Bending tradition – An 18 year old from Pawtucket finds her own way to live in two cultures

By Lynn Arditi
Published May 8, 2005

Monica Miglani and her mother, Rashmi, on their way to Monica’s interview at Suffolk University, in Boston.Monica was nervous. Her father, Vinod, drove. The Providence Journal / Gretchen Ertl
Monica Miglani and her mother, Rashmi, on their way to Monica’s interview at Suffolk University, in Boston.Monica was nervous. Her father, Vinod, drove. The Providence Journal / Gretchen Ertl

By Lynn Arditi
Journal Staff Writer

Monica Miglani steps into the kitchen one morning and finds her mom praying into the cabinet.

Her mom’s head is bowed; her fingertips are touching.

Inside the cabinet, faces gaze out from framed pictures: the elephant god, empowered to remove obstacles; the four-armed goddess of knowledge.

This article was published on Page A1 in The Providence Journal, May 8, 2005.
This article was published on Page A1 in The Providence Journal, May 8, 2005.

Come, her mom tells her, and pray in front of the god.

Monica is 18, with her father’s dark hair and brown eyes. A diamond stud glints from the left corner of her nose, like the one her mom used to wear, as a girl growing up in Bombay.

But Monica was born and raised in America. Home is a duplex a few blocks from her parents’ laundromat, in Pawtucket.

The Miglanis (Mig-lon-ees) have raised their daughter in the Hindu faith.

On the morning of her first college interview, Monica wishes she had more faith in herself.

What if I stumble? she thought. What if I just stop – if I can’t think of an answer?

Monica’s parents, immigrants from India, always say that education is the path to enlightenment — and to material comforts. Success is measured by whether your daughter or son gets into a good college, becomes a doctor or an engineer.

Monica prefers people to books. Her grandmother still calls from India and asks, Is Mona studying?

On this January morning, Monica takes her place at the cabinet, the family’s shrine.

She wears black slacks that hug her narrow hips, and a sweater that shows off a slim waist. The flat-screen TV on the wall, on which her dad usually watches CNN, is silent. A buttery aroma fills the room.

She closes her eyes.

She prays: Hopefully, Bhagwan, I do well on this interview and get into Suffolk, Bhagwan, hopefully. . . .

Afterward, her mother extends a cupped hand with sugar crystals, the size of babies’ teeth. She’s prayed over this offering to the gods. Now she offers them to her daughter, for good luck.

Monica puts the crystals into her mouth.

MONICA’S PARENTS expect their daughter to get a college education, to become a professional. They do not, however, expect her to go far from home.

In their gentle way, they had made their wishes known. They would prefer that their younger daughter stay in Rhode Island. It’s been hard enough having their older daughter, Neha, away at college in Philadelphia.

Monica wants to go away to school – if not to New York, at least to Boston.

“I don’t want to be like them Indian girls,” she says. “I want to be independent.”

For Indian immigrants, America can feel like a test of faith. American teenagers flaunt their independence and sexuality. So how does the American daughter of Indian parents react when she’s told how to dress, or with whom she can go out?

During the last decade, the number of people in the United States who claim Indian ancestry has soared 135 percent, to 1.8 million. About 3,400 of them live in Rhode Island, according to the 2000 census.

Monica Miglani lives at this cultural crossroads. She speaks Hindi, and English with a Rhode Island accident. She’s plastered a picture of heartthrob Justin Timberlake on the inside of her bedroom door. Monica’s usual look is low-cut jeans, shirts that barely cover her belly and Diesel sneakers or Jordans (unlaced).

But house rules are strict. No miniskirts. No sleepovers. No dating.

The last time Monica tried to wear a thigh-high skirt to a family party, her dad made her go home and change. Once, Monica asked if she could get her bellybutton pierced. Her dad’s answer was a flat no.

Still, Vinod Miglani has made compromises. The skimpy shirts Monica wears to school are one example. “I don’t like that,” Vinod says, “but I have no choice. I don’t want to fight all the time.”

Monica complains loudly and often about the no-dating rule.

“They think like a lot of Indian parents,” she says. “If you have a boyfriend, you have to marry him.”

She tells her parents, “You have to expect us to do stuff in the society that we live in, not the society in India.”

