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.
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.
“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.
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?