My husband I were in California in the last week of February. This was my first trip on a plane after my health scare in 2018 where I couldn’t walk for months and eventually had to have an invasive surgery. This trip was quite focused around creating new memories for my body and meeting with people who, like me, work in the creativity and wellness space. This trip was about reiterating to myself and those who care about me that if you have the mental strength, you can endure any kind of physical pain. And that your illness won’t define you.
My husband and I have a bunch of extended family members firmly rooted in California — from the city of San Francisco to San Jose to Fremont to San Ramon to Berkeley to Cupertino, we have three generations of family representation on both sides of the Bay. Like many desis, our families show affection by cooking and serving a dozen items on the dining table — all delicious, all made with the key ingredient, which is love.
We started out by visiting family in the San Jose and Fremont area. My mami, Mom’s eldest brother’s wife, lives in Fremont with her son and his family. My mami’s daughter, my cousin sister Tulika, lives with her husband and two kids, 20 minutes away. The dinner party was at my cousin brother Tushar’s place.
Mami had cooked some of my favorite foods, especially traditional items like Sarsoin ki macchli (mustard fish curry) and aloo bhujiya (sautéed crispy potatoes in mustard oil and garlic) amongst other things that my mother would cook for me every time that I visited my parents in India. When my mom was alive and even today (thanks to my father), my first, welcome meal at home is masoor dal, sarsoin ki macchli, basmati rice, kachumber (finely chopped and diced Indian salad), and aloo bhujiya.
Tushar and Tulika had also cooked my husband’s favorite foods. My mami didn’t allow me to help her in the kitchen. It’s not because I am recovering; I noticed that she kept insisting that we cousins catch up while she warmed up the delicious meal. Even in the kitchen, she worked in synchronicity with my cousin Bhabhi (Tushar’s wife).
That night when we went back to the hotel, I remember telling my husband that I was bowled away by mami. She doesn’t expect seva (service from those younger than her). She is active and grateful. Her face and skin looked flawless. There was happiness in her voice. She never once talked about her ailments — she is getting older and has her own health challenges. The million things she does to help out her kids and grandkids, we never heard a brag or a complaint or self-victimization. There was no sense of entitlement that people need to serve her because she is the oldest — a huge expectation in Indian community.
Right before we caught our flight to San Francisco, a friend called me up from India and told me how her mother-in-law expects tea to be brought to her every time that she visits. And if the tea needs more sugar, she won’t walk to the kitchen; she either asks her son or daughter-in-law to sweeten it for her. Seva. How can anyone enjoy your visit or company when you always choose to behave like a guest and be treated like royalty?
My friend’s mom-in-law represents many Indian parents belonging to the generation born between 1946-1964 — I call them Boomers to differentiate from other generations. I have interviewed friends and family. Observed dynamics up, close, and personal. On countless occasions, I have heard many of the Boomers say, “I did my share of work when I was younger. Now it’s my time to take it easy or “Now it’s the daughter-in-law’s turn to do our seva.”
When my mom or mother-in-law would visit me in the US from India, I would wake up at 4 a.m. to cook fresh breakfast and lunch for them before leaving for work at 7 a.m. It’s not that my mother-in-law or mother parents or parent-in-laws demand food be ready before I leave for work; but it’s that we don’t come home to ready-made meals.
They’d ask in the mornings, “What’s for lunch?” This is America, where I don’t have a cook who will prepare fresh meals for us. If I don’t plan ahead of time and organize the menu, then we order in. That’s not a sustainable option in the long run, is it? And this is why, often, problems arise in Indian families — the expectation of seva even in today’s day and age where both the man and woman are working outside the home and also taking care of their homes and families.
I didn’t get that sense of seva expectation from my mami in the US. Towards the end of our trip, we went to visit my husband’s masi (maternal aunt) near Berkeley. When we reached her place, she wasn’t home. She had gone to drop off her granddaughter to gymnastics class. Her husband helped us with our bags and offered us water.
In India, Boomers act differently. I have seen my friends land in Mumbai and take over the kitchen in their -in-law’s home because that is the rule. When Boomers visit from India, many of them expect to be served tea and water, not just meals. In Berkeley, before leaving my aunt-in-law had painstakingly cooked a delicious spread of dal, multiple veggies, and rice for dinner. I noticed the fierce independence where my aunt-in-law didn’t expect to be driven around or served or treated special because she is older than us. Much like my mami, she didn’t let me do anything in the kitchen. They didn’t expect a daughter-in-law to do their seva.
I have to say this: My husband’s masi and mausa look incredible. What I mean by that is they come across as happy, rejuvenated, content, and active. They look a lot younger than their counterparts in India. They exercise and volunteer and spend time bonding and doing activities with their grand kids. They have their own health ailments too, but much like my mami, I noticed that they never once used their age or any age-related challenges to gain sympathy or victimize themselves. I am a wellness entrepreneur and write about wellness, so they talked health and well-being with me because that’s my passion. But their attitude inspired me to grow up to be like them.
It’s not just my family where there are unreal generational expectations. It’s not just the people in my personal space in India who quit on life and health because they have a fixed mindset about aging. If you watch commercials on Indian television channels, you’ll notice that they love to show parents as emotionally and financially vulnerable. The mindset is that after a certain age (each family decides what the cutoff point is for them), the children take care of their parents.
I love the idea of children being there for their parents and pampering them; what I despise is romanticizing dependability. What we don’t realize is that by making someone dependent, we take away their freedom, sense of purpose, and mental well-being.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” — George Bernard Shaw
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is a mindset & wellness coach, global speaker, and best-selling author of 12 books, including, the recent Louisiana Catch. She helps C-suite executives, entrepreneurs, and corporations increase profit and productivity through health and wellness. Winner of the “Voices of the Year Award” (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton and founders of the #MeToo movement), in her spare time, Sweta teaches mindfulness and yoga to empower female survivors of trauma. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.