Like the women in Ray and Tagore’s work I find myself today standing by the window, this first day back in Kolkata, still in my airplane clothes, eyes gritty with fatigue and yet unwilling to sleep, because the world is outside these windows and I want to see it and if possible be a part of it. A man passes by carrying a knife sharpening tool on his back. Have you seen them? A block of wood on which is a spinning wheel of sorts that you pedal with your foot like an old sewing machine and you sharpen knives on the wheel. Your body works through it, bending and straightening over the wheel while your hand caresses the edges of the knife testing it for sharpness. A whole family dressed in bright winter woolens pass by. I wonder where they are going. A blue and yellow bus with Alipore Zoo written on it in black paint is stopped to a side. More people in bright sweaters. No blacks or greys or dark blues I suddenly realize, my standard Western garb for winter especially. Two young men, tall and gangly, one in a bright red sweater, the other in a white one. I am loving the colors. It lifts me into being in India and even in this fatigued jet lagged state I want more. There is the smell of wood burning and food cooking and there are the sounds of horns and bells. Kolkata is pushing me to wake up and take it all in.
For the last couple of days the sun has come out briefly every day, yellow and gold in blue and purple skies and in the evenings the light seems to linger just a little while longer than it normally has during this long dark winter. I feel greedy for the sun, I want to swallow it up, steal it, put it in my bag or pocket and peep at it time to time to let it illuminate my face, I want to keep it jealously for myself, no I can share it as long as I am sure that it is mine and will not go back to its wintery state of unkindness.
This winter has dragged its feet in the muddy verdure of London and I have dragged my own feet too wanting an out from the gloominess of the days. I need sunlight and sunshine and sun rays and sunniness, all things sun. I need it on my skin like a lover need to be touched, I need it in my belly like food, I need it in my brain to be able to write and create, I need it in my heart to be able to love. How do people survive and live and thrive in weathers such as this? Perhaps it is my own shortcoming but why blame myself for this sunless state?
On sidewalks around London Christmas trees are still piled up in their now inglorious state. No lights on them, no decorations, tinsel or ornaments. They block your way sullen and rude as you navigate the sidewalks. They do not comprehend their current state. I see myself reflected in them. They had their glory in the ground and then they were raised to the state of almost worship, at the center of homes and palaces and living rooms, gifts poured at their feet, candles lit around their bowers, families gathered around their branches. Now banished to the sidewalks they lie unclaimed for weeks, not even a decent private burial, they must wither and die next to cemented roads, passing dogs pee on them gladly, such ignoble ends they meet on their backs and sides.
I am impatient and turn my face away from their faded greens and browns as I continue to seek my sun.
This morning I almost had a panic attack in the train. I was the last one to squeeze myself in on the Eastbound Piccadilly train and at the next stop when the doors opened on the other side of me, I realized I was effectively at the bottom of a heap of humanity. An indifferent humanity dressed in black, their ears blocked by headphones, their eyes on their screens or closed or glazed into the fatigue that commuters tend to acquire in the underground realms of travel.
I reminded myself to breathe as I stifled the urge to scream or scramble, four counts of air into my stomach, eight counts slowly out but that was too much to do, so it became three counts into my belly and six out. Rhythmic belly breathing my yoga teacher calls it and it always helps and it did. I can do one more train stop I thought and I did but I couldn’t stay at the bottom of the human pile anymore as the door to the platform at the next stop opened once again on the opposite end to me.
The girl next to whom I was wedged smiled as I squeezed myself in front of her and I was grateful for her smile. Over the duration of the next two stops, I kept inching forward like this, fitting my body and my big backpack like the pieces of a puzzle through the people who stood between me and the exit door until I arrived at it and stood there in relief. Even though I was semi blocking commuters entering the train, it was a relief to step on and off the platforms to allow them in. The illusion that we are free is an important one. When my stop finally arrived I decided to walk the rest of the way to class instead of taking the connecting train.
