I dreamt of home again.
Home was not the raggedy little studio where I now slept, holding the pillow that was now my bosom pal. Home was not the house into whose basement I had poured much sweat and a little blood, where Nadanja now reigned alone, where I visited weekly with little bribes to help me hold on to the little girl that used to be my daughter—she still called me “Daddy,” but we both knew I wouldn’t be by her side at 10 p.m. stroking her head as she slipped into a land where fathers never go away.
Home was the 90-year-old edifice with walls that were two feet thick. Peel away all the recent layers of paint, and you will find my signature all over those walls. Take a metal detector into its dark recesses where none should ever venture, and you will find little pieces of my childhood floating around in the grime. Open up the drain covers in the bathroom where I received many a soaking, and you will find Grandma’s golden ring that Lacchamma, a servant, had forever been suspected of stealing. In the storeroom where crumbling books by Adi Shankara and E.S. Gardner share space, you will find the school magazines cherished for eons just because their pages held the carbon dots that stood for my name or fading likeness. Bring a little light into the room with the cradle—you will still glimpse my shadow tinged with mother’s milk and tears.
I hadn’t been home for a decade—since the day I had hugged everyone and rushed to catch my flight to a new world, fully expecting to be home again in the twinkling of a sobbing eye. But Nadanja Skrabitz happened. The flowery prose in my letter home had little effect on Father, who gave an ultimatum: drop your childish infatuation, come home right away, and we’ll find a nice girl from our own caste. Or else … .
“Or else” came to pass. Mother wrote letters often. She told me that if I came home with my new family, my father would not be so stubborn as to push away his own flesh and blood. I needed his word for it, for I feared that if I went home, it would only be to see my dear wife insulted and humiliated. But he never wrote a word to me—even when he was widowed, all I received was a formal black-edged card, as if it were a legal notice to a stranger that said a light-bulb had burnt up and would never be replaced. Thus had my home melted away, surviving only in the deep recesses of my cranial folds.
My home would visit me. Sometimes at monthly intervals, sometimes twice a week. Mother would smile and ask if she could make something special for me, because it was my birthday. Father would show me the photograph of his latest role model for me, a superstar of the Civil Services Examination. Mother would wipe her tears as I told her I would write to her every week. I would flash the answer book from my latest half-yearly exam in mathematics, grinning that I had not lost a single point. I would be searching in the green cupboard, fretting and asking who had taken my chemistry textbook. Or covering up a hole in the storeroom floor where I had hidden the corpse of a neighbor for whom everyone had been searching. Or reclining in the verandah with a newspaper, next to the Diwali crackers drying in the November sun. Or asking a fruit vendor to sell me a dozen bananas for a rupee; he says yes, but all the bananas turn out to be rotten and I would wake up yelling at him, only to find that Nadanja had already moved to the other bedroom for a more restful sleep.
It’s not just a myth: the seventh year is the deadliest for a marriage. In my case, the trigger was a brief period when the petroleum industry was refining its finances, and chemical engineers like me were entitled to receive unemployment benefits. Nadanja had a number of fruitful suggestions for me in my quest for re-employment: Why don’t you try harder? Srinivas has been able to find a job again, why can’t you? Have you done this or that? Have you talked to so-and-so? Why don’t you call XYZ again? Why don’t you change your name to be more American? Why don’t you shave off that stupid moustache? Why don’t you take diction lessons?
Sometimes I would erupt with poisonous words; more often, the words festered in me, as I withstood those harrowing months in shamed silence, for I had never expected that I could not afford to buy a new toy for my child too little to know why her Dad stayed home. As soon as I found another job, I found another place to live. Even the tears of a child could not keep us glued together.
I need to go home again, for too many years have passed, tearing away my youth with them. Now my father will accept me again, with no foreigner in tow.
The taxicab took me to Balkampet, to the street where my home had been. Twenty construction workers were methodically raising an eight-story apartment building. The mango tree was gone, and in its place was another apartment building whose paint was already peeling. My neighbor’s Asoka tree was gone, the black hole that had absorbed numerous kites and badminton shuttlecocks. Gone was the open well that had watered my mother’s little garden, and had also swallowed the life of a two year-old cousin one hot afternoon while the angels watching over him were on strike. Gone was the grassy patch where another child had played in the mud with me when I was three years old. Gone was home.
Half an hour and three enquiries later, I rang the doorbell of a second-floor apartment where Father now lived as a permanent guest of a cousin’s family.
Only once before had I seen my father cry, when Grandma’s tumors had taken her away. And it had been a long, long time since he had hugged me, holding me without letting me go for many minutes.
“Could you not have forgiven this old man for his harsh words? How could you have forgotten all the love I had given you since you were a baby?”
I remembered playing a game of chess with him many years ago, waiting for almost an hour while each of us expected the other to make a move.
On recovering his poise, he eagerly asked: “Where is my grandchild? Where is my daughter-in-law? Have you not brought them with you?”
“I am home, Father.” I told him, expecting his pleasure at his prodigal son returning to his fold. “I am home, and they are where they belong.”
There was much I had to learn about my father. He was not pleased.
“Have you lost your mind?” he yelled as he shook my shoulders. The last time he had spoken to me that way was twenty years ago, when I had missed a bus one evening and spent the night at a friend’s place without letting my parents know my whereabouts, in the days before I could reach them on a telephone.
I spent the next day taking buses all around town, searching for traces of my long-past childhood. A few things looked the same, but I feared that they would crumble if I touched them, and I needed a few more fragments of my past to survive. Even the hills had not been spared; the favorite rocky mounds of my childhood had been taken over by God and his faithful flocks.
The air was not air any more. I could not find a single sparrow’s nest anywhere. I was looking for home in the wrong place.
The next few days, I spent more on international telephone calls than I had in my entire life. Nadanja and I talked; more important, we listened. We meandered through the days when we were throwing away our worlds for each other. I told her I still remembered the day our lips had first touched; so did she. She said her home was not home without me.
Thanks to ten thousand rupees, and a friend in the police department, Father’s passport application was approved within a week. The next week, he got his visa. The week after, I took him to his granddaughter, in whom he found the child he once had lost.
I am home again.
Chilukuri Mohan is a professor of computer science in upstate New York, and enjoys writing short stories.