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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"We are Andhra women, and we know how to ad-JUST!"

                                                                                                           Guntur, A.P., India
                                                                                                           Last week in January, 2016

Five decades ago (can you believe it?!) this was the cheerful mantra of my Indian teacher friends when faced with incredible amounts of correction work (like, sixty students per class), frequent unexpected school closings, or a strict headmistress's order to forego lessons to prepare for special occasions and visitors.  And adjust they did, while I, young and ?perhaps? idealistic, spluttered in the wake of their self-talk, positive-think.

This frequent testing of one's ability to adjust is definitely a factor in the incredible resilience evidenced every day across every age group of India's diverse population.
Not long after things settle down following the maddening soundscape of our first week here in December, our son calls to see how we are doing.  I comment on how freely and frequently family members move among the three brothers' apartments in our almost-new building (Mary Shree, named in memory of my mother-in-law). 'Of course,' I say, 'We can adjust And, at the end of the day, we each have our own separate place, right?'

Are             --             you             --             kid             --             ding             ....    ?

"This is India," a refrain repeated like a mantra whenever (like, frequently) plans go awry. It is not long before the ability of all of our families, who have lived all of our adult lives separately, to live and interact as a joint family is tested.

A major remodeling of a sister- and brother-in-law's house has stalled; it won't be ready for visitors expected a few days hence.  Her daughter and a British colleague, along with his family, and a Belgian priest, are due in ten days for a three and two week stays, including a formal engagement party for the young couple. Where to host them? Time for group-think.

Three brothers and two sisters meet to confer on the most culturally appropriate way to provide comfortable hospitality.  Too banal and inconvenient, a nice, nearby hotel is out of the question. Not enough privacy and also inconvenient: to disperse the family among apartments of three brothers who already live at Mary Shree and the other sister's apartment a mile away.  How about utilizing one of the two vacant Mary Shree apartments?  It's a 'no-brainer; the obvious best solution is to host the family in the apartment of one of the two brothers and families still to come on holiday from the states, just before the guest family is due to depart.

Fine.  We can adjust.

There's just one thing: the apartments are unfurnished. Beds? Frig? Curtains and linens? No problem. Move things over from the house under rehab.

There's just one more thing: sister-in-law moves into our own guest room to better be able to direct logistics of cleaning, moving and meal planning.  Here she will stay, with her daughter in another bedroom, for the duration of the run-up-to and including their guests' India stay.  Another opportunity to adjust.

Cooking will occur in our apartment, with additional input from the two brothers already resident in their own apartments in the building. My hubby suggests his sister take over our cooking planning and supervision, in favor of her guests (and us too).With help:  Our driver/cook and cleaning gal, full and part time, respectively,  have only agreed to work for the two of us, that too, for only a few months a year.  Suddenly they are being pressed into intense service, preparing the dinner and doing doing the laundry for

Every day becomes an exercise in determining and moving furniture, curtains, living room, minimal kitchen utensils, bedroom and bathroom furnishings, some from apartments of three brothers already living in the building, some from her or her sister's house. Frequent conferrings add more ideas to the list of what might be wanted or needed. Tea?A hotplate so as to have it ready in the morning? Stocking up on supplies for the duration.

Now, more than ever, you never know who's in which apartment or serving which meal or item to whom.  But everyone is behind the project, and it falls into place.  I have relatively little to do: just basically stay out of the way. Thinking that the British are likely to be extremely polite,  I check my laid-back mid-western manners, wondering whether I might say something offensive or commit a blunder, whether they'll find our hospitality appropriate or presumptuous.

Suddenly, they are here, our niece a tiny, beaming young woman, her beau tall, shy, and soft spoken. But it's his parents who blow us away.  They are as casual and unassuming as ever guests could be. Conversations warm up, cameras are at the ready, meals--and shopping--begin.

The young man's mom, Rosemary, and I have a practical and sisterly gabfest while shopping for suitable Indian garb to wear to the engagement. Each of us confesses to feeling awkward about wearing a saree (for me, a change from my youthful eagerness to try just that), as cheerfully expected by the women of the family, and our helper, Pushpa.  The saree is undoubtedly the garment of elegance, but the clumsiness of age and lack of practice leave me feeling awkward in one, and it's too late to order the obligatory, tailor made, close fitting, matching blouse.  We're under a time crunch. Other dresses we see are over-the-top gaudy or ill fitting.  I am about to give up when Rosemary points out nice features of a Punjabi dress ensemble, which I try on, and finally buy. She remains undecided whether to try 'dressing Indian' for the engagement, or just be herself.  We relate.

Back at home, hubby and I cling to our nap schedule, followed by tea.  The Brits do too, seating themselves at table for tea as well as meals.  Usually.  They eat what they are served, happily including the stronger spices over which my stomach has begun to protest. They are prompt and proactive for whatever is to come up next on their trip agenda.  So, not to worry, they can adjust.

There's the engagement event, Christmas, two more brother-in-laws' families coming by New Year, they and the "Brits' staying for a couple of weeks, and then the approving and interviewing of possible 'matches' (candidates) for marriage with another niece or two, a family reunion, for good measure.  While we try to gain some momentum on nonprofit work we are here to do.

The young people of the families visiting from USA show decidedly independent preferences in their activities, not all of them pre-approved by their 'elders,' who in turn are equally eager to settle in to their apartments for the first time.  The young cousins revel in each others' company, and are on their best while just hanging out at home, or while at church, or on field trips organized especially in honor of the British visitors by the brother-in-law who is their erstwhile host.

Not to worry, everyone seems able, on some level, to adjust.  As each day continues to unfold in unexpected ways, the question is, can we?

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