Have you ever been embarrassed by your parents? I confess that I have. The time when I was 18, for instance, and my father came searching for me at Mardi Gras (IIT Madras’ annual cultural festival). There I was, acting cool around those IIT guys. When my dad showed up to take me back home, the smoky independence that I affected came crashing down. Now, of course, my kids are embarrassed by me.
The last time this happened was this past New Year’s Eve. We were three generations—my brother’s family, mine, and my parents—and decided to make a night of it at the ITC Royal Gardenia’s year-end bash. The situation was ripe for embarrassment. The kids were dressed in slinky strapless numbers and stiletto heels. The middle generation did our best with blazers or dresses, ties or scarves. And then there was my mother. It was her first New Year’s “out on the tiles”, as Bertie Wooster would say, and she looked beautiful in her pink Kanjeevaram sari, bright red bindi, diamond nose ring and earrings to match. But was she dressed appropriately for a New Year’s Eve party? Frankly, I thought not.
Family tree: We’re often a reflection of our parents, as in the movie Meet the Fockers.
I wondered if the evening would work. I wondered if my parents would feel out of place amid the party-hopping crowd. And truth be told, I wished that my parents, particularly my mother, were Goan—equally at ease in a Western or Indian milieu; able to carry off a dress or a sari; able to hold a drink or two without being fastidious, judgemental or ignorant about it. My mom drinks champagne, wrinkles her nose, and says: “Too tart. Give me some pineapple juice.”
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When my daughter and niece dragged my mom to the dance floor, the most unexpected thing happened. Four hunky guys gravitated towards her. I couldn’t understand it. There was my mom doing her Bharatanatyam-like steps to a pumped-up version of Kajra Re, and these four guys surrounded her—shaking their shoulders, waving their hands, dancing Kajra Re like it ought to be danced. My mom was doing a Madhubala or Vyjayanthimala version of it. I mean, you can’t do Madhubala to remixed Bollywood rap. Doesn’t work. But it seemed like they couldn’t get enough of her. Were they missing their mothers? Was this some sort of Oedipal complex playing out on New Year’s Eve? Why were they dancing with my mom instead of all the lovely young women in little black dresses? Who would have thought? Certainly didn’t happen at SOB’s in New York.
You see those handsome guys dancing with your grandmother and making her feel part of the evening, I told my children. That’s the beauty of India. It is called filial piety and it is common in Asian cultures, particularly Korea and China… But they were gone to Rise Up, to Yves Larock.
At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world slept, and those of us gyrating at the Gardenia rose to claim the remaining champagne, not wholly or in full measure, but whatever was left, we hugged each other and shook hands with perfect strangers. Two of the strangers who had been dancing with my mom fell at her feet to get her blessing. Right there amid the smoke machine and surround sound. This is India, I thought. Would not have happened at Moulin Rouge. I doubt if grandmothers frequented Moulin Rouge on New Year’s Eve anyhow. Or five-year-olds, who were also present on the dance floor that night.
I asked one of the young men who was dancing with my mom who he was. His name was Harsha, he said, and he was a Kannada film actor. I didn’t recognize him but his muscular, clean-cut demeanour did indicate “hero” material. The man he was dancing with was a producer, he said, but he looked far too young. I asked them if I could be an extra in one of their movies, which, after being a stand-up comic, is one of my life goals. They were noncommittal.
My dad danced too, but his moves mostly involved clapping his hands in time to a song he had never heard: Pappu can’t Dance, Saala. Do you think I can have another Bloody Mary, he asked me? You know you are all grown up when your dad asks you for permission for a second drink.
Why are we embarrassed by the people we love? I don’t mean occasions where our loved ones do something inappropriate—your brother or sister shows up drunk to a funeral; as it happens oftentime in the movies; or your child spills her milk on your host’s new sofa. Those are embarrassing situations. I mean those instances when we are embarrassed not by what our dear ones did but because of who they are, or seem to be. This happens frequently to immigrants settled abroad. Children in the UK or the US are embarrassed when their parents come to parent-teacher meetings, their Indianness making them acutely different from the white parents. It happens here too. You are discussing Raza and Iqbal with some long-haired artsy types over Suleimani chai at Prithvi Theatre. Your clean-cut spouse shows up in a business suit and tie. Do you squirm? Why? Is it because of who he is or because of who you are trying to be? You invite your friends to brunch at Olive—strappy sundresses, champagne, antipasti, the usual. Your beloved mausi (aunt) appears in her Kota sari Gujarati style, with her wide smile and broken English, wanting to make sure that “all you youngsters eat properly”. Do you squirm? Why? Is it because of who your mausi is, who your friends are, or because of who you are?
Every now and then, however, our loved ones surprise us. You take your dad to a snooty friend’s Page 3 party and instead of being sidelined as an old-timer, he is serenaded. He becomes the life of the party. And try as you might, you cannot stop grinning.
Shoba Narayan was grinning on New Year’s Eve. And trying to elbow out four guys to dance with her mom. Write to her at email@example.com