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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every year for my birthday, my husband and I buy a piece of jewelry for me. Gold, Indian gold, that glitters brightly in every light. I am a mother to three girls and I am collecting. I am gathering to me pieces of gold and gem to pass on to them. “This was when I was thirty six. We bought it in Pondicherry. This we got the year your youngest sister was born. It was a special year. This for you and this is for you and this for you.” I imagine myself telling this to my girls when they are young women and ready to start their lives on their own or with someone they love. Indian families give gold to their daughters and daughters in law. It is a tradition of passing on something of value that can be used in time of need, for girls who were traditionally married off into families, where they had very little voice of their own.
When my first marriage had failed, I had given it all back to the man I had married. I had a bright colored pouch, a mini handbag full of gold. Earrings, necklaces, rings, lockets wrapped around each other in love. The man I had married asked me, “Where is the gold?” “Here.” I had said and given it to him before walking out of his home and life. It was such a relief.
This year, I turned forty. “It will feel different.” friends told me. It did. I had a massive nose bleed. Blood tricked down one nostril like a slow stream while tissues piled up next to me in a mountain. I joked later that turning forty was bloody. We have picked out pieces of jewelry that we will get to mark the fortieth. And here is what I will tell my girls when they inherit it, “These are from the year that marked the end of a decade. A decade blessed by your arrival. You made me a mother and that is the best thing that happened in my thirties. Now wear these and walk forth boldly into your lives. May no man ever tell you to hand him the gold before you walk out of a relationship if it has failure written all over it. May you wear these and remember your mother. Remember her skin, her hair, her smiling eyes. Remember her enthusiasm for freedom and writing and all things lovely.This is what she was like when she turned forty”
We spotted her outside the car windows. Her face was painted like that of a clown but the lines around her eyes and mouth were so jagged that it made her look lopsided and a little absurd in an innocent way. She looked no more than seven or eight years old. Seeing us looking at her she began to turn cartwheels. Her feet rose up amidst the cars and then she appeared upright and smiling, making eye contact with us. A couple of cartwheels later, she stood outside the window twisting her arms around her in a form of such supple gymnastics that we all stared at her and simultaneously reached for our bags to find something to give. I pulled out a hundred rupee, did a quick dollar conversion in my head and wanted to give it. Everyone in the car stopped me and I put it away. My brother opened the window and gave her a smaller rupee note. Then suddenly our car was surrounded. Many children with their faces colored in those garish hues, round blackened eyes, bright red lips, hair in bright ribbons; smiles painted on. They started to beat on the windows. Rhythmic hits on the glass, palms beating relentlessly with the strength they had displayed in their aerobatics. Suddenly their faces formidable apparitions from a psychedelic dream. Hands, faces, colors, forces, threats of violence and danger. Children become monsters. The car began to move. I expected them to give chase but they melted away in the smoke and dust of the moving cars.
The girls have started school. They hug and then they run off, sometimes they come back for a second hug. One of the teachers told me,”We prefer if the parents don’t linger.”So Tom and I don’t or try not to. It is hard. In Berkeley, at the same school for 5 years, we lingered and not just we, many parents. Many congregated on the sidewalk, some in the coffee shop near by. At the international school here, most kids take the bus. Those who come with their parents, walk into the school alone and do not seem the worse off for it. “Helicopter parents.” My husband once told me. “We are hovering around our children all the time trying to facilitate their lives by making sure they have enough friends, are in the classes with teachers we like and cross every obstacle on their behalf if we can.” I didn’t know other ways to be their parent. Those who were on the other side of the spectrum, busy with their own carriers, hands off about what their children ate or what their children did after school seemed callous and uncaring to me. There must be a balance; I hope to find it here.
Day four at the school. I am standing at a distance and watching the children. I do not want to be accused of “lingering.” I realize that my children are almost hard to pick out in a crowd. They are brown among brown. Do they revel in this freedom of anonymity? Does their skin sing in harmony with the brownness of the earth and of their friends? My oldest was four when she had painted her first picture of herself- brown skinned and dark haired in a classroom of what she called “peach skinned and golden hair”girls. At their school in Berkeley, our girls were poster girls for the diversity the school wished to project about itself. And yet, the girls were asked to remove their bangles. Every girl in India, young or old wears one on her wrist. I tried to explain this to their teachers but they were not impressed. “But what about understanding diversity?” I would often ask.
Does sameness in color grant one a greater sense of belonging? I think it does. Divergent colors and backgrounds are not impediments for friendships or love but similar skin colors can be a facilitator in relationships. “An African-American thinks or realizes something about his or her color every thirty seconds.” I once heard this in a workshop in San Francisco. It is true that in America, I was often self conscious or proud of my difference, depending where I was that day. Never indifferent, never oblivious. I watch the girls play and hope they will revel in the sameness they share with this country and a culture. Whether it will help them make friendships, I do not know. For now, I hope they can forget for a while the color of their skin.
