I must have been between three and four years old, because my father left after my third birthday and returned just before my fourth. At the time, I knew only that my father had gone to America, to Princeton, and was sending me picture postcards signed Apa—one with a beautiful waterfall with purple and pink lighting, an extra big postcard that I was told showed Niagara falls. Another of a bearded man sitting on a big chair that only years later was explained to me as a picture of Abraham Lincoln.
Whenever a postcard was slipped underneath the door of our 2nd floor flat in Yashodhan in what was then Bombay, I would grab the postcard and go to my grandfather, my thatha, to have the stamp steamed and carefully removed using the pressure cooker. My mother had told me to collect the stamps, so I did even though I did not know why. In any case, the one of Santa Claus in his red hat and big smile seemed nice to keep.
I remember getting measles and complaining about the glare—in those days, we did not have curtains at home and occasionally mummy would hang old bedsheets on the windows to keep out the glare.
My thatha—I called him “Repair Thatha” because he could fix my broken toys—would walk me to my nursery school, Casa Montessori, in the morning. In the afternoons I loved mixing the ground rice flour and urad dal flour with my chubby little hands, feeling the sticky grainy texture. My thatha, with a little bump on his forehead that I liked to tap, knew I enjoyed doing this, so he always kept the batter for me to mix, batter that my mother would then leave to ferment and the next day make crispy dosas that I loved to eat. A kind of salty pancake, is how I explain dosas now to Americans, or lentil crepes for the benefit of the French, but then I knew only of dosas and Casa Montessori, Bombay as seen through the windows of Yashodhan, with Fiats and Ambassadors and beggars on the street. I knew to kill cockroaches at home with my shoes, practice writing wriggly “I’s” in my notebook, and my mother and grandfather were my world, as were the picture postcards from America, a place I knew by name alone.
For a few days during that time my mother covered the windows with special black paper. My grandfather and I would then go down to the street to see that none of the lights switched on at night could be seen from the street through the thick paper.
When I asked why the windows were being covered with special black paper, my mother said, “When you light sparklers and the house is all dark they look so much more beautiful.”
She told me it was Divali, the Hindu festival of lights. She would make me wear the sandalwood colored pavadai or green kanjeevaram silk pavadai with the fire-colored border. And every night my mother would give me two big sparklers to light.
One afternoon, I remember I had come home from school and my mother was putting me to sleep when there were loud noises that I assumed to be fire-crackers. Our upstairs neighbor, Shanti, came and asked all of us to go downstairs. My mother responded that I was going to sleep, and in any case, “what happens will happen.”
At that point, I did not comprehend any of what was happening. Years later, I understand those memories, the black windows, and the loud noises. Those noises were not fire-crackers, but warning sirens during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Now, I understand why my best friend cried and ran home when the sirens came on—she wanted to be with her family—while my mother made me believe it was part of an extra-long Divali. The other kids must have thought I was stupid, dressed in my silk skirts and celebrating, but my mother had created that cocoon for me.
So when the anti-aircraft guns went on, and Shanti came knocking at our door to get us to go downstairs, I was a blissful three and a half year old who knew nothing about bombs and bullets. I thought airplanes were only for flying to my grandparents’ place. “War” was a word I could not even spell.
When I saw the movie Life is Beautiful as an adult, all of this came back to me. I asked my father how he had felt being in Princeton during the war, so far away from his family; did he worry something would happen to my us? No, he said, he had thought the skirmishes were only near Calcutta, adjacent to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), not near Bombay. He never called, we never spoke that entire year. My mother and he exchanged letters, and I colored the margins with camel crayons. My father told me that there was little coverage of the war on American TV—it appeared on the evening news, only twice or so, for maybe five minutes each time.
I thought about this during the first Gulf War when it turned into a TV drama showing the exact sites of Scud missile attacks. As a graduate student on the west coast, I observed many of my dormmates following the Gulf War closely while eating their microwave TV-dinners. Now there is also the internet, blogs updated by the minute, to follow what happens, and where, during every war around the world.
But in December 1971, I was just a child celebrating a very long Divali.
Roopa Ramamoorthi is a scientist, poet, and short story writer. She was a finalist for the PEN Rosenthal Emerging writers fellowship in 2004 and received an honorable mention for the story “Banker and Beggar” in Katha 2006.