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Archive for March 8th, 2013

In the early 1990s, when I began thinking about retirement, Ravi and I were living in Paris. Most of the expatriate wives I talked with there planned on retiring back home. They were lucky. They knew where home was. For my husband, Ravi, would it be Benares or Bombay, the cities that had been home until his Fulbright scholarship and eventual American citizenship? Now not one family member lived in either city. His mother had passed away and all his brothers and sisters, and his father, had followed him to the States. I had proposed buying an apartment in Bangalore as our family home. That was in the late 1970s. Bangalore was the hometown of his mother’s family and Ravi knew it well. We liked Bangalore; it was very attractive and the one city in India that seemed to have a functioning municipal government. I thought I could easily adapt to living there and wanted to begin while still young enough to master at least one of the languages in the environment.  India fascinates me; I could have come to consider it my home.

Ravi’s lack of interest surprised me. He simply ignored my idea and his father was against it. Despite all the family talk about Indian values and the virtues of Indian culture, none of his siblings or their spouses or other relatives from India wanted to return. I’ve realized since that one does not easily leave behind the comfort and convenience of living in a well-ordered society where the electricity comes on and stays on, water always flows through the spigots, where good public schools are free, where regulations on the safety of food and other goods actually apply, where a middle-class person with a fairly good income is not assaulted daily by the poverty of others, and on and on. All this plus the government allowing one to bring in parents and close kin from the old country.

What about staying on in Paris? The decision against that has a history. Ravi had gone to Paris ahead of me, in 1974, directly from Ankara, where we had lived since 1968 and where he was teaching in an excellent English-medium university. In 1972, our son and daughter and I had moved from Ankara to the States for them to finish high school and begin college and for me to return to school. Aziz, the boy from Mogadiscio who had become part of our family, was already a student in Roberts College in Istanbul. Four years later, in 1976, I joined Ravi in Paris and immediately thought of taking out a loan available through his organization to buy us an apartment. I was tired of moving so often and wanted to put down some sort of roots. Ravi stalled. I found one apartment after another and even a house in a banlieue but he always found something not to like. That was when I gave up on Paris and considered India.

Okay. Paris was out and we would not return to Ravi’s homeland. Then what about my homeland? My first choice was Washington. It is a beautiful city and the only one international enough that I did not have to explain my expatriate self to acquaintances. After much effort on my part spent looking for a house or an apartment, assisted by a friend already retired there, Ravi ruled out Washington. My second choice was Chicago. He would not even consider it. Where else? I had no childhood home to consider, was moved so often I barely remember any of the towns, have lost track of them, and anyhow, none were attractive enough to call me back. The only family I knew was my father, his father and his stepmother and they were gone from this earth. I did know one other city and loved it. At seventeen I had landed as a student on the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison and to this day think of that year as the beginning of my real life. I wanted never to leave university or the campus and did manage to stay put for ten years in one rented room or another, and when married, in various apartments. It was where I met and married Ravi, where our children were born, where I first did research and taught. I love the look of the land, the rich and varied flora rising out of its black soil. Ravi also felt sentimental about our campus life. He reluctantly agreed to Madison, so soon after, on a visit to Chicago, I drove north to look around. It happened to have been in winter, when the temperature was thirty degrees below freezing. And I remembered the snow storms. Dangerous to drive at night or too far into the countryside. I had to ask myself why a person in her mid-sixties and right mind would willingly move to a land where the seasons are winter, summer, winter, winter, winter, winter.

In the meantime, Ravi had bought a house in North Carolina that he claimed to be simply an investment. Of course, it was down the street from where one brother lived, somewhat further from a brother in Virginia, and within easy contact with a third brother and a sister in Chicago. In our retirement we joined the Indian diaspora in America.

I continue as an expat wife, only this time I speak the local language and have all the advantages of living in a well ordered society, if quite different from the one I left decades before. I always had cultural shock when returning to America. Initially, until Ravi’s Alzheimer’s and my advancing years overtook me, I engaged in local civic affairs, which turned out to be the sort of learning experience I find interesting. After Ravi’s death, two of his siblings died and the others, and their families, live far away from me, culturally and geographically. I am a White, Anglo-Saxon, Anglophone, middle-class lady from the Midwest living in a Southern state that after two decades is still not quite home, now a closet foreigner rather than an obvious one.

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