Below is an article I had written about their schooling in Berkeley a year ago-
Four years ago, my daughters started their schooling in a French school in Berkeley. Now, not only was I not just an “alien” (the official term used by UCSIS for immigrants) but also I was now a Francophone alias Indian alias non American alias non French-American alien. The first few days dropping and picking the children from school were spent in the normal haze of children whimpering and crying. Ishani, the oldest drew pictures of herself brown skinned and black haired in a room full of what she still calls “peach “skinned and blonde haired. When we were called for a parent teacher meeting for Asheema who was then not even three, I joked with my to be husband, “What will they tell us that she cannot draw within the lines?” We listened in disbelief as her teacher who had just come from France sat with the dean of students explaining how she was concerned about Asheema not running in a line, of the certain tilt to her head and yes, the inability to draw within the lines. We left the meeting shaking our heads in a tizzy of fear and worry about their futures. What I had never imagined had happened! Our three year old not being able to run in a straight line or draw within lines were indicators of a serious problem.
Dropping the girls to school every morning I am caught in a more personal problem, the dilemma of not fitting in myself. The women around me whether French or American, difficult to discern from simply skin color or nose shape are all impeccably dressed. Their faces do not reveal any of the trials and tribulations of being a parent who is dropping a child to school at 8 am in the morning. Hairs and nails gleam, their perfect clothes drape their shapes in good taste. Some days I try to look like them but end up more like a mannequin at uncertain store front. You must have passed them by, these stores. They sort of have the right clothes but somehow something is wrong, it could be the accessories are clueless or the mannequin’s hair looks like an old man’s wig. In winter I am glad I can cover myself in a gigantic coat and sometimes I am still wearing my pyjamas under this coat at drop off. I am ashamed. But I am a woman of intellect I tell myself; I have numerous degrees in English and French literature. I will find women like me. I don’t find them not because they were not there but because they could not understand me. In the early days, I was so glad to finally be able to speak in French again that I spoke freely and often. “Can you speak more slowly?” A kindly mother with a French accent asked me in halting English. I tried English which I have spoken since my birth, I tried French which I spoke since I was twelve but my English and my French were too Indian for the lack of any other way to describe it. I looked longingly at moms in groups conversing in either of these languages. I never joined them.
There were some Indians in the school, not many at that time. One of the women, a professor at UC Berkeley spoke Bengali. I was thrilled- a compatriot. Other than language, we had nothing in common. She oozed self-confidence, her accent more exotic than mine. As a full time faculty at the university, she also had no time. No time, don’t fit- it was one or the other for me. Meanwhile my older daughter continued to draw pictures of herself, brown and black almost a blotch or a blob in a peach skinned and golden universe and her younger sister continued to be a source of concern to her teacher. “You should get her ears checked. Maybe she has a problem with her balance.,” her teacher said. It amazes me now to recall how quietly I would acquiesce at everything. I got her ears checked. She was just fine, my pediatrician assured me. My daughters and I continued to float in bubbles of uncertainty. I was constantly plagued by my shame and inability to fit in and when I saw that reflected in my children’s struggles I took it is my own failure.
We have now been in the French school for almost four years. The older daughter still meets the school psychologist. She is a developing artist. Her self- portraits in brown and black shine with color. I recently crossed what I considered my final American frontier and met a therapist. And my younger daughter? She is a budding gymnast on the school play-ground. Her last report card describes her as a “joy to watch on the monkey bars!”
Thirty one people, guests and employees of the Taj Mahal Palace Mumbai, died on the twenty sixth of December 2008 during terrorist attacks that spanned coffee shops, another five star hotel, a railway station and a hospital. There is a plaque on a wall at the Taj that has a list of the casualties at the hotel. The last name is the name of the dog on duty that night, Lucy. A wall fountain with water flows next to the plaque, like washing away constantly the blood of that night. I mention that night gently in a few of my conversations with hotel staff. They are not allowed to speak about it. Yet some still do. Unlike Leopold Cafe near by which was also attacked and which has maintained some of the bullet ridden windows, at the Taj there is no other sign of that night.
The Harbor 1 Bar, the first bar in India, license number 001 was shattered too. It is not something that is mentioned when we have our drinks there one evening. We have a drink that is one of the most fantastical I have drunk. Stories of an American sailor who comes ashore in the early 1900s and asks for something special at this bar when he hears that prohibition had been lifted in America. The drink, a mix of fruit juices and alcohol set on fire at the table like a flambe´is magical, like a fire lit on evenings when lamps and lanterns must have adorned these walls. Yet I feel a certain pathos. I wish there was a drink that remembering the lives of those who died that night.
I feel disrespectful and inquisitive asking questions when another employee tells me how some tourists and guests in the hotel in the past have asked for gory details such as “Can you show me where the bodies were?” or “Can you show us where people died?” I blanch when
I hear that. Human curiosity is merciless. Another employee tells me sadly that many of his friends, chefs in the main restaurant that night, died.
I look around me at the polished surfaces, the gleaming chandeliers, the views of the sea and the Gateway of India, I eat the best food I have eaten so far in this trip to India. I cannot but still feel that the sadness and senseless brutality of that night lingers beneath the glamor. It is a hotel I will go back to because of all of that.