Dadi Ma Loses Her Family to America

Dadi Ma in 2007.

Dadi Ma in 2007.

For one year from 2007-2008, Amar traveled around the world reporting on how people from all walks of life view the United States through text and video.  The following is one of a number of posts from India. For more, click here.

New Delhi - 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 U.S. 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 interested me more.

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.

Dadi Ma at marriage.

Dadi Ma at marriage.

When she saw the America her husband dreamed of for the first time, shortly after his death, she found it “amazing and clean.” She 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.

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.

General Amar Bakshi.

General Amar Bakshi.

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.”

IndiaAmar Bakshi