Taking stock

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.

Return

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.

Running

When I was thirty eight years old, I started to run.  My knees always curved inwards from birth, knocked against each other, my thighs rubbed their flesh amicably together, my stomach drooped, my upper body in an arc unable to hold up my frame after the birth of my three daughters. Still I ran. On a school track in Berkeley, my then trainer pregnant with her first child walked in circles and I ran. Speedy runners, professional runners, real runners with lanky frames and long strides ran past me, still I ran. In the rain, drenched and stooped I stuck my chin in and I ran slowly and in the pace my body asked of me. “You know I can see you are determined,”a lady who ran past me every day for a month said one day,” But your technique is not going to get your far. You see you must be…” I listened. I turned around and I resumed what I was doing. I ran. My brother, a few inches shorter than me and a runner in his youth, ran with me one day and told me, “You know you are jogging, not running.” I listened to him and I ran. I am five feet eight inches tall. I can imagine the frustration of those blithe runners who must want me to spread my feet like a soaring bird and cross the miles in easy stride. I can imagine them willing me, wanting me to do better for my own sake and their own. Since that time almost two years ago, I have run half a marathon and several races. Only I have never raced, I have run and I have finished every one of those runs. My stoop is better, the muscles around my core and my legs gradually working themselves into a better strength. I stand straighter, I stand taller but that has almost nothing to do with my muscles. I run because I am. In my mind, I am slow like a giraffe perhaps across the savannah, like a gazelle in slow motion amidst green woods, like a small bird against a blue sky trying to spread her wings and be an eagle. My headphones go into my ear and I wear braces around my knees. I run and sometimes the air comes rushing and sometimes the air comes slow but always the air comes-  into my head, into my heart, into my words, into my silences. That air gives me life. That air gives meaning and it doesn’t matter whether I am here in India. In that time, my feet come up and down one after the other like the rhythm of my heart- tap, tap, tap, tap. Who am I to judge the intentions of others, their motives, their wishes, their actions, their hurts, their disappointments, their angers, their travails, their injuries inflicted on themselves or on the world? In that moment, when the soles of the feet brush against the ground and rise again and fall, I am born and reborn to live, I am pure and I am as free from the travails of adulthood as I imagine I can ever be.

A message in a bottle

Such the days have passed. Thanksgiving upon us already and here we are in India. Do we need another festival? Since we have come, we have had Ganesha Puja, Navratri, Diwali, Durga Puja, Kali Puja, Lakshmi Puja and Eid- twice. Nothing Christian has come to my notice. That is strange. We have lit candles, bought statues in golds and reds, we have drowned some of them in waters, some sit still on a shelf adorned with flowers I forget to change, we have burst firecrackers, we have eaten sweets devoted particularly to each deity and festival. The Goddesses have come fierce and bold and beautiful. We have danced in circles like pagans around a fire, like swirling dervishes, like flocks of birds skimming the water.

I wear dark glasses like a film star in disguise and sit working in coffee shops. I have been accepted into NYU. The realization of a dream more terrifying than the dreaming of it and my fingers are often frozen on the keyboard. Next week, families and friends across America will come together to give thanks. A custom now completely disassociated from its humble beginnings, as is perhaps all customs in the world. Indians and actually all non assimilated, non believing Americans or immigrants will travel during these holidays or stay home and meet over buffets of their own food- curries and baklavas and shawarmas and other such. Inculcated now in an American family, we do turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy. Never a turkey eater, I have taken my share of what seemed like thin pink overcooked or undercooked slice hoping no one noticed that I did not know how to eat it. Now, sitting here in Pune in my dark glasses, my head bowed over this keyboard, I wonder idly whether I should try and replicate a thanksgiving meal for our children; trying to keep America alive in India, the way we did with India in America. I imagine myself scouring the few Western groceries for turkey and I wince at the thought and wonder if chicken would do instead.

Soon Christmas will follow. ” Does Santa come to India?” the girls have asked. “Yes indeed,” we have assured them. “But there are no chimneys,” asks our oldest, ever the stickler for details. We splutter through our explanations. “Is she on it finally?” I wonder. I hope so, she is soon going to be ten. And so it is like magical bottles on swirling green seas, we, this family of five foreign and yet not so foreign on foreign and yet on not so foreign lands float, twist, turn and bounce. We have messages we carry. We just don’t know what they are- yet.