Monica has been known to wear down her parents with her pleading. She doesn’t like to sneak around.

“My parents are the world to me,” she says. “They’re like my feet.”

ON THE MORNING of his daughter’s interview at Suffolk University, in Boston, Vinod Miglani awakens early. He dresses in a pressed white shirt and tie; suit pants.

Vinod — “Vinny” to his American friends — had been laid off a few weeks earlier from his job operating molding machines that make plastic auto parts at Texas Instruments in Attleboro. The company, he was told, was shipping the jobs to Mexico and China. He had just turned 50.

These days, Vinod keeps tabs on the family’s Sunshine Laundromat, in Pawtucket, while looking to start a new business.

On the way to Boston, the Miglanis stop at the Dunkin’ Donuts next door to the laundromat. Vinod, who owns half the plaza, chats with customers. Monica orders an iced coffee — hazelnut with skim milk and Splenda.

She picks up the cup and the top pops off. Coffee splatters her slacks and lands in a puddle on the floor. Monica looks on the verge of tears.

Her dad ducks behind the counter and grabs a mop. With concentration and care, he mops up his daughter’s spill.

“Dad!” says Monica, embarrassed, dabbing at her pants with a wad of napkins, trying to blot out the moment.

MONICA REALIZED during her freshman year at Saint Raphael Academy that she felt different from her classmates. She remembers just one other Indian girl at the school.

One day shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Monica recalls, she opened her locker and gasped. Inside, someone had taped a poster of Osama bin Laden.

Monica suspected that a boy in her class was responsible. She confronted him. He denied it. She punched him. They were both suspended.

Monica’s feeling of being out of place at the school deepened. Then her first-quarter grades arrived home. She had failed math. To continue at the school, she would have to double up on math and go to tutoring.

Monica refused. Her parents enrolled her at Pawtucket’s William E. Tolman Senior High School.

Monica “slacked” her way through her sophomore year at Tolman, while her older sister, Neha, on scholarship at Temple University, loaded up on chemistry, biology, computer applications, law and statistics

“I was compared a lot to my sister,” says Monica, “and my sister did really, really well, so that’s hard.”

The turning point came during Monica’s junior year, when her dad was still working at Texas Instruments. One afternoon, Monica recalls, she and her mom were arguing and her mom drove her to the plant where her dad worked. Monica watched her dad load auto parts into cardboard boxes.

This, he told her, is reality.

Monica tried harder at school. Now a senior, she has been earning A’s and B’s, except for a C in math. She serves on the principal’s advisory board and counsels freshmen on making the transition to high school.

The corridors at Tolman are loud, and Monica raises her voice to be heard.

“How was the quiz?” she calls out to a friend.

“It was easy.”

“So you can help me?” Monica says, running up and affectionately tugging at the back of her friend’s sweatshirt.

Monica’s friends are Cape Verdean and Venezuelan and African-American. She has a nickname for them: the ghetto fabulous people. They listen to rap music and hang out at the Providence Place mall.

One morning in psychology class, as the teacher collects papers, Monica chats with a classmate about a party the previous Friday.

“That’s good that your parents don’t care that you have a boyfriend,” says Monica. “Your dad’s cooler than mine.”

Monica says she is “not the typical Indian girl.”

“I’m very opinionated,” she says. “I say what I think. I don’t hide things from my parents.”

Monica says she is not dating yet, so there is nothing to tell. “When it’s my time to tell my parents I have a boyfriend,” she says, “I’ll tell my parents. I’m not gonna hide it.”

One night, Monica recalls, her dad picked up her cell phone, checked the address book, and noticed several names of boys. She was so embarrassed that she shrieked and ran upstairs to her mom.

MONICA’S PARENTS met only twice before they were married.

Vinod is the son of a Punjabi gold and silver merchant. Rashmi is the daughter of an American-educated manager of a large shoe company in Bombay. She grew up riding in chauffeur-driven cars. He came from Ludhiana, a town about a five-hour drive from the capital, New Delhi, where he had worked in a family pharmaceuticals business.

At age 22, he left India during a time of political turmoil. At 28, he was living in Canada when he decided it was time to get married. As tradition dictated, he asked his parents to find him a suitable wife.