Early morning downtown London. The stores still closed, the pedestrians limited to the office goers and not the melee of tourists too and I breathed the air, grateful to be out. Several coffee shops tempted me and what I wanted more than anything else before my class was the good old English breakfast tea, in a cup and a pot on a tray, the way it seems only the British serve it anymore. Foyles was open. If you haven’t visited this bookstore and if you are in London, you must. This five or is it six storied bookstore opens at 9 am and not only has the choicest collections of books and paraphernalia, it has a coffeeshop on the fifth level. A sizable room with ample of light and ample of tables and chairs and space and food. At that time of the morning I had my pick and sat next to the windows facing a rooftop garden that was a home created for bees. Bees need all the help they can get, a sign read.
I got my cuppa and read a book. In front of me on the wooden table, the white pot and cup of tea gleamed silver with the light of a new day.
An immigrant is not just a foreigner in her adopted countries, she becomes eventually as much a foreigner to herself. To whom lies her loyalty? To what language or faith or borders?
The view outside my window in London is of other people’s backyards, other people’s native or foreign lives. A white sun umbrella, clothes drying on a rack, plants in pots, a string of lights and voices of children floating from beyond the walls. Airplanes fly overhead every few minutes. I enjoy gazing up at their sleek frames against the colors of the sky. Sometimes they are close enough that I can read some letters and I can guess the countries they are from, sometimes there are letters on the underbelly, QATAR flies by often and yesterday I thought I saw an American flag on the tail of an airplane but the letters on the side of the distant aircraft seemed to spell out Korea. It was all very intriguing.
A neighbor stopped me on the road yesterday. She said she had met my husband and wanted to say hi. We crossed each other again later in the day and she talked some more, mainly about running to pick her four year old and being ready with a empty stroller to whisk her home. I will bring by satsumas to her house today, bright orange, plump with the promise of autumn, gleaming in a brown paper bag.
In the summer of 2019 I moved to London with my husband, our three children, Joey the labradoodle, my mother, eleven thousand five hundred pounds of furniture, several bicycles and twelve suitcases. It felt like the time to leave America. We took all our worldly possessions with us. Nothing to do with Trump. That time had already passed three years ago.
So here we were three years later, with Brexit on the horizon. A graduate program in London. It felt but right to shift base from one form of immigration led life in to another. Brexit and a different form of racism I was warned by some but the reports and monologues from cab drivers around London seemed to indicate that most people in the UK had been misled about Brexit and what it meant and the struggle to get it off the floor was encouraging. Of course it was naïveté on my part to ignore the many who had expressly voted to be separated from Europe but still one must have hope and somewhere to go. But then it is also general foolhardiness to believe that there was anywhere you could go in the world, whether guns in America or daggers in the UK or bombs elsewhere or the melting arctic or a hole in the ozone layer.
Today a month after our arrival in London, we are set to head back to Seattle and California for a couple of weeks to visit family. Everything is work. Marriages, children, education, groceries, bills, of course but just living in times of walls and immigration raids and then more shootings.
New ones. El Paso, Dayton. You can go out to buy school supplies or drink a glass of wine, you will leave your baby or lover or siblings at home and you will not come back. A lifetime ago, more than three years ago in India on a treadmill in a gym early one morning I had watched another American shooting on the news. Somewhere in this blog full of words I have forgotten what I have written about it. Must be some form of despair I have tread over.
July is the hottest month, two hundred and forty nine mass shootings in 2019 in America, the wall will happen, many walls will happen everywhere, bigger walls, higher walls, the best walls you can find anywhere in the world, walls that will blow your mind by what and who it can keep out and who it will keep within, stuck together till shut down or shot down. Until then I have words to write and lists to make and work to do.
