how the world sees america

Dadi Ma Loses Her Family to America

Note: Please upgrade your Flash plug-in to view our enhanced content.

I was born American because of Brigadier General Amar Bakshi, my grandfather and namesake. Boisterous and demanding, he ordered his three children to migrate to the “Land of Opportunity” just before dying of a stroke thirty-seven years ago.

Last night I asked my grandmother, a.k.a. “Dadi Ma,” to tell me why the well-respected Indian general was so committed to sending his family to America.

“I never thought of America until your grandfather one day said the children must go there,” she tells me. “At first I thought I would miss them very much…I wanted them to stay, but then I thought I was being selfish….And whatever your dada would say, I would do.”

Any conversation with Dadi Ma inevitably becomes a conversation about her. This annoys her three children to no end, my father included. But for me, young and with some time to spare, it just seems comical, if sometimes sad.

Over the course of an afternoon, I listen to my grandmother reminisce about my deceased grandfather's views of America: he saw it as the “land of opportunity, respect, and money.” He "learned about the country through English books" by people from Ayn Rand to Harold Robbins. He loved the "entrepreneurial spirit" and the idea of the self-made man, which he thought the country embodied. Interestingly, my grandmother thinks that were General Bakshi alive today, he’d "think twice” before sending his kids to America since India is now booming economically. But what my grandmother didn't want to talk about is more so.

She and her children have a fairly tense relationship. "The psychiatrists turned them against me" she tells me. That's one perspective. My own, as the child watching the drama play out above him, was that there was a battle within my family about expectations. What was the proper role of an Indian-American wife, a mother-in-law, a husband? My grandmother's expectations, it seems to me, were at odds with those of her children for many years.

When she saw the America her husband dreamed of for the first time, shortly after his death, she found it “amazing, clean” and remembers driving down the highway at breakneck speeds and dining in the fanciest hotels with her eldest son. That was in 1973.

But as the decades unfolded and her grandchildren were born and grew up in America, she found herself increasingly adrift. With her husband dead and her children forming nuclear families of their own, she first adopted the role of nanny for the grandchildren, traveling between her own children's homes to care for their young. As my cousins and I grew, Dadi Ma’s role in the house became unnecessary. Meanwhile, her health deteriorated and her needs grew.

DadaPortrait.jpg
General Amar Bakshi.
dadimaportrait.jpg
Dadi Ma at Marriage.
She couldn’t move from house to house as easily and none of her children wanted to put her up all year round. “They’re so busy,” she says. All working as doctors, engineers and business professionals, they barely had enough time for their own kids. “And I don’t have many friends in America,” Dadi Ma says, so it became very lonely.

So just last year she moved back to India for good. Here she has her sisters and friends from childhood. She can afford a cook, a cleaner, a driver, and two nurses who cater to her every need around the clock and keep her company. But they aren’t family. These elderly women tend to her whims with a mix of humor and exasperation, while Dadi Ma watches old Hindi musicals and plays solitaire.

For her deceased husband, America fulfilled its promise: his children and their children are all very successful, “far above average,” my grandmother boasts. But this dream was never Dadi Ma's own, and it's offered up many challenges. She’s separated from her family and has turned inward; her sentences all begin with “I” or “my.”

Would she have it any other way, I ask her toward the end of the evening. Eyes on the TV, her hand on mine, she coughs and rasps knowingly, “My loss was much less than their gain.”

Join Monthly Mailing List | Del.icio.us | Digg | Facebook

Comments (26)

Subodh Mathur:

It is indeed a poignant story. I am actively involved in gathering the life-stories of Indian grandmothers. Along with my brother, I have already compiled and published a book "Dadi Nani: Memories of Our Grandmothers" in which 25 Indians from various parts of India have written about the lives of their grandmothers. On the website www.dadinani.org, we are now collecting more Indian memories, including those of grandfathers. Please visit the website, and contribute to it.

Maria:

Your dadi ma's story reminds me of my nani ama's story. As a mother of eleven children, raising them as a lower-middle class housewife in Lahore was not a piece of cake. But she did that and took care of her paralyzed mother-in-law. When the sons reached for medical school education, she sold her jewelery pieces to pay for their fees.
And they all grew up to become doctors, engineers, housewives etc. She watched them leave Pakistan for UK and USA. Out of 11 children, only 2 remain in the same city.
She is so much like your Dadi ma, proud of her children's achievements and success. I feel sorry for her loneliness but I feel more sorry for her children and grandchildren who lost out years of her company in the pursuit of having a 'better life'.

