This month, my mother and brother are making the annual pilgrimage to India, with essential visits to grandmothers, a routine trip to the bank to request ATM pin re-activation, the hasty organization of forgotten stitching and repair work in the days before departure, and a weekend in a tea estate or at the beach, so that they can feel, against all evidence to the contrary, like they’re on vacation.
My mother, who left India in 1979, still insists on traveling “home” with a Ziploc full of stopped watches, a Samsonite with a broken handle (“the mochi will fix it”), and clothes for alteration (a day’s work for the roadside tailor). This, like her well-meaning purchase of chocolates and cologne to distribute amongst bemused relations, is a relic of a different time, when not “everything” (capital speaks the language of inflation) was available for purchase in India, but cheap services were. In our suburban home, a basket of crumpled clothes sits in the laundry room, unironed, awaiting the day that airlines will increase our baggage allowance, and we can schlep the wrinkled kurtas to our favorite press-wala, with his intuitive grasp of creases and pleats.
I’m not going to India this year. It’s the first time in over a decade I’m not making the trip.And, since I live across the country from my parents, I didn’t help pack my mother’s suitcases, either. I didn’t wrap wine bottles in socks, tape shut containers of perfume, label bags with mints and children’s art supplies for their intended recipients, match jewelry and petticoats to saris and shoes for whatever functions we’re planning to attend. I didn’t inventory the family members we’d be seeing (new brides, babies, their ages) and their respective milestones (housewarming, graduation), for which we will congratulate them with gifts of golden raisins, almonds and pistachios, and California wine.
In my family, packing for India is almost as much a production as the trip itself. My mother rushes out the night before we are to leave to pick up one more box of Almond Roca or another body spray. I stamp my feet and tell her that “nobody in India wants these things,” that her gestures are futile, that everyone will laugh at her self-conscious performance of the plenitude of diasporic return. But she ignores me. And year after year, my mother returns to India with suitcases full of gifts for an ever-growing extended family of cousins and second cousins and nieces once removed, all of whom, her overweight luggage seems to say, she feels she has in some way left behind.
I’m not going to India this year because I am moving house, which will take enough time, and because I am finishing my doctoral dissertation, which will take even more. If it were just a matter of flying to India for ten days, I would suffer the days-long journey and go, because I miss and love my grandmothers and it would make them happy (even if, from the moment of my arrival, they’d be consumed by the thought of the inevitable goodbye).
But now I have my own child, who is barely fifteen months old, and does not know that she is the inheritor of my filial piety. Frankly, I don’t want to deal with her jet lag, sleep regression, possible allergies, and her (ok, my) life’s disruption. I took Mrinalini to India when she was six months old, and it was a remarkable trip. But I am not yet prepared to make a yearly commitment to return to India on her behalf.
“Return” is the diasporic subject’s imperative, the cross you bear when you leave your community and move to the other side of the world—if, that is, you have a robust sense of familial obligation and the resources (time, money) with which to travel. My parents took my brother and me to India approximately every other year when we were growing up—on the off years, my grandparents would come to us—and somewhere along the way I embraced and internalized the imperative of return as my own.
But I didn’t leave India. I’m not the one who has to return with suitcases brimming with all-American sundries. So why do I feel so bad about not going back?
One of things I work on in my research is the relationship between narratives of arrival and return. The story of diaspora has always been about the competing attachments of a subject between homes, one who returns again and again to an (imagined) origin, whether by pen or by plane. The pull of home, as it has often been remarked, is only matched by the impossibility of ever really going home. Of course, every diaspora has its own story with its own dynamics, whether that is the exclusivist politics of the right of return to Israel, or the slave routes that have had to stand-in for the roots of so many around the world. Return might be chosen, but it is also compelled; deportation is another version of this story. Return to India (Asia more generally) is lately being described as “economically motivated,” but that’s only one face of the beast. Bound up in every assertion that “the East is the new West” are the ambivalent attachments and preoccupations borne of having left the first place that you called home.
I wasn’t born in India. I never left. Return to India isn’t my calling, but, as Amit Chaudhuri has written of his childhood trips to Calcutta, I’ve “been rehearsing that journey for years.” The packing, the arrival, the reunion, the parting: performances that are as much a part of my muscle memory as the first day of school and Christmas morning. Not going to India feels like not brushing my teeth before leaving the house. Something is not quite right. Later, it will come to me—the knowledge of the thing undone, and the resolve to make amends. Until then, everything will feel just a little bit off.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric at UC Berkeley.