, and we became one of three Indian families in the entire city; the population at the time was approximately 11,000, mostly farmers and cowboys.
My parents tried their best to navigate their new paradigm. And as I evolved from toddler to child, I was a mishmash of two worlds, a social experiment in a locale where “different” did not come up very often. My dark hair stood out in a sea of blonde. It was long and straight, mostly tied in two braids down my back. My mother dressed in Indian attire frequently. Both my parents had accents, and the Texas slang was almost impossible to understand. In a world of hamburgers and steaks, we ate lentils, vegetables and curries for dinner. In the absence of a mirror, I loved to be Texan. I felt it was a normal experience, one that everyone went through, to constantly butt my head with customs and traditions with which I was unfamiliar.
Most of my classmates lived on ranches or farms. Most owned horses, cows, and pigs and missed school in order to perform in the rodeo or 4-H club. Cowboy hats and boots were everyday attire, and Wranglers were the jeans of choice, the rectangular, leather insignia proudly displayed on the back pocket, surrounded by small, round, copper studs on each pocket corner. I tried to wear the Wranglers, although they didn’t really fit my narrow frame.
I loved my first grade teacher Miss Billings in that way that all six year olds who are infatuated with their teachers do. She was tall and slightly imposing, with short blonde hair cut in a bob. She dressed in a modern way, 70s-style tunics and pants, when most teachers in that day wore skirts. I wanted to please her, so when she told me I was left-handed I agreed, even though I could write equally well with my right. Once on a spelling test, we had to define and spell the word “mug.” I defined it as a type of food that my mother made (“mung” is the Indian lentil). Miss Billings marked it wrong with her daunting red marker and asked me to leave my imagination out of spelling tests.
Miss Billings had a big paddle, with holes, that stood against the chalkboard for everyone to see. Apparently the holes made the paddle hurt more. It was the first thing I noticed every morning, the last thing I looked at before leaving. I could see it out of the corner of my eye, no matter what I was doing. I would not even think about committing the most minor of transgressions. On the day of each student’s birthday, Miss Billings—who would be seated on a tall stool—would have him or her come up, lean across her lap and, albeit very gently, paddle my classmates the number matching their age. The class found it hysterical; I was appalled. I was never more grateful for a summer birthday.
It was March of that year when Miss Billings first spoke of Easter. I had a limited knowledge of the subject. I understood none of the religious significance but I had seen the girls in my neighborhood wear beautiful new dresses tied with silk sashes to mark the occasion. I had viewed countless reruns of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in “Easter Parade” with my movie buff father, but I had never experienced the Easter Bunny or Easter eggs. I was the only one in my class who didn’t celebrate Easter, and everyone found this odd. “Never mind,” Miss Billings reassured to me. “You will adore the Easter Egg hunt.”
The plan was to take a bus to an open field where we would search for colored eggs. We would have a picnic lunch and spend the rest of they day playing before returning back to school. Each of us was to bring a basket of decorated eggs to be used in the hunt.
The hunt sounded marvelous. It would be my first journey on a bus, my first field trip. As the days crept closer, we made Easter crafts, learned Easter spelling words, read Easter books. Finally, there was only one more day before the hunt. Decorating the eggs was not a small feat at our house. My mother was vegetarian, a practice that included not eating eggs. She had tasted them occasionally after coming to the States, just for the sake of integrating, to have something to eat at a restaurant. But we never purchased eggs and she was unaware of how to prepare them. But I was determined and I believe she was as well. We were off to Safeway, my mother in her sari and I in my ill-fitting Wranglers secured with a safety pin at the waist. A peculiar sight, the two of us! We stood in the aisle holding hands as she read labels and analyzed cartons. Soon enough we were back home, triumphant in our purchase, carrying an egg decorating kit and a carton of eggs.
I sat on the kitchen counter next to the stove as my mother read and re-read the directions. Finally, with some authority, we began. While the eggs started to boil, she laid out all the paints. My father and I studied all the designs in the kit and determined the patterns we would paint. After the eggs were done, we cooled them,peeled them, and started painting. We held those eggs ever so gently. One wrong pressure point or hasty prick to the soft, white flesh and the egg would be ruined. We worked earnestly on the twelve eggs, red, blue, and orange patterns carefully drawn in circular stripes. Miniature triangles, hearts, and flowers also attempted with a small paintbrush and a steady hand.