The two is one and the one is two

“Duality is the nature of all things,” I was at the chiropractor’s office, lying face down on the his table as he gently massaged my neck and said these words. I have been thinking about this the whole day. My chiropractor, a ninety two year old Australian gentleman has lived for more than forty years I have heard in Pune, as eloquent with his words as he is with his treatment. India and duality. The woman worshipped as mother and goddess, aborted illegally still. Hindus and Muslims, neighbors and friends made foes by a line drawn through their neighborhoods, made enemies then and still now by warring politicians.  So much affluence and color, so much poverty, stark and dark. So much to take, so little to give. I have mulled on these dualities and everywhere I have turned today they have stared me in my face daring me to write about my own. I demur and turn elsewhere.

I think of a man I met last night. Erudite, higher than middle class education, intelligence and earning, a lover of bikes and travel. At his house, his mother shows me a picture of a prospective bride. A protruding tooth is offensive but could be removed. The long curly hair too curly but can perhaps be straightened and styled? She must be educated but be willing to care for the house, to cook, to clean, to be molded like clay, like art, like words, like plastic. I laugh, I smile. I hide the dualities of my responses. I swallow bitter bile. The evening is replete with home cooked food.

Later this day, I am on my way to Pondicherry. In the middle of the sky, suspended between the clouds and sky, the airplane trembles. I type my words fiercely and quickly. My ferocity masks my fear of flying. I know in a moment these words can fall from the sky and mean nothing. And if I continue, these and all those thoughts and expressions tripping at the tip of my tongue can still exist and can still mean nought.

An Indian but a foreigner or is it the other way around?

Into our fifth month in this Indian sejour and I think the novelty might finally be wearing away. We had applied for the OCI or otherwise called the Overseas Indian Citizenship which would allow me to stay in India without needing a visa. All the required paperwork was filed in the FRO, Foreign Registrar’s Office in Mumbai. I was told nothing further was needed from me. Then the calls started to come. A constable from the local office in Pune called every few days, ” I need to come and verify your house address.” He would say. “I will come today,” he would say and then not turn up till he did this evening- unannounced. I was feeding the children dinner and stayed away while my husband met him.

I could hear his loud voice through the concrete walls. After a half hour he left. He had given my husband a long list of more documents he wanted and had said he would return. My husband offered to go to his office. He insisted he would return. While showing his badge, he showed my husband his wallet full of thousand rupee notes. Asking for a bribe is punishable by law in India. I see it on road corners every day. Police in dusty brown and white uniforms stopping hapless motorcyclists, the furtive exchanges in return for freedom. And even though every single document he requested to see today were all already shown, verified and given to the main office in Mumbai, the officer today wanted those and more. Documents like the C Form which all foreigners must have but which we were told on arrival at the police station that we did not need because my husband had a PIO card, a Person of Indian Origin card. He insisted today we needed it. He wants my birth certificate even though I am an American Citizen and was born in Iran. He wants bank statements. While our rental leases and utilities bills proved our residence, apparently these were not enough. He has promised to return.

I feel a dejection in my heart. So much pride, so much nostalgia, so much joy to be able to return to one’s country after more than a decade on foreign lands. And today I feel I have been wishful and whimsical for that which does not exist- India, my motherland. What rights do I have to claim residency in a country I am more bound by my ancestors, language and skin color than anything else? Does it matter that I am more alive here than I have been  in a long time? Does it matter that my tongue revels in the other languages I can now speak freely? That my body thrills in clothes I shy away from wearing in America out of an abhorrence towards being stared at? I told my husband I would like to leave. Maybe not to return to America. Now a foreigner in so many uncountable ways in India, perhaps other shores shall always beckon till the whole world can symbolically become home?