I now also live in the USA. And it hurts me like a physical ache that I can't see my parents and joke with my grandmother like I used to. Life without the ones who you love, without those you owe your self-esteem and life to - when it is actually time to give something back to them - is viciously empty and hurtful.

I see your dadi ma and my nani ama as metaphors to the treatment meted out by expatriate professionals from third world countries. We leave for education, experience and wealth and often have unique oppurtunities to return and give back to the societies that made us the people we were in the first place - but we mostly don't. We prefer materialism rather than contribution.

More wisdom to you for spending time in understanding your dadi ma's point of view! :)

Maria - Pakistan:

Your dadi ma's story reminds me of my nani ama's story. As a mother of eleven children, raising them as a lower-middle class housewife in Lahore was not a piece of cake. But she did that and took care of her paralyzed mother-in-law. When the sons reached for medical school education, she sold her jewelery pieces to pay for their fees.
And they all grew up to become doctors, engineers, housewives etc. She watched them leave Pakistan for UK and USA. Out of 11 children, only 2 remain in the same city.
She is so much like your Dadi ma, proud of her children's achievements and success. I feel sorry for her loneliness but I feel more sorry for her children and grandchildren who lost out years of her company in the pursuit of having a 'better life'.

I now also live in the USA. And it hurts me like a physical ache that I can't see my parents and joke with my grandmother like I used to. Life without the ones who you love, without those you owe your self-esteem and life to - when it is actually time to give something back to them - is viciously empty and hurtful.

I see your dadi ma and my nani ama as metaphors to the treatment meted out by expatriate professionals from third world countries. We leave for education, experience and wealth and often have unique oppurtunities to return and give back to the societies that made us the people we were in the first place - but we mostly don't. We prefer materialism rather than contribution.

More wisdom to you for spending time in understanding your dadi ma's point of view! :)

Maria - Pakistan:

Your dadi ma's story reminds me of my nani ama's story. As a mother of eleven children, raising them as a lower-middle class housewife in Lahore was not a piece of cake. But she did that and took care of her paralyzed mother-in-law. When the sons reached for medical school education, she sold her jewelery pieces to pay for their fees.
And they all grew up to become doctors, engineers, housewives etc. She watched them leave Pakistan for UK and USA. Out of 11 children, only 2 remain in the same city.
She is so much like your Dadi ma, proud of her children's achievements and success. I feel sorry for her loneliness but I feel more sorry for her children and grandchildren who lost out years of her company in the pursuit of having a 'better life'.

I now also live in the USA. And it hurts me like a physical ache that I can't see my parents and joke with my grandmother like I used to. Life without the ones who you love, without those you owe your self-esteem and life to - when it is actually time to give something back to them - is viciously empty and hurtful.

I see your dadi ma and my nani ama as metaphors to the treatment meted out by expatriate professionals from third world countries. We leave for education, experience and wealth and often have unique oppurtunities to return and give back to the societies that made us the people we were in the first place - but we mostly don't. We prefer materialism rather than contribution.

More wisdom to you for spending time in understanding your dadi ma's point of view! :)

Anni:

“My loss was much less than their gain.” says Dadi Ma.

Dadi Ma has FINALLY reached that point in her life when she CAN say I or MY.

"Any conversation with Dadi Ma inevitably becomes a conversation about her. This annoys her three children to no end, my father included."

These folks described a family that wrote off a loving woman, with a spectacular heart, on their family balance sheet.

I hope she does not know that BUT it may be why she returned to India.

Larry:

every conversation turns to "I" but the childrens actions are all "I", while for years her action was all about her children and grandchildren.
It was almost certainly Dadi Ma was critical to the children being able to focus more time on their careers
Without her they would have more likely had to place their own children in "day care" (whare housing for minors)
what a shame - and it belongs to the children, not grand children, that none of these three successsful - in all likelyhood finanically well off individuals did not bother to build a mother in law cottage.
and what a shame to throw away her love and concern for her children and grand children

well, guess what, in just one generation,less then one your family has moved from Americans/ Indians, to shallow americans.

how much would it cost for the three children to buy Dadi ma, her own place, maybe a place she could guide the grand and great grand children - a priceless source of wisdom, and guidence fo those children - because they accept from her what they can not from their parents
-- welcome to the american weakeness, get rich and forget about the generation before and yet to come.

