Life | Alter-Native Story

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Alter-Native Story
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:
“Namaste. Aap kaise ho?” she asked, joining her palms together at just the right height. I was flummoxed. Her hair was long, straight and the colour of burnished straw, her eyes the blue of a cloudless New England sky. Here we were on the campus of Connecticut College. I was probably the first Indian student, and amongst the rare nonwhites in this outreach of Boston Brahmin-hood. The flower people were just about heading for the playing fields of India and Nepal – India was yet to appear on the ‘cool’ map. In fact, for most people there it may not even have been on the map at all.

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:
Dr Martha Alter Chen, in recognition of her work concerning poverty, gender and employment, is decorated with a Padma Shri. We meet later that evening for a dinner with family and friends to celebrate the honour. Marty and her mother ‘Bert’ are still wearing the reddish churidar-kameezes they wore for the ceremony. A sparkling nonagenarian, she has been in India for the last two months, guiding an American woman working on an oral history of her life, much of it spent in India. Marty holds up the medal and scroll, kisses the medal and says that she is happy that her work has been appreciated but what makes her even happier is the fact that “Mother India has recognised me as one of hers”.

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.
Dipping in and out of India over the last three decades she has also spent long stretches of time for in-depth field studies, two of which ended up as books: Perpetual Mourning: Widowhood in Rural India and Coping with Seasonality and Drought in Western India. Like a homing bird, Marty almost unfailingly returns each year to spend Christmas in Landour, near Mussoourie, where the larger Alter clan gathers.

Alter in Bollywood
Meanwhile, back at the celebratory dinner. The day has delivered somewhat of a double whammy to Mrs Alter. Exactly three years ago her son, actor and writer Tom Alter, who has been acting in Indian films for at least three decades, was awarded a Padma Shri for his contribution to cinema and the arts. Mother India never let go of this Alter. The blue-eyed Indian actor of American descent has an Indian passport. Tom has never lived in the United States, apart from a short stint at Yale University, after graduating from Woodstock School in Landour, where his sister Marty and a significant number of Alters also studied.

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).

Going strong
Marty, Tom and Stephen are the grandchildren of American Presbyterian missionaries who came to India in 1916. Looking round that evening last month at all the Alters assembled to toast Marty’s Padma Shri, it suddenly occurred to me that the fourth generation of desi Alters is going strong. Tom was also a sports journalist for major publications, focusing on non-cricket sports. This particular mantle has now gone to his son Jamie, who is a sportswriter based in Mumbai and has written a book on the World Cup.

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.


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