This morning as I talked to my husband about transitions being hard and writers needing space and children running wild in the summer and the need to find a rhythm to our days, he told me he was going to get tape to fix the blinds above our bed that breaks every day. Outside the office window a bird is tweeting without stop, only she sounds like a creaking doorway with no stop to it. Around us, the house is waking which normally means one girl calling out to us or to each other or thumping down the steps. I am surrounded in privileges that I don’t know how to use and often can’t even make sense of. These are supposed to be idyllic summer days. The summer days of my children’s youth, of my husband’s and mine before we grow older and most probably little more tired and world worn. And we are in London. My husband goes to speak to the girls, something about no screen time today is met with loud protests, the door to the girls’ room squeaks too, open and shut. I can’t remember what it is I was saying before my husband left to get the tape to repair the blinds.
How long are you here for? they ask me and it gives me pleasure to be able to say confidently, we are here to stay. Back home in America, I heard of the rally cries to Send her back, but what do I say? There is no back for anyone, unless what you really want to say is You of brown/black and other non-white skin go somewhere else. Anywhere but here. The U.K grapples with their own separate voices and sometimes cab drivers talk to me of Brexit with regret or passion or intrigue. On the walk from Wimbledon station to the Wimbledon tennis grounds, a bearded man in grey clothes handed out cold bottles of water in the name of friendship from Muslims in London. There was a sign with something of that order hanging on the fence behind him. I had smiled at him and he bearded and toothy smiled back widely as I took the water gratefully. The cab driver yesterday, a white balding Britisher with an accent I scrambled to keep up with, told me that his mother was an immigrant. I listened to him explain British politics keenly trying to understand the nuances of what he was saying and what he left unsaid. As I stepped off his cab, I wondered at what new and old experiences of immigration awaited me in this new city.
There is no order to the things we have done, no method in the madness, no timeline of events. Here in London to study, the family whirls around itself, planets and moons unto themselves. On the roads of London, we have yet to find a direction. These first days have been spent finding a home and finding schools, seeking a rhythm to the days and nights, walking in circles. We find ourselves in the same places or we find new ones but nothing is what it was a few minutes ago and we keep moving on. Sometimes the children complaining of the distances I make them walk, especially when we lose our way, distracts me from the spaces and the views. A lady in a coffee shop gave me her number and welcomed us to London. Her exact words to me as she wrote her name and number on a pink slip of paper, “If you need a friend, here is my number.” I don’t think anyone has ever said those words to me.
And so it is the year is over and it is but a natural time to take stock. I am walking in downtown Palo Alto bundled up in layers and walking slowly because I feel I must. I have left a hip hop dance class in the middle, before it finished. It was loud, I was out of breath and it was New Year’s Eve, I needed some quiet time. Downtown Palo Alto is just starting to get busy at this time of the morning. Lots of stoic people in blacks and greys. Being an adult is apparently a boring business whether you can afford to live in Silicon valley or whether you are homeless — albeit the latter must be colder.
I slow my pace further, people cross me by, there is purpose in their steps. I am tempted to hurry up even though I am in no rush. I pass by Chico’s, a store I had visited with my mother many months ago and I stop. It must be lonely for those who lost their mother this year like my mother did hers. I think of how she still cries for her even though my grandmother who had had a stroke had not recognized her or her other children in more than two years. Yet, there was a comfort in her body present in the house, there was unity in the siblings who gathered to care for her, for a while longer they came together closer, even as age and adult children left homes and age slowed them down too. While my grandmother was alive, somewhere they were still children. I am still standing outside Chico’s and thinking now of my grandmother. The mannequins in the window in front of me are festive in whites and golds. I think of Didima and how she grew vegetables in her garden, how she loved her children and her prayers and how in the end she forgot them all long before she passed.
I start walking again and think of the three times we moved this year. From a big house to a small house, from Berkeley to Pune to Palo Alto. The movement reflects perhaps my restlessness more than anybody else’s in the family though the entire family reaped the joys and benefits of these migrations. India returned me to myself. As I have written before, being brown was so natural in India that it was only when I returned to India did I realize how that has often weighed on my behaviors and interactions in America, not just the brownness of my skin but the implications of a foreign culture that I carried on my back almost like an invisible hunchback. Returning to America made me realize how America was now irrevocably in my blood, how this was home and there was no escaping that fact either.