VICTORIA:

im not the victoria who posted before but a diiferent one-

i am not sure why this article moves people-
it has a sense of usury about it that iss disquieting-

i dont find greed a very noble motivation and i am pretty appalled at the treatment of the grandmother.

ive worked with senior citizens alot in my life
in nursing homes and volunteer work and im always alarmed and saddened when people so blithely write their elderly off-

i always tell such people, be careful- your own children are watching how you treat your parents and someday your example will be the only training they've had in regards to their treatment of you when you are old and outlived usefulness. (again the "use")

isnt her love enough?

this sentence particualry scares me because it is said so calmly and callously as though it were an acceptable behavior-

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~As my cousins and I grew, Dadi Ma’s role in the house became unnecessary. Meanwhile, her health deteriorated and her needs grew."
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

how tragic to be considered 'unnecessary'.

of course her health deteriorated!
anyones would when they become unneccesary.

and everyone's needs grow- yours will also one day-

i have a kitten who broke his leg- his need grew exponentiallyand financially- but i didnt send him away because of that

and he's just a kitten!

i really dont know what this author was trying to communicate- but it was certainly revealing.

RM:

Amar,
I read your post with tears filled eyes. This story is being played out in untold thousands of homes in India and North America, including my own. It is the price we are paying for "improving" our lives. I call it the "India tax".

Fact checker:

Unlike the US army, a brigadier is not considered a general in the Indian army, and never has been. The first general officer rank is major general, one rank above brigadier. Accuracy is important, isn't it? Even if it's less romantic.

Ivan Groznii:

It's an enlightening portrait of the elderly in general I thought. My wife is Russian and her mother, thankfully, had a mission in life up to the last six months. Once that reason for living was gone, you could see the life draining away from her, alone in Russia, no friends ...almost totally isolated and shut-in. I would have loved to bring her here but, also, INS/State made that almost impossible.

One comment struck me about death: "going to the forest for meditation". I suppose that's better than being left out on the frozen tundra with a fire and a small bundle of sticks. I suppose it's all just a matter of perspective.

Niraj:

Vijay i agree with you...Sikhs, Gujaratis, Andhra Pradeshis everyone go back or keep investing money in India (which is good for our country) too because one day they wants to go back to India. Everybody is doing all this for quality of life, money and may be for the things which we don't get in India after struggling all their life. Everyone wants to go back and whoever love their country always go back and stay, no matter they have family in US or outside India.
Regarsing Amar's story its really sad children who treat their parents like this...just because they don't need them now and they are old.

PRJ:

Vijay, the responsibility for making India a better place lies with Indians. That includes you. But you've run away from that responsibility. Whatever "success" you achieve in life, you will always be a failure - and a loser -for this ridiculous attitude of yours.

Thank God for the millions of Indians who love India and strive, against tremendous odds, to make India a better place. Just so you know, I live in India.

PRJ:

Vijay, the responsibility for making India a better place lies with Indians. That includes you. But you've run away from that responsibility. Whatever "success" you achieve in life, you will always be a failure - and a loser -for this ridiculous attitude of yours.

Thank God for the millions of Indians who love India and strive, against tremendous odds, to make India a better place. Just so you know, I live in India.

Vijay:

Anil,
If Western countries opened their doors, how many Indians do you think would love to stay in India.
My guess is that at least the lower castes who are treated like crap would get out. Many Sikhs, Gujaratis, Andhra Pradeshis would also leave.

Victoria:

Lovely piece of writing. Very poignant. The General sounds like a wise and loving man.

Anil:

Vijay, calling India a failed state is a laughable. Yes there's poverty, but people "get out of that place" for things like education (see Bakshi's next post) and are increasingly returning to India because opportunities are growing, and a stable government is in place. Now Pakistan, on the other hand....

Vijay:

No doubt, the USA has offered many people from all over the world a new chance at a better, more prosperous, respectful living, where they are seen as humans first and not judged by their race, caste. But US is still scorned by many, including immigrants who choose to live here.