Stranded

India is becoming America. Imagine the squiggly border lines turning and twisting. No, imagine its spirit shape shifting to reach out and become another country. Every day, little things that I turned my nose up at in America turns up to taunt and mock me here. “Doors are always open in India,”  I used to tell Tom when we would go for our walks in Berkeley and Kensington. I would count the closed doors as idle past-time. There, no one sitting on their porches, no grand-parents playing with children, no friendly neighbors stopping to say hi and catch up on gossip and news and impromptu discussions over chai, no faces at all there actually on those walks, solitariness amidst rows of houses, surreal amidst fogs and mists rising from the bay. Plenty of faces here on the roads, plenty of impromptu tete a tetes over chai, but now no open doors, not at least where I live, an upscale neighborhood with bungalows and security guards. Doors decorated with artificial garlands of marigolds, myriad colored chains with images of deities and inscriptions hanging around wooden frames and sometimes the deities themselves lording over from atop and center of the closed doors; all shimmering and faded in the dust and smoke from cars and burning garbage.

A Birthday. It took me a while in America to get used to the concept that siblings were often not invited. “What? Why? Splutter. Mean. Rotten. Inhospitable.”  I never bit my words then, and now I have to unfortunately swallow them. ” S.. would like to have this birthday only among her friends,” wrote a mom in one of my daughter’s classes in reply to my husband’s question if we could bring her siblings, especially as this event was particularly far from our house. But, but… this is not supposed to happen in India. Athiti devo Bhavo, the guest is God, even India tourism uses the line now to entice foreign visitors who have presumably never been treated as a God. This is how we do it in the West, we do not accommodate beyond our perceived limits. This is how we used to do it in India, no one is turned away. Apparently not any more.

What do I do now with this new India, in this new India? One can never run away. To belong no where is the plight of the castaway who left child-hood homes, got lost in waters and stranded then in new lands, islands with unknown names, strange inhabitants, customs and habits, continents you try to call home, lands where you even build a habitat, where you pretend to belong until the pretension seeps your life force out slowly, gently, surely through your ears, through your nostrils, through your toes and the tips of your fingers until finally through your heart, you can feel life and love gently seeping out like… death and that is when you know you must leave. This happened in America for me. Such curiosity now for India, this land that was mine and now no more, for this country so old, so new, for myself who belonged and now perhaps no more?

Guns in America- An Opinion

On the treadmill in my gym every morning, American news comes trickling in on Indian news channels, on little news flashes appearing at the bottom of the screen. Sikh Indian mistaken for a Taliban and assaulted, boy who brings home-made clock to school is suspected of bringing a bomb and then yesterday nine killed in a school shooting- again.

Do I miss the news from other parts of the world or is it really only in America that this happens again and again and again? I remember even when I was new to America I was scared of who would have a gun and who would shoot you because of — nothing. It is what distinguishes America from almost every other country in the world. Gun violence.

How does this work? This whole freedom of gun thing, how does it work along with freedom of speech and freedom for religion and all other freedoms? How is it that a country so advanced in every field allows a young man to even own more than half a dozen guns and there is no red alert as to why he should have so many guns;  but a man with the name of Ahmed or Khan or Khalil can not go through  security checks without being pulled aside for additional “random” checks, even if he has no history of ever owning a gun? How many children and students have to die from crazy or depressed or “Satan” loving lonely men, and mark you mostly men, who decide to kill as many as he can before ending his own life or being killed.

I had a friend whose family member was a victim of gun violence. The girl had worked hard to get through nursing school. She was killed in the Oikos University Shooting in 2012. And just like that a life was over. America, the land of dreams, the land of guns. Freedom to own guns is in the constitution. How outdated is this constitution then? “America has 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but almost half of the civilian-owned guns around the world — enough to arm every adult in the country.” Researchers point out that owning more guns leads to more gun violence even after taking into account socio-economic factors.

Meanwhile President Obama asks for support from Congress, newspapers and television channels bring flashes of the faces and lives of the most recent victims and families struggle to continue to try and continue with their lives. So much senseless violence in a troubled world. This morning there was a dead cat in the middle of the road I was crossing. I went near to see if there was any hope. There wasn’t. Probably hit by a speeding vehicle. Lying in the middle of a road. A small pool of blood. Nothing to do. Move on. In America repeated deaths in schools by gun violence has become like that. Come close. Inspect. Ruminate. Decry. Move on.

