I’m an Italian girl from the Bronx, never been to India, don’t speak Hindi. But some years ago, when I started to spiral downward, Bollywood movies saved my life. I remember the exact moment this happened. I was surfing Netflix when I chanced upon a film called Chennai Express. I pressed play, and for two and a half hours, literally leaped out of my burdened-down body for a romp in glorious, scenic India.
Some time earlier, I’d discovered that my husband of 30 years was contemplating divorce to live with a mistress he’d had for almost as long. I threw him out, lost weight, dyed my hair and tried to carry on. It was working; I was handling it.
We’d never stopped having sex; that wasn’t the problem. He kept showing up at the house, taking me to bed and promising to be good. I relented. Soon all was normal again. He trimmed his beard over the sink, left his chess board set on the kitchen table, and tossed his tee shirts on the floor inches from the hamper. But he behaved.
We put our house on the market, bought a camper van, and planned to reconcile while traveling cross-country, bothering our children. Before I had time to work through all the emotions reeling inside me, however, he had a stroke, a massive one that left him unable to walk, speak, eat.
When I brought him home from care four months later, he dealt with rehab heroically. He never complained once. In time, he walked with a cane, fed and dressed himself, even helped with the dishes and shoveled a little snow. I learned the rudiments of care giving, but I’m not good at it. Sometimes I was unkind and I bitched a lot. Nevertheless, we coped and hoped; him for renewed health; me for relief from the less visible ill that afflicted me.
Then he had another stroke, which left him confused and in a wheelchair. His memory disintegrated. Simple words like muffin and shoes eluded him. As the months passed, he pretty much didn’t speak at all. He tried to stay positive, but one day, I caught him weeping. He was trying to play chess with our 10-year old grandson and couldn’t remember how the knight moved. Shortly thereafter, he stopped reading to the 7-year old, telling me that the words swam on the page and made no sense. Now the kids read to him.
In time, he grew unaware of his plight and became childishly content. Grits for breakfast overjoyed him; he glowed with pride when the buttons on his pajamas lined up.
But I was restless. I longed for a conversation about the past, for understanding and closure. Why had he cheated? Had he loved the woman? Was she younger? Prettier? Had he really intended to leave me for her? But I could tell by the blankness of his eyes that he didn’t remember her, much less what he’d done. He didn’t remember that he’d promised to answer all my questions and make it up to me.
I sank into a kind of agitated depression. I tore about the house cooking, cleaning, minutely ministering to the needs of my docile patient. Our children worried; my brother-in-law told me to “slow my roll.” But why should I? Activity was my drug; the faster I ran, the quicker I’d get to the end.
While I was frantically marking time, I discovered Bollywood and the most compelling actor I’d ever seen. His name was Shah Rukh Khan and he sang and danced, flew through the air like Superman, and romanced stunning women amidst pastel landscapes that took my breath away. I’ve since also discovered Tollywood and Kollywood films from South India, each one as awe inspiring as the next.
For over two hours every night, I’m mesmerized. Tension flies from my body with every expelled breath. I’ve become familiar with Indian actors: impish Salman Khan; brooding Ajay Devgn; “stylish” Allu Arjun. And actresses stunning as butterflies: Deepika Padukone, Sonakshi Sinha. There are so very many.
I read books on the history of Indian cinema, buy sound track CDs and memorize the words to all the songs. I sing in the house, in the car with the windows open. Previously agonizing hours waiting for the results of a brain scan in the doctor’s office fly by as I listen to Arijit Singh on my phone. I play bhangra dance videos on You Tube and dance again, making my husband smile.
I subscribe to news feeds and gossip sites. I know, for instance, that superstar Arjun Kapoor is the son of director Boney Kapoor, who divorced his mother for actress Sri Devi who recently died. I also know that hunky actor Prabhas, and his perennial co-star, Anushka Shetty, are JUST FRIENDS.
At the end of every day, with my husband safely tucked in bed, I turn on Netflix or Amazon Prime or Eros International, and scroll to a movie I haven’t seen or, just as likely, want to see again. Before the second rain storm or train ride (there’s one in nearly every Bollywood film), my disbelief effortlessly suspends. Afterwards, I relax, sleep peacefully and wake secure that, although I may never get to the other side of the world, India is close.
My friends shake their heads when I “Namaste” instead of fist bump. But they’re pleased I’m returning to the way I used to be. I joke again, put on makeup, go out. Last week, a bunch of us laughed ourselves giddy on a saree excursion to Jackson Heights. (Those things only work on Indian women.) We ate curry for lunch and bought tamarind, red chili sauce and something called panch phoron at Patel Brothers. I can make chapati and chana masala without looking at recipes.
Some of them tell me I’m courting exotic diversion to avoid reality. Maybe so. I prefer to believe I’ve been given a blessing. I was Indian in an earlier existence. I worshipped Ganesha and when everything went sour, the elephant god remembered, wrapped me in his trunk and lifted me to the sky.