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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
There is a dog outside our gates with a bulging, hanging growth under his tail. He sits down carefully, never placing his rear completely on the ground. I see him every day. I look at him, he looks at me. With him, I do not avert my eyes. He asks nothing from me, not even pity. I offer him nothing other than an acknowledgement that he lives as much as I do. We are both here. With him, I do not question my privileges. I should but somehow I do not. Poverty in India is the breath of dust, swirls on the road, over flowing gutters and trash bins, cow dungs and human excrement on sidewalks, taps on the car windows, grubby hands, dark faces, cheap wares, entreaties made to Gods and to man both alike left unanswered. Avert your eyes, close them, pretend the bubble of cool air in your car is the monsoon winds, pretend the taps on your window are a figment of your imagination. Open your eyes after the car moves and look at the finger prints on your windows and look outside beyond them. Indignity upon indignity. Nothing worse than being a pest, a fly, a constant reminder to human conscience of poverty and suffering that mars the enjoyment of your own boons. The dog and I meet every day. Sometimes I whisper a word, sometimes he wags and sometimes we just look at each other, eye to eye.
The rains returned a day after I complained about the sun. Torrents of water, flooding the streets, drenching the city and its people that had reconciled itself to an early end of the monsoons. The winds are cool and little birds outside my windows are singing. This is what I missed in Berkeley. A moment like this when the rains warm and full of earth and green has washed over every surface and walking in the rain is like a washing away of sadnesses and fatigue. In Berkeley, I would run out in the rains and return shivering inside. Always a stranger to my own experiences. Here, in moments like this, there is a homecoming, me to myself after more than a decade. Being estranged from warmth, from smells, from experiences, from familiarity, from that which gave meaning, from that which breathed life for me, from that which by its very physical presence meant that I was, that my life was valid, that I meant something in a vast ocean of humanity, that I was alive. What does it do to a person to live without that meaning?
Living in India especially in moments like this during and after the rains, I feel myself uncurling like the tight fist of a new born, like a curled up flower, like a bent spine. Languages of my heart, Bengali and Hindi flow from my mouth here every day. I speak it without thinking, without reflecting how little I was able to use these languages for so long. Now like water the words flow, like they have always been there in the heart, on the tip of my tongue, at the back of my head wanting to trip and fall and pour and run, saying what could not be said or expressed in English, in rains too cold for my body. Meaning. I look for it always.