1971 – I am eighteen months old with a head full of black curls, cradled in my father’s arms as my American mother holds the hand of my four-year-old brother, who is all big brown eyes as he stands close to my mother’s leg. She is meeting her Indian in-laws for the first time. For seven years, they have not acknowledged her existence, but now they greet us at the Madras airport, placing tremendous garlands of fresh flowers around each of our necks – mother, father, son and daughter. A family within a family.
1980 – Ten is the perfect age to take a child to a wildly different place than the one they recognize as home. They are old enough to handle themselves as travelers yet young enough to not be locked into the world of preconceptions that they will soon enter and never quite leave. My parents pack our suitcases with six weeks’ worth of my brother’s and my school books, digital watches and calculators as gifts, and a bottle of Hershey’s syrup to help the malaria pills go down. We are going to India! My cousin is getting married. In my journal, a sporadically filled red record book, there is a page labeled “Unusual Facts.”
Days before the wedding, my female relatives dress me up as a little bride, the weight of the braid extension and gold jewelry heavy on my tiny head. My aunt gathers fresh leaves to grind into henna paste and makes designs on my hands. I don’t remember whether I realized that I was nearly the same age then that my grandmother was when she married. I return to America with the fading red marking of mehindi on my hands, lice in my hair and a hunger to experience other worlds.
1984 – Fourteen is the worst age to take a child to a wildly different place than the one she recognizes as home. I momentarily forget my desire to experience other worlds. I bury myself in Stephen King novels as a means of escaping the ever-present members of my extended family (I have 19 first cousins) and mostly refuse to wear Indian clothes, convinced that the only way to remain an independent human being (read: teenager) is by wearing Jams surfer shorts. But I take note – the bumper stickers that command BE INDIAN, BUY INDIAN, the billboards that remind A SMALL FAMILY IS A HAPPY FAMILY, the warning labels on alcohol, DRINKING ALCOHOL DESTROYS FAMILY, for a country less than a decade out of prohibition. It is Diwali, the Festival of Lights, and I follow instructions to shower, put on my new set of clothes (Indian) and oil my hair. My brother and I set off endless rounds of firecrackers with our cousins, a thousand explosions into the night.
1989 – The hunger has returned. I’m traveling around the world on a ship with a school program and our Indian port city is Madras. As the hundreds of other students diverge, I go awkwardly into the dark night with my uncle, for the first time unsheltered by the interface of my immediate family. I have just read V.S. Naipal’s India: A Wounded Civilization and begin to recognize the immensity of India’s history. My father was born in a colony under British rule. He was a boy as he watched Gandhi lead the country to freedom, and a young man when he found his own by boarding a ship to America. A context develops, dimensions made of stories. At one moment, I am sitting with three of my male cousins, all about my age. We’re watching television when a video comes on for a favorite Bollywood song. They leap up in unison, singing all the words and dancing, jumping on the furniture. There is a freedom and joy and playfulness in their movements that I watch, awestruck.
1993 – I want to see my grandparents one last time. Thatha’s astrologer has announced his death date and it is imminent. I go to the astrologer’s son for a reading of my own, but halfway through, he gets completely flustered, spitting out that that he can’t do it right! I have been born on the wrong side of the planet! He is unsure how to interpret the stars – should he be looking at the placement of the planets as seen from India at the moment of my birth, the assumption upon which all of Vedic astrology is based upon, or as they appeared over New Jersey on that March morning? He tells us to leave, it’s impossible, but not before he has prognosticated that I will problems with my stomach (I will), that there is an adoption on my mother’s side (there isn’t then, but there will be later) and that I will marry a man born east of me. Just months before this trip, I met a man named S. He was born west of me, and I write him love letters on thin sheets of airmail paper. Thatha lives on.
1999 – I’m meeting my father in India; my grandmother is dying. When he picks me up at midnight from the Chennai airport, for Madras has now changed its name back to its pre-colonial incarnation, monsoon rains have flooded the streets and he has had to abandon the car and come in a three-wheeled auto rickshaw that can manage the flood waters. “We’ll go straight to see Pathi,” he tells me urgently, as we drive through the wet, still night. “I don’t know if she’ll make it until morning. She’s been unconscious for days.” When I arrive, my grandfather paces in the dim house. Pathi awakens, sits right up and begins talking in Tamil. She speaks no English. I speak Tamil like a toddler. She kisses me, takes scoops of my cheeks with her fingers and brings them to her lips. We smile and hug and then she goes back to sleep. She will live for another seven years. My grandfather for another five, passing multiple death dates the astrologer pronounces.
2002 – S. comes with me for the first time, though our relationship is a shell of what it was and this decision to travel together is perhaps a bad one. He meets my grandfather and the rest of the family clan, but it is Pathi I wanted him most to meet. She is a small round woman I love with a deepness I reserve for few. We sit together for hours and hold hands, without language. Beyond language. My love for her is unhindered by thought. I bring her tea and snacks and comb her hair. S. takes photos of her and me out on the balcony in the golden Indian light, but the photos disappear inexplicably, a bit like the mortar that held our relationship together for ten years.
2005 – My parents – in a surprise twist! – have moved to India. My father has not lived here for 45 years and my mother, raised Baptist in Chicago, has never lived here. My grandfather has died, a year after 9/11, a date no one predicted. The youngest of the three dancing cousins is getting married and my brother and I sit with the older two on the roof, drinking beer illicitly as we unravel the meaning of life, love and the universe. We come to no conclusions. We have been designing a family website and the four of us are creating an awkward gap as the roots expand and grow around us in the family tree.
2009 – The photos S. took mysteriously reappear, and on a brief visit to NYC, he presents me with 8” x 10” reprints as he holds his new baby in his arms, as his girlfriend walks in the door. Two years ago, Pathi died. I return now, no longer a grandchild on this earth, to a place that is a shifting home, to the place where my father left fifty years – half a century! – ago. India has long ago shed its isolationist ways, although a small family is still a happy family. Time is moving water, and I slip into it.