Our friend Maja Svrakic immigrated with her family to St. Louis, Missouri from Belgrade, Serbia when she was 16 years old. Today, she works as a surgeon and makes her home on the Upper East Side of New York with her first-generation Indian-American husband, Naveen Gumpeni, a radiologist and DJ. In their four years of marriage, our Serbian-American Mash-Up has studied hard and learned a few valuable things about being a good Indian daughter-in-law. It may involve ketchup.
1. Master the side to side head bob. At least, try.
Getting comfortable with the head bob will help in conversations with your Indian relatives — whenever they do it, you do it too. If you are talking, insert it spontaneously whenever there is an agreeable outcome. Or, a questionable outcome. Or, if you disagree with someone else’s decisions. In fact, the real meaning of the gesture varies from complete agreement to total disapproval. When in doubt, ask. For example:
Maja: “Should I leave my shoes here?”
Auntie: 3-4 short side to side head bobs
Maja: “Is that a yes or a no?”
Auntie: Another head bob, more emphasis on one of the bobs.
Maja: “So, I will leave my shoes here, by the wall.”
Auntie: One short head sway to one side, impatient.
Maja: Leaves the shoes by the wall.
Auntie: Moves the shoes by the door.
2. Call your in-laws frequently.
And your cousins. And all the aunties and uncles. Emails don’t count as communication. Facebook messages don’t count. Seeing them every weekend doesn’t count. You must call, or else you will invariably hear this statement: “How come you don’t call? Rachna (your second cousin twice removed) calls.”
Note #1: All of your aunties and uncles are not necessarily related to the family, but are as important as those who are related to the family.
Note #2: When you actually get on the phone, do not exchange any long or important information. This is a 3-minute formality. “How is the weather? What did you eat? I am so happy for you to be on vacation!” This is not the Serbian 1-hour phone competition on whose life is more miserable.
3. Use carrot pickle on everything.
You can thank me later. Carrot pickle is a delightful cheap canned good that is the kick your every dish needs. Making Serbian sarma? Put a tablespoon in. Stewed vegetables? Yum. Every time I use carrot pickle on a dish, I get compliments and people talk about it for days.
4. Don’t serve frozen samosas to your relatives.
If you haven’t filled, rolled and fried them yourself, you have failed as a cook. In fact, a crowd pleaser for Indian relatives is not Indian food (no surprise there). Stick to Americanized classics like pizza and tacos.
Note: Indian relatives don’t like experimenting with Serbian food.
5. Do not give any indication to your family that you save Tupperware.
If your family thinks you need Tupperware, Tupperware will take over your life. It is a nightmare. Set firm rules, immediately. Not only do these containers multiply every time you close the cabinet door, but they acquire a yellow staining that doesn’t come off. Once they see you save one, anything resembling Tupperware will be saved as well by your thoughtful aunties and uncles. Think sour cream container.
6. Same same for single-serve ketchup and condiment packets.
These, like Tupperware, multiply indefinitely, usually in your kitchen junk drawer. When your husband asks for ketchup with his food, surprise him and bring out a full-sized bottle from the fridge. He will try to insist you open the drawer instead. To this you head bob, one and a half firm rotations.
7. Be ready to talk about what “kind” of marriage you have.
If asked “Are you in a love marriage?” you can say yes, but expect a possible surprised look. Don’t ask, “What other type of marriages are there?” Because arranged, duh. What many other people have had. If you know one, a Bollywood reference to a successful love marriage would be great to mention now.
8. Also be ready for hair.
Indian men are hairy. If you marry an Indian man, be mentally prepared for the bathtub and the house to require frequent cleaning.
9. Keep track of holidays and call your in-laws (see #2).
If you can remember only Diwali, that’s okay too. That’s not as simple as it sounds. The actual date of Diwali changes every year and I am still not sure over how many days we celebrate and if there is one main day or not. Do not rely on your Indian husband to know either. A good strategy is to call your in-laws any day in October and say “Happy Diwali!” Major points.
10. Buy pre-pleated saris.
This is key to any ceremony where you must wear traditional clothes. Warning: Grandma will not be happy with the style of your pleating (there are styles?!) and may re-do the whole thing. Do not think you can learn how to get dressed by watching YouTube videos of a cute Indian chick expertly folding her sari, as I once did. It is not that easy.
11. Make space in your closet for aforementioned saris and clothing gifts from relatives.
These gifts will usually take the form of tunics made of a raw, firm, unforgiving silk in festive colors, like bright orange or green, and bejeweled with beads. You will never wear them, because they will barely fit over your head, despite being labeled XXL. “XXL” is just code for “white people size.”
Note: Somehow the young trendy Indian cousins never wear these — they look sophisticated, elegant and sexy in their traditional garments. Why can’t I get the relatives to get me those? Do they not come in white people size?
12. Enjoy eating at Indian restaurants before you marry an Indian.
You will almost never set foot in an Indian restaurant again. Enjoy dining at Indian restaurants before you get married to a man who tells you that all they serve is pre-packaged “Patak’s” brand food. Go to an Indian market and buy 5 for $1 packages of curry and ghee-loaded vegetables, and you will likely agree. Instead insist on, if available, real Grandma cooking. It’s what an Indian would do.