Regarding India, I believe that country can be called a failed state as majority of the people would like to get out of that place.

j:

We as the present generation of citizens who wish to impart healthy informed lives to our children, how many of us truly wish our older selves on the next generation. Should we not be sufficiently wise in our path towards the "door marked exit" to deal with the end ourselves rather than burden the next generation. Bernard Shaws "Back to Methusalah" comes to mind as does the next phase of the Hindu life where the elderly consider giving up all their belongings and going to the forest for meditation. One must prepare oneself for the next life and it usually demands selfish self examination. Instead of making our children feel guilty, should we not teach them that the path to old age is for the elderly alone, with not necessarily family assistance.

David:

Kamar,

Thanks for sharing! Your observations about the effects of immigration on multi-generational family life struck very close to home, for me.

I am the American born husband of a Middle Eastern born wife who, immigrated here 30 years ago for sake of education.

I have witnessed your Grandmother in my wife's mother. Over the years she has visited with us several times...staying up to a year at a time.
She is a wonderful person and, the house always feels empty when she leaves to return home. But,
as a Widow, with children dispersed around the globe, I'm sure she has a great deal in common with your "Dadi Ma". Although I've never heard her complain about anything, it's unimaginable that she doesn't feel a sense of loss.

When back home, she too is surrounded by caregivers...and memories. But, how many of us wanted to spend our "golden years" in such a manner?

After a lifetime of service and caring for family,
isn't this the worst thing we can do for these people? What's worse than not being needed? The answer, perhaps, to that question is: the values we fail to instill in the next generation...our children, because these people...these Grandmas and Grandpas that we've relegated to obscurity, have been cut off from offering their help?

God bless your Grandnother. God bless us to understand the sacrifices she's made...for us!

angad:

thanks for putting this out there and listening to nani

A:

There is no denying of the fact that American standards are far above anything else in the world. This candid report of an immigrant family is another indication of that.

And that is why the world applies high moral standards when one is dealing with America, American politics and their conduct on the world stage. And it is down that road that one finds the dual standards highly unbecoming of a true superpower. Why is America then dealing with every petty little issue around the world in such an ineffective manner? Guantanamo being a topic to start?

Hemant:

Amar,
This is a great peace of writing and thanks for sharing too. I have been reading your posting for sometime now and every peace is amazing. Keep it up !

Hemant Biswal:

Amar,
This is a great peace of writing and thanks for sharing too. I have been reading your posting for sometime now and every peace is amazing. Keep it up !

St. Huck:

Not much to comment on here, except to say that this is a great piece of writing. I've been following your travels and appreciate the efforts you have made to map the cultural gaps that divide us all. Keep up the great work!

JRLR:

Amar,

I think I now know what you look like, wearing a military uniform...

I truly admire you for sharing so candidly with us on life's fundamentals. What a moving intuition you have had this time! You have here (your grandmother has!) what could be the source of a famous novel to be entitled: "The Loss". We seldom, if ever, hear of the loss, your grandmother's loss which is also your loss, Amar! At the public library, on the bookshelf, "The Loss" should sit next to that other novel, "The Dream", of which there have been so many versions.

You know, what I have found most striking for some time now, was to see all those people, former immigrants become North American citizens (Greeks, Italians, French men and women, Lebanese -- until last summer! --, etc.) return to their respective countries of origin. Just as salmons swim back to where they were born and end their life there, so do a great many people, nowadays, whose stories deserve to be told.

Contrary to the widespread myth that gets repeated many many times over everyday, not everybody wishes to stay and live in North America. What do those who choose not to have to say? How do THEY see America, after that many years living IN America? WHY do they choose to leave? Whence the imperative call they heed, to return?

I wish a true artist (the name "Steinbeck" comes to mind) could make your grandmother's loss live for everybody, and forever. So many people could thus reappropriate their own deep, painful, multifaceted loss!

Please thank your grandmother on my behalf. You made me feel as though I knew her of old.

Bill:

This is very honest and moving, a rare thing to find on the www. Thank you for sharing with us.

Post a comment

We encourage users to analyze, comment on and even challenge washingtonpost.com's articles, blogs, reviews and multimedia features.

User reviews and comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions.

PostGlobal is an interactive conversation on global issues moderated by Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria and David Ignatius of The Washington Post. It is produced jointly by Newsweek and washingtonpost.com, as is On Faith, a conversation on religion. Please send your comments, questions and suggestions for PostGlobal to Lauren Keane, its editor and producer.