I bought my ticket to India the other day. The next day, I wanted to cancel it. Because it hit me that my parents were gone. That I was an orphan. Without a country.
I realized then that our idea of home is closely linked to our parents. For, without my parents, what is India but a collection of people and buildings?
When did I first have the notion of homeland? Was it when my father, Dada, helped me paste photographs from theIllustrated Weekly of India into my first grade picture book? Those images of Jawaharlal Nehru playing with his grandsons on the lawn of Teen Murti, the Prime Minister’s residence, became indelibly etched in my mind as symbols of India. There was a picture of the peak of Kanchanjunga, the second highest Himalayan peak, and a kathakali dancer wearing a mask. Later, in dance class, my teacher would tell us about kathakali, but it would not be until 2008 that I would actually see it performed, in a Yoga Ashram in Kerala, six years after my father’s death. The dance evoked memories of my father for me then.
My mother gave me a different vision of my country. For her, India’s epitome was Bombay (now Mumbai), that cosmopolitan metropolis where Parsi ladies visited the racecourse and where Anglo-Indian girls in short skirts worked beside her at the General Post Office. Recently, I saw a short film of Bombay from an even earlier era, circa 1932, its colonial buildings and statuary still intact, and it brought tears to my eyes.
India remains fixed in the imagination of my generation of Indian Americans, a country frozen in memory and time. International long distance phone calls were unheard of in the 1970s, and the only mail was through the postal service. Internet, Skype, and calling cards did not exist. Neither did multiculturalism. The way to succeed was to assimilate, so we adapted to American ways. I remember playing some music from Bollywood (which was not called Bollywood then), for my housemates in Berkeley, and feeling sheepish when they ridiculed it. Who would have thought that one day the same music and dance would become trés chic in America?
Traveling back home was expensive then, not something to be undertaken every year. India changed, but its transformations jarred us every time we went to visit. The streets, the buildings, the traffic, the people, everything slowly changed, until little was recognizable except that little oasis called home where the same voices spoke the same boring and yet comforting anecdotes of a bygone era. Often, I sat in the front room, listening to my parents telling the same stories again and again, and wishing we could discuss more profound topics. Now that even those mundane conversations are beyond reach, I long for them.
For us immigrants, a parent’s death is a loss twice visited. In a way, we lost them long ago, when we first crossed the seven seas. When we finally lose them from this mortal world, grieving becomes impossible because nothing around us connects us to them.
Now when I go to India, I will have to discover a new meaning in everything. I will have to elicit memories of my parents from long-lost relatives. I will have to connect with old friends and ruminate about old times. And while I am going through the motions, I will have to wonder, why am I here? What ties me to this place now?
For me, the greatest song ever written about country was Manna Dey’s “Ae Mere Pyare Watan” (Oh My Dear Country) from Kabuliwala (1961). It moves me every time I listen to it. It talks of sunrise and sunset, of the fragrant air of the Kabuliwala’s home country, Afghanistan. But those are just metaphoric expressions of the man’s longing for home. What he really yearns for is summarized in the next to last stanza;
Ma ka dil banake kabhi seene se lag jaataa hai tu
Aur kabhi nanhi si beti banke yaad aataa hai tu
Jitna yaad aataa hai mujhako
Utna tadpataa hai tu
Tujh pe dil qurbaan
Sometimes, you come to me as my mother’s heart, he says, and sometimes, like my little girl, and every time I remember you, I ache.
Of course I cannot even imagine what it must be like to leave a child behind, as many immigrants from Latin America are forced to do, but leaving a mother is hard enough.
In the era when that song and that story was written about a Pathan Kabuliwala, thousands of Afghans came to India to work. In fact we had our own Kabuliwala who came twice a day to make chapattis, well into the 1970s. I have no idea if Pathans still come to India. I would suspect not, given all the post 9/11 madness. But in that era, the idea of settling permanently in another country was novel. Only working class people were forced to do so.
Middle class folk went to England, and returned home. Exile was an alien concept. We would never want to live like a second class citizen in a Western country, I remember people saying. Yes, many countries did have the system of second class citizenships then.
Now, millions of people live in places they were not born in. I was surprised to find a Bangladeshi working as a manager in my hotel in Venice, Italy, for example, and a Palestinian woman running a restaurant in La Paz, Bolivia. Mass migrations of people have changed the world landscape today. You can find a Sikh almost anywhere. And if you can’t find one, you know that the place has to be really parochial.
Yet, deep down, our longings have not shifted. To be born and to die in the same place, surrounded by your own people and family, is a privilege that many no longer have. And yet the people I have left behind cannot comprehend my loss. They think of me as the one who escaped to the land where streets are paved with gold.
Luckily for me, I have my sons here. Who, for whatever reasons, feel no particular ties with India, except for its food, which they love. So I know I will die here, in this land. I know that hundreds of relatives will not attend my last rites. I am torn by conflicting loyalties, and affinities, and bonds.
I can no longer identify with the words,
Hum jahaan paida hue
us jagah pe hi nikale dam
Where I was created,
There I will take my last breath.
But I wish I could.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visitwww.saritasarvate.com