We are an hour and a half into the Diwali dance program when my husband nudges the younger daughter to find out when they will start serving dinner. A lot of kids from school are here. She has been roaming around with her friends, looking at the jewelry tables and knows her way around. She slips away to see.
Throughout the performance the children filter in and out of the dark auditorium. People chat quietly. A trio of girls in full, red satin skirts and tops spangled with large, jingling gold sequins, practice their arm movements in the aisle between their numbers. One of the younger daughter’s friends is hanging out with them so they must be younger than they appear on stage, the heavy skirts giving them a kind of adult presence. Others must see them this way, too, as the women they will become. Surely this is part of the meaning and purpose of the dancing, where the audience can see who moves with confidence or grace. Parents will be complimented.
The theater gradually fills. Adults are filtering in and out, too. The availability of tea is announced. This is the only event I have ever been to in Alabama with hot tea. It is strong and has cardamom in it. We are there with non-Indian friends. The Diwali festival had been promoted at school and on the local public radio station. We thought it would be an interesting night out with good food. Over time, it is easy not to attend events so sometimes we have to rally ourselves. We missed something like this last year, involving food, dancing and a fashion show. We should do that some time, but then consider the distance, the time, the comfort of one’s own warm house.
It is the weekend before Thanksgiving. I have spent the morning going through recipes and planning meals, writing shopping lists—one for Costco, one for the fancy supermarket one for the regular supermarket, and one for the small-town Piggly Wiggly where they barely sell produce, where we will be for the day itself—steeped in the responsibilities of my own culture and its traditions. The yard is disorderly, covered in leaves that keep drifting down like the kind of slow, persistent snow that can bring a place like this to its knees. It will be nice to have this dinner out. It might just be snacks, my husband had said earlier in the day, but the website clearly stated dinner, I assured him, taking on, then, the responsibility for the meal, as you do when you propose an outing.
The MCs, a man and a woman, have a jokey kind of old-school patter, where the woman says things to the man like, “I really hope that your wife is not in the audience.” She precedes him onstage and calls for him as if he has forgotten his cue. Sometimes the whole introduction is made in Hindi.
An Indian friend of ours slips into the seat next to me during the karaoke. Video from classic Bollywood films is shown. There is a sort of Solid Gold number where they are playing the hook from “Funkytown.” “These movies,” he says, “sample everything, music, plots. I was watching one the other day that combined E.T. with Batman.” He moves on, working his way into the auditorium.
“There is something about being at someone else’s cultural event,” my husband observes, “that gives you insight into your own.” Our people, we realize, like to direct and control the flow of traffic. When we arrived there were some paper signs with arrows posted in the vast parking lot, but no sports teams or scouts with buckets, collecting $3-6 for parking, or men with orange pointer cones like they have at the airport or the botanical garden, making sure that people filled the lot in a particular way.
Now two men are doing impersonations of actors. I am reminded of the play we went to our first year in London, written for an audience well versed in Ealing Comedies. I had only a vague gist of the kind of thing it was about but no real understanding of the jokes. It is this same wash of over-my-head, out-of-my-ken references situation, plus it’s all in Hindi. We have been here for two hours, maybe longer, the music and the costumes and the teenagers, swirling around us in the dark.
My daughter comes back in and whispers three words you never want to hear at an Indian festival: “We’re having pizza.”
Is it possible that I have misjudged this event? Could this celebration somehow, plausibly culminate in pizza and I have made these assumptions that an Indian celebration requires Indian food? Or does she have the pointiest irony stick in the family, the cruelest wit, and she has jabbed us with it. It’s a bold move.
“Seriously,” she says, “it’s pizza.” People, she tells us, have started to eat, so we follow her to the cafeteria. The tables have been set with tea lights and rose petals.
And there, on the first serving table, are about fifty pizza boxes. But, happily, further down, are the chafing dishes you would expect to see. When she says people what she really means are children, a stray teenager in school clothes, but there are a few other adults, enough to form a short queue. By virtue of our outsider status we, I hope, can be forgiven being slightly too eager to rush to the buffet, like children, not quite clued in, happy just to be at a party.
And what, I wonder, would the cultural festival of the Wertises entail? There would be a slice of real pizza, a bag of zeppoli, things that don’t travel on airplanes and things that exist in another time. It’s not a dance my daughters will do or a belief others would be invited to share. It’s mismatched earrings, a long walk with no conversation, a whisper, marginalia, a Bollywood-style mashup of obscure cultural references, but with no discernible plot, the shadow of an old sign of a defunct business painted on a brick wall, faded by decades of sun, photographed by a hipster, then it’s gone, over.