All posts by Chandra

Satsumas in Autumn

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.

The summer of 2019

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.

Fixing the blinds

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.

An immigrant again

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.

London

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.

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.