Four hours later, we completed our task. Oh, they were so beautiful! Boiled eggs, covered in brightly colored designs, precariously lined our kitchen counter. That evening, we arranged them on a tray to keep in the fridge overnight. I went to bed convinced that mine would be the prettiest in the class.
The next morning I woke up extra early, eagerly anticipating the day. Miss Billings greeted each of us at the door, admiring our efforts before asking us to place our baskets in the corner of the room. She thought my eggs were lovely. “Gorgeous!” she said. “I can see how much time you took to make these, Shaila.” With pride, I placed my basket among the others before taking my seat.
At some point mid-morning, Miss Billings sent me to the office with a note for the principal. I thought nothing of it, feeling proud that she had chosen me for her important task. When I returned to class, everyone looked at me with funny smiles. But there was no time for me to wonder why as the bus had arrived and we were off to the hunt.
The Easter Egg Hunt was glorious. The sun was bright and warm, the air was still, and the field shone like gold. We ran across that auburn ground, shouting with glee that only six year olds can muster. I found eggs of all kinds – painted with different colors, shapes and designs. I had an eye out for my own, but I imagined that they must have been hidden too well.
After what felt like hours, we returned to the bus with our pretty loot. The ride back was abuzz with children talking, singing and laughing. We all admired each others’ baskets and identified which ones we each had painted. But I had not yet laid claim to any eggs.
“How come no one has my eggs?” I asked. Boys and girls exchanged looks and remained silent. My own friends had looks that betrayed a secret too difficult to hold in any longer. Someone suggested weakly, “This one is yours Shaila, see?” But no, that one wasn’t mine and a slow creeping knowledge began to dawn.
It was a girl in the back of the bus who finally gave it to me straight, a girl I had always been in slight competition with, the one I tried to beat at spelling, the one I outran on the playground.
“Yours aren’t here because you didn’t know how to paint them.”
The entire bus went silent. Not willing to understand, I kind of laughed and said, “What do you mean? Mine were beautiful,” to which she blurted, “Miss Billings sent you to the office so she could show us. You <peeled your eggs, stupid! You weren’t supposed to peel them! Miss Billings told us not to tell you but yours weren’t even at the egg hunt!”
I heard laughter as I turned around in my seat to face front. My cheeks burning, voices became distant as a loud buzzing took over mind and soul. Embarrassment, a still unfamiliar state, was completely debilitating. I focused hard on not crying. As soon as the girl said it, I comprehended the mistake we had made. Of course we weren’t supposed to peel the eggs. How could that have not been obvious?
But why did she tell them all? I pictured all of them laughing at me while I was out on my supposed special errand. Couldn’t she have just kept the secret to herself? Perhaps she could’ve just told me herself, gently, at the end of the day. The highs from the start of that day had come crashing down and the delight in those beautiful eggs was now forever ruined.
When I got home that day I saw the hopeful looks in my parents’ eyes – that all their efforts had made their little girl’s day a success. Even my child’s mind could not break that spirit. I told them the day went beautifully. I told my mother how everyone had admired my eggs. It would be another twenty years before the truth would be revealed.
My first grade class picture still sits in the filing cabinet at home in the third drawer. Anytime I look at it, with Miss Billings in her red plaid tunic and the group of us dressed in our best, I take note of how different I look. No freckles, no pale skin, no sandy-colored hair. As I remember each child, I become the girl in the photo and I am taken back again, riding the bus on that fateful day.
I have never dyed another Easter egg.[boxer set=”kapoor”]
I think Mrs. Billings was cruel to do what she did. Unfortunately, public schools in the United States are not especially friendly places for anyone who is different, who is unique, who does not fit the cultural norm. Happily, it is these same people, if they are able to survive public schools, who sometimes prove themselves to be truly visionary, who bring special gifts of insight, art, music, literature, understanding and compassion to this world as no one else can. I think you must be one of these special people, to have survived, and to be sharing your special gifts in ways like writing this short memoir. I am fascinated by other cultures, and I must confess largely ignorant of Indian culture, as most Americans are. I had to Google the word “mandap” and the acronym “ABCD” to understand the title of the memoir cited in your short biography. I look forward to reading anything further you might care to share, either in Hippocampus or elsewhere! This was a great read from a unique perspective!