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|Text by Madhu Jain and Illustrations by Bappa|
Published: Volume 19, Issue 5, May, 2011
Some of the Alters have never lived in the US but serve Mother India in various ways, says Madhu Jain of the American family that has entrenched itself in this country. And the fourth generation, it would seem, are going strong as well...
Flashback: an autumn afternoon in New England, 1964:
So the few words of unaccented Hindi threw me. Marty Alter – as she was then – was raised as a third-generation American in India. We soon became close friends, our friendship cemented in nostalgia for India. When homesickness overwhelmed, we made ourselves some sooji ka halva and put on songs from the film Chaudhvin ka Chand – and let the tears trickle down while the soothing, melancholy voice of Mohammad Rafi filled the room.
Marty graduated a year before me, going on to the University of Pennsylvania to do a doctorate in South Asian studies. On graduating, I returned home to Delhi for my Masters – after spending nearly 10 years in the United States. Ironically, while the American went on to study Sanskrit, the Indian continued with English literature and European art history.
Ashoka Room, Rashtrapati Bhavan, April 1, 2011:
Marty lectures in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and lives near Cambridge, Massachusettes. She is also the international coordinator of the global research policy network, Women in Informal Employment: Globalising and Organising (WIEGO) that spans 27 countries. Marty has worked closely for decades with the Ahmedabad-based
Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), founded by Ela Bhatt.
Alter in Bollywood
This Alter – he resembles his sister with the same, honest blue eyes and blonde hair fading somewhat to white – fled Yale University in his sophomore year, and eventually ended up in Pune to study acting. The rest is cinema and theatre history. He initially began playing the Angrez in countless Hindi films (including Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi and Shyam Benegal’s Junoon) until he was given Indian avatars in Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda.
Tom’s stage portrayals of Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad and Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Moghul emperor who languished in Rangoon, were widely appreciated and critically acclaimed – especially his perfect Urdu diction that would put many of our Bollywood actors to shame.
Mother India has also held on to another talented Alter. Novelist and writer Stephen Alter (Marty’s cousin) lives in Landour with his elegant designer wife Ameeta. The couple keeps the Alter family home fires burning. Oakville is ‘home’ to the growing clan of Pahadi Alters – most of whom went to Woodstock School – and are spread out in different corners of the world. The Alters for me seem to be a near-perfect joint family, desi-style, much more so than many of the joint families you increasingly come across in India.
An elegant and perceptive writer, Stephen’s literary universe is rooted in India. His considerable body of work includes novels (Renuka, Neglected Lives, Silk and Steel and Aripan & Other) and non-fiction (All the Way to Heaven: An American Boyhood in the Himalayas, Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border, Elephas Maximus: A Portrait of the Indian Elephant and Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief – the last an insightful look at behind-the-scenes Bollywood).
Stephen’s stunning daughter Shibani, who lives in Delhi, writes film scripts and has been working with the production team of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. Erin, the son of John Alter (a poet and teacher in the States and the brother of Marty and Tom) is a fish farmer and environmentalist who has been working on a project in the upper reaches of the Ganga to restore the environment and the fish population.
You would need a book to cover all the Alter-natives – the many Alters who continue to keep their connection to India intact. Perhaps one of them will write it one day. For me, the evening brought back memories of the sooji halwa Marty and I made in Connecticut College. It may have been lumpy and too sweet but it had the fragrance of home.
MADHU JAIN IS AN AUTHOR AND A JOURNALIST. SHE WRITES FOR SEVERAL PUBLICATIONS AND IS CURRENTLY WORKING ON HER SECOND BOOK. SHE ALSO CURATES ART SHOWS.
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