The family arranged for Vinod to meet Rashmi when he came back to India to visit.

Vinod describes that first meeting like a boy recalling his first kiss. Rashmi, he says, was “very, very skinny.”

He smiles and looks away. “I wasn’t so sure,” he says. “She wasn’t sure either.”

Vinod says his father assured him that marriage would fatten her up, adding, “You can’t have everything; you have to give up something.”

They married in India. She stayed with her mother in Bombay while he settled into a new job at Texas Instruments in Attleboro, near his sister.

Even now, 20 years later, Vinod squirms at the looseness of American courtships.

How does he feel about dating before marriage?

“It’s not easy question to me,” he says, searching for the words. “These days are different than my old days. I’m still maybe a little bit old-fashioned, to tell you the truth.”

He is against premarital sex. Period. “There’s no respect,” he says, adding, “doesn’t matter if girl or boy.”

What kind of young man, he says, would want to marry a girl who has been with so many boys?

But Monica has let her dad know that she plans to date before she marries.

“This is what kids want,” he says, shrugging. “They want to know each other more, so this is not up to us.”

He folds his arms over his chest. “The way my feeling is,” he says, “our kids are gonna tell us everything.”

THERE ARE PARTIES, and there are family parties. On this cold night in January, Monica and her parents have been invited to a reception for a newly married Indian couple.

Monica gets her hair trimmed and blow-dried at a Pawtucket salon called Xpression Cutz.

Do you want your make-up done, too? the hairdresser asks.

“No,” says Monica. “It’s only like a family party.”

All of the Miglanis’ close Indian friends — Monica’s “aunties” and “uncles” — attend these gatherings. She can already hear their questions.

Where are you applying? You want to be a doctor? You want to be a dentist? . . .

Monica rehearses her responses, and tells herself, “I don’t care what people think about me. I don’t.”

Home from the hairdresser’s, Monica puts on a CD of Punjabi dance music and turns up the volume. A friend from Bryant College who was invited to the party ducks into the bathroom to get dressed.

Monica’s mom serves steaming cups of homemade chai. Rashmi Miglani, 46 and petite, wears an Indian-print shift that hangs to the floor.

Monica slips on a salwar kameez (sal-var ka-meez) — tunic and matching pantaloons — and checks herself in her mom’s mirror.

“Ma, should I wear a necklace? Is it too plain?”

Rashmi ducks into the closet. She reappears with a box filled with colorful glass bangles. Monica picks out a glittery purpleish-blue one and holds it up to her tunic.

“It doesn’t even match, Mom!”

“How about these?” Rashmi holds up a Ziploc bag filled with more bangles. She dumps the bangles on her bed.

“This is blue,” says Monica, pointing to her tunic.

Monica picks through the bangles, which jingle like coins. Purple. Pink. Silver. Gold.

She counts out six blue and six gold. She tries to push one over her wrist. Snap! Broken glass flies to the rug.

“One down!” says Monica.

“Mom, I can’t wear these!” she says, blaming her “fat” hands.

“Put on soap,” her mom replies, gesturing to a bottle on the dresser.

“This is so ghetto,” Monica complains, greasing up.

She tries again. Snap! . . . Snap! . . . Snap!

“Doesn’t matter,” says her mom, waving her hand dismissively.

Rashmi owns more bangles than she can count. They are thinner and lighter than the precious gold bangles that she wore, and that her mother wore, on their wedding days, or the gold bangles she will someday give to Monica, to wear on her wedding day. A bride’s bangles.

Beautiful. Fragile. Binding.

Monica insists that her mom go to the party in her own car. Monica’s dad has already gone ahead of them. Monica drives with her Bryant college friend and arrives, as planned, “fashionably late.”

The reception hall is packed. Indian women draped in pink, aqua and yellow light up the room. A group clusters around a woman wearing an elaborately embroidered red langa — a midriff top and long skirt.

Red, white and gold bangles cover her forearms like jeweled cuffs. The bride.

A video of the wedding in India flashes across a large-screen TV behind the buffet tables. The room pulses with Indian dance music.

Monica abandons her plate of spiced chicken and peas to dance, slipping off her Nine West stilettos. She huddles, barefoot, with a group of young Indian women. They move their hips and raise their arms, hands turning like birds in flight.

