Meet the Bon Vivants: Nirmala Thangam Thomas

Introducing guest bloggers to the Michelle Thomas Fine Arts web log!

Meet the Bon Vivants is a brand new series that showcases the work of my favorite thinkers and good-lifers, all personal friends with important ideas and interesting musings. Firstly, and wonderfully, my mother — 

Nirmala Thangam Thomas grew up in the multi-cultural Indian city of Bombay, where she attended a Scottish school with her little sister and brothers. She studied British literature at St. Teresa’s College in tropical Kerala, where she was famous for racing cars, pranking nuns, and exhibiting fearless wit — before marrying a drummer in a rock band and moving to the United States at the age of 22. While raising two incredibly well-behaved and polite daughters, my mother earned two masters degrees and began teaching high school English in a manner so regal that her students went home and told their parents they were, indeed, learning the Queen’s English and they too would henceforth speak like Harry Potter.

While my father, that drummer, eventually settled into corporate life and became a proper, predictable dad, he retained his restless rebel spirit, accepting transfers on a whim and zigzagging our family across the United States at a disturbing pace. My mother, however, always found her way to the top of the native food chain, making the most of each environment with her signature brand of ironic humor. While my parents plan to return and retire in India, she here considers the relative merit of her latest home, a very Indian Bay Area suburb called Fremont, California.

My Fremont Flat by Nirmala Thangam Thomas

Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai. . . Mei kahan hu?

When I wake up from a nap in my Fremont flat, I always have to stop and think for a moment:  Mei kahan hu?  I know I am at home, but the GPS in my head goes into a tizzy as it absorbs the stimuli around me and makes an effort to scan through decades worth of navigation pointing to the many places I've called "home." Am I on Addison in Chicago? Or on Berteau Street? In Lansing? Calhoun, Georgia? Maybe Clayton Road? Or am I at the ranch on Kimbro? Or am I in Bombay? Why does this feel like Bombay? OMG we did move didn't we? I'm on Cappy Terrace (with no 'r' in it, mind your manners). But relax, I tell myself. Relax. I do like it here; this is the most at home I've felt in 40 years.

Because I feel, I see, I smell, I taste, I hear:

Children being scolded to sit still while hair is unknotted, tugged, and braided, idili batter being ground in idili batter grinders, pressure cooker whistling (the third whistle notifying that the sambar dhal has been pressure cooked to the correct degree of softness), Madras coffee percolating, dosas sizzling, mustard splattering in hot oil; phone conversations in Malayalam, Tamil, Telegu, Punjabi, marriages being arranged, bio-datas being exchanged, mothers-in-law being grumbled about, sisters-in-law being gossiped about, properties being disputed, visas being renewed, resumes being fixed, Eid mubaraks offered, Diwali greetings, Onam well-wishes; deaths being loudly announced and then quietly resigned to; plane tickets being booked and confirmed, luggages being lugged up stairs fresh off Air India; luggages being dragged down stairs, bulging with fifty pounds of foreign items for relatives-in-waiting, visiting relatives-in-law feeling really out-lawed, births notified, names being discussed, babies being spoiled by doting nanis, balls being bounced in second-floor flats by turbaned six-year-olds, foul language being bounced back (in tongues not understood) by sixty-year-olds scuffing around first-floor flats; versions of tennis being played by young mothers in saris and sneakers, grandparents walking aimlessly, staring and being stared at; a cacophony of Hindi, Telegu, and Madrasi music -- Lata, Asha, Rahman, and Rafi competing to see who can sing loudest. This is home.

For now.