Ganesha is in the water

Ganeshas merged into the waters around this city and across the state. Eleven days he was worhshipped in homes, on public stages. Statues carried in arms, on bikes, on tractors, on cars, on bullock carts, on cycles, on lorries. The stature of the worshippers reflected in the medium of the Elephant God’s carriage. The waters around the city are full of him, in mud that will melt seeped with his colors, in plastics that will pollute. Dams release more water to make place for the gods jostling for space on the river beds.

The prime-minister of India was near my home towns in Silicon Valley. He was in landmarks around the towns where I first lived, breathed and tasted America. He has promised a digital India, he has promised innovation, he has spoken with pride of the brain “deposit”; of all the Indian talent that has left Indian shores for a better life in America. Indians crowded the venues of his speeches, proud and patriotic. Indians who love India but rarely come back to live here clapped and posted on Facebook. Meanwhile, while the Ganeshas merge into the city waters and the prime minister shares the Facebook excitement of a digital India, of internet for everyone; a man is killed by a mob because he is suspected of having beef in his fridge for dinner, a husband is arrested because his wife falls off his bike and dies when the bike stumbles over a massive pothole on the road, farmer widows collect compensation for their husbands who have killed themselves defeated by an indifferent monsoon and government, children on the side of the road continue to beg and work to support themselves, brides are still traded in marriage along with the worth of their dowries, pollution compels women to cover themselves in scarves and ride their bikes like bandits in broad day-light, Dalit farmers convert to Islam to save themselves from centuries of abuse from the high caste Hindus in their villages and I, I  navigate human, cow and dog waste on the sidewalks I walk on.

An Ode

My grand-mother had a bald spot on top of her head. Women are known to have hair loss that can lead to balding, the causes quite different from those in men, ranging from skin diseases to errant hormones. In my grandmother’s case, it was attributed to the vermilion she put generously in her hair parting. The family surmised that the chemicals in the various brands of vermilion she used containing traces of dubious metals could have been the cause of her balding. It was a shiny patch, that bald spot, and she took meticulous care of the rest of her tresses, combing them out constantly until she knotted them in a small shiny mass at the back of her head. She could not hear very well. She burst an ear drum during the birth of her youngest daughter. Her hearing aid squeaked and shrieked loudly when she turned the volume all the way up. The listener was assured that she was doing her best and something could possibly trickle in leading to a possible conversation.

She was a stickler for rituals, my Didima. She refused to eat before she showered. She undressed completely before she went to the bathroom. She prayed to her Gods in her prayer room for hours. When my grand-father died, she rubbed the vermilion off from her forehead never to put it on again. She was forbidden from eating fish and meat and onion and garlic. She wore white for the rest of her life. Her other habits though remained the same. The prayers, the chanting, the singing of hymns, the flowers placed in front of the deities, the particular ways of cleanliness that involved every item from the bed being cast off, brushed and dusted when the bed was made every morning.

She was aging well enough, managing without the fish she could never have imagined living without when her husband was still alive. I like to imagine that those fish oils kept her brain alert and could have maybe averted the stroke that eventually laid her in bed for three years before she died. It is whimsical and perhaps non-scientific of me. For the last few years of her life, after the stroke, she gradually stopped recognizing her children, she slowly forgot the hymns she sang every day, like a baby she had to wear a diaper all the time and her children kept her clean.  Sometimes lying in bed, she brought her palms together in prayer and bowed her head; her body remembering what her mind had erased. After she broke a hip, she stayed in bed almost all the time. Did they make her bed every day for her just the way she used to like it or did it stop mattering like everything else? One of the last words she said before she died was the pet name of her youngest daughter who sat next to her when she breathed her last. Did she recognize her? I like to hope so.

Life has a curious way of coming around. I am always on the alert for it. I make sure my mother changes her hair parting every day and I do the same for my daughters and myself. I cannot sleep in my bed unless it is completely free of any grime. I am the princess with the pea, jumping out and upset if I feel grains of dust or sand left by the feet of my children. My youngest aunt, the one whose name Didima took before dying is getting bald too. She has problems with her ears. My mother, my aunts and uncles are now without parents. It will happen to me. Whose names will come to our mind in our end? Will anything we care for matter then? I rarely put vermilion in the parting of my hair.

An American family moves to India for a year.