MONICA HAS already been accepted at The New York Institute of Technology, in Manhattan. But her mother wants her to stay closer to home, and she hasn’t heard yet from Suffolk University, in Boston.

“I feel like it’s my karma,” she says, one Saturday afternoon in March. “God has already planned it for me. If I didn’t get it, it’s God’s will.”

Monica slumps at the kitchen counter, eating a bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Her dad is visiting family in India. He calls and asks, Any news?

Monica needs distraction. She picks up the TV clicker and channel-surfs.

Her mom stands over the stove, frying spinach, onion and ground chick-pea batter for pakora. Next to the stove, the cabinet door is open.

Rashmi built the shrine in a cabinet. In Bombay, they had kept their shrine in a special room where they prayed, but their Pawtucket duplex has no spare room. She considered the closet, but where would you sit?

So she cleared out the oak-and-formica cabinet next to the Nautilus gas stove, below the shelves where she keeps boxes of Quick Tea and Muller’s macaroni.

Monica sets her cereal bowl in the sink and announces to her mother that she’s going to get her bellybutton pierced.

Her mom continues to work around the kitchen. Vinod is in India.

“It’s OK with me,” her mom says, turning away so Monica can’t see her smiling.

“He won’t make me take it out,” says Monica. “Ma, do you think he’ll make me take it out?”

Her mom shrugs and raises a hand as if to say, Don’t ask me!

Monica calls her best friend, Eliana, and asks her to come along. Eliana’s been through the bellybutton-piercing routine.

The man at the East Coast Tattoo and Body Piercing studio, on Atwells Avenue, in Providence, is tall, with a goatee and hair past his shoulders.

Monica rolls up her shirt.

He snaps a pair of black rubber gloves onto his hands and swabs her smooth, brown belly with alcohol.

“How long you in the States?” he asks.

“My whole life.”

Finding the right spot to pierce involves one black Sharpe pen and great patience. Monica giggles nervously.

For 20 minutes, he dots and swabs until he is satisfied that he’s marked just the right spot.

Time to pierce. Monica lies on the table and squeezes Eliana’s hand. He clamps. She sucks in air.

“Ok, now. . . . Just take a nice, deep breath in . . .”

ON MONDAY, Monica arrives home from school to find an envelope unopened, addressed to her, on the kitchen table.

Her mom is busying herself in the kitchen, crushing cardamom with a mortar and pestle for chai.

Monica drops her knapsack on the kitchen floor and picks up the large, white envelope. It’s from Suffolk. Silence.

She carefully tears it open. Out comes a glossy blue folder with “Suffolk University” in gold.

She reads the letter softly. Several seconds pass.

“I got in!” she shouts, and throws her arms around her mother.

Monica releases her embrace and stares again at the letter.

Her mom, sniffling, walks to the shrine and bows.

* * *

Hear Monica Miglani and her parents talk about their lives, against a backdrop of more photos, in a multimedia telling of this story, at:

* * *

In Boston, Monica gets a hug from her father before her college interview. “My parents are the world to me,” she says. “They’re like my feet.”

* * *

Monica Miglani and her mother, Rashmi, on their way to Monica’s interview at Suffolk University, in Boston. Monica was nervous. Her father, Vinod, drove.

* * *

The Miglani family’s Hindu shrine.

* * *

Monica dances to bhangra (bung-gra). The party, at a church hall in Pawtucket, celebrates a wedding that took place in India.

* * *

In her mother’s bedroom before the party, Monica puts on several of her mother’s fragile glass bangles. That’s her mother behind her.

* * *

Monica, with her best friend Eliana beside her, gets her bellybutton pierced. Monica got her mother’s permission. “It’s OK with me,” her mom says. But her father was away in India. “He won’t make me take it out,” Monica says. “Ma, do you think he’ll make me take it out?”

* * *

Monica celebrates her acceptance letter from Suffolk University, in Boston.

* * *

Rashmi prays at the family’s kitchen-cabinet shrine. In India, Rashmi’s family put the shrine in a small room. That didn’t work in Pawtucket.

Photographs by Gretchen Ertl / The Providence Journal