As defining as the exit was, so was the return. Life here means all the more to all of us now. I do not take for granted the securities and systems that define this country. I am grateful for the trash cans on the sidewalk, for traffic signals that work, for the assurance that my girls will grow up equal and free. I think of a friend who tells me how her aunt in India has had eight abortions because each fetus was a girl. Sex determination during pregnancy is illegal in India but it takes just a little bribe and abortions are readily performed. So many unwanted girls…
Such a pity. A country with so much promise, homes full of warmth, so much kinships and friendships and such easy open honesty, so much deep intelligence and history and traditions and rituals full of beauty and color and purpose and meaning. So much that is growing, so much that is not changing- still. There is no conclusion to this piece. No final last line that can neatly tie together this package, this experience of going back to one’s roots and coming back to one’s present. A new year is starting and there are no certainties, just hope. And in the closing of a year marked by violence around the globe, that hope has to be enough.
We are on our way back from Pondicherry to Pune. My brother bid adieu to his life as a bachelor and we are returning now three days after his wedding. I had been running steadily for a few months now alternating with trainings in a gym. Emulating Murukami in my mind, I have been racking up my humbler set of kilometers daily. The rains in Chennai, one of the worst in a hundred years had flooded the city and after a night divided between lying on the airport floor, in a hotel lobby and on the floor of a hotel room I secretly paid a bribe for, we arrived at Pondicherry after a eight and a half hour drive braving floods that swept across the roads.
In Pondicherry, I kept my running promise to myself and every morning no matter how hard the rains, I was on the beach, with and against the winds, often soaked under my thin raincoat. Willpower is an interesting thing. The more you want it, the more it slips away like sand gripped too tight in a fist. And yet, the very effort of trying and trying and trying, day after day after day, even when you do not want to, weaves around you and inside of you a cloak. And on mornings of heavy rain, me and a few others like me, proved to our selves the meaning of our lives on the isolated beach front. Some ran, some walked and some like me did both. A brilliant ocean wild in the colors and moods of the monsoons danced next to me. The wind hard against my body bent my resolve many a time. Not just the resolve to run but the resolve to try.
Many years ago I was in a car accident that laid me up in bed for six months. When I once almost lost the joy of inhabiting my body, I vowed never to take for granted again the dignity of being able to carry your own bags, the flight of a body that can bend over a bicycle. But the wind that pushed against my body in this small southern town this last week brought my darkest doubts about myself to my face. Returning to your childhood home is a hard feat on it’s own. Growing up in a small and tightly knit town, marked out as an odd duck, I must bear the burden of my past in these visits. “Why do you run now when you did not when you were younger? Why are you so thin? Why do you not eat more? Why run in the rain? Are you trying to lose more weight?” Since the purpose of my running ran too deep and too close to my heart for casual discussion, I had to live with the scrutiny.
The odd duck is still odd, though now in a new and different way. One can never go back home. And so, I faced the wind on the beach- side road and felt still the weakness of my childbirths in my core, felt still the ferocity of my doubts about myself and my abilities. The aim? To run a marathon one day. The way? Rack up the miles one by one by one. I ran against that wind, my feet slowed, my body bent, those doubts buzzing irritably in my ears like mosquitos.
In long walks with a childhood friend, in solitary musings on the rocks facing the sea; I discussed, mulled, rebelled. My brother is now married happily, so I will hope. I have left behind again the city of my childhood and significantly in a week we return to America. The Indian sejour is over. When we left Chennai, the rains had eased, the waters receded and yet thousands in the city were still stranded; their homes and belongings seeped and still soaked in waters from the sky, the roads, the drains. Everything in this world is conjoined in a fantastical dream. I have no time to keep, no race I wish to win, just that distance. And the hope that this exertion, this very self-doubt and the act of pushing on and against, shall keep me alive to myself and the life I must lead.