A long time ago, my uncles bought a pig. I was a few months old at the time. I’d like to say that my uncles bought the pig to herald my birth, but no, it was instead to celebrate the feast of St. Francis Xavier, my namesake and our family’s patron saint, the man who had brought Catholicism and the roots of Konkani, my uncles’ language, to the western coast of India, where they and my father were from, in the early sixteenth century. My uncles had been in America less than a year, my father, four years. My mother was born in Detroit, had spent three years in the Peace Corps in India, where she’d met and married my father.
My uncles were rowdy, debonair young men in the Indian way, not like my father at all. My father was a replica of my grandfather, a police commissioner in Karnataka state, a man as hard as granite with the old Portuguese work ethic as sure in him as his tightly clipped mustache. There was a photo album in our house devoted just to pictures of him, and whether he was in his captain’s uniform with the sash and epaulets and his Lee-Enfield rifle on his shoulder, or whether he was in his rattan chair on the porch of his house in India in a white T-shirt and lungi wrap with one hand raised on his cane, he never cracked a smile. That’s what my father was like, too.
But my uncles did not have the burdens on them that my father did as a firstborn Konkan son, and they liked to drink and dance and joke and chase women. My mother says that the transition to American life was hard for all of them, but the pictures of my uncles from that time don’t support that idea. In picture after picture, my uncles flank my father, smiling like boys up to something, while my father does his best impression of a senator. For two years, my uncles lived in the basement of our house on Nelson Street, and then my father got fed up with them and sold the house, and we left Chicago for the suburbs. My uncles were then on their own.
The one uncle was named Samuel Erasmus, but my father renamed him Sam when he arrived, and the other was named Lesley Wenceslaus, but my father renamed him Les. This was to help them fit in to America. When they got off the plane at O’Hare in 1973, they were both sporting Fu Manchu mustaches that swept the edges of their chins, because an American kung fu film had been all the rage in India the year before, and knowing nothing of America other than that, they’d grown those mustaches to get ready for their immigration to it. No one else wore mustaches like that in their town in southern India, so everyone had known what they were up to and where they were going. According to my uncles, they became very popular with girls.
The first thing my father said to his brothers at the airport, even before “Welcome,” which he never said, was, “Those mustaches have to go.” He stopped at a Walgreens on the way home to buy disposable razors, and before they could even sit down to their first American meal, meat loaf with ketchup and mashed potatoes, which my mother, newly pregnant with me, had prepared for them, they were in the basement bathroom shaving while my father looked on with his arms crossed.
“You don’t know anything here. Do you understand me? You do not know one single thing.”
“Fine, Babu, you are right,” they said together. “Tell us every small thing and we will do it.”
“Be quiet and don’t make a lot of noise.”
“Yes, Babu, that is what we will do.”
The fact was, my father did not want his brothers in America, did not want anything from India following him into his new life here. My father was something of a prig, and though it wasn’t his fault, there it was. My grandfather had spent the family’s money on educating him, and while the rest of the children ran about the streets of Chikmagalur in their bare feet just like the Hindu and Muslim kids did, my father went to a Catholic college in Mangalore on the coast, and then worked for a number of years as a clerk at Standard Chartered Bank in Bombay. He always had the finest shirts and trousers, and had been a member of the British-organized Chikmagalur Boys’ Cricket Club in his youth. My father wanted to be a British gentleman above and beyond all else, and when the opportunity of my mother came along, he took that as a ticket to the United States, the ersatz Britain.
But my uncles were the dust and chaos of real India, and when they wrote on my grandfather’s urging that they’d like to come, my mother snatched the letter from the trash where my father had tossed it, and she filled out the paperwork to sponsor them. This threw my father into a rage. His specialty those days was swearing through clenched teeth and thumping his chest.
“Don’t you respect me, Denise? Didn’t you take a vow to support me in all I do?”
“I don’t remember saying that I would be your slave, Lawrence,” my mother told him, “and besides that, I want mine to be a life of family. When I married you, I married your family. If they want to come over, then it’s our duty to help them. Why should you be the only one in the world who gets to live here?”