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.

Looking not looking away

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.

Meaning 2

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.

Meaning

The rains have dried up in Pune. Much like in elsewhere in the world, the earth is tired of coping with plastic and smoke and population and global warming and all the other crap that is melting the Arctic ice. I am hot already and ask around if the summers will be hotter. O no no, I am assured. Summer will be like this. A group of old women traveling in the back of a pick up truck, their heads covered with the ends of their saris look hot. A couple of dogs, black and white lie on the sidewalk, absolutely still. One twitches sporadically in his sleep. They look hot. The sidewalk is dry and dusty. The traffic moves in a reluctant slow motion. Pink Bouganvillias in a pot are faded into sepia tones. I step inside a coffee shop with my laptop under my arm. The air conditioner is running and I am grateful. I sit next to a group of young somethings. “You never fucking order me a drink.” a young woman says loudly to a man in her group. I stifle a gasp and turn to look at them. She looks very Indian, Indian in a way that is trying to be American. Her hair is cut short but not stylish, she wears a pair of black jeans and a tight white t-shirt, round petite, plump. The words are somehow incongruous coming out of her. The man laughs and promises to order her one next time. Around me everyone is eating; fries, sandwiches, pasta. I sigh and turn to look outside  through the cafe windows. I look at the world to find meaning. Nothing changes. Fucking meaning. I close my laptop and walk back out in the sun.

Prayer meets

Our neighbor is holding a prayer meet. There are fresh flower garlands over their front door, inside their house, on windows- golden and yellow marigolds. Their doors have been open all day with the preparations. It is the God Krishna’s birthday in a few days and they are having an evening in celebration. She has invited us over and said, “Only women please. We do not have space for too many people so only women are invited to this.” I promised to drop by if I could.

I can hear the singer on a mike singing songs in praise of the God. He is loud and for a moment I have a surreal sensation of floating in space between worlds, between times. I am sitting at the computer in my house working on my writing projects. The girls are doing their homework and squabbling. The evening sun has set and the sky is grey and dull. I am tired suddenly. Of religion. That would be ok.Of faith? I hope not.

Prayer meets are held all over India all the time; from birth to death, life is punctuated by these events, by singing, by chanting, by prayers, by flowers, mantras, anointments, invocations. Dressed in white or dressed in finery depending on the occasion. I have sometimes enjoyed the devotion. I have sometimes swayed to the beauty of a voice. This evening though I am listless. I am listening to the music, to the flute, the drums, the voice and I am thinking I am stuck between worlds, stuck between spheres of myself, stuck between my own imaginations, stuck between the cultures I have inhabited, stuck between skepticism and a wish to believe.

I drop by and stand for a while at the back of the room. The host takes pictures on her iPhone of the deities, ostensibly to send to her sons who live abroad. It is still that sort of a “moment”. Saints, singing, drums, flutes, singers, incense sticks, lamps and an iPhone. Stuck.

Home

It is now exactly two months since we have left behind American shores. Two months in India. Normally in years past, this would be a summer vacation to India and then time to return to Berkeley, to schools and jobs and mists. And every year, when we would see the Golden Gate Bridge from the airplane, as we taxied down to what almost seemed into the blue waters of the San Francisco Bay, I would feel a surge of joy and relief to be returning back home.

I loved my vacations back to India, to the little town I grew up in, to giggling warm afternoons with girlfriends from my childhood, to ice creams and milk shakes shared with them while we talked non-stop, about our lives as adults in a world we seemed to have trouble navigating. I loved the warm air, the walks by the beach, the quiet meditations in the ashram I grew up in. I hated the child I became  with my mother, about how I should or should not spend my time, I hated the close scrutiny from childhood teachers, mentors or adversaries. The look up and the look down at how I dressed, how I looked; that it was obvious that I worked out, that it was obvious that I was doing ok. “One can never go home again,” my husband often told me and for a while I disbelieved him.

A lot had changed in India, I had changed and that changed person just about fitted into those India vacations. I judged the very people who judged me while growing up and I was in turns pleased and bemused that I could now do that. I was proud of my choices, controversial in an Indian traditional set up, and I felt I had to stare down at my detractors. At those who believed that the ideal woman lived a life of self sacrifice.

Now, we are here in India for a year. Is this home? There is no clear answer but I feel myself slowly waking up. Writers I have read and admired, I find that they have been residing in my neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland. Some teach courses in colleges I could have commuted to. What was it about my life in America that had put me to sleep? That had numbed me to the possibilities? And why do I find myself walking up here in India?

I enjoyed great freedoms in my American life, in many ways much more than life here but those freedoms to some extent were external ones- the ability to wear a bikini or a pair of shorts. One of the crucial freedoms I enjoy here is a sense of kinship that has developed more naturally than it did in my previous habitat. As a mother in India, there is space to be that person who struggles to express herself, because other mothers like me who are also artists and writers reach out and offer support. Why did I not find this in America? Was it my own sense of alienation and difference that kept me away or was it a broader social set up?

Many or most of my friends in America worked full time jobs and after their children were born, worked doubly hard to handle their homes, care for their children and be successful at their carriers. Unlike in India, where families especially grandparents step in to care for grandchildren willingly, wanting to spend their time with your children; in America, my friends and I had to ask for help and often pay for expensive help. Here in India, reliable help is more readily available and affordable even if grandparents live far away or are not present. The joint family structure is certainly breaking down as our abilities to adjust with differences has a lower threshold,even here in India, yet there is a certain willingness to try which was less commonly found in my American life.

Two months into our life here, I often find myself speaking about home. Sometimes I mean the home here in Pune, sometimes I mean the home back in Berkeley. What do I mean by that word? Maybe I mean the physical structure of where we live, maybe I mean my children and husband, maybe I mean memories built together. Home, home, home. I love the sound of the word. I still do not know what it means- really.

Landscapes

On the way to Mumbai yesterday, it rained. My middle daughter cried fora long time because we could not see monkeys in Lonavala. During our last trip, a few weeks ago, we had stopped and fed the monkeys in this little hill town, little paper cups of steamed corn spiced with red chili powder. On a side, way below- railways tracks crisscrossing in and out of a tunnel, on another side water falls and cliffs. On that day, the skies were covered with mists and the monkeys lined the highway, babies hanging off their mother’s backs and bellies.

The girls have grown up in America. They stop to admire goats, cows, sheep grazing on patches of grass; camels, dogs and cats searching for shade on hot days. Monkeys are a whole special breed. Rarer and therefore more precious. Recently, I heard of monkeys outside their classrooms and they are absolutely thrilled by their presence in their school. So why should my daughter cry because she did not see monkeys in Lonavala?

She slept the entire way to Mumbai after that let down. Later she said, “This drive was not as fun as last time.” She wanted everything to be exactly the same. This trip had to replicate the last one because that was so much fun. And I have been thinking about myself and how somewhere I am reaching for that myself. “That time” in life when I was young and full of hope- am I constantly trying to replicate “that time” and struggling with the sceneries that are no longer the same, the fact that the monkeys are now not sitting on the highways? Is this why we are here in India and if that is so there is no doubt in my mind that it can only lead to being disappointed? “That time” when I was young, when I worked as a news director in a twenty four hour news channel, that time before bad marriages, before disillusionments, before child-birth tore the body in irreparable ways, that time before I found I was not enough on my own in foreign lands, that time before I let a man convince me that I was nothing. Between that time and now, a river has flown, mountains have formed, craters, ridges, gorges, hills- the landscape has changed and shifted. So have I.

I take a deep breath and settle into my chair as I write this. The family has settled in. I feel like the surveyor of a new land waiting for a discovery.

The wanderings of an American family