The old house is gone. My sister says it has been finally demolished—the house we grew up in, where my mother came as a bride, where my father played as a boy and where he died. As a house it was nothing special—squat, standard issue two-story brick block in southern Kolkata. Now it’s a gap in the street, like a missing tooth.
Next time I return to India, it will probably have become six apartments—much more efficient in terms of cost and maintenance. After all, I don’t live there any more. It’s harder and harder for my mother to handle the incessant repairs as leaks spring up like clockwork with every monsoon season.
As my sister recounts the horrors of going through cupboards stuffed with generations of clothes and books and copper pots, I don’t have to deal with the dust and the silverfish. I only feel the pichhu-taan, the tug of the past.
I think I’ll mourn the neem tree the most. I’d grown up lying in bed watching the tree through the window. It was older than me—a spindly wizened thing that burst every year into delicate feathery white blossoms and tender reddish-green leaves. We use the bitter tender leaves for cooking. “It’s good for you,” my mother would say as she served up bitter stir-fried eggplants and neem leaves and I made a face. Now, of course, perched in San Francisco, I miss the bitter taste of neem with all the privileged nostalgia an NRI can summon.
I think with some dread of visiting the old neighborhood the next time I am in Kolkata. In signing the death warrant of the old house, I have doomed the old men who would sit on the rowak (porch) like a Greek chorus drinking endless cups of tea, smoking Wills Filters, and reading the Anandabazar Patrika. I have rendered homeless the broken-winged crow who would nest in the neem tree.
But mostly I have snipped off yet another umbilical cord. I often wonder what the pull is that we have to our homelands. Is it to the land, the neighborhoods, the people? Once parents and uncles and aunts have passed on, will India itself start to fade? Or is the demolition of the childhood home part of the many little deaths it takes to finally emigrate?
My mother is slowly getting used to her new home. But it’s not my home. I have no memory of its corners. In Bengali we do not have different words for house and home. Both are baari. Today, for the first time in India, there will only be my mother’s house, no home.
Perhaps it’s time to download those naturalization forms.